Let’s get down to brass tacks: Holiday music has an extremely short shelf life, even if you are one of the thick-skinned spirited types who breaks out the John Denver and the Muppets record shortly after Halloween. You’ve got one to two months tops to spin some season-appropriate records before they’re packed away with the lights and decorations and tacky sweaters that Grandma gave you.
Beyond the über-serious spiritual hymns of the season, it’s pretty absurd material when you think about it: songs about flying deer, talking snowmen, a subservient elf culture and, of course, that big, bearded guy who delivers toys to every boy and girl within the span of one evening. (We say “holiday music”, but let’s not forget that Christmas dominates the corner of the market like a seasonal Microsoft.) Carol melodies (like “The Star-Spangled Banner”) are nothing more than recycled drinking songs, festive tunes designed for jolly mass recitations. This is not an accident, as alcohol is an essential staple of any good reveler. So, you see, holiday music is both fantastic and booze-tastic, connecting pasts with presents, implying comfort and peace and goodwill, a giant prelude to the promise of the new year.
There’s a copious amount of holiday music out there, a plethora of the stuff released just this year from Clay Aiken and Regis Philbin to Kenny G, Mariah Carey, and Brian Setzer, proggy symphonic abominations and snore-inducing solo piano treatments which would be confusing, given its inherent expiration date, if our country’s proclivity to spend didn’t escalate at the tail end of the fourth quarter. So, as a favor to you, I’ll go through the (few) highlights and (many) lowlights of the 2005 holiday album market, in hopes that I can save you from a disastrous impulse purchase in the checkout line.
Various Artists, Santa’s Greatest Hits (Hip-O)
When it comes to Christmas music, you’re a traditionalist. You don’t have time to get intimate with some precious singer-songwriter’s “new holiday classic” when the hearth is aglow and the stockings are hung, you’re looking for nostalgic familiarity. This is the collection for you: 14 modern-day Christmas standards, covering rock ‘n’ roll (Bobby Helms’s “Jingle Bell Rock”), Western swing (Gene Autry’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), jazz (Ella Fitzgerald’s “Sleigh Ride”), necessary evils (“The Chipmunk Song”), jolly ol’ Burl Ives (“Holly Jolly Christmas”), and not one, but two Bing Crosby favorites. And let’s face it: your recurring sexual fantasies involving Bing in his Santa’s hat will be the primary motivation behind this purchase.
The Four Tops, The Christmas Collection (Motown)
Yes, Virginia, there is Christmas in hell. This is the soundtrack.
Michael McDonald, Through the Many Winters (Hallmark)
I know what you’re thinking: first Dylan partners with Starbucks, and now Michael McDonald forms an unholy alliance with Hallmark? Is there any shred of credibility that Mickey-D won’t auction off? If you’re waiting for him to make his “comeback” album with either Rick Rubin or Joe Henry producing, that’s the kind of stuff a fool believes. Or maybe you’ve been replaying “What Month Was Jesus Born”, the one song where Mike throws some funk into his jolly trunk. Riding a reggae backbeat, he suddenly turns into Mr. Showbiz himself: “Talkin’ ‘bout Mary’s little baby!” he hollers like he’s testifyin’ with the Tonight Show Band away in a manger. “Rock that immaculate cradle!” you’ll shout in response, and then the manager of the Hallmark store will kindly ask you to leave. Otherwise, this collection of Christmas favorites (and a few nonessential originals) is textbook McDonald: smooth, ballad-heavy, blue-eyed schmaltz, more Schmoozy Brother than Doobie Brother.
Various Artists, A John Waters Christmas (New Line)
This motley collection of obscure gems, hand-picked by the Baron of Bad Taste himself, is just about as perfect as Christmas records get. This one’s got it all: old school soul sides that deserve canonical inclusion (Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva’s “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” is simply divine), foulmouthed redneck swipes at the season’s commercialism, doo-wop, a singing saw, Tiny Tim, and religious fervor as kitsch. And then there’s the collection’s coup de grace: “Santa Claus Is a Black Man”, a funky single that Waters tracked down on eBay after years of searching. Although this was released in 2004, it’s included here in hopes that we can all begin referring to Santa Claus as “Fat Daddy”.
Brian Wilson, What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista)
Wilson must have liked the whole “remake a classic” strategy so much that he decided to do it again. This year, instead of completing the abandoned Smile, Wilson and his crack touring band have essentially re-recorded the best songs from 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Fans of that record will recognize tunes like “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man With All the Toys”; everyone else will be dazzled by Wilson’s sweet concoction of yuletide favorites with his fetish for rich harmonies. Unlike Smile, What I Really Want for Christmas isn’t an authoritative fulfillment or contextualization of a long-lost masterpiece; it’s just a reheated leftover of a more memorable artifact. Next up: Wilson expands “Kokomo” into a seven-part rock opera about bartenders, marine life, and weapons-grade LSD.
Marah, A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc)
The brothers Bielanko take an unexpected stab at winter wonderlanding with this holiday record, which was released simultaneously with an album of new material. A Christmas Kind of Town has a communal, uninhibited vibe to it in fact, the band’s joined by a host of family and friends on the record’s many songs and skits. The original songs (“New York Is a Christmas Kind of Town”, “Counting the Days (‘Til Christmas)”) blend seamlessly with the standards; at times, it’s not obvious where one ends the other begins. It’s a breezy, slouchy, raggedy, and booze-addled affair, which implies liberal sleigh bell exploitation and a preoccupation with wassailing. Wassailing? Sign me up! In the pantheon of modern Christmas records, this one’s a disheveled cousin, harried like the blustery bustle of NYC in the grip of holiday fever.
Reverend Horton Heat, Loretta Lynn and more
San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE), La Noche Buena: Christmas Music of Colonial Latin America (World Library)
If haunting, archaic, spiritual hymns are your holiday bag, then SAVAE is where it’s at. These compositions stem from the cathedrals of 16th and 17th Century Colonial Latin America, incorporating the dialects of indigenous Americans and Africans. That’s another way of saying, “You won’t understand a word of this but you’ll wax philosophically about music’s ability to overcome language barriers and inspire joy”. Which is mostly true in this case, even if it sounds totally lame.
The Jigsaw Seen, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen [EP] (Vibro-phonic)
If you’re like me, every year you think the same thing: “Why can’t more Christmas music employ fake sitars and allude to ‘Paint It Black’?” This L.A. band reimagines the titular standard as a slice of ‘60s psych-pop. If you think that sounds ridiculous, their original contribution to the pantheon of holiday songs is even goofier: “Jesus of Hollywood”, which sounds like “Incense and Peppermints” on ‘70s prog pills. This is why Californians have no business making holiday records: their sun-kissed existence just doesn’t provide the appropriate perspective. Until you experience a Nor’easter on a two-lane highway in a scrapheap-bound pickup truck with a faulty heat system, I don’t trust you with my Christmas music.
Reverend Horton Heat, We Three Kings (Yep Roc)
Used to be that bands would make Christmas records like clockwork, parlaying the mass marketing of the holidays into feel-good, yet disposable, promotion. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, and Booker T. and the MGs all released holiday albums, back when our society wasn’t choking on its own irony. As a rockabilly band with a fitted throwback image, the Reverend Horton Heat is the perfect band to get its holiday cheer on and evoke that bygone spirit. We Three Kings is a family-friendly affair no eggnog-stoked songs about backdoor Santas and a sharp reinvigoration of many dog-tired Christmas standards. Best is the band’s evocation of Jack Frostbitten noir: the title track, for example, runs a hoof-trotting bass line atop the roof of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”. When you finally realize that your collection of holiday music is sorely lacking liberal amounts of reverb and echo, We Three Kings will be waiting.
Various Artists, A Very Soulful Christmas (Koch)
The bad news: This collection is a purging of frigid ‘80s soul travesties. Don’t let the tempting list of marquee names fool you. Even Al Green’s early ‘80s disco hangover rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” can’t save the synthetic contributions by the O’Jays, the Stylistics, and the Chi-Lites, which are about as warm and cheerful as a dead-eyed robot with trampoline pants. The really bad news: If you spend Christmas morning in a dentist’s office, this is what you’ll be listening to. Open wide!
Loretta Lynn, The Christmas Collection (MCA Nashville)
Long out of print, Lynn’s 1966 album Country Christmas is finally reissued on CD, albeit with its title and cover homogenized for MCA/Universal’s Christmas Collection series. It’s held up surprisingly well over the years; with the help of the Jordinaires, who sang on Elvis’s Christmas records a decade earlier, it’s one of the better holiday records by a major artist in the ‘60s. Lynn delivers faithful renditions of well-known ditties and carols (“Saaaalver behllls,” she croons in her endearing twang), and even her originals sassy tracks like “I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree” and “To Heck With Santa Claus” sound old-fashioned and comfortable. As for the latter, how can you resist down-home holiday cheer with a vengeful sense of humor?
Judith Owen, Christmas in July [EP] (Self-released)
Just because you’re married to Derek Smalls himself doesn’t give you the green light to record a coffeehouse jazz version of Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil”. Now, a jazz odyssey version would have been interesting. As it is, Christmas in July‘s insufferably dramatic ballads will even have your mom asking, “Do we need to put you on your medication again?” While it’s true that even the most miserly heart tries a little tenderness around the holidays, no one (no matter how humbugish) should be subjected to such woefully, scat-happy sentimentality. (Please refer to my opinion on Californians making Christmas music elsewhere in this article.)
Various Artists, The Best of Great Voices: The Christmas Collection (Hip-O)
So you leave wine and cheese out for Santa instead of the customary milk and cookies, and your jokes always begin the same way: “A man walks into a performance of Handel’s Messiah...”. It’s safe to assume that you find Rudolph and Frosty nothing but paltry substitutions for Pavarotti, Domingo, and Joan Sutherland. Theirs are but a few of the “great voices” delivering ye olde carols with profundity, gusto, and an authoritative air of antiquity. While you bask in your Masterpiece Theatre afterglow, donning a monogrammed robe and pipe in hand, no Christmas collection will suit your stately constitution better. Also recommended if the inside of your house resembles an Olive Garden.
Various Artists, Merry Mixmas: Christmas Classics Remixed (Capitol)
You’ll be hearing a lot of this kind of thing over the next month, in the Pottery Barns, Gaps, and Cheesecake Factories of the world: inoffensive, chilled-out remixes of jazzy Christmas tunes. It’s called progressive interpretations, cat, can you dig? This Capitol compilation which features Bent, Quantic, and Q-Burns (among many others) tackling the likes of Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee is a toe-tappin’ mixture of classicist source material with contemporary groovetronics. As long as it’s consigned to the background of shopping excursions, tree trimmings, and office parties, Merry Mixmas is an undisruptive perpetuation of the season’s complacency.
Diana Krall, Odetta and more
Various Artists, Christmas Remixed, Vol. 2 (Six Degrees)
Funky Christmas music sho’ nuff turns me on! Sadly, this stuff’s just funked up. The chosen material — Charlie Parker, Jimmy McGriff, Rosemary Clooney is strong enough, but there’s an inordinate amount of dabbling, primping, and preening, not to mention all the horrid synth brass. I would call this a poor man’s Merry Mixmas, but that would be an insult to the poor man.
Diana Krall featuring the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Christmas Songs (Verve)
For sophisticated holiday parties with peppermint martinis and candy cane swizzle sticks, Krall’s record is the kind of classy safe bet to zest up the atmosphere. Her firecracker delivery is a dash of red-hot zing atop the big band’s swinging arrangements, launching favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” into the debonair stratosphere. Christmas Songs has the swanky knack to make you feel like a hundred bucks even if you’re making all your gifts out of duct tape and multi-colored construction paper. Speaking of construction paper, Krall’s this year’s fetching crooner she can “ring-ting-tingle” my sleigh bells any time! Skeetly-bop! Swee-bop!
Steve Lukather and Friends, Santamental (Favored Nations)
The former Toto guitarist is joined by fellow thunder-fingers Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, and Slash to shred through some holiday tunes it’s like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ vocabulary converted to sweet licks, bro! The playing is all technical whiplash, the rhythm section a cold fusion nightmare, and the arrangements sound like they were cribbed from the music piped into the bathrooms at the QVC studios. If your idea of heaven on earth is an all-night clinic at your local Guitar Center, here’s your key to the kingdom.
Odetta, Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays (M.C.)
The commanding folk legend performs a holiday inspired concert in NYC, running through a wealth of spiritual hymns like “Mary Had a Baby” and “Poor Little Jesus”. She gets a little support from the Holmes Brothers on three songs, but mostly it’s just Odetta and piano. It’s booming, rattling, God-fearing stuff, as far away from the run-of-the-mill commercial fare that you’re bound to find, but its sheer intensity is for the absolutely true believer, not just anyone with a jones for holiday jingles. It is, however, probably the one holiday record with an impassioned swipe at the President. See, political activists celebrate the holidays, just like the rest of us except they keep their fireplaces burning with elaborate effigies of the Bush administration.
Various Artists, Taste of Christmas (Warcon)
Finally, all the kids with pierced lips, flesh-conquering tattoos, and elegantly coiffed bedhead have a holiday compilation just for them. Taste of Christmas, featuring the likes of Funeral for a Friend, the Used, Versus the World, and other bands with angsty names they’ll regret when they grow up, is strong enough for the rest of us, but ph-balanced for they of the eye shadow and ironic T-shirt. So on Christmas Eve, when they’ve shunned themselves to their rooms upstairs, moodily sighing that no one understands them not even in this most (for)giving of times the legions of sk8er boiz have a season-appropriate soundtrack to mope to. Have a whiny, pseudo-punk Christmas! May you dream of stockings crammed with gift certificates to Hot Topic.
Various Artists, Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations)
Lots of zesty steel- and nylon-stringed flurries populate this collection of holiday tunes by skilled acoustic guitarists. The frenzied tuning acrobatics of Adrian Legg (“Jingle Bells”) and quirky string funk of Greg Koch (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) are impressive enough, but it all feels very new age-y or retirement home-y. But you already guessed that from the title. I believe it was Steve Buscemi who said it best in Fargo: “You know, Jose Feliciano, you got no complaints.”
Donna Summer, The Christmas Collection (Universal)
You thought it couldn’t get any worse than “She Works Hard for the Money”. You were so very wrong. Here the former disco queen turns into a dull lounge act with visions of stale sugar plums festering in her head. Festering sugar plums are always a bad sign, as they often lead to gospel-tinged versions of “O Holy Night”. I’m not sure who she’s appealing to on the record’s cover photo, but one can only hope she’s begging for forgiveness and offering up this drivel as a sacrifice.
Robin & Linda Williams, The First Christmas Gift (Red House)
Nope, not that Robin Williams. This Robin Williams, along with his wife Linda, is a frequent musical guest on A Prairie Home Companion. The couple’s first Christmas album aims to promote the spiritual side of the holiday with a homespun country style. Ergo: mornings are “morns”, shotgun shells are used for tree decoration, and a cover of Steve Earle’s “Nothing but a Child” reminds us that Copperhead Road was pretty rotten. I know, I know: if only it were that Robin Williams.
Various Artists, A Skaggs Family Christmas (Skaggs Family)
Relax: this one’s Wal-Mart approved for the whole(some) family. The Skaggs team up with the Whites to form a country supergroup of resilient moral fiber. The families’ renditions are delivered in various stylistic guises bluegrass, Celtic, folk all generously enveloped in suffocating layers of new traditionalism and evangelical righteousness. Cheryl White’s excruciatingly maudlin “Mary, Did You Know” and Buck White’s spoken word tale “The Christmas Guest” are so self-involved and vehemently deadpan that they’re interpretable as unintentional comedies. This is why that whole “right to bear arms” argument makes sense sometimes: if carolers turn up on your doorstep with this kind of repertoire, you should possess the necessary tools to scare them off.