Each year at dates stretching back ever closer to the summer, every store you enter is droning one of the couple dozen Christmas songs in the official canon, and to stave off the sense of repetition, the various boutiques manage to get their hands on supposedly novel versions of the hoary classics, re-envisioned in wondrous new forms. “Silent Night” with Joe Satriani shredding over the top? You’re not dreaming—you’re at Famous-Barr! A hip-hop version of “Jingle Bell Rock?” Old Navy says, “Go on, playa!” And can it be long before we hear Fred Durst bleating “Deck the Halls” while the latest gunslinger to be selected from a nationwide Guitar Center talent search piles on the distortion in a pathetic attempt to salvage the limited amount of dignity he had as the newest member of Limp Bizkit? If the paltry showing of their latest album is any indication, such a desperate cash-in may be just around the corner.
Though new Christmas-themed recordings are strongly associated with the likes of Amy Grant and Mariah Carey, there once was a time when it was not unusual to hear respectable rock stars running through Yuletide tunes. Chuck Berry still has one of his in regular rotation on oldies stations, and even original garage rock badasses the Sonics put out a few, though theirs had titles like “The Village Idiot” and “Don’t Believe in Christmas”. Other artists were more natural fits for the genre, and the folks behind the ubiquitous budget-line 20th Century Masters compilations have rescued and re-released many of these recordings in their new Christmas Collectionseries.
Motown, already beloved by greatest-hits compilers, has vaults full of prime holiday musical selections in addition to their bounty of immortal hit singles. During the label’s prime, it released star-studded samplers for the Christmas market that have long since disappeared from print. With enough of these released, however, individual artists racked up enough Christmas songs to be scooped up and repackaged as full-length CDs. Two of these lucky groups now given the Christmas Collection treatment are the Supremes and the Miracles. Predictably, there is a good deal of similarity between the two sets: both are heavy with ballads, both feature lush but basic arrangements, and both have 16 tracks. They share many problems, too. The song selection is conservative, running through “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Silver Bells”, “Jingle Bells”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, etc., etc., with precious little Motown magic in the songwriting of the sappy originals or in the playing of the Funk Brothers. Ballads were not the forte of either Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson, and though they get by decently with their insipid material, these albums do little but make the listener long for “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Tears of a Clown”. The most notable difference between the CDs is that the Miracles sound bored while the Supremes sound under-rehearsed.
Much more odd and somewhat more entertaining is James Brown‘s collection. Whereas the Motown entries are pieced together from the label’s seasonal releases, Brown’s is essentially a reproduction of James Brown’s Funky Christmas, from the nearly identical cover art to the exactly identical running order of the songs. That album was a patchwork of three earlier records, James Brown and His Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs from 1966, Soulful Christmas from 1968, and Hey America from 1970. As anyone familiar with Brown’s chronology could tell you, those were among the most pivotal years in his career, so his Christmas Collection varies dramatically in style and quality. The earlier songs feature Brown as a middling soul man, crooning with more conviction than skill. Later, Brown begins to get funkier, and thankfully, he did not feel the need to keep these songs soft and gentle just because they were about Christmas. In fact, Brown had no compunction whatsoever about checking his natural impulses, infusing several of the cuts with his distinct brand of social consciousness, and if “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” wasn’t a classic on par with “What’s Going On”, it did arrive three years earlier, and its title was miles ahead. (Other gems include “Go Power at Christmas Time”, “Let’s Unite the Whole World at Christmas”, “Santa Claus is Definitely Here to Stay”, and “Tit for Tat Ain’t No Taking Back”) The magnificence of the track names aside, this is an uneven and substandard set from the Godfather of Christmas, but it isn’t anywhere near as perfunctory as the sets by the Supremes and the Miracles, and considering the unrelenting dearth of good holiday music produced in any era, this may just be the greatest Christmas album of all time by default.