Chestnuts and lumps of coal

Bennett, Buttholes, and John Tesh--these are a few of our favorite, and least favorite, things

In their book Merry Christmas, Baby, Dave Marsh and Steve Propes explained the appeal of Christmas music this way: with the diversity of musicians recording Christmas standards over the decades--from Bing Crosby to the Ramones, from Bob Wills to Madonna, from Darlene Love to Run-DMC--"every conceivable emotion found its way at some point into a Christmas tune." As the music became less religious and more pop (or jazz, or punk, or whatever) it became accessible even to an audience that could care less about the holiday season; after all, what Butthole Surfers fan won't seek out their version of "Good King Wencenslaus" or its A-side "The Lord is a Monkey"?

This year alone, the blues fan will find Charles Brown's first full-length holiday album under the tree; rockers have everything from Graham Parker to the Butthole Surfers in the stocking; country lovers can drink eggnog and Wild Turkey while listening to Trisha Yearwood and Jerry Jeff Walker; Tejano fans can ring in a Feliz Navidad with Flaco Jimenez and Freddy Fender; and pop classicists can find Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond puckered up underneath the mistletoe. Here, then, is a look at who's been naughty, who's been nice, and who's been Tesh this holiday season.

--Robert Wilonsky

Snowfall
Tony Bennett
Columbia Records
The Sinatra Christmas Album
Frank Sinatra
Reprise Records

The resurrection of Tony Bennett as MTV's token elder statesman (which lasted--what?--all of a week) has prompted the release of Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album, originally issued in 1969, though you'd never know it was an old record from the rather amnesiac liner notes; in fact, with its new photo of Bennett on the cover and its inclusion of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" recorded last year on The Jon Stewart Show, it could well be mistaken for a new release--which, perhaps, is what Columbia hopes will happen since Snowfall was virtually ignored upon its original release.

Of course, what's 25 years among friends? Snowfall has, not surprisingly, aged as gracefully as Bennett himself. Though it catches him backed by a full-blown orchestra instead of the three-piece jazz combo in front of which he thrives, it's still a swinging, beautiful piece of work. He tackles a handful of standards, but it's on the nonholiday fare--"My Favorite Things," "Where is Love," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and the evocative "Snowfall"--he soars highest. Still, "I'll Be Home" is the highlight, almost frustratingly so: Bennett's voice is so much warmer now than it was two decades ago, and backed by the simple elegance of the Ralph Sharon Trio, he only makes you wish he'd gone into the studio and started this whole thing over from scratch.

The Sinatra Christmas Album doesn't fare nearly as well. A collection of Frank's Reprise holiday singles--some with Bing Crosby, a few with Nancy and Frank Jr.--recorded from the mid-'60s through 1965, it plays more like a made-for-TV special performed on a Vegas stage. It begins well enough with Frank almost crooning "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the duet with Crosby on "We Wish You the Merriest" pairs teacher and student, but the record finally lapses into self-parody and grandiose indulgence. When he's singing about "A Baby Like You," it's hard to tell whether he's addressing Jesus or a broad.

--R.W

Merry Christmas
Mariah Carey
Columbia Records

The inclusion of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," the only original song found on the landmark 1963 album A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, underlines the obvious: Carey fancies her own album as something far more extravagant than the holiday itself; it's not so much a Christmas record as a pop record masquerading as one--hit singles unified by a theme, the ultimate concept album idea. A song like "Joy to the World" is massively overblown: Carey and choir belt out the traditional lyric accompanied by a grinding dance-floor beat, and finally it becomes too much to bear--you don't know whether to bow or boogie. Or it's preciously solemn, the beautiful voices of seven children magnified till they sound like a thousand screaming brats ("Jesus Born on This Day") or Carey exaggerating the word "star" till it has eight syllables ("Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child"). Merry Christmas is crushed underneath the weight of its own pretensions and mammoth production, a live Nativity scene in the living room where all you need is a simply decorated tree.

--R.W.

A Tejano Country Christmas
Various artists
Arista Texas

As Tex-Mex border music creeps further northward (toward the North Pole?), it begins losing its definition; it's now somehow less authentic, more generic, the difference between Santiago Jimenez' traditional fare and brother Flaco's commercial pop. So "Tejano Country" is right: it wanders perilously close to pop novelty at times (Freddy Fender and Flaco's "Frosty the Snowman" melts under the glare of a South Texas sun), perilously close to pre-fab NashVegas country at others (Rick Orozco's "When it's Christmas Time in Texas"). And John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)"--here turned into "Amigos Del Mundo," as done by Ricardo Castillion--loses something, everything, in the translation.

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