By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
In a culture so overstimulated and cross-referenced that neighborhoods and homeowners sue each other over 50,000-light photon orgies, Santa stands on every corner, and the spirit of the season is summed up by a socially inept round-headed kid taking Zen instruction from his beagle, it's little surprise that this year is burdened with what seems the most abundant crop of seasonal music ever. Music stores feature bins of the stuff, positioned near the cash registers like the barrels of stale soda crackers that used to grace the general stores of yore. Faced with such surfeit and recalling one of the season's primary signifiers (shopping bargains), the consumer can't be blamed for a certain amount of indecision and perhaps even naked fear, but fear not, for music writers--like unto and quite often very much identical to the poor--will be with you always, helping you separate the red-and-green wheat from the chaff. Heartfelt thanks and appreciation go out to those brave souls who helped map out an entire continent of seasonal music: Philip Chrissopoulos, Jimmy Fowler, Josh Alan Friedman, Arnold Wayne Jones, Rick Koster, Alex Magocsi, and Howard Wen.
Too Many Santas
A capella group The Bobs turn in the best of the bunch in terms of modern Christmas music updates this year, straining seasonal cheer through a number of hipster filters: attacking commercialism through a sci-fi setting ("Yuleman vs. The Anti-Claus"), adding a variety of world flavors ("Mambo, Santa, Mambo") and musical styles, like the hilarious combination of funk and Hannukah narration by Jonathan (Dr. Katz) Katz that's "Santa's Got a Brand New Bag." The Bobs continue to adroitly walk a fine line between skill and novelty, balancing their precise harmonies with the myriad weird supporting noises they make with their mouths, and they have a take on what the modern age has done to the holiday ("Fifty Kilowatt Tree" and "Christmas in L.A.," which boasts lines like "Snowballs made of styrofoam--plastic trees in every home/all the kids are home alone") that is both funny and incisive. Their take on the idiotic "Rasta Reindeer"--written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love--is a hoot, and the way their soaring delivery out-Beach Boys the Beach Boys is truly impressive. Although you lose the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire mood from time to time along the winding stylistic road this album follows, it's perfect party fare.
A Celebration of Christmas
Jose Carreras, Natalie Cole, Placido Domingo
It's not apparent that the whole "kooky celebrity musical pairings" idea was ever a good one; now the concept is mutating out of control like some deadly entertainment virus designed to nauseate and stupefy. (Listen to Twisted Willie some time for all the evidence you'll ever need.) That it would extend to holiday albums was probably inevitable ever since Bing Crosby and David Bowie performed their ghoulish version of "The Little Drummer Boy" together on television years ago. What's next? "Frosty the Snowman" as performed by Eddie Albert and Evan Dando? In any case, the pairing of Carreras and Domingo, two of opera's great tenors, with pop chanteuse Natalie Cole is a reasonably logical and intriguing line-up. For one thing, unlike most of these efforts, the two opera guys had probably heard of Cole and vice versa. For another, they can all sing their asses off (to put it in Christmasy terms) and, finally, the selection is a nice cross-section which will appeal to WRR listeners as well as Wal-Mart shoppers.
A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas
This beautiful set of Celtic-influenced songs--ranging from original modern pop to traditional reels and carols that trace their roots back as far as 900 years--features contributions from familiar names like Clannad and Altan and lesser-known (but by no means less endowed) talents like Aine Minogue and Brian Dunning. Although the Christmas connection is a bit tenuous at times--Fiona Kennedy's "Na Hu O Ha" is a pretty song about a man leaving his girlfriend in Scotland and traveling to Ireland, not a part of the Christmas story that springs readily to mind--there's still something about the delicacy and tone of Celtic music that connects with the time of year. The mix of vocal numbers and instrumentals and performances on harp, whistle and Uilleann pipes give this album a nicely changing texture; the older instruments and musics invoke well the history of the holidays.
Sugar Hill Records
This eclectic collection of songs by Sugar Hill artists in celebration of the Christmas season is, as one would expect, a stocking stuffed with country-flavored tunes. Though the emphasis is on second-tier Yuletide fare, with nary a Jingle or Silver Bell to be found, the ability of the musicians and singers to give the material that proper seasonal aura is admirable indeed. Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen are effectively poignant on Buck Owens' "Blue Christmas Lights," Mollie O'Brien is snowfall-pristine on "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Robert Earl Keen is painfully hysterical on his own "Merry Christmas From the Family" (a song particularly close to those of us who have spent time in a mobile home or attended special Christmas matches at the Sportatorium). A beautifully crafted sampling of seasonal bluegrass, folk and country.
Capitol Nashville Records
Troy Aikman's favorite country boys, Shenandoah, add a faint twang to Christmas standards like "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." With upright bass and subtle instrumentation they try to capture the warm feeling of yore and manage to create a cozy feeling of yawn. The saccharine level runs so high you could probably skip dessert when this disc's in the changer, and the Marty Raybon-cowritten original "There's a Way in the Manger" is not very easy on the teeth either.
With a Christmas Twist
Arthur Lyman was a member of the Martin Denny Combo and is in fact the guy playing vibes and making the bird calls heard on Denny's "Quiet Village," the 1959 Top Ten hit that signaled the advent of Kon-Tiki cool. First released in the early '60s as Mele Kalikimaka, Lyman's tropical covers--accented with marimba and ukelele--of beloved standards like "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas" (not to mention the former title track) conjure up images of the first Noël in Polynesia, or Trader Vic's at the very least. It's a union of supposed opposites perfect for Dallas, where you're likely to celebrate the season not in a sleigh but shorts and a T-shirt. The muted, gently throbbing sound of the vibes and marimba--and the rest of Lyman's sound effects and rhythms--make this album a perfect player for late at night, whilst cuddling and waiting for the kids to go to sleep.
O Holy Night!
Christian superstar Sandi Patty has a wonderful if overwrought voice, and the array of both secular and more devout Christmas tunes on this record is admirably diverse. The orchestration is irritatingly bombastic, though, as if it had been John Philip Sousa who'd been born in a manger instead of Jesus. But the big news is that Sandi won't be leaving any cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve; she's on a diet. And how do we know that? Because--and I'm not joking, here--Sandi enclosed a glossy "I'm losing weight" testimonial card in the jewel box, which entitles the bearer to a $25 discount at Jenny Craig! I'm sure the kickback on those babies will make Ms. Patty's Christmas very profitable, indeed. Truly evil.
The Benedictine Monks of
Santo Domingo de Silos
This Yuletide we have two things to thank the monks of the order of Saint Benedict for: their excellent brandy, which can ward off winter's chill (but consumption of which should be closely monitored lest it suggest certain events--say, riding lawn mower races or the ignition of fireworks--best left unstaged), and now the massed voices of 60 of their number on this album. The monks singing here are from the Castilian monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, instrumental at the turn of the century in restoring the Gregorian chant to a place of prominence. Accompanied only by a very low-key foot-treadled organ, their singing of the Gregorian repertory for the first three liturgical seasons of the church year--Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany--resonates with a history and a purpose that harkens back to a holiday untrammeled by elves, retail sales, or Arnold Schwarznegger and Sinbad. Recorded in 1958 and digitally remastered, these chants are joyous but still carry the weight of the ineffable mysteries that Christmas at its heart points to.
Christmas music is, by nature, traditional. We do not, for the most part, wait around to see what new Christmas songs the Stone Temple Pilots, George Strait, or Flavor Flav are going to come up with each December. No, we want our chestnuts roasting over an open fire, Mama kissing Santa Claus, and good King Wenceslas tossing back the grog as he oversees the feast of Stephen. On this Patti LaBelle record, though, we are mostly subjected to a batch of laid-back R&B tunes custom-written for the Christmas market. Though some of it's okay, the overriding feeling here is as though some Quincy Jones-style producer soaked his candy canes in hash oil and cranked out this undifferentiated assembly line stuff.
Christmas Eve and Other Stories
Trans Siberian Orchestra
The Trans Siberian Orchestra's gorgeously overproduced album may be the least traditional of this year's Christmas fare, but musically it's one of the most vibrant. You might not expect an electric guitar solo to work quite so tastefully on "O Come All Ye Faithful" as it does here, and the acoustic beauty of a suite from The Nutcracker is dazzlingly in its unexpected simplicity--until it segues into an acid rock version called "A Mad Russian's Christmas." What's remarkable about Christmas Eve and Other Stories is how song after song seems fresh, appropriate, and yet wholly spiritual. The throaty alto vocal from "The Prince of Peace," set in part to the melody from "The Holly and the Ivy," seems as heartfelt and expressionistic as a carol is likely to get.
--Arnold Wayne Jones
Tiny Tim's Christmas Album
The knee-jerk reaction to this album will be steeped in kitsch, crooked fingers putting quote marks around everything, and isn't-it-funny, wink wink nudge nudge? Idiots who indulge themselves so ignore a number of things, primarily Tiny Tim's utter devotion to popular American music (literally, music that's been popular in America since there was an America) and his belief that the emotions expressed therein--laden as they may be with "Just Before the Battle, Mother" sentimentality--are but our imperfect expressions of very real truths: hope, travail, disappointment, and joy. Laugh if you will at his vibrato-heavy Rudy-Vallee-channeling-Bela-Lugosi delivery, but if you can honestly listen to it, this album is full not of camp but commitment--witness his trenchant and very affecting comments during his rendition of "Silent Night," when he notes that in fact that our silent nights are not on Christmas Eve, but all the other nights of the year when we ignore the faith we so piously profess when seasonally convenient. On Christmas Album his blending of traditional religious favorites like "O Holy Night" and secular pop numbers like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," atypical but appropriate numbers like the Salvation Army standards "Throw Out the Lifeline" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and completely unexpected nuggets like Donnie Brooks' 1960 hit "Mission Bell"--complete with a Tiny Tim-style rapping interlude--is perhaps the best summation of the conflicted mix of the sacred, the commercial, and the downright profane that we've made the holidays into. Masterful, even without the sentimentality stirred up by Tiny Tim's recent passing.
Jimmy Buffett is only now pushing 50--he was born on Christmas Day 1946--but he was writing about pirates looking at 40 in his 20s and has somehow seemed to linger near middle age ever since. Although younger than my dad, Buffett's far more likely to allow misty feelings about bygone days than my old man. I've often been puzzled by songs like "Pencil-thin Moustache"--his most whimsically unapologetic piece of retrospection--wherein he waxes nostagic over '40s icons like Andy Devine and Boston Blackie, pop figures before Jimbo was a fetus. Maybe his shelf-life for fond remembrances is just longer than mine. You might expect a Christmas album by a sentimental sod born on December 25 would be one long syrupy journey, but the appeal of Christmas Island is its paradox. The album has Buffett's trademark cheekiness--you can tell by the album cover not to expect too traditional a collection of carols, and in fact there are four all new songs--but he also a healthy respect for the music of the season. It's possible to tolerate the steel drums, and you might even grow to be charmed by the fun he's having. Buffett's faithful version of the John Lennon-Yoko Ono ode "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" passes muster while a four-minute version of the inexplicably popular "Jingle Bells"--the poisonously dull holiday perennial--nearly tanks the album before it has even begun. Buffett eventually scores, though, when he wears his heart on his sleeve, as on the langorously melancholy masterpiece "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He sings the song without artifice, as it was intended: a straightforward wartime elegy to lovers physically separated but joined in spirit. The greatest canniness lies in knowing when to turn off the playful sarcasm and deliver a song (or carol) with heart.
Just Say Noel
When you're standing around the fire feeling warm and fuzzy you don't necessarily want to put up with tentative efforts, experimentation, and tracks that don't work. That's the problem with many of the efforts to update seasonal fare--they end up reminding the ear primarily of the artist and are as evocative of the season as the sound of a lawn mower. Although Just Say Noel advertises itself as proof that today's young, hip acts can produce music that "glow(s) with all the spirit and warmth of time-honored classics" it actually makes a pretty good case for the opposite. The tracks that work come from acts already in some way aligned with Yuletide requirements: neo-classicists like the Wild Colonials, craftsmen like XTC and Wendy & Lisa, or soulful artists like Ted Hawkins (an affecting "Amazing Grace") and Southern Culture on the Skids (a deliciously greasy "Merry Christmas, Baby"). There are some surprises--most notably the Roots' remake of De La Soul's urban carol "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"--but the other songs stink in a way that's almost insulting. Who the hell wants to trim the tree while Sonic Youth grinds and screeches their way through Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," a formerly funny song? (By the way, Santa has elves, not dwarves.) Elastica does a bored, sneering "Gloria"--lifted from a dusty B-side--and Beck mumbles about "da funk" throughout his "The Little Drum Machine Boy" like a tranquilized transient. He tells us that he's "keepin' it real like a spray-snow tree," but spray-snow trees aren't real, and the folks at Geffen apparently don't know the difference. Humbug.
Christmas with the New Black Eagles Jazz Band
New Black Eagles Jazz Band
There is simply no music known to mankind as fiercely resistant to sadness as Dixieland. The tonic sounds of the Big Easy and Satchmo Armstrong are like dustmops shaking away gloomy cobwebs--it's no wonder New Orleans funerals are inimitably jazzy, celebratory wakes. The New Black Eagles are essentially a Dixieland band, and somewhat surprisingly, these seven white guys hail from Massachusetts. Surprise, in fact, fuels this lively collection of standards, all freshly revisited. You may not have ever thought of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" as ideally suited for a tuba-banjo duet, but the New Black Eagles have, and therein lies the charm of their album. Technical mastery isn't among the group's sterling assets--cornet player Tony Pringle sometimes embraces his notes hesitantly--but carols have never felt this rollicking and fun. The Mancini-tinged "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" stands out for its moody coolness, but overall this isn't a spiritual album (even the slowly unfolding beauty of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Silent Night" get peppered up). It is not designed to put you in a somber, peaceful mood on Christmas Eve, but to serve as a great party favor, the perfect accent to an evening of friendship, a sentimental but not melancholy reflection of what the holiday season means to each of us.
Let's Share Christmas
With a touchy-feely album title (and equally squishy song) like Let's Share Christmas, you probably shouldn't expect lots of guitar riffs and extended piano improvisation, and of course you'd be right. John Pizzarelli's voice is among the dullest of any man who assumes jazz credentials; there's nothing funky or remotely spontaneous about him, and every song he sings is victimized by his rigidly unexpressive voice. From ho-hum variations of classic carols to some downright annoying new ones, it seems clear that it isn't skill that induces someone to rhyme "Let's make sure the fire's bright and gifts are under the tree/Let's share Christmas, just you and me;" it's gall. There are gifted arrangers and conductors behind the scenes on this album--Johnny Mandel, Michel Legrand, and others--but they can't rescue Pizzarelli from himself: a bleached-out attempt to recreate the magical swing sound Harry Connick Jr. almost single-handedly revived. This isn't even good background music.
This is the Time: The Christmas Album
Well, what did you expect? Michael Bolton does all the classics--"Silent Night," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Holy Night"--inflicting upon them his big-haired, psuedo-R&B yowling and rendering each cut as subtle as an artillery barrage; in his voice's higher register--where he loves to dwell--he sounds as if he's trying to pass a peach pit, and no song's halls go undecked with his annoying mannerisms. Perhaps he envisions this as his entree into the realm of the Beloved Seasonal Album, but by entering into competition with Bing Crosby, Jim Nabors, and Burl Ives he succeeds only in kicking his own ass. While his genius has always been choosing songs that are strong enough to withstand his delivery, two cuts--"This is the Time" and "Love is the Power"--make it very clear that he can't (co)write them. Bah.
Bending Toward the Light: A Jazz Nativity
There are some powerhouse jazz musicians on this quasi-compilation--salsa drummer Tito Puente, trumpeter Lionel Hampton--all of whom performed a concert at Lincoln Center in New York last year that began this album. The liner notes assure us that the evening was "electric," but of course that guarantee comes from the zombified Charles Kuralt, who hosted the event, so remember to consider the source. In any case, the magic of the theater and the allure of a great album are not the same, and the concept of the collection (the story of Jesus in jazz) doesn't quite work without the live presentation. It seems almost in singularly bad taste to actively say something negative about it, but as good as some of the individual segments are, they never coalesce as a unified Christmas album. Bending Toward the Light is better appreciated than enjoyed; more worthy placed immediately in the archives as an addition to a thorough accumulation of jazz performances than as songs we care to listen to for putting us in the holiday mood.
Kwanzaa Party! A Celebration of Black Cultures in Song
Kwanzaa Party! commemorates the upcoming 30th anniversary of the African-American Kwanzaa harvest festival that begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year's Day. A nonreligious holiday, Kwanzaa (Swahili for "first fruits of the harvest") celebrates African culture and excellence, as does this second Rounder Kwanzaa collection, which consists of superlative examples of festive African-based music. The party begins with the most upbeat song, a remake of the 1940s Caribbean hit "Mary Ann," a steel-drum soca by Trinidad's Roaring Lion--Rafael de Leon, who introduced calypso to the United States in the 1930s--joined here by Guyanese producer Eddy Grant ("Electric Avenue"). "Sekusile" is a midtempo swing by the Dark City Sisters, a 1950s South African vocal group that included Miriam Makeba. The kompa variation of the Dominican merengue combined with big-band horns in Ensemble Nemours Jn. Baptiste's "Rhythme Commercial" 40 years ago has since dominated Haitian pop. "Fidelina" is a Colombian story song by Alejo Duran, dubbed "el rey negro" (the black king) of vallenato, a Creole form similar to zydeco. The album also includes a pair of Cuban sambas, several Afropop songs, an example of Haitian voudou rock, or rasin (rah-seen), and a political chant ("Ede M Chante," or "I Must Sing," by Boukan Ginen). Like many such broad compilations, Kwanzaa Party! is sometimes discontinuous, but this distillation is an essential Kwanzaa primer (the CD booklet contains a succinct explanation of the meaning and rituals of Kwanzaa, as well as holiday recipes) and the music of the African song book.
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Contemporary guitarist Phil Sheeran delves into childhood memories for inspiration on his first Christmas album, but this effort comes across more as soundtrack fodder for shopping at the mall than an evocation of memories formed on St. Nick's lap. That's not necessarily bad. For every traditional classic like "Silver Bells" or "What Child Is This?" that has been needlessly padded with up-tempo keyboard and drawn-out flute, Sheeran offers soothing takes on others like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "O Christmas Tree," where his strumming proves to be the album's strength. Unfortunately, clocking in at just under 40 minutes of running time, I'll Be Home for Christmas makes for all-too-brief background music for your holiday memories.
Quad City All-Star Christmas
Big Beat/Atlantic Records
Mrs. Claus has gone to a holiday crab boil, but before she took off she made the old man a holiday mix tape to play as he goes about his rounds: that's the premise behind Quad City All-Star Christmas, a surprisingly seamless blending of hip-hop and holiday that manages to keep rap's social consciousness, urban witnessing, and flow while at the same time fufilling the narrower seasonal requirements like hope, wishing for the future, and community. Made by mid-level artists like the Quad City DJs, UndaAged, and the 69 Boyz, All-Star Christmas roams the range of soulful flavors, from sultry R&B (two surprisingly direct and un-ironic versions of "White Christmas" and "Alone," a song told from the perspective of a woman left behind when her man reunites with the mother of his child) to jumpy, jeep-ready numbers (just about everything else). Perhaps the funniest and most touching cuts are "What You Want for Christmas"--a takeoff of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that lampoons greed and finds the singers wishing for everything from "f-i-i-ive months free rent" and "eight gold teeth" to "a Cadillac to put it all in"--and "Where Dey at YO!" ("Where the real men at?"), bridged by "Wish List," wherein a giggling group of homegirls compare their holiday hopes. Surprisingly effective and affecting.
Festival of Light
Six Degrees/Island Records
Clarinets, violins, and guitars give this collection of Hanukkah songs--interpreted or created by contemporary artists--an atypical cohesion. Folk singer Marc Cohn ("Walking in Memphis") opens Festival with a faithful rendition of "Rock of Ages"; jazz clarinetist Don Byron (Klezmer Conservatory Band, The Mickey Katz Project) leads a contemplative interpretation of "Oi Tata," which he discovered on a vintage Klezmer 78; Dutch folk-classical-Celtic quartet Flairck infuses the traditional melody "The Emigrant" with African and Indonesian percussion and Peruvian panpipes, while Jane Sibbery sings the ancient Shepherd's lament "Shir Amami"; and John McCutcheon covers the Israeli love song "Erev Shel Shoshanim." The Covenant, a studio manipulation project a la Enigma and Deep Forest, combines samples of traditional music with live and programmed instrumentation; here Cantor Ben Zion Kapov-Kagen sings "Kiddus Le-Shabbat" (a performance from Rabbi David Neiman's collection of 78s) over electric bass and violin, tablas, didgeridoo, and drum programs. The Klezmatics perform their somber "Dybbuk Shers"; jazz experimentalist John Zorn his anachronistic "Bikkurim." Excluding the high-spirited R&B of Peter Himmelman and David Broza's "Lighting Up the World," Festival of Light is uniformly melancholy, reflecting the reverential ambiance of the holy days.
A Swingin' Christmas
The League of Decency
A mediocre swing band performs spiritless versions of hackneyed Christmas songs: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," "Greensleeves," "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "I'll Be Home for Christmas"...You get the idea: Grampa after one too many eggnogs.
Frosty the Bluesman
Usually an artist can only guess who the audience is and what they might be doing while listening. Christmas albums are different, basically intended to put us in the holiday spirit. Accordingly, Christmas songs have a complex role to fulfill: they must be nostalgic, reminding us of happy seasons past, but they must also seem fresh--the right mix of old and new carols may be the trickiest piece of Yuletide legerdemain. Can you think of "The Christmas Song" and hear anyone but Nat King Cole sing it? Even hokey (sometimes ghastly) little numbers like Andy Williams singing "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" or the Partridge Family's "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" have staked whatever claim they have on our collective conscience by closely identifying their interpretation with the song itself. Guitarist Michael Powers tries to put his own stamp on 14 different songs, and while there is merit to many of them, it is not earned from producing well-crafted Christmas music.
Frosty the Bluesman is subtitled "Holiday Favorites from a Bluesman's Perspective," but that's only partially true. First, while there's a jazzy influence present in every song, few have a classic 12-bar blues structure, and what is there tends more toward Hendrix than Holiday. Second, some of the songs seem only tangentially related to the tune that inspires them: in addition to the title track, there's "Mississippi Strummer Boy," "Deck de Halls, Mon," and "God Rest Ye Funky Gentleman"--precious renamings that--as arranged--don't exactly emphasize the Christmas spirit; Powers' version of "Greensleeves" is especially off-putting. Powers isn't working inside the limitations of the format, finding songs whose components serve his musical tastes, but forcing his own style on Christmas songs. The album has good music on it, but it does nothing to illuminate the meaning of the season--it's hard to imagine who Powers thought his audience would be. Frosty the Bluesman's sin is of omission: there are many carols or would-be-carols that could be collected on a legitimate blues album. Imagine the shadings "God Bless the Child" could convey, or a gospel version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" or "O Holy Night." It's a shame Powers doesn't deliver nearly as much as his title promises.
Stuff Your Stocking
EMI-Capitol Music Catalog Marketing Group
You know all these beloved Christmas favorites--Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," Billy Idol's "White Wedding," Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It"--but apparently EMI-Capitol wants you to hear them (and seven other equally worn hits) again. Though bearing the gift-tainting warning "Not For Sale, promotional CD," this stocking bullstuffer is--suspiciously--available for a penny each at the checkout counters of most area Blockbuster Music stores, so why not? Then again, why?
Unlike much of the lite-jazz flotsam out there--artists who happen to be playing an instrument found in jazz bands--pianist Cyrus Chestnut has the understanding of structure and rhythm and the improvisational chops of a real player; he's worked with artists as diverse as Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis, and it shows. On Blessed Quietness he takes not only Christmas songs but the hymns and spirituals he grew up with in Baltimore and forges--with only his piano--a contemplative summation not only of the season but also of the entire Christian experience. Thus, we have not only the expected "Silent Night" and "The First Noël," but also "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Walk With Me Jesus," all delivered with great subtlety, feeling, and nuance and seeming more of whole than you might at first think. Quiet and introspective, the music doesn't shirk from innovation and personal interpretation--check out the swingingly triumphant "Amazing Grace," or the Hoagy Carmichael-esque detour in the middle of "Jesus Loves Me." Highly recommended.
Boney's Funky Christmas
Warner Brothers Records
On this album saxman Boney James--another bloodless, lightweight pretender in the mold of Kenny G and David Koz--does to Christmas music what he and his ilk have been doing to jazz and R&B for years: polishing away any semblance of character or spark and replacing that with an unchallenging, elevator-ready smoothness. This collection of standards like "The Christmas Song" and "Jingle Bells" will slide effortlessly out of your stereo--you probably won't notice that it's on--but words like "unobtrusive," "easy," and "routine" are welcome when describing, say, colonic irrigation, and much less so when applied to music.
A Dave Brubeck Christmas
A Dave Brubeck Christmas
The opening "Jingle Bells" packs some wallop, but overall A Dave Brubeck Christmas features 14 solo piano renditions of the mostly innocuous seasonal standards usually associated with shopping music. Too moody for Toys R Us, but just right for upscale stores like FAO Schwartz or Stanley Korshak, Brubeck--the maestro most responsible for melding jazz and classical music--doesn't take these old reliables too far out of orbit. When he does get provocative (dig "Greensleeves" or "O Tannenbaum")--changing to minor keys and such--he quickly brings them back within reach of, say, the old Lawrence Welk audience (and Welk's show did, truth be told, feature stellar musicianship). Brubeck's first-ever solo piano Christmas album may complement the tender moments around your family hearth; it's definitely better than Liberace.
--Josh Alan Friedman
Spirit of the Carols
Telarc Jazz Zone
Finally, amid a lot of pause and pretension, somebody finds the "sweet spot" of the season. An impromptu recording session staged with a friend--recording favorite songs of the holiday for his aunt--led plectrist Rotella to consider recording a bonafide Christmas album; Spirit is the result. Rotella plays guitars (steel and nylon string as well as electric) and mandolin on this expertly nuanced offering; unlike many more commercial efforts--usually recorded in the middle of the year--Rotella recorded this album last year, during the season, and it shows in the feeling he imparts to his renditions. His instrumentals--bolstered in spots by a guest vocalist--put "extra" in front of the most ordinary numbers. An unusually sensitive and evocative work, delicate in its accomplishment.
Thanks to the Special Olympics International organization, which gathered all these diverse musicians from all over the world, World Christmas can be enjoyed year round. It is hard to decide which one of these big world-music names gives the most joyous interpretation of these (mostly) traditional songs. The standouts are Bob Berg, Jim Beard and Arto Tuncboyacyan ("We Three Kings," given an afro-pop treatment); South American vocalist Cesaria Evora (the latin rhythms of "Natal"); Gilberto Gil and Gaetano Veloso with Eliane Elias (the bossa nova "Boas Festas"); Mino Cinelu and Diane Reeves (a twisted arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"); as well as more familar artists like John Scofield, the Wild Colonials, and the Gipsy Kings. The proceeds of this album will benefit the Special Olympics, and the fine music therein goes to your permanent beneficiary: you.
Blame It On Christmas!
Subtitled "17 Weird Yuletide Classics From Around the World," Blame It On Christmas purports to be for people whose reaction to Christmas music is "want(ing) to barf." While at first blush this idea could seem pretty hateful, by Blame It's end the album's made a convincing argument--against all expectation--for a sense of humor. The liner notes pretend to all sorts of revisionist abominations--the lounge-y "That Swingin' Manger," by somebody whom the album calls "Bob Francis" ("the poor man's Frank Sinatra, Jr," who sings "Now the cows go moo-moo/they woke up the kid/but that little trouper/never flipped his lid"), or "The Inexcelsis Polka," done by a putatively obscure band from the shipyard town of Gdansk, Poland--and each one of them seems just too perfect to be true. "Uh, no," said Fred Reif of Schoolkids' Records, a bit surprised at being asked if he really expected us to believe that "El Pocito Pueblo de Bethlehem" was recorded by Mexico's favorite mariachi, Felize Navidad. Reif went on to explain--in the same tone one would use with a particularly dull child--that the album was the idea of "two ad guys from L.A." who put the whole thing together using studio musicians. The album's tone and texture vary attractively ("Joy to the 3rd World," "12 Arabian Nights," "The Li'l Endless Summer Boy") once you're sure that Schoolkids' isn't trying to pull a fast one; the sensibility is really entertaining and actually connective, perfect for diluting all the sweetness and light found on most Christmas offerings.
World Famous Children's Choirs Sing Christmas Songs
Did somebody say sweetness and light? This collection of European children's choirs features a cathedral-filling purity of massed young voices that is almost luminescent. The only familiar name here--unless you're a student of such things--will be Die Weiner Sangerknaben (aka the Vienna Boys' Choir), but all the groups here deliver the achingly ethereal, sublimely beautiful sounds you associate with the VBC as they sing the traditional holiday songs of their countries. Often accompanied by a single organ, the choirs invoke a liturgical feeling that will help assuage any guilt pangs stemming from not actually going to church this Christmas.
Merry X-mas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad
The reputation of Juan Garcia Esquivel--the man who was to late '50s and early '60s pop what Frank Zappa would later be to rock, a fearless innovator and a punctilious arranger and composer--was reborn in the still-widening wake of the lounge revival. After years of languishing, his music--think of background music for the domed cities and hovercars that folks once thought we'd be enjoying by now--has been reissued and repackaged for another generation to marvel at. This album consists of the expected workhorses, pepped up with the inadvertent cheese of early electronics, immaculately dovetailed vocals often deployed as another instrumental part, percussion, and broad sweeps of steel guitar: "Frosty the Snowman," "Jingle Bells," "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," et cetera. Most of these cuts are from the 1959 album The Merriest of Christmas Pops and feature the Space-Age Bachelor himself introducing you to his holiday pad, then bidding you adieu at the end. It's quirky and fun, and if you can get past the smirking irony and love-of-kitsch that so afflicts the martini-'n'-cigarette-holder set, there's a whole lot more here waiting to enliven your holidays. Fabulous in the truest sense of the word.
O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice
The album starts with a cautionary rhyming tale by renowned scrooge Henry Rollins--not at his most acidic here, probably overwhelmed by the season's spirit. It continues with forgettable ditties by the Dance Hall Crashers, Sponge, and Juliana Hatfield, then it really goes downhill: Bush is as odious as ever on a live track that reveals their utter lack of anything to offer (even more than their studio work). The nerdy Presidents of the United States of America goof off while Wool tries to be a Christmasy Green Day. Luscious Jackson, Mike Watt, and the Cranes hold your attention, at least until you realize that mailing a twelve-dollar check to Rock For Choice instead of buying this weak-as-water compilation would be a real time-saver this busy season.
A Classic Cartoon Christmas
Nick at Nite Records
As the fine folks at Nick at Nite so selflessly remind us, we are the TV generation, and we've replaced the traditional externals of Christmas--caroling, sleigh rides, begging for figgy pudding--with quality tube time. A Classic Cartoon Christmas works best when it invokes the blue-phosphorous glow of long-standing favorites like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the lovely "Welcome Christmas") and the Ur-special A Charlie Brown Christmas (the three Vince Guaraldi Trio classics we all recall: "O Tannenbaum," "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," and "Christmas Time is Here"). We're referencing our own experience here--perhaps that's all we can ever do--and inasmuch as the spirit of the season resides in anthropomorphic snowmen and electric shaver-riding Santas, it can be found in Burl Ives singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Jimmy Durante rasping his way through "Frosty the Snowman." There are only a few clinkers--it may be from a Christmas special, but "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" doesn't sound very Christmas-y (especially as mangled by Keenan Wynn and Andy Rooney), and freed from its visuals the basso profundo of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is just plain disturbing--and only one notable omission, the theme from Pee Wee's Christmas Special. It may be rooted in one of the most secular businesses around, but perhaps the point behind this collection is the way in which we can invest higher hope in even the basest of things.
"Yeah," you say, "but what was the best Christmas album of all the ones you listened to?" Find out next week.