Dreck the halls

Why are most Christmas albums so bad?

It's that time of year again, the season for eggnog, pine wreaths, ribbons and wrapping paper, and -- shudder -- Christmas albums. Every year, a blizzard of holiday records falls upon the record racks, most all of them filled with a certain spirit: the spirit of commerce. Because I actually happen to like Christmas music, a feeling no doubt instilled by family memories, the self-serving dreck dished up by the popular music world is particularly irksome, especially since so many play like rote exercises in capturing market share. Can there be any other explanation for a Backstreet Boys Christmas disc other than trying to dupe teenage girls out of the rest of their baby-sitting money?

During this particular holiday season, the onslaught has been as bad as ever, yet the pickings are particularly slim. For example, is there any reason that a disc of Christmas standards slaughtered by Jewel (the recent Joy: A Holiday Celebration) -- which also includes such space-filler as a new version of her quasi-hit "Hands," featuring accompaniment provided by a bell choir -- even exists? Only to stuff major-label execs' stockings. The Santa of the promotional mailing lists has also delivered to my door releases by Reba McEntire, Take 6, The Irish Tenors, Paul Brandt, and 98 Degrees, all of them so utterly worthless that even the local used CD store won't take them. (Somehow, my name apparently landed on the "naughty" list.)

But take hope, those of you who truly enjoy holiday spirit and good cheer, as well as perhaps creative, quality music -- which has never really applied to most Christmas releases (e.g., 1997's VH1 Presents: RuPaul Ho Ho Ho or anything by Mannheim Steamroller). There are at least a few pop-music Christmas albums out in the marketplace that have become perennials in my home, each of them highly different, all of them musically worthy -- the key word in that sentence, of course, being few. For every disc like Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, there is one such as Jeffrey Osborne's 1997 attempt to sex up Christmas standards, Something Warm for Christmas. We don't want Mommy doing anything with Santa apart from kissing him.

My favorite Christmas disc is The Bells of Dublin by the eminent Irish folk group The Chieftains. On it one can find everything from "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to the obligatory Irish jigs, all delivered with faithful yet inventive care. But the bonus is the guest stars: Elvis Costello singing a droll tune written by him and chief Chieftain Paddy Maloney; Kate and Anna McGarrigle delivering two lovely French Canadian seasonal songs; Jackson's Browne's revisionist "The Rebel Jesus"; and carols by Marianne Faithfull (a dusky "I Saw Three Ships A Sailing") and Rickie Lee Jones (an impressionistic "O Holy Night"). At 23 tracks strong, there's an appealing variety to satisfy just about every listener in the family on this set.

Almost equally winning, if not heartwarming, is Seven Gates, A Christmas Album by Ben Keith & Friends. This country-folk set of mainly traditional tunes boasts a banner list of friends gathered to celebrate the season with Ben Keith, one of the most innovative steel guitar and dobro players. Neil Young -- whom Keith plays with from time to time, and who is one of the album's co-producers -- lends his distinctive voice to a quaint take of "Greensleeves" and shares vocals with Johnny Cash on "The Little Drummer Boy." Another highlight is a back-porch Cajun version of "Christmas Time's A Comin'" by Rusty Kershaw and Pat McLaughlin. But the bulk of this collection consists of atmospheric and evocative instrumentals on which Keith's steel and dobro form the shining star atop this particular tree.

To my onetime choirboy's ear, Christmas carols are all about singing. So who better to serenade holiday revelers than the masters of country-music harmonies, The Louvin Brothers? On the recent re-release of their Christmas With The Louvin Brothers album of decades ago (first issued in 1961 as Country Christmas), siblings Charlie and Ira Louvin eschew their Southern Gothic sense of heartbreak and tragedy and play it straight on a disc primarily composed of well-known carols. With simple, old-school Nashville backing and rustic yet rich vocals from the Louvins, this set is particularly affecting, marred only by occasionally sappy backing vocals straight out of the Music City hit factory. Like a fine piece of folk art, this holiday set is simple and sincere in all the best ways.

Returning to the racks from the same era is A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, an album on which the famous Spector Wall of Sound boasts a chimney for Santa Claus to go down. Featuring such noted Spector acts as Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans, it's a holiday celebration festooned with musical tinsel and Christmas lights. The final track of "Silent Night" with a spoken message from Spector himself provides a rather bizarre coda, especially since Spector just happens to be Jewish.

But for all the crucified carols the pop music world has given us over the years, this is one collection where the takes on everything from "White Christmas" (with a Los Angeles reference) to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" gets the seasonal spirit right while never sacrificing pop sophistication and sassiness. And take note: the disc is included in the Spector box set, Back to Mono (1958-1969), an essential collection that makes an ideal gift for any serious fan of rock's best moments.

 
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