By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
All-Star Christmas (Epic) and A Country Superstar Christmas III (Hip-O) are more conventional compilations, with the former tossing together everyone from Celine Dion and Charlotte Church to Wham! and Elmo & Patsy (yep, it's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" again), and the latter trotting out Martina McBride, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, and more C&W regulars. They each have their moments: All-Star earns a few plaudits for Al Green's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Jeff Beck's "Amazing Grace," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Billy Gilman with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel; and Alan Jackson ("A Holly Jolly Christmas") and George Strait ("Christmas Cookies") acquit themselves well on Country Superstar. But neither album is steadily gratifying--unless, that is, they're being compared to Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas (Epic/550 Music). Songstress Vonda Shepard, whose career was inexplicably boosted by her McBeal exposure, is bad enough most of the time ("The Man With the Bag" is tolerable, "Silver Bells" isn't), but she's Maria Callas compared to actresses Jane Krakowski ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") and Calista Flockhart ("Santa Baby"). And that's not to mention addiction poster child Robert Downey Jr., who checks in, appropriately enough, with "River." Which he'll be going up again real soon.
Most Christmases offer up a musical goof or two, but this year there's a bumper crop. Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas (Hip-O) is undoubtedly the dumbest, providing a forum for naughty novelties such as the venerable Red Peters' "You Ain't Getting Shit for Christmas" and the Little Stinkers' "I Farted on Santa's Lap (Now Christmas Is Gonna Stink for Me)." But also in the package are more eccentric efforts, Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy" and Spinal Tap's awesome "Christmas With the Devil" foremost among them. It's practically impossible to listen to from start to finish, but that's why your CD player has a programming button.
The Looney Tunes Kwazy Christmas (Kid Rhino) won't wear nearly as well for anyone over the age of nine, and it's not only because the folks imitating Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Tweety, and the rest won't sound quite right to anyone more accustomed to Mel Blanc. To put it simply, grownups will almost certainly agree that the idea of Sylvester singing a Las Vegasy "Frosty the Snowman" is funnier conceptually than it is in execution. But the first-graders will understand.
By contrast, Mark Mothersbaugh's Joyeux Mutato (Rhino) provides fun for the whole clan. Mothersbaugh, who founded Devo back when his wave was new, has gone on to a career providing scene-setting music for children's TV, and the best of these skewed miniatures--"Jingles, Jingles, Jingles," "Happy Woodchopper," "Enough Xmas for All," and "I Don't Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night)," presented in a "low-tolerance edit"--recall his work on the eternal Pee-wee's Playhouse. Weird in a family-friendly way.
And then there's the soundtrack to Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Interscope), which intersperses dialogue from the ultra-frantic film with portions of the James Horner score and stand-alone songs that veer wildly from saccharine sincerity--Faith Hill's "Where Are You Christmas?" and "You Don't Have to Be Alone" by the ubiquitous 'N Sync--to flat-out silliness. The Eels' "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs" barks persuasively, but even the elderly Beethoven would have had a tough time listening to "Grinch 2000" by Jim Carrey and (no, I'm not joking) Busta Rhymes. As for me, I'll take the fifth.
Even trends down to their last gasp usually can huff out a holiday CD or two, and that's the case with Sleigh Me (Atomic Goodies), a collection of "retro holiday classics"--i.e., neo-swing--sponsored by Atomic magazine. But while some of this stuff is too prefab to hold up, quite a few of these acts still have some juice left in them. Lavay Smith's "Winter Wonderland" is nice 'n' sassy, the Jive Aces' "Santa Is Back in Town" pays homage to Elvis Presley's definitive version, and "We Three Kings" by Michael Andrew and Swingerhead does the Harry Connick Jr. thing more effectively than poor Harry has in a while. As an added bonus, the disc also incorporates a Ventures-esque treatment of "Sleigh Ride" by Los Straitjackets, a surf-rock outfit that really has no business being here but sounds mighty swell nonetheless.
Mambo Santa Mambo: Christmas From the Latin Lounge (Rhino) does, too, largely because the cuts here are by vintage acts, not new ones trying to sound like them. Hearing the likes of Billy May, best known as an arranger for Frank Sinatra, trying to cash in on the original mambo craze with "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer--Mambo," is a kick, as is the really stupid "How Can Santa Come to Puerto Rico?" by youthful crooner Ricky Vera and newly dead TV personality Steve Allen. But there's also a load of material that doesn't have to be served with a side order of irony to entertain, like the Enchanters' "Mambo Santa Mambo" and the truly weird "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" by the Skip-Jacks, with Esquivel & His Orchestra. The lounge fad may have gone the way of the dodo, but strangeness like this lasts forever.