By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
How many versions of "Jingle Bells" does the average person need?
Plenty, apparently. Each year, the recording industry unleashes a torrent of seasonal discs, most of them dominated by a humdrum repertoire of tunes--and each year a percentage of them sell well enough to justify a similar deluge 12 months later. Provided here are reviews of some of this year's offerings, ranging from gifts that keep on giving to the aural equivalent of ugly ties and argyle socks that most folks will appreciate only if they can be returned for cash. So dive in--but keep those receipts handy.
Similarly, when an act is way past prime time, there's also no better way to keep product in the racks than to crank out a Christmas CD; that's a sacred music-biz rule. Even so, it's still something of a shock to see Christmas Time Again (CMC International) by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern-rock army that once fired off "Saturday Night Special." I'm guessing that if original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant hadn't croaked in that late-'70s plane crash, these guys never would have wound up playing "Greensleeves." But no one in the Charlie Daniels Band or .38 Special died, and they've got songs on this disc, so who knows? Suffice it to say that when Again rawks, as it does on Skynyrd's amusingly dunderheaded "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," it's worth a chuckle, and when it doesn't, as on "Mama's Song" and "Classical Christmas," it's kinda sad. All these fellas want for Christmas is to be noticed again.
Of course, Linda Ronstadt is in pretty much the same leaky canoe as Skynyrd, but A Merry Little Christmas (Elektra) doesn't seem so out of character for her; the only surprise is that she took so long to get around to it. The album itself is precisely what you might expect from an aging chanteuse--lots of thick, creamy arrangements and an unmistakable sense of importance on "I Wonder as I Wander" and elsewhere that banishes fun to the margins. It's been many years since "You're No Good," and that's too bad. Christmas With Yolanda Adams (Elektra) displays a lighter touch. Adams, a onetime rising R&B star who never rose as high as many observers anticipated, doesn't go anywhere that's especially unforeseen, but her handling of "Born This Day," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and so on is mature without being stodgy and allows the occasional hint of soul to sneak in here and there. And in this case, every little bit helps.
Then there are the all-star compilations. Aside from Christina Aguilera's salvo, the biggest teen dream of the 2000 holidays is Platinum Christmas (Arista/RCA/Jive), a holiday summit of kiddie-pop sensations, with token oldsters such as Dave Matthews and Santana thrown in for good measure. But the largest names disappoint. Instead of something provocative--say, "Hit Me, Santa, One More Time"--Britney Spears delivers "My Only Wish (This Year)," an unobjectionable but generic retro bounce-fest; 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are at their most cloying on, respectively, the drippy "I Don't Wanna Spend One More Christmas Without You" and the tepid "Christmas Time"; and Aguilera's "Silent Night/Noche de Paz" is, um, way too virginal. There's not much life elsewhere, either. TLC's "Sleigh Ride" shakes and shimmies engagingly, and at least R. Kelly's "World Christmas" has a clap track--but unless you've been dying to hear Dido ape Joni Mitchell, as she does on "Christmas Day," that's about the size of it. Sorry, boys and girls.
There's also lotsa celebrity shine on Another Rosie Christmas (Columbia), but it mostly takes a backseat to the jumbo ego of talk-show queen Rosie O'Donnell, who feels compelled to thrust herself forward as often as possible. I've had a lot of nightmares in my life, but nothing quite like "Nuttin' for Christmas," in which Rosie trades rhymes with Smash Mouth, and her "comic" Spanish cameo in Ricky Martin's "Ay, Ay, Ay, It's Christmas." There's also endless hayseed camping in "Merry Christmas From the Family," a swell Robert Earl Keen composition covered here by the Dixie Chicks that is every bit as agonizing. Kudos, then, to Destiny's Child, Marc Anthony and Donna Summer, who somehow managed to prevent O'Donnell from contributing to their songs at all.
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.
So does Bing Crosby. Crosby is the Jimi Hendrix of holiday music: He waxed so many Christmas songs during his lifetime that his record company will probably be able to keep putting out a steady stream of new compilations until the next millennium. On A Merry Christmas With Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters (MCA), Der Bingle and the Andrews gals aren't always heard together; indeed, they're teamed on just six of 20 tracks, with individual showcases accounting for the difference. But nostalgists won't care a whit when Crosby is buh-buh-buh-ing on "You're All I Want for Christmas" and the Sisters are gallavanting through sprightly baubles like "Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling."
Lifetime Music Presents Intimate Portrait: Christmas Belles (Rhino) proves that maxim many times over. An intelligently chosen compendium, the CD shines thanks to the inclusion of songs by Ella Fitzgerald ("Sleigh Ride"), Julie London ("Warm December"), Peggy Lee ("Christmas Carousel"), Lena Horne ("Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!") and many others. It's a pleasure from start to finish--and although it isn't quite as consistent, Martha Stewart Living: Home For the Holidays (Rhino) comes close. The disc stumbles at times--my first choice to sing "White Christmas" definitely would not have been Melissa Manchester--but it succeeds overall by juxtaposing old reliables like Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" with less-played-out selections by Emmylou Harris ("The First Noel"), the Pretenders ("2000 Miles") and the Roches ("Silver Bells"), plus newer items by Loreena McKennitt ("Good King Wenceslas") and Jane Siberry ("Are You Burning Bright, Little Candle?").
Oh, yeah: I still regard Martha Stewart to be a demon from the fieriest village in hell--but I liked the CD enough to keep it anyway. This truly is the season of miracles.