I began hating Christmas albums around the same time I figured out there was no Santa Claus: a long time ago and well before my parents knew any different. In both cases, I played along for as long as I could. Well, OK, that's not quite true. As far as Christmas records go at my parents' house, I still play along and they still play them. When I go home on Christmas Eve this year, I will sit there and take it, politely listening to the all-Christmas, all-the-time playlist. Each year, a new disc is placed in rotation, more often than not something by Mannheim Steamroller. They might as well just tune into KVIL, because it instituted an identical policy a week before Thanksgiving. Knew there was a reason the station's call letters are only one letter removed from "evil."
It's a shame, really, because I love music and I love Christmas, and if the two could just get along, it'd be much easier. But they go together about as well as Republicans and pro-choice supporters, and it only gets worse each year. Just in the past month or so, Alan Jackson, America (the beautiful? Not bloody likely), Lee Ann Womack, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Barry Manilow (isn't he, um, Jewish?), Carly Simon, Patty Loveless, Brooks & Dunn and, sweet Jesus, Rockapella all released Christmas albums. That's not counting all the compilations and such. Last year? Just as bad. Actually, a little bit worse, thanks to Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas Extraordinaire. Some call them stocking stuffers. I can think of another place I'd like to stuff them.
My distaste for Christmas albums has only increased since I turned listening to music into a career, mainly because it exposed me to so many more of them. But why do I hate them so much? For starters, they are basically no-show jobs, a quick and easy way for record companies to fatten up their wallets at the end of the year. See also: best-of collections, rarities compilations and live records. (In November and December, you'll see little else.) The suits know the core audience will buy pretty much anything with a particular artist's name on it, so why not? And the musicians figure they can crank out an album of songs someone else wrote in no time at all, and in the process, they'll be one album closer to renegotiating their contracts. God bless us, every one.
But that's only part of it. The main reason for my hatred, and pretty much the only reason that matters, is that Christmas albums are almost uniformly terrible. Now, before I go on, I should point out there are a few Christmas albums I'll begrudgingly admit are good--Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas and Brave Combo's It's Christmas, Man!, among them. I own them, but the only time they get touched at my house is when I have to reorganize my records. And every time that happens, I stare at them, wondering why I keep them around. What I really want for Christmas is a little shelf space.
That said, the bulk of Christmas albums have my chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I've sat through more than my fair share of these things, and I've come up with an infallible theory: Performers of Christmas songs are doing one of two things, showing off or goofing off, and either way, it's not worth listening to. (By the way, I like to store my Christmas albums at CD Source. Just for, you know, safe keeping.)
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In the showoff camp, you have, say, Christina Aguilera (before she got "Dirrty," mind you), Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and the like. Because for R&B and pop singers, only the national anthem outranks Christmas carols when it comes to polishing your golden throat. (They must have banned them on American Idol.) On the goof-off side, you can pencil in--screw it, write it in ink--every college-rock band that's had the temerity to record a rocked-up Christmas tune. Geffen Records' 1996 comp, Just Say Noel (featuring the likes of Beck and Sonic Youth dressing up in Santa hats and smirks), is a good example. But, sadly, not the only one.
This, of course, is not even getting into the dreaded novelty songs: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," anything sung by the Chipmunks and so on. If that's your particular cup of eggnog, you'll be delighted to know that Cledus T. Judd (country music's answer to "Weird" Al Yankovic, though I don't believe anyone asked the question) just put out Cledus Navidad, featuring such soon-to-be classics as "All I Want for Christmas is Two Gold Front Teef" and "Tree's on Fire" (set to the tune of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"). Not only that, but there's also a cover of, that's right, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." If you buy this album, I promise it'll be a silent night at your house, because I know how to kill a man with a 100-count string of lights and a candy cane. Just saying.
It's all so depressing just thinking about it. But there was, and is, one Christmas song I like. It's by Bing Crosby, and no, it's not the one he's most famous for. That would be "White Christmas," though there's plenty of others to choose from; judging by his discography, Mr. Crosby loved Christmas more than most toy manufacturers. The tune in question is called "Round and Round the Christmas Tree," and it's not for the lactose intolerant. I don't even know why I like it. As usual, Bing is dreaming of a white-bread Christmas, "opening presents with the family" and "turkey and dressing after the blessing."
As a song, it's fairly terrible, with its rhyming-dictionary lyrics and Muzak music. Even though I know this, it doesn't matter. All that counts is that it makes it a little easier to play along when my parents break out the Christmas records.