Chestnuts and lumps of coal

In their book Merry Christmas, Baby, Dave Marsh and Steve Propes explained the appeal of Christmas music this way: with the diversity of musicians recording Christmas standards over the decades--from Bing Crosby to the Ramones, from Bob Wills to Madonna, from Darlene Love to Run-DMC--"every conceivable emotion found its way at some point into a Christmas tune." As the music became less religious and more pop (or jazz, or punk, or whatever) it became accessible even to an audience that could care less about the holiday season; after all, what Butthole Surfers fan won't seek out their version of "Good King Wencenslaus" or its A-side "The Lord is a Monkey"?

This year alone, the blues fan will find Charles Brown's first full-length holiday album under the tree; rockers have everything from Graham Parker to the Butthole Surfers in the stocking; country lovers can drink eggnog and Wild Turkey while listening to Trisha Yearwood and Jerry Jeff Walker; Tejano fans can ring in a Feliz Navidad with Flaco Jimenez and Freddy Fender; and pop classicists can find Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond puckered up underneath the mistletoe. Here, then, is a look at who's been naughty, who's been nice, and who's been Tesh this holiday season.

--Robert Wilonsky

Tony Bennett
Columbia Records
The Sinatra Christmas Album
Frank Sinatra
Reprise Records

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The resurrection of Tony Bennett as MTV's token elder statesman (which lasted--what?--all of a week) has prompted the release of Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album, originally issued in 1969, though you'd never know it was an old record from the rather amnesiac liner notes; in fact, with its new photo of Bennett on the cover and its inclusion of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" recorded last year on The Jon Stewart Show, it could well be mistaken for a new release--which, perhaps, is what Columbia hopes will happen since Snowfall was virtually ignored upon its original release.

Of course, what's 25 years among friends? Snowfall has, not surprisingly, aged as gracefully as Bennett himself. Though it catches him backed by a full-blown orchestra instead of the three-piece jazz combo in front of which he thrives, it's still a swinging, beautiful piece of work. He tackles a handful of standards, but it's on the nonholiday fare--"My Favorite Things," "Where is Love," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and the evocative "Snowfall"--he soars highest. Still, "I'll Be Home" is the highlight, almost frustratingly so: Bennett's voice is so much warmer now than it was two decades ago, and backed by the simple elegance of the Ralph Sharon Trio, he only makes you wish he'd gone into the studio and started this whole thing over from scratch.

The Sinatra Christmas Album doesn't fare nearly as well. A collection of Frank's Reprise holiday singles--some with Bing Crosby, a few with Nancy and Frank Jr.--recorded from the mid-'60s through 1965, it plays more like a made-for-TV special performed on a Vegas stage. It begins well enough with Frank almost crooning "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the duet with Crosby on "We Wish You the Merriest" pairs teacher and student, but the record finally lapses into self-parody and grandiose indulgence. When he's singing about "A Baby Like You," it's hard to tell whether he's addressing Jesus or a broad.


Merry Christmas
Mariah Carey
Columbia Records

The inclusion of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," the only original song found on the landmark 1963 album A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, underlines the obvious: Carey fancies her own album as something far more extravagant than the holiday itself; it's not so much a Christmas record as a pop record masquerading as one--hit singles unified by a theme, the ultimate concept album idea. A song like "Joy to the World" is massively overblown: Carey and choir belt out the traditional lyric accompanied by a grinding dance-floor beat, and finally it becomes too much to bear--you don't know whether to bow or boogie. Or it's preciously solemn, the beautiful voices of seven children magnified till they sound like a thousand screaming brats ("Jesus Born on This Day") or Carey exaggerating the word "star" till it has eight syllables ("Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child"). Merry Christmas is crushed underneath the weight of its own pretensions and mammoth production, a live Nativity scene in the living room where all you need is a simply decorated tree.


A Tejano Country Christmas
Various artists
Arista Texas

As Tex-Mex border music creeps further northward (toward the North Pole?), it begins losing its definition; it's now somehow less authentic, more generic, the difference between Santiago Jimenez' traditional fare and brother Flaco's commercial pop. So "Tejano Country" is right: it wanders perilously close to pop novelty at times (Freddy Fender and Flaco's "Frosty the Snowman" melts under the glare of a South Texas sun), perilously close to pre-fab NashVegas country at others (Rick Orozco's "When it's Christmas Time in Texas"). And John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)"--here turned into "Amigos Del Mundo," as done by Ricardo Castillion--loses something, everything, in the translation.  


Christmas Spirit
Donna Summer
Mercury Records

Overseen by producer and arranger Michael Ormartian, who cowrote some new songs with Summer, Christmas Spirit is intriguingly subdued and traditional. Summer's voice has never sounded fuller, and her selection of standards and deliberate choice of reverent tone might have something to do with this. Where many singers treat Christmas albums as novelties as best and cash cows at worst, Summer views hers as an artistic expression of her love for God and Jesus. She might toss in some fine renditions of secular reliables, but she's saving her best for the Lord. Accordingly, she starts some cuts with spoken excerpts from the New Testament, and turns in some of the most passionate and serious renditions of "O Come All Ye Faithful," "What Child Is This?" and "O Holy Night" ever recorded by a pop diva. If Bette Midler were possessed by the spirit of the three Wise Men, she might make an album like this.

--Matt Zoller Seitz

Cool Christmas Blues
Charles Brown
Bullseye Blues

Charles Brown's 1961 "Please Come Home for Christmas" ranks among the top-five-selling Christmas songs of all time (and as the Eagles' only Christmas hit). For Cool Christmas Blues, Brown has recut the track and his other holiday hit ("Merry Christmas, Baby," released in 1956) and surrounded them with nine others, from Billy Ward and the Dominoes' 1953 "Christmas in Heaven" to his own "Santa's Blues" to "Silent Night." And the result is one lonely Christmas record, music with which to spend the "Blue Holiday" alone: when Brown's baby comes home for Christmas, she ends up splitting after she gets all her presents, and he's left paying off the bills for the next six months. But the man's got faith enough in "mood and gratitude" and in the knowledge that the bluest blues can be thawed out by one man's soulful fire. --R.W.

A Family Christmas
John Tesh
GTS Records

As Tesh music goes, this CD isn't awful, unlike his previous album, the pseudo-jazz travesty Sax By the Fire; devoid of any synthesizers or chintzed-up jazz and pop instruments (except for Tesh himself, who takes pains to point out in the liner notes that his keyboard is a "Yamaha concert grand piano"), it's an instrumental collection of seasonal standards arranged just smartly enough to hold your ear. But when all is said and done, it's a touch bland and flat; even when the string section shudders and dips and soars on "The Little Drummer Boy," and Paul Viapiano's classical guitar tweedles and thrums on "Joy to the World," the music seems a couple of emotional levels shy of making your heart swell. It more often suggests the score for a soft-focus documentary about caribou.


Christmas Gonzo Style
Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff, the alleged "Texas singer-songwriter" who can't sing and who wrote only one of his hits and hails from upstate New York, digs out every single Christmas standard--"White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and so forth--and croaks them out with as much passion as a mall Santa soaked in kiddie urine after a 12-hour shift without a cigarette break. Then, Walker always has been the master of the obvious, coasting on the hard work of others and a reputation he never particularly deserved. Rudolph has more talent.


Christmas Cracker
Graham Parker
Dakota Arts

On the first song of this three-song EP, Parker pays too much for a present, knocks the needles from his cheap tree, buys a vibrator for his wife but forgets the batteries and winds up throwing the damned thing out, and comes home to find the wreath rotting on the door--all of which proves his thesis that "Christmas is Mugs" (translated from the English: suckers). Then he calls for a "New Year's Revolution" and invites Sam and Dave, Aretha, Booker T. and the MGs, and Al Green for a "Soul Christmas" celebration with special guest Nona Hendryx. In short--and this is short, even with the demos included at the end--the snidest, angriest, most perfect Parker album in years, applicable at any time of the year.


The Christmas Album: Volume II
Neil Diamond
Columbia Records

From pop war-horse Neil Diamond comes this sequel to his previous megahit foray into Christmas music, and it delivers exactly the sort of hilariously overwrought aural posturing we've come to expect from him. His delivery is as bombastic and quavery and gruffly passionate as ever, and on songs like "Joy to the World," "Sleigh Ride," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," he barks the lyrics with such a beguiling mix of gusto, smarm, and speed-bump phrasing that he seems to be auditioning for a job as an auctioneer. (If William Shatner could sing, this is what he'd sound like.)  

Overwrought, melodramatic, and sappy--it's exactly what we love about Neil Diamond. It's easy to make fun of his tendency to over-torque songs until they flame out like the bulbs on an old string of lights, but when all is said and done, you have to admire the guy's willingness to belt almost every verse as if it were his last. (And when he gets subdued on cuts like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he can be quite charming--although the alternately weepy and perky Midnight Cowboy-style harmonica on the latter is a bit much, even by Diamond's standards.) It's a lovingly packaged gift to Diamond fans everywhere: the biggest, gaudiest, most colorful cheese log you've ever seen.


We Three Kings
The Roches

Originally released on MCA in 1990 and out-of-print since then, We Three Kings marks a return for the Roche sisters to their origins: they began performing as a trio on New York street corners with much of this material, for which they are as perfectly suited as three wise...women. The sweeter-than-a-candy-cane harmonies can get cloying after 24 songs--OK, after four--but only when they get cute or ironic; when playing it straight on "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen" or "Angels We Have Heard on High" or "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," they are like carolers sent from heaven.


"The Lord is a Monkey" b/w "Good King Wencenslaus"
Butthole Surfers
Trance Syndicate/ Capitol

The droning, presumably drunken version of "Good King" on the B-side is to be played at 45 RPM; the A-side, however, should be heard at 33 RPM. I didn't figure that out till I heard it five or six times, after which I slowed down the song and found it didn't make much difference either way.


Joyful Christmas
Various artists
Columbia Records

Allegedly this is gospel, and the choir in the back and the songs about God and Jesus up front almost bear it out. But the arrangements are decidedly secular--walloping, heavy-duty, slicked-up, keyboards-and-bass-driven R&B-urban pop for God and the '90s--which makes plenty of room for Patti LaBelle and Nancy Wilson and Oleta Adams but keeps Lou Rawls out in the cold.


Holly & Ivy
Natalie Cole
Elektra Records

Natalie Cole has a sweet, classy voice, and this assortment of standards both secular and religious is sweet and classy as well--and the medium-to-big-band arrangements that back her, contributed by a large group of pros that includes Johnny Mandel, Alan Broadbent, and John Clayton Jr., is understated perfection. The best cuts are "Jingle Bells," a boisterous take on an already swaggering song; a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, tambourine-slapping gospel rendition of "Joy to the World"; "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which is every bit as meltingly lovely as you'd expect from the daughter of Nat the King; and "The First Noel," in which Cole finds a core of emotion that transcends her usual brand mix of prepackaged perkiness and vaguely robotic "sincerity." This isn't a great album, but it's a solid piece of craftsmanship that's built to last--which is more than you can say for most gifts that end up in your hands on Christmas Day.


The Sweetest Gift
Trisha Yearwood
MCA Records

Garth's former protege splits the playlist between secular standards ("Let it Snow," "The Christmas Song") and the sort of casually proselytizing religious songs ("There's a New Kid in Town"--no, not the Eagles song--and "It Wasn't His Son") that remind Jewish country fans why they've got Hanukkah.


Star of Wonder
Tingstad and Rumble
Narada Records
Christmas Eve
David Lang
Narada Records

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel are responsible for the first album, an anthology of New Agey rearrangements of seasonal classics so rhythmically dull and emotionally neutered that it's eerily evocative of the music you hear when your dentist is in your face scraping plaque from your teeth with a thin metal hook. By the time the woodwinds come galloping in, you'll swear you can just make out, somewhere in the hazy corners of your eustachian tube, the distant whir of an incoming drill bit.

David Lang's Christmas Eve isn't exactly a step up. There are few phrases in the English language that strike fear into this writer's heart like "solo piano," especially when the long-haired, purple-shirted, soulfully brooding practitioner is pictured inside the CD sleeve against a Caspar David Fredrichs-looking landscape painting along with a message to listeners that begins, "Winter is the time when Mother Earth takes a breath inward, and I believe it very natural for us to pause and do the same." The music itself is noncommittal noodling that's difficult to get upset over, but Lang's message in the liner notes ("I imagined that an Angel, a Guardian Angel of sorts, existed for each of the songs") should be avoided at all costs.  


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