By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
For music that only gets hauled out once a year, Christmas albums sure have a way of branding themselves into our collective psyche. For many of us, it's just not Christmas without a certain familiar, seasonal album crackling in the background like a yule log on the fire. So what if it's the Chipmunks demanding that Hula-Hoop for the millionth time, or some cheesy collection your folks got at a Firestone Tire Center for $1.99--if it gets you in the mood for the holidays, it's irreplaceable.
Yet you look through many people's CD or record collections and there's usually never more than a few holiday albums. Why? Because by mid-December, most of us need a safe refuge from all that ritual music being pumped through store sound systems like tear gas. With such a wide variety of recorded Christmas music available, it's a shame so much of what we hear is the work of unimaginative artists who bring to the Xmas format the same lack of vision found on their regular releases.
For every enduring holiday staple like Johnny Mathis' Merry Christmas or Nat King Cole's Cole, Christmas and Kids, there's a New Kids on the Block offering you can't even give away once the snow has melted. So how do you separate the visionaries from the hacks, the Christmas classics from mere Xmas products? Trial and error. Some of the best and worst Christmas releases are out there waiting to be discovered, but you may have to be willing to scour through dusty bins at thrift stores to find them. Goodwill to all, indeed! Recent rummages through secondhand shops, flea markets, tag sales and Salvation Army stores unearthed the following group of obscurities, all suited to fit your twisted holiday needs.
Let's say you're the type who wants to hear holiday music sans a lot of sleigh bells and glockenspiels. Sounds like a new, viable radio format, doesn't it? There are plenty of secular Christmas albums with hardly a trace of the jingly stuff. Like much of Ella Fitzgerald's stellar work on Verve, you can probably find Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas on an import CD, seeing as how foreigners regard American jazz artists as royalty.
While it may appear that Frank DeVol and the orchestra simply took "Stormy Monday" off the music stands and substituted "Jingle Bells," hearing Ella sing anything at the peak of her form is too good to pass up. As usual, she's having a grand ol' time, scatting a verse of "Tom Dooley" in the middle of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" ("Hang down your head, poor Rudy") and rewording "Good Morning Blues" so that it's a jivy plea to Santa to return her missing man.
Buck Owens also chose to "act naturally" for his 1966 Yuletide outing. Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos still kicks like the proverbial mule, and, with the exception of an instrumental "Jingle Bells," all the songs contained here were written brand-spanking-new for this set.
Ol' Saint Nick makes no fewer than three appearances at the Owens ranch, "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," "Here Comes Santa Claus Again" and "Santa's Gonna Come in a Stagecoach"--which goes a long way in explaining how the Fat One got around the Ol' West. And what would a country album be without a few weepies? If you're in that holiday funk, Buck will provide musical accompaniment when you drive over to True Value to pick up some "Blue Christmas Lights" for your "Blue Christmas Tree." Buck and the boys seem to be in step with the politically correct climate of today's country music. There's not one song here about drinkin', cussin' or roughin' somebody up. No Christmas Eve-in-jail songs, either.
Also caught in the act of being themselves are the fabulous Ventures. Used to be every time the band sneezed, a new Ventures album came out. In five years, the instrumental quartet had already amassed 25 albums, not including this late-1965 ploy to penetrate the Christmas market. If you're jolly sick of hearing cheery voices ringing out, why not snuggle up with twanging Mosrite guitars? Each Yuletide favorite is played with the identical arrangement of a then-current hit. "Rudolph" sports the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" intro, "Wooly Bully" launches into "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," and the arrangement of "Blue Christmas" apes the Searchers' "When You Walk in the Room." And, of course, the band can't resist carboning "Sleigh Bells" after its signature hit "Walk, Don't Run."
Once one of the hardest holiday platters to find, the Four Seasons' Christmas Album (1967) has recently been made available again by Rhino. Its program is neatly divided into two parts, with side one containing every Christmas carol involving a manger and a star you can think of, as well as sophisticated orchestrations and medleys.
The patented "sound" of Frankie Valli doesn't burst forth as often as it should, but when you do get it ("In Excelsis Deo," "Silent Night"), the results are riveting. The less-serious side two contains a lot more Frankie falsetto, and a few tips of the hat to the Four Seasons' by-then "old hat" sound, circa 1963. The group's sole holiday hit from that year, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," is included and cast in the mold of "Big Girls Don't Cry." Pity that the sole new tune commissioned for the LP was a ridiculous ballad titled "Christmas Tears" ("Christmas tears will decorate my tree/Icicles within my heart will form/'Cause you're not around to make me warm"). Yecch! Big boys shouldn't whine!