Holly, Jolly Mess

Who doesn't kid themselves nowadays they can pull off a Christmas album? Thankfully, a few of this year's offerings don't suck.

No big shock here -- Christmas music is about as played out as Tickle Me Elmo. It's the unavoidable scourge of the season -- oh come all ye faithful, because we've got you by the boot strings and you can't escape. Holiday music is piped in through nearly every working public PA system and has been accumulating at exponential rates since John Denver got busy with the Muppets a couple decades back.

But even now, the level of commercial infiltration can be daunting. Thanks to the sophistication of niche media, we have radio stations turning over to an all-St. Nick-and-Bethlehem, all-the-time format. Locally, KESZ-FM 99.9 is billing itself now as "The Holiday Station," running promotional spots promising to turn Christmas cheer into Christmas cash for the luckiest of listeners.

No offense to Gene Autry or Burl Ives, but this modern-day inundation of song and carol is enough to make anyone sick of any of the old holly, jolly drill.

Naturally following suit in a mass-consumption, merry-at-Wal-Mart world, the music industry has gone from a sprinkling of holiday CDs to a virtual snowstorm of choices within the past 10 years -- blame the success of Mariah and her early '90s peers. These days, Nat "King" Cole and his roasted chestnuts and Elvis' snowflaked crooning have to grasp harder to their status as sacred pop holiday soundtracks. Who now doesn't have the delusion to believe they can fashion the next "Blue Christmas"? Much easier said than done -- much, much easier.

Sure, that sounds Grinch-like, but if you had to listen to some of this newest batch of stuff, you'd look a little green and curmudgeonly, too. Take, for example, A Santa Cause '03 (Immortal Records), which fools us initially by promising an appealing list of moody, hard-rock participants. As you'd expect, it then unleashes angst-ridden emo and punk with only a slight touch of humor. The Matches amplify the buoyantly snarky "December Is for Cynics," and Acceptance, perhaps a little too blissfully, redoes John Lennon's reflective ballad "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Blink-182, no surprise, contributes here, with the whiny but comical "I Won't Be Home for Christmas." Tom Delonge, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker carry an obnoxious sentiment shared by many this time of year: "It's time to be nice to the people you can't stand all year/I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer/You people scare me." The famously juvenile trio also sprinkles in some of its patented sexual innuendo. When the character in the song is thrown in the clink (I won't ruin the story for you), they proclaim, "a guy named Bubba unwrapped my package." That's at least bearable. Far's downright God-awful (sorry for the sacrilege. Can't help it), acerbic cover of "Feed the World (Do They Know It's Christmas)" is not. Fronted by the Deftones' moaning, ever-drunk front man Chino Moreno, people who thought U2's Bono sounded out of key on the Band Aid original can hear what someone out of key truly sounds like. Expired eggnog is better than this crap.

Maybe This Christmas Too? is just a tad hipper -- with much less useless trim under its tree. This compilation (Nettwerk) is a satisfactory amalgamation of oldies and a touch of the new. Nothing new there. The difference? Strange avant-garde rockers and left-field collaborations. Skater grrrl midget Avril Lavigne and worlds-more-mature piano-playing chanteuse Chantal Kreviazuk team up for a sugary sweet duet of "O Holy Night." It is somewhat comedic to hear Lavigne, after her streak of doughy-eyed mall-chick pop nuggets, sing a devoutly religious song. Still, that's not drama. The Flaming Lips covering "White Christmas" -- now that's dramatic. Delectably over-the-top singer Wayne Coyne's vocals sound like a strange combination of the fey Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and "Rainbow Connection"-era Kermit the Frog. The oddest part, though, bursts forward through a soaring ghostly noise that is more in tune with Halloween than Christmas. Plus, methinks Bing Crosby wouldn't have been caught dead jumping around in a bunny suit onstage to this profound little Christmas in Connecticutditty.

At least no one can accuse the Lips of lacking soul. On the contrary, the hollowly formulaic (What? You were expecting otherwise?) American Idol compilation The Great Holiday Classics (RCA) is soulless, clueless and filled with pointless vocal gymnastics. The album kicks off with Clay Aiken's over-the-top (is that a redundancy?) version of "The First Noel." Aiken, the runner-up in last season's all-American karaoke cheese fest, floats repeatedly from soft to loud, turning it into something out of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Again, Aiken's antics ruin an otherwise decent duet with Kimberley Locke on "Silver Bells" as he tries to out-Idol his partner with unnecessary soaring vocals. Dude, you already lost once! It all should make the listener question how Aiken fared so well on the Fox television show. The album also offers a bonus CD single with two songs by inaugural American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson -- yet another cupid-doll "O Holy Night" and champion pap-songwriter David Foster's "My Grown Up Christmas List." Instead of "my two front teeth," "My Grown Up Christmas List" seeks no more wars and all the usual idealistic schmaltz. Why can't gargantuan record labels just let us open presents and stick to the standards?

A little good news: It's not entirely a mess. Through the glut and relative embarrassments, a few albums from the 2003 pile do actually take a real shot toward being considered part of the Christmas canon.

Foster's "My Grown Up Christmas List" comes across as surprisingly and actually mature on Let It Snow!, a holiday EP by rising Canadian press darling Michael Buble. On his own Foster take and the other songs, Buble sounds like he strives to become the next Frank Sinatra -- even Rod Stewart's trying that five years after the Chairman's death. Buble, though, sees the profound Frank phrasing through the mythical schlock. With his smooth jazz vocals, Buble also covers the standards "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Buble follows in the throwback footsteps of Harry Connick Jr., the master at this type of hair-grease charm. On the 16-track Harry for the Holidays (Columbia), Connick swings his way through "Frosty the Snowman" (Jimmy Durante never could do that) as well as through four originals. Titles: "The Happy Elf" and "Nothing New for the New Year," the latter of which is an interesting collaboration with country legend George Jones. This is a true do-it-yourself effort. Connick, who played all of the album's piano, also arranged and orchestrated the music. He took the time to conduct the orchestra, too! Connick understands that Christmas music needs to ultimately be fun, not a burden.

The Blind Boys of Alabama's Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World) is definitely a classic in the making. The wizened gospel survivors' smooth, heartfelt delivery makes for a perfectly exciting Christmas album. The arrangements are simplistic yet addictive (ahem -- take note, American Idol). The Blind Boys of Alabama add gospel flavor to songs like "The Little Drummer Boy," and, of course, the title track. Perhaps the most interesting part of Go Tell It on the Mountain are the collaborations. These guys may be as old as the frankincense, but they're tuned in to the artistic fringe of today. Spearhead's self-styled prophet Michael Franti joins the Boys on "The Little Drummer Boy," while funkmaster George Clinton spouts "haas!" throughout "Away in a Manger." Plus, Tom Waits and his famously gruff boho voice pop up on "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Nothing like a healthy dose of weird to differentiate your holiday volley. For their moxie and instinctual singing gifts, the Blinds Boys get shiny new walking sticks from Mrs. Claus.

Ultimately, holiday music will continue to be seen by coming generations as mind-numbing wallpaper, devoid of its true sentimental meaning. But isn't it reassuring to know it doesn't all have to be as green and sour-berried as the mistletoe?

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