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!

Although classic oldies always sound timeless, anything involving a teen idol ages worse than cheese on a sunny sidewalk. A Partridge Family Christmas Card went gold upon its release in 1971, but slipped into thrift-store oblivion once the TV show was canceled and David Cassidy fans moved on to Elton and Alice. Razor & Tie resurrected this campy artifact on compact disc last year, complete with snotty new liner notes by Danny Bonaduce, harpsichords on just about every song and enough "bah bah bah" backgrounds vocals to out-Bah! Humbug! any Scrooge.

Although not as cringe-worthy as the Brady Bunch's holiday offering that same year, Christmas Card fares badly on some of its up-tempo numbers. Fans of the family will note that Shirley Jones, despite her star billing, never took a lead vocal on any other Partridge recording. Here, she gets four! Because of this drastic change in policy, poor Keith doesn't get to give "The Christmas Song" his breathy delivery. No matter. He makes up for it by warming up "Frosty the Snowman" like it's some torchy ballad, like the new girl at school threw him over for a jock. "White Christmas" gets a contemporary treatment, which for 1971 means something la Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'." However, "Winter Wonderland" sports the creepiest string arrangement since "Ode to Billie Joe."

Speaking of singing TV stars, here's a strange one from 1959: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which boasts "15 great Christmas favorites sung by Warner Bros. stars."

Perhaps one of the reasons renegade TV actor James Garner, then-star of Maverick, was so eager to break his Warner's contract was so he'd be spared the humiliation of having to warble alongside Poncie Ponce, Bob Conrad, Connie Stevens, Dorothy Provine, Roger Moore, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Ed "Kookie" Byrnes. Efrem Z's singing voice sounds like Jim Nabors, and Roger Moore wisely cops out by reciting "Once in Royal David's City." Everything here is pretty much "Snoresville" except for Edward Byrnes bopping his way through "Yulesville" ("'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the pad/Not a hepcat was swinging/And that's nowhere, dad/The stove was hung up on that stocking routine/Like maybe that fat man would make the scene!"). Ever mindful of sponsors, the Xmas-spirited Warner's people make certain to credit "Packages on Cover Wrapped in Reynolds Aluminum Foil!"

Even if some Christmas albums turn out to be bland, they can still serve as passable background music for opening presents. But you'll know you've crossed that fine line between audio wallpaper and noxious irritant when, midway through unwrapping a gift, someone stands up and screams, "For the love of baby Jesus, please take this shit off!"

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's Once Upon a Christmas from 1984 is just such an album. And it's really all Dolly's fault. Her usually lovely voice takes on a sick, otherworldly sound here, as if too much holiday cheer caused her to sound like the Muppet Babies magnified ten million times. Maybe Liberty Records, Rogers' label and onetime home of the Chipmunks, was grooming Kenny to be the next Dave Seville. If you have trouble getting rid of those last few hangers-on at your Christmas party, a few blasts from this one should have them scrambling for the door.

What with punk making such a strong comeback in '94, perhaps the Yobs Christmas Album will get its due and put the "oi" back into "Joy to the World." This 1979 set--actually the work of British power punkers the Boys--contains irreverent, aggressively filthy rereadings of Yuletime standards, as well as a few spot-on originals.

Check out "The Ballad of the Warrington," where two drunken sods try to reach the nearest pub before last call. ("Christ, my balls feel like they froze/And there's numbness in my toes/And it's only 80 yards to the Warrington"). Fans of Bad Religion's current punky bruising of "Silent Night" ought to hear the Yobs' far more offensive earlier attempt--it's sung in German and has Adolf Hitler sound bites running through it. This album features the only instance where "The Twelve Days of Christmas" isn't insufferably long. It helps that the Yobs' true love brings to them a myriad of tacky, tasteless presents, ranging from the "eight wankers wanking" and "five fuc-kin' whores!" to "two blowup dolls and uh vibrator wit' uh battery!" Incidentally, each time the "five fuc-kin' whores!" part comes up and slows down the whole song, someone always screams out 1-2-3-4! and brings the song back up to speed.

The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet is commonly considered the greatest bar band in the world, and since some of you may prefer to spend every holiday on a stool sipping ale, hearing NRBQ's Christmas Wish EP should make you feel right at home. Although eight songs are listed, there's only one that lasts more than a minute and a half, the Joey Spampinato-penned title song, which sounds like some lost gem from Pet Sounds. Played on toy instruments, that is.

Maybe you want an album that tells a story about the true meaning of this season. You know, department-store Santas smuggling top-secret weapons, supernovas trying to pass themselves off as North Stars and, of course, demented elves trying to take over the world.

Look no further than the Six Million Dollar Man! Sure, this Peter Pan-issued Xmas album has no involvement from Lee Majors or anyone connected to the hit TV series, but it does have some really bad actors reading the parts as if they were auditioning for the next Hooked on Phonics cassette. The album contains no carols, just "4 Exciting Christmas Adventures." On "The Elves' Revolt," an evil shop steward named Relic gets Santa's little helpers all riled up and ready to strike three days before Christmas Eve. That's just a smoke screen for his real caper--melting the polar ice cap and turning the North Pole into one great big puddle! When Colonel Steve Austin and OSI boss Oscar Goldman spot Santa leaving his workshop, the Six Million Dollar Man proves that almost none of the money went toward procuring him a serviceable brain.

Steve: [to Santa] Who are you?
Santa: What's the world coming to? Is TV destroying everything? I repeat. I am a fat old man. I have a white beard and a warehouse full of toys. And this is the North Pole.

Steve: Oscar, there really is a Santa Claus.
Oscar: They'll never believe this in Washington.
Santa: Ho ho ho! They'll believe anything in Washington. Could we strike a deal on some Bionic Man dolls? I think it would really strike up business.

Lastly, with The Beatles Live at the BBC striking up a lot of business this year, it won't be long 'til the Beatles Christmas Album belongs to everyone. No, you won't find it anywhere cheap, but it's worth mentioning as "overlooked" even if it's the most bootlegged Christmas recording in history. Each year, the Beatles would send fan-club members a flexi-disc of the Fabs yukking it up, occasionally screwing up a carol and thanking the fans for a wonderful year. By 1966, the boys abandoned the usual "thank you" format and scripted a series of bizarre, Monty Pythonesque skits. The 1967 recording contained snippets of an original song credited to all four Beatles titled "Christmas Time Is Here Again." By 1968 and '69, the Christmas greeting mirrored the group's disintegration, with each Beatle recording his message separately. An album containing all of these was issued to the fan club in 1970 but has yet to appear officially.

Maybe next year, this and other overlooked gems will be sitting, digitally remastered, under your tree. So be good, for goodness sake.


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