The only thing worse than a Christmas fruitcake is Christmas music. The damned stuff is everywhere. Toddle down to your local ABCO these days, and each check-out line has a display of "specially priced" Christmas cassettes. Go fill your car up with super unleaded and what do you get? Exxon's own Christmas music collection. And whether you're aware of it or not, while you're at Scottsdale Fashion Square, sweating, agonizing and having nightmarish visions of January's Visa bill, yet another Christmas CD by Mannheim Steamroller is placidly percolating overhead. At times, the only thing worse than Christmas is Christmas music.
Now, that's not to say there isn't good Christmas music. However, Christmas concertos, carols and, of course, Handel's most famous oratorio Messiah are all serious music and therefore beyond the bounds of this discussion. When I speak of Christmas music, I mean "pop," in the sweetest sense of the word. The kind of stuff that makes the holiday genre so nauseating and, at the same time, so fascinating. Crooners were born to sing the stuff. For schmaltz addicts--those with a craving for Sinatra, Bennett or Der Bingle--Christmas is like . . . well, Christmas. Crosby's "White Christmas," still the biggest selling single of all time, is on umpteen Christmas compilations.
After the crooners, though, Christmas music becomes something of a mystery. Why do musicians who show little or no detectable psychosis the rest of the year get charged up about doing "Frosty the Snowman" as a ballad, or spend endless hours fine-tuning their speed-metal versions of "The Little Drummer Boy"? There's the spirit of the season, the nogs and grogs, the fa-la-la-la-la and all that rot--bah, humbug!--but there's more to it than that. For one thing, Christmas music sells. So much so, in fact, that from 1963 to 1974, Billboard instituted a separate Christmas singles chart. Revived in 1983, the Christmas chart was again abandoned in 1985, but its existence at all shows just what a force Christmas music has become. For a surprising number of musicians and singers, a Christmas tune provided the only hit of a career. Eartha Kitt will always be remembered for "Santa Baby." Until you mention "Jingle Bell Rock," no one remembers Bobby Helms. In the final analysis, Christmas music is the only novelty-song genre to earn a modicum of respect.
It's just a hunch, but I'd say that another reason musicians of every stripe get involved in Christmas music is that it allows normally serious acts to get silly, and nasty acts to get tender. Who would ever guess that ex-Black Flag audience-baiter and all-around angry youth Henry Rollins could turn in a fairly stunning reading of "A Visit From St. Nick ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)"?
One downside to Christmas music, though, is that it commonly comes with no liner notes or session credits. In the case of crooner tunes, which have been packaged and repackaged over the years, the only name to appear with the song is the singer's. No matter how many fiddles are sawing away in the background, "White Christmas" is credited solely to Bing Crosby. The rest of the musicians have been lost to time and record labels that didn't care.
Because tunes like "White Christmas" have become landmarks of American popular culture, a lot of Christmas music exists in a time warp. Neither old nor young, Christmas music rarely gets dated. Yet every year, new voices are added to the din.
A word about buying Christmas music. Because it never dies or even gets old, most Christmas music should come cheap. The only exceptions are some classical discs--boxed sets of Handel's Messiah hold their value year-round--and brand-new efforts like this year's The Bells of Dublin by the Chieftains. Other than that, most Christmas music falls into the discount or midline price ranges. If you want a Mannheim Steamroller CD but it's a painful $16.99, wait a week. The closer to Christmas, the bigger the discount. The real trick to surviving Christmas music is the ability to seek out the unlikely, unwise and unexpected. Just in time for the holidays, we offer this guide to the best (or at least the most offbeat) in holiday music.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits--
Here's where to start. Considering the skill the folks at this company display the rest of the year with reissues and theme-oriented compilations, it's no big surprise that Rhino Records is the champ at assembling Christmas albums. Although all its holiday records have their merits--the jazz collection Hipsters Holiday, the country twanger anthology Hillbilly Holiday and the bluesy Blue Yule are the best--these two have all the mainstream hits. Everything from Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song," to the Chipmunks and the Harry Simeone Chorale's obnoxious and overplayed version of "The Little Drummer Boy." The best part here, though, is that you also get tasty nuggets like Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." And what Christmas collection would be complete without Elmo 'n Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?
VARIOUS ARTISTS The Best of Christmas
VARIOUS ARTISTS Nipper's Greatest Christmas Hits
If you have to have a major-label collection of pre-rock 'n' roll pop fluff, these are the best. On the Capitol record, Bing Crosby, Nat "King" Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin all belt it out. Deano's hokey "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (to whom he refers as "Rudy") is a classic example of the kind of no-effort, tossed-off performance that Christmas records are full of.
But what really makes The Best of Christmas worth it are the twisted cuts. Like what, you say? How about Carmen Dragon and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra doing "Joy to the World"? Or the single most bizarre Christmas cut of all time, Marlene Dietrich talking her way through "The Little Drummer Boy" in German?
Nipper's Greatest can't claim Marlene, but it does boast a weird mix of country music and crooning obviously aimed at today's exploding market for country music. The bad part, though, is that most of the country cuts--by Alabama, Willie Nelson, the Judds--are weak. This one is essential only for the two Arthur Fiedler cuts, "Sleigh Ride" and "White Christmas." Both are so Norman Rockwellesque they'll make you cry.
VARIOUS ARTISTS A Lump of Coal
Because most Christmas carols were written to be sung a cappella or with spare accompaniment, rock 'n' roll has always had a tough time with the music of the season. Except for "Jingle Bell Rock," and a few less famous others, rock 'n' roll Christmas songs are always a struggle between preserving the original melody, yet making the tune work within a group's style. Even jazz, with its brass and keyboards, lends itself more to Christmas music than rock 'n' roll does.
A few musicians, like Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, sidestepped the problem by reworking one of their old riffs into a Christmas tune--like Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" or Brian Wilson's "Little Saint Nick." But most rock 'n' roll bands will take on a famous carol and treat it like any other cover, turning something as harmless as "Jingle Bells" from a Christmas song into a rock 'n' roll tune.
Given the fact that "alternative" is the most overcrowded genre of the year, it's no big news that this year's biggest Christmas rock compilation is filled with alternative acts.
Is this record worth having? The answer here, courtesy of three outstanding cuts, is yes. Opening with Australia's Hoodoo Gurus doing a sitar-inflected version of "The Little Drummer Boy," carrying the subtitle "Up the Khyber," this record muddles along through mediocre cuts by Crash Test Dummies, the Wedding Present and Drunken Boat until we finally get to the Divine Weeks' take on "O Holy Night." Although the Weeks don't completely get over the hump, the Young Fresh Fellows' "Silent Night" and the Odds' "Kings of Orient" do. The Fellows fuzz up the guitar and add a little menace to this normally sweet carol. It's the album's best cut, which isn't surprising. The Fellows are the album's best band. Another reason to listen to A Lump of Coal is Henry Rollins' combat zone reading of "A Visit From St. Nick ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)." While sound effects simulating helicopters and machine guns rattle away in the background, the ex-Black Flag front man runs his voice through an effects rack to make it larger and meaner. With his voice, that's no easy trick. This cut is just the kind of thing that would mortify your grandmother, which is reason enough to wish for this Lump of Coal.
The other new rock Christmas record is the impossible-to-find Yuletunes, a collection on the tiny Black Vinyl label featuring cuts by Matthew Sweet and the Cavedogs, among others. Two older but still available Christmas rock records worth looking for are Rhino's Cool Yule (for the Sonics' garage rock "Santa Claus") and IRS Records' Just in Time for Christmas (for the Db's' "Home for the Holidays").
THE CHIEFTAINS The Bells of Dublin
Something for those who take Christmas seriously, The Bells of Dublin is not a wildly joyous collection of holiday music. It's not a downer exactly; it's just a quiet, solemn record. Most of what's here is either traditional carols like "O Come All Ye Faithful" or the usual jigs and reels anchored by the solid, atmospheric playing of the oldest of Celtic traditional bands.
The drawing card, though, is the guest list, which includes Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Nanci Griffith and Jackson Browne, among others. In most cases, these guests also brought along an original song to sing. Browne's "The Rebel Jesus" is, as you might expect, a political piece. But Costello's "St. Stephen's Day Murders," a title that sounds like it might deal with the ongoing political struggle in Northern Ireland, is really a hilarious look at the dark side of family togetherness on the holidays. A beautiful record, with only one thing missing. Where was Van Morrison? VARIOUS ARTISTS
For some bizarre reason--could it be a willingness to get sappy?--country music lends itself well to Christmas music. Hence, there are more country Christmas records than any other genre. If you like mainstream country music--Clint, Garth and Reba--there are at least 20 country Christmas compilations to choose from. Rhino's Hillbilly Holiday is a winner. And currently available only on cassette or used LP is the best country record from Christmas past, Emmylou Harris' Light of the Stable.
This year's best new country record is Sugar Hill's Sugar Plums. Featuring traditional carols done by the cream of that alternative country/bluegrass label's artist roster, Sugar Plums has some of the most deserving, talented and universally unknown country players that ever were. Ask a Garth Brooks fan who Doc Watson is and you'll get a blank stare. Besides Doc Watson's delightful "Christmas Lullaby," Sugar Plums contains cuts by bluegrass master John Starling, all-female western swing group Ranch Romance and Peter Rowan. And for completists, the album closes with a track by Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, a crazed band of western swing renegades who spend their daylight hours as the bluegrass band Hot Rize. Never ones to respect sacred cows, Red and the boys do a right fine version of Bing's classic that they fittingly tag "That White Christmas Song."
VARIOUS ARTISTS Soul Christmas
Another addition to the Christmas canon, this one could be subtitled "The Stax/Volt Christmas companion." Most of the artists who were on Atlantic's recent Stax/Volt boxed set are also here, laying what Wilson Pickett called "the Memphis Treatment" on their favorite Christmas carols. Horns, backup singers and that distinct echoey quality of the vocals--all telltale signs of Memphis soul--make these cuts more Sixties soul than Christmas music. The standouts on Soul Christmas include Otis Redding's drivin' "Merry Christmas Baby," and a rare cut of King Curtis and Duane Allman joining forces for a take of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" And for dessert, there's the Sweet Inspirations' version of the soul classic "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday."
VARIOUS ARTISTS Creole Christmas
The title should have been "Christmas in New Orleans," but why quibble over major-label misnomers? All the strains of New Orleans music are represented here: R&B, zydeco, soul, gospel, even Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise" variety of rock 'n' roll. About half the cuts here are worth a listen. Many that look like sure winners on paper (Irma Thomas' "O Holy Night," for example) are less than thrilling when the laser touches the groove. The Zion Harmonizers, a male gospel choir, do a splendid "Go Tell It on the Mountain," in that peculiar style of rock 'n' roll gospel that's indigenous to the Crescent City. Surprisingly, the highlight here is Pete Fountain's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." We usually think of Dixieland jazz as lightweight music--which it is--but that suits the Christmas mood perfectly. Fountain is a very talented and stylized performer, and this cut manages to get up quite a head of steam.
This disc also contains Johnny Adams' impassioned version of "Please Come Home for Christmas." Written by the incomparable pianist and vocalist Charles Brown, "Please Come Home" is the best example of a Christmas tune that's transcended the genre. Recorded by Brown in 1961, it remains his biggest hit, and appeared on the Billboard Christmas charts nine times before hitting No. 1 in 1972. Besides Brown's (still the best) and Adams' (a worthy contender), other performances of this tune worth seeking out include versions by Lou Ann Barton, the Uniques and (gulp!) the Eagles.
The other Cajun Christmas record worth a listen is Michael Doucet's Christmas Bayou album on Swallow Records.
Why do musicians who show little or no detectable psychosis the rest of the year get charged up about doing "Frosty the Snowman" as a ballad?
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Until you mention "Jingle Bell Rock," no one remembers Bobby Helms. Neither old nor young, Christmas music rarely gets dated. Rhino Records is the champ at assembling Christmas albums. What Christmas collection would be complete without Elmo 'n Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?
The single most bizarre Christmas cut of all time is Marlene Dietrich talking her way through "The Little Drummer Boy" in German.
Henry Rollins' reading of "A Visit From St. Nick ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)" is just the kind of thing that would mortify your grandmother.
"Please Come Home for Christmas" is the best example of a Christmas tune that's transcended the genre.