Perhaps it came upon a midnight unclear, but somewhere along the way, I became a Christmas-music fan. Everyone, even those responsible for it, admits it's the most annoying genre of pop music ever. Individual Christmas tunes have been known to routinely engender as much pop revulsion as "Billy Don't Be a Hero" or "The Night Chicago Died." Most of my fascination lies in the fact that despite its reputation for bubblegum, so many different kinds of musicians get inspired by, even respectful of, Christmas music. One can understand why Sinatra or Elvis wanted to do Christmas songs, but what could possibly have inspired Henry Rollins to do "Twas the Night Before Christmas"? And why do musicians who would never cover well-known rock or pop tunes think nothing of wading into "Jingle Bells" or "White Christmas"?
And who actually buys the stuff? Go to any record store after Halloween and you'll find racks of it. It's unreasonable to think that record labels large and small consider Christmas albums to be loss leaders. There is obviously a market--so much so that in Christmases past, Billboard magazine has intermittently instituted a Christmas-music chart. After many hot-toddy-sodden years of listening, it's clear to me now that Christmas recordings come in three basic varieties: those that are wholly listenable, those that are listenable for one cut and those better utilized as coasters or Frisbees. That is how I've organized this, the 1992 installment of New Times' annual survey of Tunes de Tannenbaum.
@body:A Christmas tune season is only successful if a single with staying power emerges. This year, unlike the last few, there is a song that will unquestionably live on. The funny part is that it comes from the most unlikely source, the soundtrack album of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Twenty-nine years ago, Darlene Love sang the opening cut on Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, easily the best Christmas recording ever made. This year, with the help of the E Street Band (sans Springsteen and Roy Bittan), she opens this soundtrack with another classic called "All Alone on Christmas." Written by Little Steven Van Zandt, who also produces, "All Alone on Christmas" is a typical E Street romp complete with Clarence Clemons' sax licks and lyrical references to New Jersey. The only thing missing is an overdub of Macaulay Culkin being strangled.
Both of this season's most promising rock entries failed to make it into the stores. Portland, Oregon's T/K Records had its juicy Christmas compilation--featuring cuts by Nirvana, Sonic Youth and others--run into last-minute legal problems. T/K hopes it will be out next Christmas. And Sub Pop's promising Christmas single by Jon Spencer, "Big Yule Log Boogie," had problems with misprinted labels. Its fate is unknown.
Two surprising additions to the listenable category are benefit albums. Now in its fourth year, A Gift of Life, the Christmas album conceived by the San Diego Children's Hospital, is finally getting national attention. Produced by Michael Lloyd and sold exclusively by mail order or through Nordstrom stores, this annual project benefits the San Diego hospital and 30 other children's hospitals across the country. A Gift of Life Volume IV is a wide-ranging collection of new and old Christmas tunes done by everyone from Mickey Dolenz to Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Along with the expected mainstream dreck by the likes of Debby Boone, Natalie Cole, Tanya Tucker and Tony Orlando, there are several oddball cuts here that make this disc worth having. Jon Anderson (his name is misspelled "John" on the CD) uses his recognizable voice and shimmery keyboard sensibility for a very Yes-like rendition of "Where Were You." The album's lone hard-rock cut is a great one. Mouldy Michael Des Barres (best known as the voice in Led Zep clone Detective) trots out a rockin' band and his still-rowdy pipes for a surprisingly reverent "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
What's impressive here is that many of these cuts were done exclusively for this album. And in the album's best performance, John Jorgenson and Carlene Carter belt out "A 55 Telecaster Under My Tree," a new tune they co-wrote and a bona fide keeper.
But the main reason--aside from aiding a good cause--to own A Gift of Life Volume IV is to hear Frank Sinatra and what's left of his voice slowly, painfully wend his way through "Silent Night." The fact that Sinatra went back into the studio speaks reams about this project's prestige. Throughout his career, Sinatra has always shown a remarkable aptitude for Christmas music. His mid-'50s Christmas records remain some of the best ever made. Here with Frank Jr. at the keys, Old Blue Eyes shows he can still summon a scrap of the muse when he has to. Call me sentimental, but hearing the shadow of the world's most famous pipes brings a tear and a smile. Overall, this is the season's best compilation. To order this disc, call 1-800-858-8998.
Sinatra is also a featured member of the other benefit recording, A&M's A Very Special Christmas 2, the proceeds for which go to support the Special Olympics. Sinatra and Cindy Lauper do an odd-couple version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" that sounds like what it is--a studio creation made up of separately recorded vocals and music tracks that were mixed together later. While it's easy to respect the technology, the overall cut has zero emotional impact.
The opener, Tom Petty's new "Christmas All Over Again," is, despite a huge band, poisoned by the presence of today's most ubiquitous musical mediocrity: Jeff Lynne. This album does, however, include what is perhaps the latest Christmas classic, with Bonnie Raitt and Charles Brown redoing Brown's classic "Merry Christmas Baby." There is also Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas Is," the best new Christmas rap of the season. The best cut here, however, isn't a Christmas song at all. And it's by the woman Sinatra wants to "kick in the ass." It's Sinad O'Connor's little-girl-voice cover of Dylan's love, lust and the Lord tribute, "I Believe in You." To do what comes naturally to all real Americans, I have to bash this bald bigmouth and say that there's more than a hint of self-serving irony in her singing a tune whose first verse ends with, "They'd like to drive me from this town/They don't want me around." But she also adds, as she always has when properly inspired, real emotion to her performance. And along with offbeat artists or material, emotion is what this recording needs more of.
Lost in the sea of controversial products Time Warner Inc. has marketed in the past year is the potentially explosive Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. As disconcerting as it may be to hear a longhaired, drug-doin' rocker tear into "Jingle Bells," that's nothing compared to what Quincy Jones, Sounds of Blackness, Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau have done here to Handel's most-remembered work.
If you're a purist with a family history of strokes or acts of passion, this recording probably isn't for you. Adding drum machines, gospel arrangements, samples and a dash of Arethalike screeching to one of the most beloved pieces of music in all of Western civilization is, for some, a heinous act. In the third cut, "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted," Lizz Lee and Chris Willis even use a sample of the English Chamber Orchestra's traditional version. It's provocation enough to make classical-music fans mount recoilless rifles on their Volvos and ride around like Somali gunmen.
Of course, that's half the fun. For those with an open mind--and no expectation of hearing an imposing Messiah--this recording is a refreshing exercise in iconoclasm. And while part of the plan here is to loosen, contemporize and poke a little fun at this big, serious work, there is also a serious side to this project. It's the reverse of the old rock n' roll phenomenon where white folks stole black music and made it their own. While Messiah may never become an enduring part of the Afro-American musical experience, the effort to graft black musical forms such as spirituals, jazz and hip-hop to it is a bold move that pays interesting dividends. In "Glory to God," for example, the serious Boys Choir of Harlem joins with a rap group, Leaders of the New School, for a religious street funk that is unlike anything I've heard.
To pose the ultimate value judgment-rhetorical question: What would Handel have thought? He'd have covered his ears and hated it. No question. But he might have been flattered by the guiding principle here: that Messiah's musical essence and religious fervor are powerful enough to transcend any stylistic concerns. Plus, there's the idea of building a new audience. The "Hallelujah" chorus here has the flavor of a revival meeting. And while that won't win any fans among Messiah devotees, it may convince a new generation to listen.
Two of the groups on Soulful Celebration also have new Christmas albums of their own. On Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs, the Boys Choir of Harlem is joined by jazz vocalist Diane Reeves and pianist James Williams for a jazzy program of Christmas favorites. This is not choral music la the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Harlem choir is one of the most dynamic forces in choral music today, capable of everything from Mozart's Requiem to "A Night in Tunisia."
The choir has always had a strong connection to jazz, and here it shows in the swinging arrangements, punchy, hornlike vocal parts and the group's sensitive accompaniment to Reeves. Like Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, this disc will shock fans of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's plodding way with a carol. Old classics like "O Holy Night," "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" are given new life. That's the beauty of this album. Even farther out is the Sounds of Blackness Christmas recording, The Night Before Christmas--A Musical Fantasy. This unprecedented vocal ensemble mixes outright pop-funk numbers like its own "Soul Holidays" with nearly indistinguishable covers of standards like "Away in a Manger."
Although the voices burn brightly throughout, many of the arrangements here are too sweet or try too hard to be different. Most of these problems can be explained in two words: Jimmy Jam. He produced this album and it shows. This recording is so dance-beat heavy it needs a handle and carrying case to lighten the load. Worst of all, rather than something slow and sexy or noisy and industrial, the dancetrax here are saccharine, relying on overlapping rhythms and overproduced vocal arrangements that overpower the melodies and often strangle the Sounds' vocal might. Exploring the limits of vocal music is admirable. But Jimmy Jam ain't the one to lead that voyage of discovery. Overall, though, the three new African-American albums--Soulful Celebration, Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs and The Night Before Christmas--constitute the most exciting infusion of new energy that Christmas music has had in a long time. Under the utterly demented category (which can also be tedious and boring) comes Mojo Nixon's first Christmas outing, Horny Holidays. One listen will evoke that eternal question: What would Mary and Joseph, not to mention Mrs. Claus, say about a Christmas carol containing words like "fuck"?
Another stop on Mojo's life quest to be rock n' roll's court jester, Horny Holidays is like any other sloppy Mojo fest. It's filled with growling vocals, rowdy guitars and lots of roared one-liners like "I want to trim your tree" and "You ol' rabble-rouser from Bethlehem." Ably assisted by the Toadliquors and the W.E.V.I. Power Pledgin' Boogie Woogie Singers, Mojo horses his way through a slate of boozy bar ballads like "Mr. Grinch" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." Standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" end up so disfigured, you couldn't identify them with dental records. The saving grace here is that Mojo is basically a harmless cheesehead. His entire shtick is based on walking a microfine line between being annoyingly dumb and a riot. Mindless fun is always the object. One listen and you realize that Mojo's idea of high art is a chili dog. Occasionally, he even hits the right notes. His James Brown soul stab, "It's Christmas Time," manages to work up a groove. And his rockin' cover of Chuck Berry's classic "Run Rudolf Run" breaks a sweat.
Although this disc is devoid of prime Mojo yowls like "Don Henley Must Die," he does manage to get off a few verbal salvos. In "We Three Kings," for example, he slips in "We were drunk for three days straight/Feeling like we were Tom Waits." And in the Stax/Volt-styled "Twas the Night Before Christmas," Mojo starts out with "Twas the night before Christmas and everything was all fucked up" and goes on to expound about "Horny Claus," the product of an affair between Santa's father and the Easter Bunny's mother. And that, in a nutshell, is about all you ever need to know about Mojo Nixon.
For those in need of "southwestern christmas music" to go with their Southwestern nouvelle free-range turkey and pine-nut-sun-dried-tomato-and-cilantro stuffing, there's It's Christmas, Man! by the pride of Denton, Texas, the ever-indescribable Brave Combo.
Possessing what is probably the most unconventional instrumentation ever seen in a rock-oriented band, Brave Combo's four members play accordions, saxophones, clarinet, guitar, bass and drums. Their Texas-cum-Mars world music combines border accordion with the punk-guitar abandon of "Anarchy in the U.K." and the roll-out-the-barrel oompah of "She's Too Fat for Me." Their live shows have the ambiance of an air raid--people careening every which way.
The brain child of Japanese reissue label P-Vine, this album was originally released in Japan in 1991. The band then toured behind it, carrying a fully decked Christmas tree with it as a prop. Happily, the band's label, Rounder Records, decided to take a chance on releasing it in the States.
It's Christmas, Man! de-emphasizes the band's reckless rock sides in favor of a distinct south-of-de-border flavor. For the ethnomusicologically minded, Rounder prints the style of many of the tunes next to them on the back of the CD. There is a polka, samba, cha-cha, ranchera, hora, cumbia, ska, waltz and guaguanco. These stylistic chameleons are at their best in the ska version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)" or the fast-paced, hurdy-gurdy "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah." They also pull off a convincingly churchy "Ave Maria." What's most fun about this recording is to ponder what on Earth the Japanese thought when they heard "Santa's Polka" or the cha-cha "It's Christmas."
Knowing that it makes me an easy target for a Stetson-topped gunman, I still have to say that Garth Brooks' Beyond the Season is not my favorite country Christmas album. Although Travis Tritt's Loving Time of the Year and Riders in the Sky's Merry Christmas From Harmony Ranch are tied for second, my choice is Tish Hinojosa's Memorabilia Navidea on the tiny Watermelon Records label. Not a straight country recording by any means, Memorabilia is a half-Spanish, half-English celebration of Hinojosa's San Antonio childhood. An acquired taste, to be sure, this folky, quiet recording has an appealing emotional immediacy and displays one of the great undiscovered voices in American music.
Cajun and zydeco music have always had a strong connection to Christmas. The reason is simple: Louisianians are inveterate vultures for even the remotest excuse to eat, imbibe and play music.
In 1985, Louisiana's most infectious Cajun-music fan, Michael Doucet, put out his Christmas Bayou recording. One cut from that album helps lift the spirit of the latest installment in Rhino Records' Alligator Stomp Cajun-zydeco series, Cajun Christmas. Besides songs by Doucet and Beausoleil, this 17-cut CD features covers and original music by the Jambalaya Cajun Band, Harry Fontenot, Cajun Gold and Johnnie Allan. All of it is listenable, and standouts include swamp-pop star Allan's rendition of "It's Christmastime in Louisiana" and Doucet's own "Bonne Anne," which features guitarist Sonny Landreth.
When it comes to Christmas blues CDs, the discussion can really begin and end with the singles that vocalist-pianist Charles Brown made for King Records in the 50s. His versions of "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" will never be equaled. This year, though, Chicago's Alligator Records decided to take the plunge and coax its artists into a Christmas collection. Most of Alligator's current artists are here. The only problem is that whether a blues tune is about losin' your baby, losin' your mind or waitin' for Santa, it all sounds the same. Every tune here is basic 12-bar blues with lyrics about Christmas. Most are textbook examples of electric Chicago blues. The only exceptions are Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica version of "Silent Night," Elvin Bishop's forgettable botch of "The Little Drummer Boy" and Katie Webster's stilted "Deck the Halls." This doesn't make the album bad, but it doesn't make it much of a Christmas recording, either. Worth having for the talent alone, this recording makes you wish for New Year's Eve rather than Christmas.
The other new blues CD this season is Ichiban Blues at Christmas. The product of the growing Atlanta-based rap and blues indie, Ichiban, this one is actually more a soul recording than a straight blues disc. Crooners like William Bell and Kip Anderson do an excellent job belting out new originals like Bell's "Everyday Will Be a Holiday." The blues on this disc are supplied by Chick Willis and the Legendary Blues Band, who do a solid acoustic version of "One Day Before Christmas." If nothing else, this disc proves that Ichiban is moving up, talentwise, on the more established blues independents like Alligator and Blacktop.
@body:To some, the somnambular strains of new-age music are the perfect tonic for the hectic holidays. My mother, for example, feels passionately that it's a nice change from what she deems "all the screaming you hear on the radio." In a world full of Nirvanas, I guess there's room for a little soothing, nonthreatening, barely alive music. It does have a way of lulling you into a peaceful slumber. But is that a recommendation for music or Valium?
Anyway, in the ever-expanding musical empire that is Tucson's new-age success story, Soundings of the Planet, there are three Christmas discs: What Child Is This, Joy to the World and Magic in December. I put these three under "One-Cut Wonders" because that's all I ever get to hear before I nod off. The best of the three is Magic in December, which features pianist Tom Barabas. It's full of ultradreamy piano renditions of "Silent Night," "What Child Is This?" and other favorites. Barabas also includes two originals. Surrounding his piano with wispy puffs of lush, synthesized string sounds, Barabas concocts just the thing for those post-Christmas dinner naps. Turn off the mediocre bowl game and tune in the new age--it helps you get your z's.
A little more lively on the new-age scale--a gauge whose most rambunctious moments register just above having a pulse--is Narada's Christmas Collection Volume 2. The only difference between this and the Soundings recordings is that this sampler includes all kinds of instruments and 15 different artists. The best of the crop, pianists Spencer Brewer, Ira Stein and David Lanz, are all undeniably talented musicians. And to be fair about the material, Lanz and guitarist Paul Speer do get up a head of synthesized steam in their version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (they substitute "rock" for "hark"). As with all Narada albums, the CD booklet here is superb, illustrated with photos and paintings, and includes brief but informative notes on each piece. In the long history of Christmas music, no one genre has contributed more--good and bad--than country music. Over time, many of those singles and album masters have been packaged and repackaged until it is now possible to find identical versions on several CDs at once. One new compilation from Laserlight, Christmas in Nashville, is worth having only for the digitally remastered version of Donna Fargo's sweeping version of "O Holy Night." @subhed:For Skeet-Shooters Only
@body:One of the enduring mysteries of Christmas is why crooners feel obliged to make Christmas recordings. Outside of Sinatra, Elvis and a few others, most end up as unmitigated disasters. Neil Diamond's The Christmas Album is that and less. Even great personnel like guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel and several fine children's choirs can't save this ill-conceived mess. One listen and you'll be digging out Hot August Night to clear your head. It's a natural that the season's most nauseating female-crooner recording would come from that champion of family values, Amy Grant. Looking ever so thoughtful in the cover shot, decked out in red cape and white lace, Grant shows again that when it comes to emotional and intellectual depth, she and Dan Quayle are alone at the bottom. But like Quayle, Grant knows the value of doing anything for money. A Christmas recording completes her transition from low-paid Christian singer to megabankable pop star. It doesn't really matter that nothing here rises above mediocre. Her devoted fans would buy an entire recording of her banging on a tambourine. Perhaps next year Mojo Nixon will turn his energies to an Amy Grant paean. This woman has to be stopped.
Remember when medical science dubbed refined sugar "white death"? Well, you could eat a Roadmaster full of white death and feel less sweetened than you will after one listen to Manhattan Transfer's innovatively titled The Christmas Album. I guess you can portray this as sophisticated vocal jazz for city dwellers. But it sounds like the kind of sweet nonsense GE used to dub in behind its December shaver commercials. Remember to brush after every listen.
@subhed:Ghosts of Christmas Past
@body:Along with this season's bountiful harvest, there are several older discs that no well-outfitted Christmas-music collection can be without. Because Christmas music has an infinite shelf life, most of these discs are still readily available. In country music, Warner Bros. finally got around to remastering and reissuing 1975's Light of the Stable by Emmylou Harris. The other country CD worth looking for is Sugar Plums, a Sugar Hill Records compilation featuring Peter Rowan, Doc Watson and John Starling.
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When it comes to rock recordings, there are two that may never be topped. From 1990 comes the IRS Records compilation, Just in Time for Christmas, which includes the dB's "Home for the Holidays." A year later, First Warning Records released Lump of Coal, which includes Rollins' search-and-destroy "Twas the Night Before Christmas" as well as cuts by Drunken Boat, the Odds and Young Fresh Fellows.
Rhino Records may well be the king of Christmas-music companies, offering some 20 discs of the stuff. Its best, though, is the incomparable Blue Yule, a survey of Christmas blues numbers by 18 different artists including Lightnin' Hopkins, Louis Jordan and John Lee Hooker. Filled with nothing but essential cuts, this bargain-priced disc will always be the standard against which Christmas blues CDs are measured.
The other Rhino collection worth having is the two-CD Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits compilation. Every Christmas-music hit is here, from Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" to "The Chipmunk Song." Fans of soul and R&B music will want to ferret out Atlantic's Soul Christmas compilation. There you can find Otis Redding's cover of "White Christmas," Solomon Burke's "Presents for Christmas" and King Curtis blowin' "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?".
No matter what happens in this or any other Christmas season, the ultimate in Christmas-music albums was made in 1963. That's when boy genius/wall-of-sound guru Phil Spector (like Henry Rollins, another completely unlikely candidate) rounded up Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and cut A Christmas Gift for You. The good news is that this long-out-of-print recording has been digitally remastered for CD by the sunglass-encrusted master himself. Until this year, the only way to get this album was to buy an inferior, nonremastered copy or to purchase the Spector boxed set, Back to Mono. This year, though, both the cassette and CD are available individually. There is no higher Christmas-music pleasure than hearing Darlene Love do "White Christmas" or the Ronettes belt out "Frosty the Snowman.