Christmas' Greatest Hits
It's Christmas time again already. I thought it'd never get here. A friend in New York is bold enough to sing or hum Christmas favorites any time of year--her job's secure so she doesn't have to worry--but most of us semi-normal types have to wait until after Thanksgiving to launch into a chorus of "Merry Christmas Baby" or "Rocking Around The Christmas Tree." Of course now and then you run into cynics, or the tragically hip, who are unable to let down their defenses enough to actually enjoy Christmas music. Those people should probably stop reading this story right about now and get out of the way. Thankfully, there seem to be fewer and fewer of these holiday music killjoys around, as sales of Christmas recordings have absolutely skyrocketed the past few years. As always, new Yule offerings crowd the record store bins this year, although the number of good Christmas releases is a bit slimmer than the last couple of years. One reason is that there are fewer reissues, by Rhino and likeminded labels, of Christmas classics. Let's face it, you can only repackage "Jingle Bell Rock" so many times. However, there are some worthy new tunes to accompany your partying, shopping, wrapping, overeating, etc., and most of the great albums released in the past five years are readily available. And I'm here, a devoted public servant and hopeless Christmas music addict, to make sure you pick the ones I like. What follows are my picks of the year's better musical Yule offerings, as well as list of some all-time greats still available.Recommended Christmas Releases For 1993 * A John Prine Christmas--John Prine (Oh Boy). Now considered one of the fathers of the new folk revival, Prine celebrates by releasing this wonderful EP of seven songs and one guitar-accompanied monologue. Based on the general theme of renewal after hardship, and specifically around emotional rebirth after his divorce, which took place just before Christmas, the album includes "Everything Is Cool," and "All The Best," both good examples of Prine's ability to shake his head while laughing off hardship and chuckling at life's ironies. The EP also includes a breathtaking live duet with the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins on her "If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man." The Christmas connection escapes me, but the cut is a great present for his fans. Prine also delivers on two traditional numbers, "Silver Bells" and a full-tilt arrangement of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," complete with the sound of tap dancing. * Soulful Christmas--Aaron Neville (A&M). One of the linchpins, and the most famous, of New Orleans' Neville Brothers, Aaron turns in one of his best performances on these holiday songs infused with his underlying passion. Great arrangements, including fiery keyboardist Jim Cox, enliven the sessions which include a jazzy variation on Tin Pan Alley's "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and a doo-wop version, complete with Hammond organ accompaniment, of "Bells of St. Mary's." Believe it, they make it work. Neville's patented vibrato-laden vocals soar on a bluesy Christmas remake of the New Orleans R&B classic "Such A Night" and on Cox's "Louisiana Christmas Day," which succeeds in blending the Crescent City's rolling R&B rhythms and Cajun traditions as well as any arrangement I've heard. * Christmas Interpretations--Boyz II Men (Motown). Here's a rarity: an album of nearly all original new Christmas songs ("Silent Night" is the lone exception). A heartfelt look at the difficulties and meaning of faith in this time and place. At their best, such as in songs like "A Joyous Season," "Why Christmas," and "Share Love," Boyz II Men's soulful jazz harmony style, with lead vocals soaring over tasty, spare arrangements, blends with thoughtful lyrics celebrating and exploring the deeper meanings of the season. * Let There Be Peace On Earth--Vince Gill (MCA). A good album for those looking for a more peaceful holiday musical mood without resorting to new age emptiness. Gill's gentle treatment of mostly standards and a couple of high-quality originals provides a homey atmosphere without sacrificing his trademark gorgeous vocals or rootsiness. Gill adds an ebullient instrumental version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," and a song entitled "It Won't Be The Same This Year," in which he winningly walks the line between the poignant and maudlin. A solid effort by one of country's rising stars. * I Am Santa Claus--Bob Rivers & Twisted Radio (Atlantic). Another rarity: a parody album that's consistent. Seattle deejay Bob Rivers and friends send up holiday traditions and a slew of musical styles, all cleverly done and nearly all hilarious. Highlights: A reworking of "Winter Wonderland" as a jazzy small-chorale arrangement of "Walkin 'Round In Women's Underwear"; the title song, a twisted tribute to Black Sabbath's "I Am Iron Man"; a sendup of Motel 6's folksy commercials ("Manger 6"); and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" sung to a dead-on take of the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." It's funny stuff, but probably not for small kids, unless you think your tyke would love "Deck The Halls" remade into "Grab Your Balls Like Michael Jackson." * Honky Tonk Christmas--Alan Jackson (Arista). A well-balanced album from country hunk Jackson, including both the ridiculous and the sublime. Jackson's strong, Merle Haggard-influenced vocals are well-suited to honky tonk numbers like the title tune and a remake of "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas," as well as a gorgeous duet with Alison Krauss on "The Angels Cried." Jackson also ups his PC rankings by covering Haggard's populist 1970s-recession tune, "If We Make It Through December," then turns in a self-penned tearjerker entitled "Merry Christmas To Me" that could have you crying in your eggnog. The ridiculous comes in the form of a kids' song, "Santa's Gonna Come In A Pickup," sung with the Chipmunks. I'm not kidding. * Hey Santa!--Carnie and Wendy Wilson (SBK). I've included this new release from two-thirds of Wilson Phillips as a potential camp classic. This is simply one of the worst records I've heard in a long time. Flaccid vocals and cutesy choruses squat over slick, lifeless L.A. pop arrangements, straining to produce an unintentionally hilarious piece of, um, work. You haven't lived till you hear Brian Wilson's progeny bleat their way through "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."1993 Rejects I didn't like 'em, but if you like these artists' other music, maybe you'd enjoy these 1993 Christmas albums: * When My Heart Finds Christmas--Harry Connick, Jr. Jingle Smarm. * GRP Christmas Collection Vol. III. I'm dreaming of a Jazz Lite Christmas. * Christmas In Vienna--Placido Domingo, Diana Ross & Jose Carreras. Sounds scary. * Winter Solstice IV. Some talented musicians and some good ideas, but overall it's cliched Windham Hill aural wallpaper. * Christmas Through Your Eyes--Gloria Estefan. Fluffy-synth, phony-dancebeat Yuletide hell. * First Christmas--Bebe & Cece Winans. Slick, uptown gospel stylings on standards and three first-rate originals. And, as they say, many more.SIDEBAR: 15 All-Time Greatest Christmas Albums * 1. The Spirit of Christmas--Ray Charles (Columbia). This 1985 release is not only a great Christmas album, but one of Charles's best, period. It's a unified work that showcases Charles's heart and soul as well as his exhilarating arranging skills. He livens up a few standards, but it's on his three terrific originals that Brother Ray transcends the cheap commercialism that's ruined Christmas for so many people. * 2. Greatest R&B Christmas Hits--Various Artists (Rhino). The top 10 selling R&B Yuletide singles ever. A short album (about 25 minutes) but it retails cheap. Includes the original "Merry Christmas Baby" by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (1947); 1948's jumpin' "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" by Mabel Scott; and "Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby" by Amos Milburn (1949). Especially fine is Brook Benton's original version of "This Time of Year," a 1959 hit for the velvet baritone, revived in '85 by Ray Charles. * 3. Jinglebell Jazz--Various Artists (Columbia). A splendid assembly of Christmas songs by some of Columbia's jazz giants and at bargain CD prices. Not to be missed: This writer's favorite Yule cut of all, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" by the Dexter Gordon Quartet, plus "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by McCoy Tyner, Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas" by Lionel Hampton, and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Paquito D'Rivera. This has become a true Christmas classic. * 4. The Gift--Eric Tingstad & Nancy Rumbel (Sona Gaia/Narada). A 1988 folkish acoustic album that's become a Christmas staple due to its gorgeous, spare, and heartfelt offerings of traditional American and European seasonal standards. An album that seems to resonate in a self-contained world of its own, full of surface delicacy supported by an underlying inner strength. * 5. Blue Yule--Various artists (Rhino). A nearly perfect album of Christmas blues re-issues and new songs. The theme is the blue side of the holidays, but most of this music is a gutsy romp. Highlights: the classic "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown; "Christmas Day" by Detroit Junior, a jump blues rocker in the Louis Jordan tradition; Louis Jordan himself with the plaintive "Santa Claus, Santa Claus"; searing guitar work on Big Jack Johnson's "Jingle Bell Boogie"; and the wondrous "Santa Claus" by the always-explosive Sonny Boy Williamson, singing about looking for his Christmas present "in my baby's dressa draws." * 6. Light of The Stable--Emmylou Harris (Warners). Harris' gorgeous voice leads the way through traditional songs, including some spirited Appalachian seasonal songs, as well as a few originals. This is a wonderful album, more on the spiritual side than most. * 7. Soul Christmas--Various artists (Atlantic). A stirring review of soulful R&B classics from the Atlantic and Stax-Volt '50s and '60s vaults, including Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, The Impressions, Brook Benton, Solomon Burke, Booker T & The MGs, and more. Highlights are too many to list, but don't miss "New Year's Resolution" by Otis & Carla, "Back Door Santa" by Clarence Carter, or the dramatic Joe Tex singing "I'll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)." * 8. Memories of Christmas-- Elvis Presley (RCA). Christmas was the King's favorite time of the year, and it shows. This album includes the best from his original 1957 Yule album, plus some of Elvis' most soulful singing on "Why Can't Every Day Be Like Christmas" and a gutsy, groaning 8-minute blues rendition of "Merry Christmas Baby." * 9. Doo Wop Christmas--Various Artists (Rhino). Eighteen holiday doowop numbers, filled with both familiar tunes (The Drifters' "White Christmas," and obscure gems. Highlights: a wide open, bellowing 1959 rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" by the Harmony Grits (actually the original original Drifters); "Can This Be Christmas" by the Falcons; The Orioles, the group many consider the first real doowop group, singing their 1948 Christmas hit "(It's Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas"; 1959's "You're My Christmas Present" by the Skyliners; and a gift to doowop connoisseurs: the much sought after "It's Christmas Time," a 1951 release by the legendary Five Keys. * 10. A Christmas Gift To You--Various Artists, produced by Phil Spector (Pavillion). Irreplaceable, originally released in 1963; the very first effort to present a complete rock & roll Christmas album. Spector put his stable of fabulous singers including the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, through his patented "Wall of Sound" production machine. Not to be missed: the Ronettes' Be-My-Babyish coda on "Frosty the Snowman." * 11. Stuff This In Your Stocking--Elves In Action (Skyclad Records). Way cool album of poprock, alternative, thrashmetal and plain ole guitar band songs celebrating, mocking, looking askance at, and otherwise getting into the holiday spirit. Highlights: Hello Disaster's 90mph take on "I'll Be Home For Christmas"; Sky Saxon and Firewall's "Christmas In The Courtroom"; Russ Tolman's Spector-esque "Happy Happy Birthday Jesus Christ"; and Dirty Dog's blistering thrash version of "White Christmas." Big fun. * 12. Crescent City Christmas Card--Wynton Marsalis (Columbia). Marsalis presaged his mellowing on this album, imbuing seasonal classics with the bluesy feel of New Orleans jazz. Some marvelous improvisational work energizes all the cuts here, with particularly spirited playing on "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!" * 13. The Bells Of Dublin--The Chieftains (RCA). Celtic music kings pull out all stops in this exploration of the real spirit of the season. From traditional Irish carols to contemporary protest music, the Chieftains deliver a simultaneous celebration of native culture and spirituality. Special guests include Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Nanci Griffith, Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, the McGarrigles and more. Almost worth the price only for Browne's searing "The Rebel Jesus." * 14. A Very Special Christmas--Various Artists (A&M). A 1987 benefit release with an all-star lineup. Highlights include John Mellencamp's churning version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," Springsteen's "Merry Christmas Baby," a surprisingly sweet version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by the Pretenders, and U2's expansive re-working of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). * 15. Santa Claus Blues--Various Artists (Jass). A combination of The Stash Christmas Album and the original Santa Claus Blues, this 23-cut CD serves up some seriously jiving old jazz and blues with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Victoria Spivey, Sidney Bechet and a lot more. Ella Fitzgerald's 1950 "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney" is worth the price alone, and Fats Waller is a hoot on "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells" (1936).SIDEBAR: Yule LitRock critic/historian Dave Marsh and collector Steve Propes have combined to write the first comprehensive history of recorded Christmas music, Merry Christmas, Baby: Holiday Music From Bing To Sting (Little Brown, 102 pages, $14.95). Lavishly illustrated with scores of full-color reproductions of classic album covers and single picture sleeves, the book is an invaluable guide to a previously undocumented part of our popular culture. The operative word is our. As the center of the worldwide consumer culture, Americans have been instrumental in both expanding the scope of Christmas celebrations and in the production of Christmas music.Frankly, the text here is a little dry, as Marsh and Propes seemingly attempt to give a year-by-year accounting of every Christmas record ever released. Christmas music began long ago, but as far as modern holiday tunes are concerned, 1942 and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Marsh details the beginnings of Christmas records and how it's grown into an essential part of the music business.In his introduction, Marsh explains how and why Americans have amplified the celebration of Christmas to ear and wallet-splitting levels:"As it's practiced today, the celebration of Christmas ranks alongside the blues (and its derivatives, from jazz to gospel, to rock and roll to rap), Hollywood movies, the hard-boiled detective novel, and the streamlined V-8 guzzler, among America's unique contributions to world culture. Christmas Present may be crass, commercial, sentimental and giddy, juvenile and romantic, certainly secular. So is America. We're a young country still, Sweet Little Sixteen at heart. Christmas suits us."Dave Marsh's Twelve Hits of Christmas* 1. Darlene Love: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"* 2. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: "White Christmas"* 3. Otis Redding: "Merry Christmas, Baby"* 4. Marion Williams & the Stars of Faith: "Hallelujah"* 5. Bing Crosby: "Do You Hear What I Hear?"* 6. Bruce Springsteen: "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"* 7. Stevie Nicks: "Silent Night"* 8. Stevie Wonder: "One Little Christmas Tree"* 9. Charles Brown: "Please Come Home For Christmas"* 10. Bob & Doug McKenzie: "Twelve Days Of Christmas"* 11. James Brown: "Let's Make This Christmas Mean Something This Year"* 12. The Orioles: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"