Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
For some reason there seem to be more people this year than usual complaining that the Christmas season has taken them by surprise. All I can tell these people is, you've got to be kidding, I thought it'd never get here. I've looked forward to the holidays since about September; I do every year. Sure, the grotesque, overwrought commercialism this time of year is a drag, but with the proper snotty, anti-capitalist attitude you can mock that stuff right out of your mind. More importantly, I can't imagine ending a year without some connection to one of humanity's oldest celebrations: the commemoration of the Winter Solstice, the time when the days start to slowly get longer again, a time of symbolic renewal, spiritual rebirth and earthly restoration. Screw all that shopping, folks, just focus on that inner feeling. For many people, one of the best parts of the Christmas season, and one of the best ways to keep a good focus, is holiday music. A friend in New York is bold enough to sing or hum Christmas favorites any time of year -- she's on sabbatical from her job so she doesn't have to worry -- but most of us semi-normal types have to wait till right about now to launch into a chorus of "Merry Christmas Baby" or "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Well, it's time. Now and then, of course, you run into the tragically hip who are unable to let down their defenses enough to actually enjoy Christmas music. If you're one of those, do both of us a favor -- stop reading this story now, take a Prozac and get out of the way. Thankfully, with the explosion in popularity and sales of Christmas albums since the late 1980s, there seem to be fewer and fewer of these killjoys around. As usual, the end of the year has brought plenty of new Christmas albums in the record stores. And as always, I'm here to try to talk you into picking the ones I prefer. What follows are reviews of a healthy cross section of 1994's musical Yule offerings, as well as a list of some all-time greats. 1994 CHRISTMAS ALBUMSTHE BESTJingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics -- Various artists (Rhino). A very few Christmas albums are so good they transcend the genre. This is one of them; along with the classic Jingle Bell Jazz from 1962, it's probably the finest collection of true jazz arrangements of holiday music yet assembled. Masterful improvisers from jazz history are heard reinventing, and reinvigorating, Yule classics in cut after cut, in tune with the season's theme of renewal. The delights for jazz fans are too numerous to mention in this space, but among the high points are: an incredible, burning solo by Charlie Parker during a radio air-check performance of "White Christmas"; Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells," in which that chestnut is roasted in every conceivable way until every melodic variation is exhausted; Duke Pearson and Bobby Timmons, two of the great piano stylists of the 60s, stretch time signatures and shift harmonies on "Sleigh Ride" and "Deck The Halls" to create essentially new songs. Then there's Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Chet Baker and a lot more. This is the one "new" Christmas album that'll spend a lot of time on my CD player this year. Cool Christmas Blues -- Charles Brown (Bullseye Blues). Finally! The man who wrote "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home For Christmas" years ago (writing credits were "shifted" to someone else on the former) has at last released an album of holiday tunes. And for once, they're mostly not standards, although the two just mentioned have nearly approached that status. Brown, whose career has been revived during the past few years, owns one of the great R&B voices of all time, smoky and serene, and he showcases it here to full effect. Brown finesses 11 songs, evincing a mellow, late-night atmosphere of reconciliation, just like his non-holiday albums, but with an even deeper resonance stemming from the holiday setting of his stories. A soulful album that, with any luck (or justice) could become a new holiday standard. The Coolest Christmas -- Various artists (Oglio). The ultimate in holiday tune eclecticism. I mean really eclectic. It suffices here to merely list the contributors to this collection: David Bowie & Bing Crosby, The Alarm, Roy Orbison, The Clancy Brothers, The Ventures, George Thorogood, Eartha Kitt, Brenda Lee, The Beach Boys, Cocteau Twins, The Temptations, Dean Martin, Elmo 'n Patsy, and Guy Lombardo. If you can take it, go for it. If Every Day Was Like Christmas -- Elvis Presley (RCA). Christmas was the King's favorite time of the year -- the lights at Graceland went up the day after Thanksgiving and didn't come down till Presley's birthday January 8. And just think of all the Christmas cakes, cookies, treats, goodies, nibbles, snacks and greasy pies! This CD combines both of Elvis' Christmas albums, 1957's Elvis' Christmas Album, which includes "Blue Christmas" and which somehow outraged middle America at the time, and 1971's lesser work, The Wonderful World of Christmas. In addition, it includes four alternate takes of songs, plus the 1966 single "If Every Day Was Like Christmas," in which Elvis belted out some of the most soulful singing of his career. This album's version of "Merry Christmas Baby," unlike the alternate take included on an earlier collection, features a gritty, masterful guitar solo by the legendary James Burton. And, if you buy the special longbox format CD, you get a cool, fold-out, pop-up model of Graceland at Christmas. What could be cooler? Joyful Christmas -- Various artists (Columbia). This a solid, soulful album with strong spiritual overtones, by a collection of Columbia gospel artists, plus Lou Rawls, Peabo Bryson, Patti Labelle and Nancy Wilson, all doing gospel-flavored arrangements. Standards mix with new songs, all forcefully performed and produced by legendary gospel king Edwin Hawkins. Highlights: Nancy Wilson, backed by saxman Kirk Whalum on Hawkins' "Shining Star"; Anointed's funky "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"; "Go Tell It On The Mountain," belted out by Commissioned; and rappers DC Talk re-inventing "We Three Kings." Part of the proceeds go to the Children's Defense Fund. NOT BADHave A Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the 70s -- Various artists (Rhino). Have a PoMo Christmas with this batch of truly awful junk, with a couple of adept parodies thrown in. Dive into an album full of tone-deaf Bobby Sherman, Donny & Marie schmaltz, early adenoidal Melanie, Jim Croce, and (are you ready?) Wayne Newton, whose "Jingle Bell Hustle" just might be the worst track ever recorded -- I'm serious. Plus, there's a Liberace Christmas medley and Glen Campbell. Throw in Gary Glitter and Martin Mull doing "Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope" and "Santafly," then top the whole thing with Grandpa Walton (Will Geer) delivering a heap of doddering sentimentality and you've got one twisted album that's either painful or hilarious. Of course, these days what's the difference? Billboard Rock 'n Roll Christmas -- Various artists (Rhino). Another of Rhino's conglomerate Billboard collections, this album is a mix of good rockin' material ("Father Christmas" by the Kinks, "Run Rudolph Run" performed by Dave Edmunds), oldie anomalies ("Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys, "Christmas Blues" by Canned Heat), and goofy shtick (Cheech & Chong's "Santa Claus and His Old Lady," Weird Al Yankovic's "Christmas At Ground Zero" ["What a crazy fluke/We're gonna get nuked/On this jolly holiday"]. I was ready to not like this one -- too scattered a selection -- but give Rhino credit once again; although some cuts are weak, the loose, ramshackle irreverence holds it all together. The Sweetest Gift -- Trisha Yearwood (MCA). Give Yearwood an A for effort. Rather than the standard package of Christmas classics served up for diehard fans, the former marketing major turned country star has recorded new songs mixed with old ones (Hank Snow's 1953 "Reindeer Boogie"), fun songs ("Leiber & Stoller's '57 gift to Elvis, "Santa Claus Is Back In Town") next to religious ones. Yearwood has one of current country's best voices, but the overly slick, deadening production, now standard in Nashville, is a real handicap. It's a shame to hear a talent like Yearwood, obviously full of fire, continually smothered by predictable, stodgy studios. Christmas Gonzo Style -- Jerry Jeff Walker (Rykodisc). Deck the halls with lassos and beer bottles with ole Jerry Jeff, perhaps the pivotal figure in the development of contemporary Texas music. It's just Jerry Jeff and some buddies, mellowed out and singing holiday standards like "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Walking In A Winter Wonderland," or "Here Comes Santa Claus/Up On The Housetop," in his patented semi-acoustic Texas country style. It's good laidback fun, although the group heats up a bit with a rude and rowdy rewritten version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" that's pretty funny. Nothing to go out of your way for, but for Jerry Jeff fans, it'll be a must. MAYBES Merry Christmas -- Mariah Carey (Columbia). Big bucks were spent on this big star, from the big, big productions to the high-dollar packaging and photography. And Carey delivers what her fans are used to: amazing pipes and a wide vocal range, all in the service of an imitation brand of soul driven by flourishes and technique rather than, well, soul. Carey co-wrote three originals here; the Spectoresque "All I Want For Christmas Is You" is the only one that doesn't sound like an AT&T commercial. Standards don't fare much better, with "Joy To The World" turning into a dancebeat background for pointless vocal calisthenics. Not all is lost, though: two Spector covers and the mentioned original really aren't bad. And on "O Holy Night," Carey's incredible knock-down-a-wall pipes are so overwhelming it's hard to quibble with the banal arrangement. But she only really delivers much depth on an exhilarating version of the traditional gospel number "Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child," which is one of the best new tracks of the season. Snowfall: The Christmas Album -- Tony Bennett (Columbia).Columbia continues to fuel Tony Bennett's resurgence by re-releasing his 1968 Yule album, with the addition of one recent live track. The problem here is that in 1968, Bennett was being drowned in heavy strings. He's at his best in spare arrangements with a small combo where he can exercise his subtlety as a stylist; having to out-blare an orchestra ruins the effect and consequently ruins most of these songs. There's one great highlight, though: the live track, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," recorded with a small group. It's a full, emotionally rich version on which Bennett's tonal control is unbeatable and his phrasing absolutely masterful. But it's only one track. LUMPS OF COALMiracles: The Holiday Album -- Kenny G (Arista). A short album of mostly standards from the king of mush-jazz that's guaranteed to be one of the hits of the '94 season. If you like Kenny G, you may like this, although the playing is even weaker than on his hit albums. What's wrong with Kenny G, you fans out there may ask as you seethe your way through this review? Well, it's not that he pretends to be a jazz musician, when actually what he plays is merely instrumental pop music; there's a lot of great instrumental pop music. And it's not even that he rarely deviates from the as-written, straight-down-the-line melodies; after all, not everyone is blessed with imagination. The problem is that while he's playing his instrumental pop music by rote, he doesn't even muster enough elan to bother lifting the emotion in the melodies above the obvious, banal level of soap opera background music. Holly & Ivy -- Natalie Cole (Elektra). Cole has recorded a collection consisting primarily of standards like "Jingle Bells," "Joy To The World," etc. It's simple: if you like Natalie Cole's smooth mainstream pop, you'll probably like this album; if you don't, you won't. The album's hook is her new single, "No More Blue Christmas," a typically characterless, insurance-company-jingle-soundalike 90s pop song. The bluesy arrangement of "Merry Christmas Baby" adds a bit of life to the album, but Cole's rendition of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," made famous by her father, is very weak in comparison. The Christmas Album, Vol. 2 -- Neil Diamond (Columbia). This collection of 15 standards, a followup to Diamond's hit 1993 debut Christmas album, finds ole Neil sounding as pompous as usual, and surrounded by his regular slick studio arrangements. It's all simply awful, but one particularly ridiculous moment is Diamond groaning his way through "Deck The Halls" over a snappy, light background vocal arrangement. Or maybe you'd prefer the pathetic attempt at sounding bluesy in "Winter Wonderland"; or maybe the embarrassing pseudo-reggae version of "Rudolph." And I won't even mention Diamond doing the "Hallelujah Chorus." For fans of awkward ersatz sentimentality only. Seven Gates -- Ben Keith & Friends (Reprise). Ben Keith is a renowned artist on steel guitar and dobro who's been on more friends' albums than he can probably count. He called in some favors and got Neil Young, J.J. Cale and Nicolette Larson to contribute their talents to this Yule effort. Partly straightforward versions of standards, partly tongue-in-cheek, and totally unbearable. Steel guitar is a fine instrument when it slips into the seams of a song, providing tasty punctuation, but when it's the main focus of a whole album, the overdose of quavering trills is enough to make you seasick. These are talented people, but this is one ill-conceived piece of work. SIDEBAR 1: Fifteen All-Time Best Christmas Albums1. The Spirit of Christmas -- Ray Charles (Columbia). This 1985 release is a gem, and one of Brother Ray's best ever. It's a unified work that showcases Charles's exhilarating arranging skills as well as his heart and soul. He livens up a few standards, but it's on his three terrific originals that Charles 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's inexpensive. 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 1985 by Ray Charles. 3. Jinglebell Jazz -- Various artists (Columbia). A splendid 1962 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. 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. Avoid this year's sequel. 5. 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. 6. 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 gutsy music is a romp. Highlights: the classic "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown; "Christmas Day" by Detroit Junior, a jump blues rocker in the Louis Jordan tradition; searing guitar by Big Jack Johnson on "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." 7. If Every Day Was Like Christmas -- Elvis Presley (RCA). See under "The Best" above. 8. 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. It bombed at the time (JFK's assassination one month earlier pretty much ruined Christmas for everybody that year), but has become a don't-miss classic since then. Not to be missed: the Ronettes' Be-My-Babyish coda on "Frosty the Snowman." 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 Drifters); 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. 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. 11. 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)." 12. Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics -- Various artists (Rhino). See under "The Best" above. 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 just for Browne's searing, political "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). 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). --J.G.SIDEBAR 2: Top 25 Christmas Singles1. Dexter Gordon Quartet: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" 2. Stevie Wonder: "One Day At Christmas"3. Ray Charles: "All I Want For Christmas"4. John Lennon: "Happy Christmas/War Is Over"5. Nat King Cole: "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)" 6. Elvis Presley: "Santa Claus Is Back In Town"7. Ella Fitzgerald: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" 8. Brook Benton: "This Time Of Year"9. Bruce Springsteen: "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" 10. Emmylou Harris: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"11. Frank Sinatra: "I'll Be Home For Christmas"12. Dinah Washington: "Ole Santa"13. The Ronettes: "Sleigh Ride"14. Harry Belafonte: "Mary's Boy Child"15. Johnny Moore & the Three Blazers: "Merry Christmas Baby" 16. Darlene Love: "Christmas (Please Come Home)"17. Brenda Lee: "Rocking Around The Christmas Tree"18. John Mellencamp: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" 19. The Pretenders: "2000 Miles"20. Louie Prima: "What Will Santa Claus Say"21. Sonny Boy Williamson: "Santa Claus"22. The Roches: "For Unto Us A Child Is Born"23. Tennessee Ernie Ford: "Rootin' Tootin' Santa Claus" 24. The Drifters w/Clyde McPhatter: "White Christmas" 25. NRBQ: "Here Comes Santa Claus" --J.G.