Christmas music is all about nostalgia. But unless you're reconnecting with your youth or enjoying something truly unique -- "The Chipmunk Song," for example -- it's best to avoid prolonged exposure to Christmas music, because listenable holiday albums are hard to pull off.
Even critical darlings are allowed to release holiday songs; see Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," or the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)." But full-length holiday collections are generally considered crass attempts at soaking loyal fans for a couple more (or sixteen) bucks during prime shopping season.
One might argue that "serious" artists aren't even allowed in full-length holiday territory. Of the musicians responsible for the top 100 in Rolling Stone's recently named "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," exactly six -- the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and, if you count his compilation contributions, producer and accused murderer Phil Spector -- have released Christmas albums, and all of those artists maintained long-enough careers that their credibility was either never in question or rolled in and out like the proverbial tide.
The Beatles, Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, the Clash, the Who, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Prince, AC/DC, the Allman Brothers, and U2 have never released Christmas albums -- in fact, it would be pretty hard to imagine any of them doing so.
Face it: Scrooge is much cooler than Tiny Tim.
Still, somebody must be buying these albums, because record companies keep putting them out. To be certain, the release of holiday compilations has reached near-epidemic proportions. It seems any music label with the rights to ten Christmas songs has discharged them as a package -- the artistic equivalent of festive carpet bombing. So with that in mind, here's a quick review of some of the best and worst recent holiday offerings.
Crash Test Dummies
Jingle All the Way
Though the first thirty seconds sound like Tom Waits drunk in church, this disc gets better -- lots better -- quickly. Thoughtful production, such as the addition of Chinese lute on "We Three Kings," reigns throughout. Ellen Reid's lead vocals and Bob Hoffnar's pedal steel not only transform "O Little Town of Bethlehem" into a country torch song, they make it sound as if there's no other way to play it. And Reid's rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter" is almost paralyzingly beautiful. (Cha-Ching)
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
You can keep Bing Crosby. This singing cowboy and former Anaheim Angels owner is the real voice of Christmas, offering definitive versions of "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Sleigh Bells," and "Rudolph" performed as they were intended. (Sony Legacy)
'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets!
A rare all-instrumental Christmas record with unmistakable spirit, this offering by the California surf-style combo from Nashville contains brushes of "La Bamba" and the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" underneath the wrapping of such classics as "Feliz Navidad" and "Sleigh Ride," as well as originals "Christmas Weekend" and "Christmas in Las Vegas." (Yep Roc)
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
While the music is certainly more interesting than on most holiday records, Ian Anderson's voice has always come off as stilted and overly dramatic -- it's best suited for bombastic one-song concept albums like Tull's Thick as a Brick. Still, this might be appropriate if you're working your way back through a foggy and imposing Princess Bride forest for some figgy pudding at the castle, even if you've never lived in England. (Fuel 2000)
Christmas with Johnny Cash
Anyone taken with the forthright Cash of recent years will be disappointed with this overproduction of Christmas classics. Originally recorded in an era when everything out of Nashville was disguised as something other than country, this reissue buries Cash's strong voice under more backing vocals and orchestral strings than a backhoe could lift. (Sony Legacy)
Legend suggests that Mathis provided the background music for the conception of thousands of Baby Boomers, but hopefully this album wasn't the one responsible. Produced by Mitch Miller and backed by the legendary Percy Faith Orchestra, Mathis' voice is smooth, smooth, smooth -- and easily acceptable as a traditional voice of the season by anyone in their sixties. (Sony Legacy)
From Texas for a Christmas Night
A warm-spirited expansion of Hinojosa's previously released Memorabilia Navidenia, this bilingual effort is ultimately too light and far-flung to be of much consequence. And there's no telling why Andy Williams keeps popping up in the lyrics. (Texas Music Group)
Whether performing "Frosty the Snowman" (with special guest Dr. John) or a Budweiser commercial, Leon Redbone maintains a certain twinkle in his mustache, and that ironic charm nearly always carries the day. (Rounder)
A Merry Christmas!
Opening an album called A Merry Christmas! with "O Tannenbaum" is intriguing to say the least. Even if Kenton's work has never been your cup of peppermint tea, it is nice to have a jazzy holiday option. (Capitol)
Elmo & Patsy
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer
The best argument yet to bring back the CD single. At last count, entrepreneur Elmo Shropshire (looking a lot like Mrs. Butterworth on the album cover) had sold more than seven million copies of this novelty song since its introduction twenty years ago. But that's no reason to help him reach eight million. In addition to the patently offensive "Señor Santa Claus" (sung in broken English), traditional tunes like "Silent Night" are so amateurish you'd keep the door closed if these carolers ever appeared in your yard. (Sony Legacy)
Classic Country Christmas (Time-Life), The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, Now That's What I Call Christmas (Capitol),
Singers and Songwriters: Christmas Songs (Sony Legacy)
When you come upon a road sign that reads "Bridge Out," you take a detour. So after considering the "As Seen on TV" sticker on the cellophane wrappers of these turkeys, what could possibly make you venture further?
If your tastes are broad enough to accept John Denver lodged between Wham! and Mannheim Steamroller, Chuck Berry flanked by Dean Martin and Tom Jones, and Luciano Pavarotti wedged between Andy Griffith and Barry Manilow, you could save some holiday cash by passing on these CDs and turning on the radio.
The lone exception is Classic Country Christmas. Though the "country" definition here is a broad one, seasonal masterpieces like Elvis' "Blue Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" are enough to put you in a forgiving mood.
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