But nothing signals another year coming to a close quite like holiday music, and luckily, I've got a stocking--or, more accurately, a mailbox--full of brand-new holiday CDs to share with you.
So, yes, it's me, your resident Jewish music critic--who just happens to love Christmas music more than most of his goyim friends--here to tell you once again which new holiday albums are worth shelling out those shekels for, and which ones you'd be advised to swap for a lump of coal.
Here's what Santa, er, the record labels brought me this year.
The blues at Christmastime? Who ever heard of such a thing? Best known for its world-music compilations, Putamayo here stays true to the album title with a tasty mix of blues and jazz standards and originals, performed by a hodgepodge artists both well-known and slightly less well-known. In the well-known category, we get B.B. King and his 2001 original "Christmas Celebration," which sounds exactly as you'd expect; Charles Brown performing his self-penned and oh-so-smooth "Santa's Blues"; and Ray Charles' strutting take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Elsewhere, Emilie-Claire Barlow's "Santa Baby" is sultry without being overly cutesy (I'm looking at you, Madonna); Riff Ruffin is appropriately rough on "Xmas Baby"; and the Mighty Blue Kings get downright groovy on "All I Ask for Christmas."
This is easily the oddest album to show up in my stocking this year. Fans of Elephant 6 bands The Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel will recognize Koster's name as the multi-instrumentalist responsible for the haunted singing saw parts on NMH's classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Here, he takes on a dozen Christmas staples--"The First Noel," "O' Little Town of Bethlehem," "Silver Bells"--using nothing but the saw, and it's, well ... it's something. Haunting, lonesome, spooky, annoying--it could be any of these, depending on your tolerance. Absolutely not recommended to anyone with a dog in the house, lest you want People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all over your ass.
Wikipedia tells me that Yamin came in third on the fifth season of American Idol. It also tells me he's a Jew, which means that Christmas really isn't "his kind of holiday" at all. (Note to Yamin completists: Eight of the 10 songs here were released under a different name as a Target exclusive last holiday season.) I was fully prepared to hate this album based solely on my disdain for most things Idol, but it's actually surprisingly decent. For a Jew, Yamin is quite the soulful crooner, and here, he pays homage to the smooth soul sound of the '70s. He sounds a bit like Stevie Wonder Jr. on "The Christmas Song" and the peppy "A Very Merry Christmas"; turns in a credible version of Donnie Hathaway's "This Christmas"; and grafts the horns from Run-D.M.C.'s classic "Christmas in Hollis" to a gritty take on Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa."
This one contains a dozen traditional Christmas songs, each performed by a different metal supergroup ostensibly assembled specifically for this project; the credits read like a who's-who of '70s and '80s metal. Most of it's as awful as you'd expect, but there is one particularly notable exception. The oddest, least-metal combo of performers turns in the best tune here: It's tough to go wrong when you've got Lemmy singing Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" with Dave Grohl on drums and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on guitar. Meanwhile, Alice Cooper provides a touch of welcome camp on "Santa Claws Is Coming to Town"; Ronnie James Dio's plodding take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," with Tony Iommi on six-string, is, of course, unintentionally hilarious; and even Ratt fans (assuming there is such a thing) will likely be turned off by Stephen Pearcy's "Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer." Recommended to those whose automatic response to something they enjoy is throwing the devil's horns--and them only.
Each year while kids are opening presents 'neath the Christmas tree, and parents are glowing from seeing the joy on their faces (well, that and the eggnog), legions of disaffected, mopey youths sequester themselves in their bedrooms to blog about how Christmas joy is just one big lie. With I'll Stay 'Til After Christmas, a collection of indie-pop acts tackling a mix of classics and originals, they've finally got their own Christmas album. Call it down-tempo tunes for the holiday-downtrodden--but it's awfully good. Au Revoir Simone's tinkling, ambient take on the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts classic "Christmas Time Is Here" is wispy and lovely; Man of Arms' relatively upbeat, minute-and-a-half "It's Christmastime and Everything's Wrong" is a new anthem for the disenchanted ("All our belongings are out on the lawn / The wait for the breadline is four blocks long / It's Christmastime and everything's wrong"); and on "Baby Jesus," the Radar Bros. manage to make an acoustic guitar, a drum machine, an analog synth and a gorgeous vocal melody sound exactly like a blustery winter day. Added bonus: All of the proceeds benefit Amnesty International.
In December of last year, one of the members of Straight No Chaser--a part-time 10-piece a cappella group with roots at Indiana University (the members graduated about a decade ago)--put up a video on YouTube of the group singing their greatly altered live version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" for their own enjoyment. In true 21st- century fashion, the video went viral, receiving almost 8 million hits, and a bigwig at Atlantic Records came a-calling, offering the group a five-album deal. The rest is Christory. On Holiday Spirits, their first album for the label, the only sound you'll hear is that of the human voice, though you may be fooled into thinking differently. "The 12 Days ..." is presented here in its original, live version, and while I find it a bit annoying to listen to more than once, it's a technical marvel, incorporating snippets of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "The Dreidel Song" and, somewhat inexplicably, Toto's "Africa," among other works. While most of the arrangements are commendable, they are also more traditional than that one. The rest of the album sounds something like a soulful--if not exactly hip--choir tackling the classics.
Local music fans may remember this St. Louis band from its fine performance at last year's TapeOpCon. (Head Gentleman Eric Enger was once an intern at Tucson's Wavelab Studio.) On this EP, they tackle five originals and a cover of "Here Comes Santa Claus," and while all the songs are topically Christmas-specific, they remind more of Bright Eyes than "Jingle Bells." The best song here, the ebullient "Home for the Holidays," sounds a bit like Conor Oberst fronting the E Street Band to fine effect, while the title track is a nifty little slice of indie pop with an earworm of a minimal synth hook.
Despite my intense dislike for nearly all things smooth jazz, I've always had a soft spot for Al Jarreau, who usually veers close enough to R&B for me to overlook the more wimpy elements. Sadly, that's not the case here. I realize holiday albums don't need to be anything approaching edgy to be enjoyable, but this is the most flaccid thing I've heard in recent memory, so bland that it's borderline offensive. Sorry, Al. We may have been in this love together earlier in your career, but you'll be dancing all alone up in that rooftop garden of yours this holiday season.
Indie chanteuse Thomas' voice is an instrument as crisp and clear as a dangling icicle, and it's well-suited for the material she's chosen here--roughly half covers and half originals. Her vocal take on Joni Mitchell's "River" is both lovely and riskier than the one found on Herbie Hancock's recent cover of the same song, but it's on the new songs that she shines brightest. She sounds forlorn and wistful on "Alone at Christmastime," and, if not giddy, awfully darn happy that Dec. 25 has finally arrived on "Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?" Elsewhere, "Snow Day" is the rare instrumental that successfully evokes the season, while the nine-minute-long "Sheila's Christmas Miracle!" is a spoken word curiosity that should have been left off--the only real misstep on the album.
Danish duo The Raveonettes made its name by combining near-goth darkness with Phil Spectorish tendencies, so you'd expect that its cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"--which, as originally sung by Darlene Love, was one of the highlights of the classic A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector album--would be a bit more reverent. Instead, it's a moody, synth-driven thing that slows the original to half-speed. It's ethereal and pretty, where the Spector version was huge and bouncy. The other three songs on this EP are the pair's own and fare even better: "Christmas Ghosts" sounds just like its title and is sweetly gorgeous, while "Christmas in Cleveland" is so shimmery and lovely that it almost makes me want to be back in the snowy Midwest this holiday season.