Admit it: You're sick of Christmas music, aren't you?
I know, I know. We get pummeled over the head with it starting on Black Friday, if not before, each year. But even though I don't celebrate the birth of Jesus (secular Jew, thank you very much), I happen to love the stuff. Still, as with any genre of music, there is wheat, and there is chaff.
So ... consider this article a public service. I've listened to all of the holiday albums that landed in my mailbox this year in an effort to help you separate the two, and assist you in deciding what to listen to while you're carving up that ham, or turkey, or whatever it is you people eat at Christmas.
Here's a sampling of what I got for Christmas this year.
Under the Mistletoe
While I certainly wouldn't call myself a Belieber, I'll admit to having a soft spot for the little guy. As far as tween heartthrobs go, we could certainly do much worse. The Biebster's entry in the Xmas music game, which shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, is a mixed bag. "Mistletoe," which contains the inane couplet "I should be playin' in the winter snow / but I'm a be under the mistletoe," and is surely the first holiday hit to address a significant other as "shawty," should be horrible. Instead, it's an insidiously catchy reggae-lite ditty. But for every "Mistletoe," there's an "Only Thing I Ever Get for Christmas," which sounds like a million other vapid pop songs that have nothing to do with Christmas. Sure, it's commendable that Bieber co-wrote half the songs, and it's neat that he got Busta Rhymes to guest on "Drummer Boy"—but it just might be the worst rendition I've ever heard.
The Music, The Christmas Album Volume 2
I should start by saying that I've tried to watch Glee, and I just don't get it. I also tried to get into the Christmas spirit with the cast's first holiday album last year, with similar results. (I may be a geek, but I'm no gleek.) So when I found the over-sung first song on the album, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," somewhat enjoyable, I had hope for the rest of this album. Wishful thinking. Turns out that song is the Jane Lynch of the bunch (read: pretty much the only good thing about it). Songs like "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" are the equivalent of my own personal musical-theater hell. At least they had the good sense to remain as faithful as possible to Joni Mitchell's gorgeous, heartbreaking "River."
If you find the work of Kenny G or George Winston a little too edgy, meet Dave Koz, quite possibly the blandest saxophonist working today. The nicest thing I can say about this is that it might make a good Christmas-dinner soundtrack if you work with the elderly.
She and Him
A Very She and Him Christmas
I still haven't seen an episode of New Girl, which means I still like Zooey Deschanel—the She to M. Ward's Him—just fine. (Yes, she's a cutie, but I've heard she's cloyingly "cute" on the show.) This is a lovely little album that manages to capture the holiday vibe, even if it can be a little too tastefully tame at times. One might expect the pair to write some new holiday classics, but instead, they cherry-pick classics, from Brian Wilson's "Christmas Day" to Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." The ballads—on which Deschanel mostly sticks to her more-comfortable lower register, and on which the musical accompaniment is kept to a minimum—work best, "Blue Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" among them.
Somewhere along the line, I went from finding Bublé blasé to finding him damn charming in a throwback kind of way: Who else his age is doing this type of stuff in 2011? I tend to find his purist streak a lot more enjoyable than his occasional attempts at modernization, and luckily, he stays pretty true to the classic arrangements of songs like "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," with only the occasional detour. For example, if you don't have Phil Spector twiddling the studio knobs (and lord knows nobody does these days), please don't bother covering "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." And a doo-wop duet of "White Christmas" with Shania Twain?! I wish it were a living creature so I could put it out of its misery. Otherwise, the missteps are few. Of course, this album is schmaltzy, but isn't that part of the point?
This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 2
This compilation, with artists as diverse as Money Mark and Rogue Wave, Jack Johnson and G. Love, is as uneven as it sounds. Highlights include "Party Hard" from Zach Gill (from jam-band ALO), a charming John Sebastian sound-alike that celebrates the season's tendency to encourage us all to over-imbibe ("How did I end up wearing these reindeer antlers?"), and Neil Halstead's hushed, stunningly beautiful "Home for the Season." On the other end of the spectrum? Two songs by Brushfire Records founder Jack Johnson. Something to be thankful for this holiday season: individual track downloads.
O Christmas Three
Once Chicago became an insipid adult-contemporary act in the '80s, it became easy to forget they were once a great rock band with a killer horn section. This, their third Christmas collection (and 33rd album!), doesn't do much to bolster their recent legacy. Consider the album's first song: It seems like it would be difficult to render guest Dolly Parton toothless, even on a duet of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time," right? Well, that's done effortlessly here. Even more embarrassing are attempts to reclaim a rockin' legacy on tunes like "On the Last Night of the Year," which can't decide if it wants to be U2, Quiet Riot or just bland ol' Chicago. Unless you're a 60-year-old woman who still loves those Peter Cetera ballads, avoid at all costs.
The Classic Christmas Album
After wading through a series of Christmas albums with so many highs and lows, sometimes the classics, rendered perfectly, are exactly what Santa ordered. So, thank you, Tony, for making this trip all worth it. This is essentially a best-of compilation of previous Bennett Christmas albums, with one new track, and to me, it sounds like the sonic equivalent of a 10-year-old girl's pony under the Christmas tree. Who wouldn't love this stuff?