Like it or not, it's that time of the year, folks—time for me to evaluate the Christmas albums that landed in my mailbox this year, to provide you with a highly subjective guide of what to listen to while you're carving that Christmas ham.
Though I don't celebrate Christmas (I'm a heretical Jew), I do happen to like it unabashedly—though I'm not very fond of ham. I am, however, especially fond of Christmas albums. (I planned on calling this article the "Holiday Album Wrap-up," but alas, no Hanukkah albums showed up this year. Apparently, not only do Jews enjoy eating chopped liver; they are chopped liver.)
Here's a sampling of what's new in the Christmas-album section this year.
Clocking in at just longer than a half-hour, Shelby Lynne's first holiday album, which features two original songs among its 11 tracks, feels a bit slight. But as long as Lynne's throaty voice is doing the singing, you won't hear me complaining too much. Unlike many Christmas albums, which tend to be overproduced and slick, Merry Christmas boasts a casual but not cavalier vibe, and most of the arrangements are relatively sparse—which is smart. The focus is right where it should be: on Lynne's vocals. Highlights include the straight-up bluegrass stomp of "Christmastime's A-Coming"; "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," on which Lynne sounds as if she's awaiting Santa's arrival for a different reason than gifts; and her own "Xmas," a jazz-blues downer in the best way. If you know her family history, some of the song's lines become a bit chilling: "Daddy gets so mad / 'Cause Christmas makes him sad."
Christmas With the O'Jays
This is the first album from the Philly soul giants in six years, and their first Christmas album in almost 20, so I had high hopes. Alas, I was disappointed. I'm all for slow-jam renditions of holiday tunes, but something just feels a bit off about this 10-song collection. Still, there are some nice moments. The voices of Eddie Levert and Walter Williams carry a nearly unrecognizable arrangement of "Silent Night" into soulful ballad territory. "Jingle Bells" is reworked as neo-gospel soul, though the trebly sound of the bells that run throughout are tough to take. And the Williams co-write "'Cause It's Christmas" boasts a swingin' soul-jazz groove that reminds of Al Jarreau. The whole thing just seems a bit superfluous.
Diane Van Deurzen and Lisa Otey
Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
Local jazz/blues-diva couple Otey and Van Deurzen stick mostly to the classics on the 17 tracks here, but they're quite lovingly rendered, and there's some great backing from players such as guitarist Ed DeLucia (check his lovely jazz phrasing on "The Christmas Song"), saxophonist Hurricane Carla Brownlee, drummer Chip Ritter and violinist Heather Hardy. And Otey is, of course, a fine pianist. "Silver Bells" has never been a favorite of mine, but the duo's harmony-rich version is awfully pretty. The real highlight, though, is the jaunty title track—the only original tune here (a Van Deurzen-Otey co-write) and an instant Christmas classic.
Glee: The Music—The Christmas Album
I've never been a fan of musical theater, so you can imagine just how much I enjoy watching Glee. I've given it a shot, but if I hated the Rocky Horror episode, chances are I'm not going to like any of them (though I do adore Jane Lynch, the only good thing about the show). The cast takes no chances in song choices here, though they add a synthetic dance beat to their "urbanized" version of "Deck the Rooftop." "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is supposed to be sexy, right? It's neutered here, but the banter in "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year" is cute enough. But then we're forced to sit through the Teflon-slick take on "Last Christmas" by Wham! Maybe this album makes more sense if you're a gleek.
You'd think the fickle public would have chewed up and spat out Susan Boyle by now. Instead, this Christmas album—the fastest-selling one in history—has bounced in and out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart for weeks. And you know what? It's not horrible. Any Christmas album that opens with the one-two punch of a pathos-heavy, strings-laden version of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" and a credible take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is OK in my book. Aside from those two tracks and a relatively lame stab at Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," the song selection is pretty traditional. Still, you can feel subversive by playing Lou Reed for Grandma at Christmas dinner.
Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In
WARNER BROS. (DIGITAL ONLY)
Essentially a dumping ground for rare or previously unreleased holiday tunes by Warner Bros. recording artists of all stripes, this is exactly the mixed bag you'd expect. For every "Home for Christmas" by Cavo (adult contemporary tripe), there's a "December" by Regina Spektor, who sounds like a cross between Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom here. The bad outweighs the good, but there's something for everyone. And some of the good stuff is really good: Ben Keith's "Les Trois Cloches" is sung by Neil Young and his wife, Pegi, and it's gorgeous; The Flaming Lips' live take on "Little Drummer Boy" (aka the Greatest Christmas Song Ever) is lo-fi and endearingly ramshackle; and Devo's pan-religious "Merry Something to You" ("Whether you're a Christian, Muslim, or Jew / Hap-py Hol-i-days!") is just plain awesome.
Who knew that the guy who popularized "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" (11 million copies sold and counting) started out as a bluegrass banjo player? Here, Elmo Shropshire returns to his roots for a dozen holiday songs; he's a decent picker, but the unsung hero of this set is Gary Potterton, who (deep breath) co-produced and engineered the album; wrote or co-wrote half of the songs and arranged most of the other ones; and played guitar, bass, mandolin and Dobro on it. The original "Perfect Gift" is a beautiful spiritual (the titular gift is Jesus himself) and the best song here, but "Here's to the Lonely" isn't too far behind. Heck, even the instrumental version of "Grandma Got Run Over" isn't annoying. In fact, the whole album is a surprising delight.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
Crazy for Christmas
Exactly what you'd expect from the dryly irreverent purveyor of jazzy country-swing, this is probably the most fun album of the bunch. Once your family members have hit their eggnog saturation points, put this sucker on, and watch them turn into dancing fools.