Lest you worry that a Jew doesn't have the background to size these things up, I should probably remind you that I truly love this stuff. In fact, I once cried myself to sleep as a child on Christmas night, because I knew it would be another year until I heard "Little Drummer Boy." (Most Jewish families don't keep Christmas albums in the house, it seems--or, mine didn't, at least.)
So, with my qualifications established, here's a rundown of what Santa brought me this year.
Various Artists, Christmas in Tucson, No Label
While I reported on this local compilation in last week's issue (see Soundbites, Dec. 13), it merits a reminder here. Conceived and produced by Swiss artist and sometime Tucson resident Olivier Mosset and curated by Elizabeth Cherry, a former local gallery owner and ex-Museum of Contemporary Art director, the disc is chock full of more than an hour's worth of local acts performing traditional and original Christmas tunes. Itching to have a copy of Al Perry doing Burl Ives' "Holly Jolly Christmas" complete with an ad hoc choir? Look no further. But wait, there's more: You also get Tom Walbank's T-Dub Rockers, Creosote, Love Mound, the Solace Bros., Marianne Dissard and lots of others lending their talents for your seasonal enjoyment. And for those for whom Al Foul's "Dim the Lights on the Xmas Tree for Mother (They're Using the Electric Chair Tonight)" isn't nontraditional enough, strap yourself in for more than 19 minutes of the Bloat Records clan expounding on the rather surreal (and extremely fictitious) origins of Christmas on "The History of Christmas (An Historical Survey and Retrospective in Eight Parts) as Told by Bebe McPhereson." Best of all, proceeds from the CD go to the Primavera Foundation. You can get it at Hotel Congress and other places across town.
... And Christmas for All: The Holiday Tribute to Metallica, Hell's Bells of Christmas: The Holiday Tribute to AC/DC, The Green Days of Christmas: The Holiday Tribute to Green Day, Christmas Rock
From the folks who brought you Rockabye Baby!--the label that specializes in instrumental-rock lullaby albums which are geared toward the kiddies but won't drive parents nuts--comes these: basically the same idea, with a Christmas twist. (Each of these CDs is performed by Santa Claws and the Naughty but Nice Orchestra.) AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" is transformed from a barrage of power riffs to a jaunty instrumental tune played on a cheesy-sounding synth and vibraphone (or is that the same cheesy synth with the knob turned to the "vibes" setting?). "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," meanwhile, puts that knob on the "flute" setting and adds bells and chimes. The length of Metallica's "One" is chopped in half, with a Wurlitzer replacing any notion of guitars, let alone that famous machine-gun riff, while "Master of Puppets" lends itself more to swing-dancing than headbanging. The arrangement of Green Day's "Welcome to Paradise" is basically the same as "Dirty Deeds" (read: more bells and chimes, with the synth back on "flute"), while "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" could double as incidental music in a "meaningful" Christmas movie. Other than a general and rather vague holiday vibe, I'm not exactly sure what makes these Christmas CDs. After trudging through three of them, my response is one word: Why?
Joan Osborne, Christmas Means Love, Time Life
For those of you still wondering, "What if God was one of us?" comes this ode to the season from the one-hit wonder, split about 50-50 between classics and more contemporary songs, with mixed results. "Santa Claus Baby" is suitable for anyone who ever bought a Manhattan Transfer album (and that excludes me); "Away in a Manger" drags at a slug's pace and is rendered in a slight twang--odd for a singer attempting a comeback in a neo-soul vein; and "Children Go Where I Send Thee" is arranged as a groove that echoes the Zombies' "She's Not There." More successful are the somewhat obscure traditional tune "Cherry Tree Carol," which shows off Osborne's full vocal range, but not in a show-off way; the sultry jazz-blues of "What Do Bad Girls Get?" and "Christmas in New Orleans"; and a lovely, soulful take on Robbie Robertson's "Christmas Must Be Tonight."
Various Artists, Malt Shop Memories: Christmas, Time Life
While I must admit I'm a bit too young to have any authentic malt-shop memories, I'm pretty sure this album will work just fine for any fan of vocal harmonies. There's some R&B stuff: the Drifters' slightly disappointing vamp on "White Christmas"; a simultaneously funky and silky-smooth "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" courtesy of the Temptations; and Carla Thomas' torch-song take on "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Some surf stuff: the Beach Boys' giddy "Little Saint Nick" and Jan and Dean's zippy "Frosty the Snowman." There's even a bit of doo-wop via Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' annoyingly screechy "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs, Gray Matters/Nettwerk
The biggest surprise of the bunch: The first Christmas album from the contemporary Christian acoustic rockers culls traditionals, originals and the odd cover of a modern holiday song (e.g. Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime") into a surprisingly enjoyable and cohesive whole. While there really isn't a complete dud among the 14 tracks--an overly breathy version of Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts classic "Christmas Time Is Here" and an electronica update of "Drummer Boy" come closest to failing--the originals fare slightly better than the oldies. "Hibernation Day" is a lovely little tale of avoiding cold, snowy holiday weather by holing up inside with one's significant other; "Winter Skin" is a gorgeously delicate meditation of quietude; and "Peace Is Here" is awash in unforced-sounding grandeur, like a less bombastic U2.
Various Artists, Classic Soft Rock Christmas, Time Life
Those saddened by the recent passing of Dan Fogelberg will go bonkers for this one, whose list of artists reads like a who's-who of '70s and early-'80s soft rock: America (whose "White Christmas" sounds an awful lot like their own "Tin Man"), Chicago, Hall and Oates, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Loggins, Air Supply, B.J. Thomas and even Christopher Cross, the patron saint of Yacht Rock. The highlights are unquestionably the few original songs, including Elton John's fabulously perky "Step Into Christmas," Jim Croce's reliably beautiful "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way" and the haunting "I Believe in Father Christmas" from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Greg Lake. On the other hand, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has Carly Simon sounding disturbingly like a dude, while Yes' Jon Anderson's rather bizarre contribution is a 30-second-long version of "Jingle Bells," which consists entirely of bells and a toddler stumbling his way through the lyrics. Sit back; relax as much as you can in that polyester leisure suit; sip some eggnog, and get mellow, fellow.
KT Tunstall, The KT Tunstall Holiday Collection, EMI
This is the fifth year that NBC and Target have teamed up for their "NBC Sounds of the Season" releases, in which artists are chosen to record seasonal CDs available exclusively at Target stores. (In addition to KT Tunstall, this year's other participants are Taylor Swift and Elliott Yamin.) Tunstall's entry is a six-song EP that, while containing only covers--a bit odd for a singer-songwriter--benefits from her fine song choices. That said, her version of the Pretenders' excellent "2000 Miles" is so faithful to the original that it's superfluous here; The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," a duet with Ed Harcourt, suffers a similar redundant fate, and Phil Spector's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" simply can't be outdone, so why bother trying? Although it's perfectly enjoyable, this EP feels a bit tossed off; there are better versions of these songs to be found elsewhere.
Michael Bolton, A Swingin' Christmas, Concord
Ten traditional holiday classics with fantastic old-time orchestral and big-band arrangements: What could possibly go wrong? Michael Bolton, that's what. Forget white-boy soul; this is white-bread soul, made far worse by the fact that Bolton seems to truly believe that he's something more than that. I dare anyone with a modicum of taste to make it through this thing without cringing.
Various Artists, Love's Holiday: A Gospel Christmas, Time Life There's a bit of bait-and-switch going on here: There's more straight-up R&B than gospel on this collection, and, accordingly, it's a hits-and-misses affair. Among the many misses: "Love's Holiday" by Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers comes off as a Barry White parody complete with meaningful deep-voiced interjections like "Awww, yeeah"; while Patti LaBelle's vocal performance on "Reason for the Season" is an over-the-top killer, the track is marred by '80s-era compressed production; and parts of SWV's "Oh Holy Night" don't help to remind the listener that "SWV" stands for "Sisters With Voices." But then there's the Mighty Clouds of Joy's winning slice of vintage gospel soul on "Silent Night"; Mary Mary's super-funky rendition of "'Tis the Season"; and Whitney Houston's "Joy to the World," performed with the Georgia Mass Choir, which reminds us why Whitney is Whitney. It is also the closest thing to pure gospel here.