For the past three years, a certified glut of new holiday releases has crossed my desk, resulting in the obvious roundup of such for our annual gift guide. This year was different. In the past, there were so many to choose from that I wound up not being able to mention about one-third of what came in. In 2000, a measly five new holiday releases hit the market, prompting me to look at years past to recommend some that you simply can’t go wrong with at your holiday party, office soirée or Christmas Eve gathering.
Of the five that did come out in time for this issue, two-fifths were great, one-fifth was mediocre and another two-fifths sucked Santa’s bowlful of jelly—about the same ratios as in past years. In any case, holiday music is as much a fact of American life as hot dogs, apple pie, Chevrolet and the Firestone tires that shred and make them roll over on the highway. Yes, most of the tunes are familiar enough to make most people yak their guts out, but some of the renditions are respectable and even inspiring. And there really is something about holiday music that makes the holiday season more tolerable, if not a completely merry occasion.
Of course, nothing says “I hate Christmas” like that crap that gets piped into every shopping mall and elevator in America, courtesy of the latest digitally integrated symphonic music system (remember when they were called synthesizers?), and you’re once again bound to hear more than your fair share of it. But there are a few recordings out there that’ll make for fine background music to your drunken holiday fiestas. Yes, much of each recording consists of rehashed yuletide classics and cheesy new additions to the holiday music canon, but if you’re not even willing to spin some holiday cheer to get in the spirit, then you should be doomed to forever view that Christmas Story movie, and not just for the 24 hours beginning Christmas Eve that TNT will air it.
Here then is the latest batch of new holiday releases for your listening pleasure or horror, depending on how you look at the whole affair. In the spirit of giving, I’ve provided a “Programmable Tracks” section in each review to guide you through the humbuggery.
Celtic Christmas Spirit
Overall Rating: Um, The Druids Didn’t Celebrate Christmas, Did They? Programmable Tracks: all of ‘em
You can’t go wrong with this one. Your older relatives and party guests will think you’re more sophisticated than you probably are. And, because this one’s so ethereal and eerily sexy, that file clerk you’ve had your eye on all year is just one E&J-nog away from unwrapping your special present, provided you remembered to hit the “Repeat” button and can get rid of the rest of your guests before he/she passes out on your kitchen floor. Even if you’re alone, just fantasizing about the aforementioned party that never happened, Celtic Christmas Spirit is virtually guaranteed to get you in the spirit, despite the fact that Christmas is not a traditional Celtic holiday and Santa’s elves are not Druids. In fact, Santa is an anagram of Satan, but that’s a whole ‘nother holiday which is of Celtic origin. Weird. Celtic Christmas Spirit isn’t classified as “various artists” in the sense that giants of the Celtic music world contribute, but in the sense that nearly a dozen musicians contribute on any given track. Vocalist Caroline Peyton is the focal point, though, and quite a talented one at that. Her renditions of classic Irish carols are in-the-moment bits of infectious holiday cheer. Granted, not a lot of moss-covered ground is covered here, but it is, after all, a holiday record. The flutes and whistles are exalting, the guitars and pipes soothing, the vocals absolutely captivating–and it’s not New Age!
How The Grinch Stole Christmas: Motion Picture Soundtrack
Overall Rating: How the Grinch Capitalized on Christmas ... Again Programmable Tracks: 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11-19
I’m not entirely sure that Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr., Seuss) would have been thrilled to have Busta Rhymes, the Barenaked Ladies, Smash Mouth and Eels contribute to his holiday kids’ classic, but then again, I’m not altogether sure that he’d have approved of Jim Carrey, either. But since he’s dead, I suppose it’s all moot.
Anyway, there’s some good stuff here, making Grinch one of the best new holiday records available this year. Kicking off with the slightly jarring “Grinch 2000” by Busta Rhymes and Jim Carrey, the record includes tracks by all of the above mentioned artists and others, followed by the original score by James Horner. Barenaked Ladies’ “Green Christmas,” Ben Folds’ “Lonely Christmas Eve,” and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You, Christmas?” are standout tracks, but it’s really Horner’s score that’s most satisfying and nostalgic.
Little Isidore and the Inquisitors’ contribution, “Christmas of Love,” sounds like one of Adam Sandler’s annoying songs sung by the annoying “Little Nicky” himself. On the other hand, the Eels’ “Christmas is Going to the Dogs” is so extremely weird that it fits right in with Dr. Seuss’ overactive imagination. The Smash Mouth track sucks, as does “You Don’t Have to Be Alone” courtesy of ‘N Stynk.
Carrey’s spirited version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” makes for a great stocking stuffer. The upside to this album is that, despite a few rotten spots, it’s pretty great. The downside is that it’s pretty great: Once the kids get hold of it, it’s all you’re going to hear for the rest of the year.
All Star Christmas
Overall Rating: O, Little Star of Major Labelhem Programmable Tracks: 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14, 17
Ice queen Celine Dion kicks this one off with a four-minute version of “The Christmas Song” that’s as unbearable as “My Heart Will Go On (and on and on and on),” and things don’t get any better until the third track, where Billy Gilman, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel dish out the best rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” since Burl Ives. A few throwaway tracks courtesy of Gloria Estefan and Babyface later, and we’re treated to Keb Mo’s “Jingle Bell Jamboree,” Wham’s “Last Christmas” (I know, I know, but George Michael has a great voice) and a solid holiday number by disco diva Donna Summer. But the real gem here is Al Green’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Other notables include Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and Jeff Beck’s surprisingly delicate take on “Amazing Grace.” It’s a weird collection, to be sure, featuring a broad cross section of the Epic Records stable that doesn’t necessarily flow well together. In that regard, this one might be a jarring addition to the other holiday music in your CD changer come party time, unless you follow my recommendations for Programmable Tracks. Of course, if you and your guests just can’t get enough of Celine Dion and Gloria Estefan, you can just play All Star Christmas repeatedly until Santa’s been and gone.
My Kind of Christmas
Overall Rating: We wish you a skinny-ass, no-talent Bitchmas Programmable Tracks: 10, but only because “Xtina’s Xmas” is such a laughably obvious song title
Surgeon General’s Warning: This product is not a safe alternative to last year’s Forefront Records holiday compilation, A Midnight Clear. If there was a God, there’s no way in Hell He’d have let the Devil unleash this almost unbearable record on humankind. Spinning this one on your CD-ROM automatically forces you into the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” video, littered with scenes of 5-year-old Xtina unwrapping Barbies, and the all-grown-up Xtina feigning passion at a studio mic set up next to the piano player—which would never happen in a million years—as if she “recorded this one just for you.” Once past the initial abomination, provided you get that far, you’re in for an excruciating journey through five completely botched traditional carols including one remix (what the ...?) of “The Christmas Song.” Aguilera even has the balls to “Fa, la, la” and rap through a streetwise “original”—dubbed on the album cover as one of several “new classics,” whatever that means—called “Christmas Time,” as if the gang-bangers she’s supposedly “down wit” care about the holiday season at all.
To her credit, Aguilera at least attempts to give credence to traditional carols by Mariah Carey-ing her way through the intros to at least three of them. It doesn’t work, but she made the effort. There’s nothing redeeming about My Kind of Christmas at all, but at least there’s not a phonetic Spanish version of the album available just to let us know that Aguilera is “getting back to her roots” this holiday season.
Christmas + Santa Fe
Overall Rating: Feliz Nouveaudad Programmable Tracks: all or none, it just depends
It’s no secret that there’s no love lost between Ottmar Liebert and me. In my opinion, the guy’s been remaking his debut album for the past decade or so, giving each new twist an increasingly cheesy title. I’m not sure when “+” became the international symbol for “in,” but I suppose, like Liebert himself, it could be a Santa Fe thing. The record is also a Santa Fe thing, with irksome references to farolitos on Garcia Street, Canyon Road and other City Different locations. And like Santa Fe, there’s something just a little pretentious and perhaps even plastic about the whole affair.
The 13 holiday arrangements here aren’t remarkably inspiring, and Liebert has taken to Prince-onics–the use of “4,” “2,” “U” and “@” in place of “for,” “to,” “you” and “at,” making the liner notes as annoying 2 read as the record is 2 listen 2. But like most holiday releases, Christmas + Santa Fe isn’t all bad. “We Wish U a Merry Christmas,” for instance, features some nice slide guitar, and a few of the other tracks are adorned with enough flamenco flash to make them seem almost fresh. Overall, though, Liebert’s holiday platter is a little too limp and straightforward to raise much of a ruckus, or interest. There’s plenty of nice background music here for the elevator attendant on your list but not much else.