Nothing says “I hate Christmas” quite like the ubiquitous holiday music you’re about to start hearing in every elevator, shopping mall and specialty store in the world. And what’s really surprising is that even though holiday musical cheer would appear to be somewhat finite, the record companies still manage to churn out new bundles of the stuff every year, some of it pretty good, some of it even more awful than you can imagine.
Schmaltzy as most holiday music is, it does have its place: usually as background music for your drunken holiday fiestas. And to that end, every year I put together a list (and check it twice) of the latest batch of rehashed Yuletide carols and new tunes inspired by the spirit of the season. Not only does it make for nice filler material, it can also help you decide what to buy and what not to buy to insure maximum holiday cheer. The good stuff can make stale-smelling relatives seem dear, while the bad stuff can make you wish you had spiked the eggnog. Here then are the final holiday releases of the century, reviewed for your listening pleasure.
Various Artists Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas (Rhino)
Any record that combines the Jackson Five, the Ohio Players, the O’Jays and Gladys Knight & The Pips has more than just a little potential to become an instant classic, especially if said album is a collection of holiday music-turned-sultry R&B groove. And if hearing the Jackson Five blast through “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” isn’t enough, try on the Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?” or Isaac Hayes’ love machine rendition of “The Mistletoe and Me.” Smooth Grooves is simply the latest specialty music installment from Rhino, which has the market virtually cornered when it comes to boxed sets, compilations, retrospectives and other albums none of the majors have the guts to release. It’s an album that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the holidays are just as ripe for lovin’, touchin’, squeezin’ your honey as are any other traditional lovers’ holidays. It also represents a refreshing change of gears from the same old, same old that makes most holiday releases as boring as your great aunt. This one’s best listened to with plenty of smooth, creamy chocolate, a blazing fire and flannel pajamas. Got a semi-naked lover laying around? Even better.
Riders in the Sky Christmas the Cowboy Way (Rounder)
Like the Sons of the Pioneers before them, Riders in the Sky have preserved the cowboy musical tradition begun more than 100 years ago, when settlers packed the popular folk songs of the day into their covered wagons and hauled them west, toward the bluesy and gospel strains of the black cowboys and the corridos of Mexico and South Texas. The hybrid that resulted from that cross-pollination is nothing short of an American treasure, and no one does it better than Riders in the Sky. Of all the holiday releases reviewed here, Christmas the Cowboy Way is the one most likely to place the scent of chestnuts roasting on an open fire firmly in your nostrils. “Let it Snow”/“The Last Christmas Medley You’ll Ever Need to Hear” operates on the bold premise that every Christmas carol known to man, woman and child is based on “Let it Snow.” And danged if it’s not the truth. A yodel-heavy version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” is equally entertaining, but the real holiday magic here lies within plaintive ballads like “Virgen Maria” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Christmas the Cowboy Way may be a seasonal album by definition, but it’s so much damn fun that you may just want to consider celebrating Christmas again in July.
Various Artists Midnight Clear (Forefront)
Who better to sing songs about Christmas than a bunch of Christians? Forefront is one of the largest Christian record labels in the world (with a little help from EMI), releasing new records by Christian artists ranging from rap to easy listening faster than you can say “Jesus Christ.” This collection, though, is a little off the beaten path for Forefront. Interspersed among songs by Rebecca St. James (“Happy Christmas”), Eli (“Silent Night”), Big Tent Revival (“What I Want for Christmas”) and other artists on the Forefront roster are classic carols by Ella Fitzgerald (“The Christmas Song”), Bing Crosby (“O Holy Night”), Nat “King” Cole (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”), Al Green (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) and Lou Rawls (“Winter Wonderland”). That’s right, kids, Lou Freakin’ Rawls. Overall, I’m not quite sure what to make of this one. On the one hand, it’s a little too syrupy. On the other, it’s got some definite hot spots, most of them courtesy of the old schoolers. In fact, unless you already own a copy of Lena Horne’s version of “Silent Night,” then Midnight Clear is worth the money just for that song. Feel the power of the Lord.
Amy Grant A Christmas to Remember (A&M)
Amy Grant has a fantastic voice, no question about it. And her holiday collection is flavored with enough light swing and subtle Nashville flavor to make it one of the best of the bunch this year. Recorded with conductor Patrick Williams and his Orchestra, and Ronn Huff and the Nashville Studio Orchestra, A Christmas to Remember has an air of class to it that’s difficult to pull off when doling out a fair share of classic carols and songs inspired by the holiday season. Grant actually sounds passionately connected to each of the album’s 11 tracks, which makes the whole album extremely listenable and quite unlike the bulk of holiday releases. No gratuitously playful renditions of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” here, just well-performed songs that carry with them enough joy and spirit to make A Christmas to Remember truly memorable and perhaps one of four holiday releases you actually need.
The Beegie Adair Trio Jazz Piano Christmas (Green Hill)
After plowing through more holiday releases than I can remember, all I can say is thank God for instrumentals. Pianist Beegie Adair (best known for her tributes to Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole), along with bassist Roger Spencer and drummer Chris Brown, has assembled a collection of tautly arranged holiday numbers that center on her formidable prowess at the keyboard. Surprisingly—and unlike past “jazz” holiday releases from Windham Hill and Private Music—Adair’s interpretations are fairly straightforward and thankfully don’t leave you searching for the old familiar melodies amid improvised wank. Instead, she and her trio produce treatments that are both true to the standards and refreshingly zippy. This one’s as perfect as the holiday party winds to a close and all that’s left are glowing coals in the fireplace and half-bottle of Bushmills on the kitchen counter. Reflective and lighthearted, Jazz Piano Christmas is guaranteed to take much of the dread and stress out of the holiday season, at least while you have it playing.
Various Artists A Taste of Chanukah (Rounder)
For every song ever written in celebration of Christmas, there are at least three tunes that stem from the Jewish tradition of Chanukah. And, true to their form of rounding up world music of every variety imaginable, Rounder Records offers this spectacularly interesting compilation of the traditional flavors and sounds of Chanukah—from klezmer to gospel.
A Taste of Chanukah was recorded live at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall and features more than 150 musicians under the direction of Hankus Netsky. The net result is more than an hour of diverse celebratory music performed by a variety of gifted ensembles and solo artists. Rounder has traditionally done a fantastic job of putting together flavorful compilations, and A Taste of Chanukah is no exception. It’s also a nice break from 40 million versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”
Various Artists Jingle Blues: The House of Blues Christmas Collection (House of Blues)
Rounding out this year’s notable collection of holiday releases is the final volume of the phenomenal House of Blues boxed set, Essential Shoebox Full of Blues. Jingle Blues taps the elite of the genre for a holiday collection that puts a new, decidedly blue twist on the spirit of the season. Mabel Scott’s “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” paired with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Santa,” is a match made in heaven. Largely comprised of recordings made prior to the 1970s, Jingle Blues is a slice of specialized Americana that’s almost unmatched in scope and substance. Yes, these are Christmas songs we’re talking about, but when bluesmen like Albert King, John Lee Hooker and Lowell Fulson are at the helm, the songs become much more than campy background music—they become lamentations full of yearning and hopeful sorrow. Might not sound much like your run-of-the-mill cheery holiday party record, but it’s not supposed to be. The holidays mean different things to different people, and if you lean toward a blue Christmas and a melancholy New Year, then this collection is for you.