CD reviews: Brand-spankin’ new Christmas music, comedyBy John Wenzel | December 7th, 2009 | 2 comments
Christmas music comes in just about every mother-lovin’ size and form. Sure, there’s the glut of twinkle-eyed vocalists crooning about snowflakes and hearths, but there are also metal albums, comedy albums, world-music collections and enough reissues to fill a double-wide sleigh.
In other words, the Christmas album is more than an excuse to cash in on mildewed standards. We surveyed this year’s crop — which includes high-profile releases from Neil Diamond, Sting, Barry Manilow, Sugarland, Andrea Bocelli and others — and came up with a baker’s dozen releases whose spin will be hard to miss this month.
Embrace or avoid each, depending on your love, or tolerance, for Christmas fare.
Most Unexpected Christmas Album
Bob Dylan, “Christmas in the Heart” (Sony)
We assumed the bard would have issued his takes on “Silver Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” by now, but Dylan has always been an unpredictable character, and “Christmas in the Heart” certainly reflects that. Forget the dour-folkie side of Dylan — this disc traffics in upbeat swing tunes, courtesy of Dylan’s road band. It’s a bit like hearing Tom Waits and Dr. John record a seasonal duet while wearing Santa costumes, but there’s a genuine fondness in Dylan’s gravel-voiced delivery that saves the songs from parody.
Most Tween-friendly Christmas Album
Various Artists, “A Very Special Christmas 7″ (A&M Records)
The seventh installment in this series, which benefits the Special Olympics, features a who’s-who of tween and teen faves, including Miley Cyrus, Carrie Underwood and Ashley Tisdale. The mostly pop-rock versions of Christmas classics are instantly dated and clearly pander to the compressed, tinny way most of us listen to music (i.e. through MP3 players), but a few gems poke through, such as Colbie Caillat’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Runner-up: “American Idol” also-ran David Archuleta and his histrionic, maudlin “Christmas From the Heart.”
Best Recycled Music
Jackson 5, “Ultimate Christmas Collection” (Motown)
Various Artists, “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector” (Legacy)
Various Artists, “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” (Motown)
Michael Jackson’s death made the Jackson 5 reissue a no-brainer, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the performances. The group tackles “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Up on the House Top” with their trademark warmth, soul and effortless interplay. Disgraced producer Phil Spector’s various-artists compilation from 1963 was long overdue for a remaster, given its stellar performances from the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. And Motown’s two-disc Christmas comp is a who’s- who of musical legends, from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to Smokey Robinson and the Supremes.
Best Album to Listen to at Your Grandparents’ House
Nat King Cole, “The Christmas Song” (EMI)
Cole is the definition of smooth and tasteful, and his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” is an undisputed heavyweight among Christmas songs. This new compilation also gathers jazz- and swing-flecked takes on “Deck the Hall,” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” Perfect for nostalgic nights around the fireplace with your elders.
Most Likely to Please (or Annoy) Everyone in Earshot
Mannheim Steamroller, “25th Anniversary Collection (American Gramaphone)
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Night Castle” (Atlantic)
These groups exist solely to perform seasonal music, so it’s no surprise that each has a new release. For Mannheim, it’s a two-disc repackaging of 25 songs from its last 25 years. In TSO’s case, it’s the 26-track concept album “Night Castle,” which diverges from the rest of its catalog in no way whatsoever. Muscled-up, synth- heavy versions of holiday classics are perfect mood setters. Depending on your tolerance for this stuff, however, that mood could range from relaxed to violent.
Oddest Pairing of Character and Theme
SpongeBob SquarePants, “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas) (Nick Records)
SpongeBob has been around for a decade, so it’s no surprise the Nickelodeon character has issued a Christmas song for his “Greatest Hits” album. Still, that doesn’t make it any less weird. SpongeBob is a lot of things, but holiday-themed has never been one of them. This high-energy, piano- and horn- driven number features our angular yellow friend (voiced by “Mr. Show” alumnus Tom Kenny) making a plea “for a minimal diminishment of jerk-oriented activities and attitudes for a mere 24-hour period.” Um, yeah.
Most Likely to Play Endlessly at Starbucks
Various Artists, “Putamayo Presents A Family Christmas” (Putamayo)
For years, the Putamayo brand has acted as conduit to exotic musical styles through its palatable, approachable compilations. But on “A Family Christmas,” the label steps back firmly into the lifestyle- music realm by featuring scrubbed-clean tracks from Martin Sexton, Leon Redbone, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and others. Note to Putamayo: Cutesy quirk is no replacement for genuine personality.
Best Virtual Fireplace/Jukebox
Various Artists, “Christmas Classics: The Yule Log Editions”
Pre-recorded loops of burning yule logs have been gracing TV sets for years, but not until recently were they paired with a rotating selection of holiday tunes. Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin show up on the “Christmas Classics by the Fire” DVD, while Mariah Carey, Johnny Cash and Kenny Chesney get their own “Christmas Classics: The Yule Log Edition” DVDs. There’s also the “Yule a Go-Go” CD/DVD, which bills itself as “a party in a box” and features burlesque dancers shaking it to classic holiday tunes.
Most Self-indulgent Celebrity Album
Olivia Newton-John, “Christmas Wish” (EMI)
Why is EMI trotting out Olivia Newton-John’s 2007 album “Christmas Wish” again? Everyone knows she can sing (she’s got four Grammy awards), but so can that guy on the 16th Street Mall with the broken guitar, and no one wants to hear his version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” either. Saccharine, pointless and stuffed with light-rock cliches, “Christmas Wish” would have been better received three decades ago — when “Grease” was still fresh in our minds and “Xanadu” was mercifully nonexistent.
Best Room-clearing Album
Kathy Griffin, “Suckin’ It for the Holidays” (Music with a Twist)
If the title isn’t enough of a hint at the content, take a gander at the cover art, which finds Griffin wearing a skimpy red outfit while sitting on Santa Claus’ head. The X-rated comedian’s set, recorded in Atlantic City, N.J., in June, covers everything from Kwanzaa and gay activism to “nervous pills and boxes of wine.” It’s light on holiday humor and heavy on Griffin’s mock-indignant rants about celebrity culture. Love her or hate her, you’ve got to admire her brash style.
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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.