Holiday Albums: The Deluge
Like death and taxes, a flood of holiday records is inevitable every year. This season, nearly 40 releases hit the streets, most of them the sonic equivalent of coal in your stocking. Still, those of us forced to listen to the same yuletide records year after year (this writer grew up on Jim Nabors Sings the Songs of Christmas and A Sunoco Oil Christmas Sampler) welcome the onslaught. So we'll start off with a release that's in the "spirit of giving" if not originality: Christmas of Hope (Columbia), a lackluster collection of formerly released songs by mainstream artists like Mariah Carey, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John. Still, there's a great version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" by Reba McEntire and all profits will go to the City of Hope National Medical Center. ... As for the perfect soundtrack for inspiring your soused colleagues to don a lampshade and bust a move at the annual office party (fertile material for future taunts), slap on James Brown's Funky Christmas (Polydor), a compilation of '60s and '70s holiday songs by the godfather of soul. We're talking the hip-gyrating grooves of "Signs of Christmas," the soulful urgency of "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," the gritty horn skronk of "Soulful Christmas," and the barked command "Everybody have fun!" on "Tit for Tat (Ain't No Talking Back)." ... Collective Soul is enough to bring out the Grinch in the best of us, but Daniel Johnston's truly bizarre "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" makes Atlantic's alt-rocky You Sleigh Me worthwhile. Imagine Johnston's quavering, childlike voice over choppy revival-meetin' piano, an off-key chorus of friends, and a noisy guitar-blast coda. Will Alternative Tentacles be inspired to release a collection of Wesley Willis' Casio Christmas hits next year? ... On the predictable exotica tip, the nouveau Don Hos of the Blue Hawaiians wish us a "Mele Kalikimaka" from the "land where palm trees sway." Christmas on Big Island (Restless) offers hula-ready renditions of classics like "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells." Most memorable is the Duane Eddy-inspired surf ditty "Have Yourself a Quiet Little Christmas." ... Blue Note's Jazz to the World is probably the classiest release of the bunch, a collection of jazzy takes on holiday classics by artists like vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who offers an Africa-influenced "The Little Drummer Boy"; alto saxophonist Everette Harp, who adapts "O Tannenbaum" with pianist George Duke and bassist Stanley Clarke; and pianists Herbie Hancock and Eliane Elias, who give a sparkly bebop feel to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The album benefits the Special Olympics. ... Kristen Hersh is great. The Holy Single (Rykodisc) is bad. Last, and certainly not least, Nick at Nite Records presents two volumes of holiday cheer from the boob tube. Christmas in TV Land: Classic Favorites From Holiday Specials offers little-heard numbers by the likes of Doris Day, Robert Goulet, Burl Ives, Judy Garland -- even Johnny Cash, who does a stellar "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Then Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright offer the strangest fare on Yules of Yore: TV Land Tunes From Christmas Past, though Bobby Vinton's "Peppermint Stick Parade" comes a close second. Better yet, there's Gene Autry, Slim Whitman, Arthur Godfrey, and, my favorite, Jim Nabors.
By Santa's Little Helper