Mama didn't raise no fool. I realize full well that that the business of Christmas music is simply a scam, a convenient excuse for shameless record companies to dress up the same old inventory in fresh holiday rags and sell it to us crazy consumers over and over again. For example, Brenda Lee recorded "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" once upon a time in 1958. It is currently available on 55 different CDs, anthologies with inane titles like Very Cherry Christmas and Yuletide Soiree Party Pack. Long after Ms. Lee's dead and gone to rock 'n' roll heaven, her landmark bit of holiday cheer will be making money for somebody else, the penultimate gift that keeps on giving.
Yet, I remain thoroughly smitten by the concept of Christmas Music. I listen to it incessantly, no matter how hackneyed. Especially this year, when so many artists appear with brand new discs that--for the most part--revisit the same old songs.
But how can one resist Ian Anderson, the mad flutist, who adds a pair of crowns to "We Three Kings"--and rocks the house with it? The reconfigured "We 5 Kings," one for each member of his band Jethro Tull, gallops along in a crisply executed 5/4 rhythm.
Irreverent? Undoubtedly. Absurd? Probably. But such is the magical attraction of Christmas music, where anything is possible--and good taste matters not in the least.
Here's a look at what's new--or new again-- this year.
Christmas with Johnny Cash
Goin' Home for Christmas
The Christmas Guest Stories and Songs of Christmas
"We Three Kings," indeed, as a trio of discs by icons with proud country roots appear. Goin' Home, a reissue of a 1982 session with one bonus track from '86, is easily the best of the lot. Haggard's relaxed baritone radiates an ever-present vibe of warmth, whether resurrecting a children's song ("Santa Claus is Comin' to Town") or dealing with weightier issues in his own "Daddy Won't Be Home Again for Christmas." "Forgive me for the letters I don't answer," Merle the sinner confesses to his child. Whether concocting fantasies or simply telling like it is, Haggard always tells riveting stories. Sorry to report that the sets by Griffith and Cash sag a bit under the weight of over-production. Christmas with Johnny Cash gathers cuts from four previously released LPs, spanning the '60s, '70s and '80s. Sadly, an unholy choir haunts nearly every cut, as does the occasional blast of French horn and clarinet, odd touches for any country session. I'd rather hear the Tennessee 3, an unadorned harmony by June Carter--or just Johnny and his solitary 6-string.
Producer Marty Stuart humbugs Andy's newly recorded disc of songs and spoken-word recitations with the dreaded full-blown Nashville treatment. Strings abound--from an army of fiddles and banjos to an entire orchestra. But they only serve to strangle Andy's natural genius as a raconteur. Like Haggard and Cash, Griffith is an American original. Just hand him the microphone and stand back.
The real Andy surfaces briefly on "Belleau Wood," a WWII recollection of enemy soldiers who come together on a frozen battlefield and share the common language of "Silent Night." An enduring image of hope borrowed, perhaps surprisingly, from the Garth Brooks songbook.
Blind Boys of Alabama
Go Tell It on the Mountain
BBA's percolating gospel meets an eclectic cast of pop stars--and the juxtaposition is marvelous. The guest list reads like a heavenly dictionary of soul: Soloman Burke, Michael Franti, Les McCann, Me'shell Ndegeocello and Mavis Staples. The growl of Tom Waits, who must have prepped with a gargle of gravel, fits right in among the Boys' textured vocal weave. Chrissie Hynde, on the other hand, contrasts the band's sandpapery chorale of "In the Bleak Midwinter" with a stark reading as pure as winter's first snow. In the background, guitarist Richard Thompson fingers a heavenly eight-note lick as the tune melts away. A Christmas classic is born.
What's It Gonna Be, Santa?
Q : Where do dinosaur bands from the '70s go to die?
A : Apparently, the bones can be found near Christmastime. Featuring both time-tested and freshly penned carols with peaceful storylines, the Moodies wassail heartily atop a plush carpet of acoustic guitars and electronic strings. Fans will recognize the earnest voices of Justin Hayward and John Lodge and--voila!--it's 1973 again.
The Chicago disc, bolstering a 1998 session with six new cuts, is even better. User-friendly "Saturday in the Park"-like horn lines decorate every cut. Sipping from the fountain of youth, keyboardist Robert Lamm wails exuberantly, especially on a minor-keyed, finger-popping "Winter Wonderland." Credit E-Street piano professor Roy Bittan and old-timer Phil Ramone, the producers, for seasonal magic worthy of Santa himself.
An up-and-coming San Francisco-based vocalist who blends jazz inflections with the vitality of vintage R&B, Clairdee swings the holiday repertoire with uncommon passion. The joyous party ambience sounds like the rollicking Saturday Night Live house-band fronted by an authentic soul stirrer reared on 'Retha and Roberta Flack. Seldom is an Xmas disc so much fun.
Watching the Snow
Some might regard his synthetic SoCal-style jazz and half-spoken song-style as music for wimps, but not me. I've always admired the streamlined logic of his poetry, which harkens back to the crafty lyricists of American Popular Song. He remains the master of the quick quip. "I understand flannel pajamas," Franks deadpans, "are not allowed in the Bahamas." That's "Island Christmas." In nine other originals, Mr. Romantic Rendezvous travels the world over--from a snowcapped hideaway cabin to a fuzzy-warm hotel room in Kyoto. A sophisticated make-out record available only at www.michaelfranks.com
If you adored the acoustic Tull of, say, Living in the Past, you'll do backflips over the latest Ian Anderson project. His mischievous quintet, which still includes longtime guitarist Martin Barre, burns with energy, pitting jaunty flute against fingerpicked guitars, mandolins and even a string quartet. The sharp-tongued commentary of Anderson's clever anti-carols dovetails into several traditional fare transformed by odd time signatures ("Greensleeves" in 7/4!). Shaken and stirred, Brit-folk and prog mixed up by these graybeards comprise a potent Xmas cocktail.
A Merry Christmas
(Capitol) Waxed 40 years ago, these blaring big band charts were inked by Ralph Charmichael, famous for his mainstream arrangements of religious fare. Nevertheless, all the brassy Kenton signatures sing out--from the steely trombones to the inventive clang of glockenspiels. A rousing bonus track by former Kenton trumpeter Maynard Ferguson nearly steals the show. The ambitious medley, titled--fanfare please--"Christmas for Moderns," frames MF's signature high notes. With ears twitching, the family pup no doubt will howl along.
Like a car-load of boisterous kin arriving on Xmas Eve, the familiar voices of Bing, Andy Williams and Satchmo come home for dinner. The menu, however, has been funked up. Percussion-driven, the arrangements are thoroughly contemporary, featuring lots of scratching, ping-ponged blips and cool lounge touches like cheesy organ smears. Funny thing, the re-mixture of old and new succeeds because great singers swing regardless of the context. Armstrong, for instance, would sound just fine accompanied by, oh, a choir of Christmas jackhammers.
Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn
Compiled by Brian O'Donovan, a WGBH radio DJ in Boston, Comfort mines the rich December traditions of Ireland and Scotland as well as jolly old England. The cast includes angel-diva Maddy Prior, the prolific family-band of Waterson-Carthy and Cherish the Ladies. Button accordions and fiddles inhabit the grooves, squeezed and sawed in support of voices pure and high. Imagine the soundtrack to Dickens-inspired fantasy--or a fireside sing-along with cups filled with grog and raised to the ceiling in celebration. Long ago, perhaps, but not so far away.
Genuine Houserockin' Christmas
The Chicago label's second holiday sampler is a lot like the first: a bawdy blooze party. Amped-up howlers like Koko Taylor and Lonnie Brooks grab the mic at midnight and won't let go 'til dawn. But my fave cuts accent softer moments like Cephas & Wiggins wry acoustic observations and the nifty horn-driven "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?" by Rhode Island hepcats Roomful of Blues.
A Very Special Acoustic Christmas
Despite some goofs--Alison Krauss' disco-fied "Only You Can Bring Me Cheer" traces her personal nadir--this lo-tech but high-spirited anthology is otherwise top-notch. Big stars like Reba and Willie dress down and deliver plaintive, no-fuss performances. Note the hoe-down ambience defined by mandolin trill and a cloud of fiddle rosin, like the Nashville of yesteryear. Brightest star: Wynonna. Her spell-binding "O Holy Night" will inspire goose-flesh.
A Windham Hill Christmas II (Windham Hill)
The usual collective of quiet guitarists and careful pianists show up at the Windham Hill party. It's a somber affair. Jim Brickman and Will Ackerman play real pretty, but the precious ambience induces sleep. The Rhino collection serves up folk-inspired instrumentals as well, but with a double-shot of caffeine. Supplementing the pap of Mannheim Steamroller and John Tesh are vocal tunes with bite. Thanks to Take 6 and Eva Cassidy for resuscitating the corpse of New Age.