Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Do You Hear What I Hear?

Santa's got a brand new bag of Christmas CDs.

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Like washed up B-list television actors to the Love Boat, every year at this time recording artists flock to the safety and security of that time-tested war horse, the Christmas album.

The allure of such projects is strong. With hundreds of well-known songs in the public domain and in the public's consciousness, Christmas albums are quickly and easy to produce and can rapidly rack up respectable sales among an artist's core fans.

Not to be completely cynical, often the profits from these records go to charity. But still, most have a thrown-together feel and do little to further the art of the Christmas song.

So, with all that in mind, here's a roundup of this year's new holiday albums.


Country

People in Nashville must be trying to make up for having been particularly bad this year, because they're spitting out Christmas albums like Skoal. The most high-profile release must be Garth Brooks' The Magic of Christmas, which finds him thankfully stashing his bizarre rock persona Chris Gaines in the closet and teaming up with (surprise!) a swing band and an orchestra for a largely uninspired romp through the standards, including "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Let it Snow," and "White Christmas."

The sweet-voiced Martina McBride also takes the orchestral approach on White Christmas. McBride, however, doesn't even have the blunted country edge Brooks has, so this effort comes off as thoroughly bland and traditional -- exactly what you want in a Christmas album.

Country's other big-hatted one, George Strait, takes a more playful approach with his Merry Christmas Wherever You Are, covering "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)." He also throws in a trio of holiday originals -- "I Know What I Want for Christmas," "Santa's on His Way," and "Old Time Christmas."

Two country/Christian artists have traditional yuletide offerings. Amy Grant apparently loves, loves, loves Christmas. A Christmas To Remember is her third holiday collection. By this time she's scrounging for chestnuts like a squirrel in December, resorting to obscure numbers such as "Welcome to Our World" and two instrumentals. Meanwhile, fellow popster for Christ Michael W. Smith takes a more pious tact on Christmastime.

If however, you really do want to celebrate the holidays in country time, check out Riders in the Sky's Christmas the Cowboy Way. The group plays country & western music the way the good lord (and Gene Autry) intended it to be played -- in spurs, chaps, and a big goofy hat. And their Christmas CD blends traditional tunes and originals for a taste of holiday on horseback.


Pop/Rock

Singing groups are inherently not very creative, so it makes sense that on the heels of last year's N' Sync holiday offering, current teen favorites 98° now give us their take on all things yule. This Christmas is a pleasant enough effort, with the boys grafting their faux soul onto "the Christmas Song" among others. You could argue about whether 98° are as good as the Backstreet Boys or N' Sync, but then who really cares.

A Jewel Christmas album sounds like a good idea. And if Joy: A Holiday Collection isn't entirely successful, it's not for lack of effort. Though she mostly sticks to the standards -- "Silent Night" "Joy to the World," etc. -- she shakes things up with Eastern rhythms ("Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem"), Celtic moods ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"), and her famous yodeling ("Winter Wonderland").

Ringo Starr. Ringo, Ringo, Ringo. Perhaps the only thing more unnecessary than the former Beatles' drummer's solo career is a Christmas album from the former Beatles' drummer. Yet, there it is: I Wanna Be Santa Claus, an album full of goofy Ringo charm that goes down as glibly as a Bloody Mary after a hard day's night.


Collections

The Very Special Christmas series benefitting Special Olympics may well be responsible for the renewed popularity of the Christmas album. And until now, the series remained pretty well on top of the heap as far as quality goes. A Very Special Christmas 4 -- Live From Washington, however, is fairly middling. Eric Clapton contributes a lovely blues tune, "Christmas Tears," and jams the rest of the night with the likes of Vanessa Williams ("What Child Is This?") and Jon Bon Jovi ("Please Come Home for Christmas").

Sony's And So This Is Christmas may be the most star-studded holiday collection, with Celine Dion, Babyface, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Charlotte Church, Marc Anthony, Shawn Colvin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter on the roster. Highlights include Babyface's funky "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Martin's hilarious "Ay, Ay, Ay. It's Christmas."

Our favorite new collection of the year, however, is Silent Night, Soulful Night with new funky versions of holiday classics. Dru Hill dresses up "This Christmas" in his own style, Vanessa Williams and Bobby Caldwell team up on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and Al Green works his magic on "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

And for the old-school variation of Silent Night , check out Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas. This new disc from Rhino collects old Christmas covers from the Ohio Players, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, and Gladys Knight among others.


Other

Things get unbearably cute with our next two releases. Rosie O'Donnell's A Rosie Christmas is just like her TV show -- heartfelt, irony free, and celebrity (even minor celebrity) obsessed. O'Donnell hosts a parade of guests from Donny Osmond to Elton John. The high point: Lauryn Hill's "Little Drummer Boy." The low (really low): O'Donnell's duet on "Do You Hear What I Hear" featuring Sesame Street's Elmo.

Meanwhile, the millennium-end release of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's Cool Yule merely proves all the doomsayers right. The end is nigh and not a moment too soon.

The perfect antidote to O'Donnell's and the Olsens' sickening schmaltz is Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone take their South Park characters on a tolerance-testing trip through the holiday. Teacher Mr. Garrison wishes everyone a "Merry Fucking Christmas," Adolf Hitler sings "O Tannenbaum," and Satan himself tells of "Christmas Time in Hell." And, of course, the whole affair is presided over by Mr. Hanky, a talking piece of excrement.

Of course, those are just some of the new listening choices this holiday season. Remember, the right holiday music can be the perfect soundtrack to your seasonal merry making. So, pick out an album by your favorite artist and put it on while you're wrapping presents, decorating the tree, or warming yourself by the fire with your loved ones. And Mr Hanky.


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