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New Holiday Releases

By Michael Henningsen

DECEMBER 14, 1998: 

The problem with holiday music is that there's very little new ground to be broken. Still, artists and record companies churn out new Yuletide releases every fall hoping to cash in on the five weeks each year when rehashed classics are as welcome as the brandied eggnog and quality time with stale-smelling relatives they foretell. And, year after year, some of the holiday platters served up are worthy, while others should be stuffed someplace other than a stocking. Here, for your pleasure, is a brief overview of what to pick up for your holiday parties and listening pleasure, and what to leave for the bargain bins. If you have a programmable CD player, we've included a "programmable tracks" section with each review because we know that listening to seasonal music can be painful, especially if an entire album contains just few decent tunes.

Etta James 12 Songs of Christmas (Private Music)
overall rating: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
programmable tracks: 4-12 (of 12)

The effervescent Ms. James just seems to get better with age. Her voice has deepened considerably over the years, making hers a world class instrument whether she be tackling jazz or blues. James gets back to her roots with this holiday collection of standards. Each familiar carol is soaked in jazz, courtesy of pianist Cedar Walton, alto and tenor saxophonist Red Halloway, bassist John Clayton, guitarist Josh Sklair and drummer Billy Higgins. Her version of "Silent Night" is perhaps one of the finest ever--a deeply affecting plantation spiritual that only James' voice is currently capable of producing.

Truly one of the most pleasing holiday records to come along in years, 12 Songs of Christmas is a rarity in that it'll stay fresh as long as the gaily adorned Douglas Fir in your living room (excluding artificial trees, of course). Thanks in part to her desire to add her own unique twist and a bit of personal flair to each of the tracks, James scores big on Santa's list with this one.

Various Barnyard Animals Jingle Bells: Swingin' Barnyard Christmas (Oglio Records)
overall rating: Cluck off
programmable tracks: None. Unless you're Torturing someone in the basement (of 12)

There's a kid in every family whose job it is to ruin the holidays every year. It's genetic, and usually turns up in the middle child. One of those kids grew up to form Oglio Records in order to ruin Christmases the world over. In case you hadn't guessed, here are 12 standard carols barked, clucked, quacked, meowed, mooed, farted and otherwise completely destroyed. At least the producers had the decency not to rehash a single song with an endless variety of barnyard noises. They're probably saving that one for next year.

Your party guests will laugh for about 13 seconds before they choke you with the cheese ball, which was about 75 percent cheaper to make than this record was to buy.

Various Artists Celtic Christmas IV (Windham Hill)
overall rating: Have Yourself a Deeply Thoughtful Little Christmas
programmable tracks: 1-12 (of 13)

The word "holiday" in Gaelic--like just about any other word in the ancient language--might as well mean "melancholy." But melancholy is perhaps the most beautiful of moods. Melancholy has a unique leveling effect on the soul. The heart opens, childlike wonder returns if only for a moment and, no matter how brief, melancholy allows for true reflection. Likewise, traditional Celtic music is as inspiring.

This fourth installment of Windham Hill's holiday series is as delicate and beautiful as the three before it. Produced by Mícheál O' Domhnaill (Nightnoise), this collection features a wide range of Scottish and Irish artists, along with a few Americans--including an out-of-place track by country-bluegrass artist Ricky Scaggs--performing original compositions among several traditional melodies. Because Christmas is not a traditional Celtic holiday, there aren't any carols here, per se. But the lot of the music here is laden with gentle spirit and the kind of joy that's born of the past rekindled.

While its cup runneth over in the beauty department, Celtic Christmas IV probably isn't poised to be an instant party favorite. But when the guests have trickled home, the presents all unwrapped and children's eyelids fluttering on the verge of a long winter's nap, this could prove to be the greatest gift of the season.

Various Artists Natty & Nice: A Reggae Christmas (Rhino)
overall rating: Jah to the World
programmable tracks: all of 'em (of 18)

Jamaicans begin their Christmastime celebration sometimes as early as Dec. 15, with each relative of a particular family sponsoring a Christmas dinner. The street parties, gift-giving and pageants last through the New Year, in thanks to the Creator for another year. The immense spirit of the season as celebrated in Jamaica permeates this, the 35th holiday record in the Rhino catalog.

Eighteen artists, from Lee "Scratch" Perry to Beres Hammond, contribute to the collection, which spans 30 years of holiday reggae and ska. Roots, dub and skank may not seem likely vehicles for Christmas music to those not familiar with reggae, but Natty & Nice offers a uniquely different and altogether refreshing slant on the tried and true. The album also features a number of not-so-familiar tracks, affording even more upstroke cheer.

Those allergic to reggae will surely turn tail and run, screaming for Perry Como. But even for the casual fan, this one's destined to please with uncommon delight.

Various Artists A Jazz Christmas (Windham Hill)
overall rating: Deck the Halls with Boughs of Schmaltzy
programmable tracks: 1, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13 (of 13)

Depending on your individual definition, A Jazz Christmas either is or isn't. The sitting-on-the-fence declaration is something along the lines of "smooth jazz"--not exactly Kenny G, but certainly not the Sackville All Stars. Featuring standout tracks by Hiroshima, Earl Klugh, Larry Coryell and Etta James among other, less inspiring numbers by jazz-lite artists, A Jazz Christmas has its appeal, but tends to run together. Don't be surprised if you hear it in your dentist's waiting room or in the background at any number of huge, corporate retail outlets.

Perfect for a party populated by your parents and coworkers you couldn't care less about, A Jazz Christmas will just lay around by an open fire, mostly languishing in silky, noncommittal quasi-jazz mush. It probably won't make your holiday any more cheerful, but it won't make you wish you were dead, either.

Various Artists The Colors of Christmas (Windham Hill)
overall rating: I Saw Mommy Kissing Peabo Bryson
programmable tracks: 2, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11 (of 12)

A distant, somewhat livelier cousin of Windham Hill's A Jazz Christmas, this one's equally difficult to define apart from the crossection of artists appearing. Surprisingly, Melissa Manchester shucked the annoying wailing that somehow made "Don't Cry Out Loud" a mega-hit, delivering a respectable version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Unfortunately, listening to Sheena Easton croon "The Lord's Prayer" (with visions of "Sugar Walls" dancing in your head) is about as pleasant as the day after Christmas at the mall.

But hearing Roberta Flack sing anything is redemption incarnate. Other standout contributions come from Phillip Bailey, Oleta Adams and Peabo Bryson. All said and done, the good ones carry enough weight to make The Colors of Christmas worthy, provided your CD player is programmable. Otherwise, play at your own risk.

Various Artists Yuletide Soirée Party Pack (Rhino)
overall rating: Jingle Bell Rock Your World
programmable tracks: every single last one of 'em except 17 and 18 on Disc One (of 40)

By far the best of the bunch this year, Yuletide Soirée features 40 tracks on two CDs, spanning the gamut of holiday music from Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" and Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" to Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas" and the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick." There are even 10 instrumental sing-along tracks for when the Christmas cheer kicks in and your pleasantly drunk guests suddenly have the urge to carol themselves into embarrassment.

One of Rhino's acclaimed "Party Pack" series, Yuletide Soirée combines themed music and a "how-to" of throwing a themed party. There's a week-by-week plan, decorating ideas, games and activities, menus for serving eight, 12 or 25 guests in three settings from elegant to casually festive, coupons, recipes and a guide to holiday spirits. And of course, there are the CDs--all the holiday music you'll ever need with the exception of Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald's Swinging Christmas and James Brown's Santa's Got a Brand New Bag.

To keep it short and to the point: Only Scrooge would turn his nose up at this one. Even if you only buy it for the music, this one's well worth it. There's even the original Thurl Ravenscroft recording of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Various Artists A Winter Solstice Reunion (Windham Hill)
overall rating: Upon a Midnight Clear
programmable tracks: all of them

Windham Hill loves a series. Reunion marks the seventh volume in the Winter Solstice cache, and it's about what you've come to expect if you've heard any previous--a gentle collection of soft jazz, new age and world-lite instrumentals designed specifically to put you in the mood for a fire and spiced rum. Reunion, as its title suggests, brings together 14 artists, most of whom contributed to the very first installment of the series despite, in some cases, having left the Windham Hill label long ago.

Reunion runs a close second to Celtic Christmas IV to being the cream of the Windham Hill crop this year for holiday music. The fact that it's instrumental and features a wide range of artists--Liz Story, George Winston, Alex De Grassi, Nightnoise, Michael Manring, Tuck and Patti to name a few--makes it instantly and easily listenable, at the same time preventing it from simply becoming background noise.

This one will please all without being obtrusive. The instrumental arrangements have been constructed with care to preserve traditional melodies where applicable, but each artist also delivers a piece of themselves. Reunion is one of your best bets this holiday season.

NSYNC Home for Christmas (RCA)
overall rating: O Holy Shit
programmable tracks: guess ...

I'd like to take this opportunity to extend my sincere holiday wishes to the folks at RCA for taking it upon themselves to combine the Tiffany and Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block mall tours of the '80s with the Menudo of the '70s to create the latest talentless band since Milli Vanilli: May all your Christmases be trite.

If Santa carried a bag of shit instead of toys, this little turd--featuring Justin, Chris, JC, Joey and Lance modeling the latest in snowboard wear--would rest steaming on top.

Shirley Caesar Christmas with Shirley Caesar (Myrrh)
overall rating: Do You Hear What I Hear?
programmable tracks: every glorious one (of 11)

When gospel queen Shirley Caesar sings about the Lord's work, she means it. And you'd better listen or be damned. Sure, you've heard most of these songs a million times before, but you've never heard them like this. Backed by a funk band and a full gospel choir, Caesar takes the sir out of sermon and replaces it with a female voice of unbelievable range and boundless passion.

If you need to be reminded of what Christmas is all about among the faithful, you needn't look further. But beyond the unmistakable religious overtone, Christmas with Shirley Caesar is a glittering musical achievement. Think you've already heard your fair share of "Ave Maria?" Think again. Caesar makes a strong case for putting the Christ back in Christmas, which may be a bit overbearing for the gospel novice or staunch, "God-is-not-invited" practitioner of the holiday season, but if you can appreciate the soaring voice of one filled with the spirit--any spirit--then you'll find more to appreciate here than you bargained for.

Vince Charles Caribbean Christmas (Oglio Records)
overall rating: Little Steel Drummer Boy
programmable tracks: all or none

If listening to traditional Christmas carols performed on steel drums is your idea of holiday cheer, by all means pick this one up. But one person's gem is another person's garbage. For some, listening to Caribbean Christmas will be akin to listening to this year's other Oglio Records release, Jingle Bells: Swingin' Barnyard Christmas, despite the fact that no camp is intended here. Charles plays these songs in earnest, with arrangements ranging between devoutly traditional and pleasantly bossa nova.

This one could make or break your party, depending on who your guests are and how drunk they manage to get. Listening to the entire record in one sitting will probably be a little maddening for most, but taken in small doses, Caribbean Christmas adds a pleasant island spin you're not going to find anywhere else.

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