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The Boston Phoenix Holiday Hoedowns

The new crop of Christmas albums

By the Boston Phoenix music staff

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Christmas may have different meaning for everyone, but in the record business it's mainly a time to cash in on the holiday buying spirit. As always, Mannheim Steamroller will likely rule the holiday charts, this year with The Christmas Angel: A Family Story and Chip Davis's Renaissance Holiday, though that pair will face stiff competition from Celine Dion's These Are Special Times and from Babyface, who's applied his trademark R&B polish to 10 chestnuts on Christmas with Babyface (Epic), as well as from a new one by former Aerosmith producer Paul O'Neill's cheesy Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose orchestral-rock The Christmas Attic (Lava/Atlantic) follows up the tremendously successful 1997 disc Christmas Eve and Other Stories (Lava/Atlantic). Our critics (many of them with visions of egg nog already dancing in their heads) have made their best efforts to get in the holiday spirit by sampling some of the new crop of seasonal treats and traumas below. Happy shopping.

-- Matt Ashare
Music Editor

The Beach Boys

It's the Great Lost Beach Boys Album! No, not Smile -- we'll never get that one back. Rather, it's the Christmas album the Boys recorded in 1977 to get out of their Warner Bros. contract, but the label rejected it (Warners didn't want a holiday album) and left it on the shelf. Now, seven of its tracks have resurfaced, and they're a treat, from "Christmas Time Is Here Again" (an exuberant rocker set to the tune of "Peggy Sue") to "Melekalikimaka" (Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas") to a Brian Wilson mini-concerto, "Winter Symphony." Also included is the quintet's classic Beach Boys Christmas Album from 1964, featuring the indispensable "Little Saint Nick" and "Santa's Beard" as well as harmonically lush covers of such chestnuts as "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and "Auld Lang Syne." Finally, for completist geeks, there are some alternate versions of the '64 tunes, the rare '74 single "Child of Winter," some toy-drive public-service announcements, and a 1964 Yuletide interview with Brian Wilson.

-- Gary Susman


Frosty has a big charcoal grin on the back cover, but most of the songs here are pretty damned bittersweet. That's fine with me. My holiday mix tapes usually make room for folky melodramas like Gordon Lightfoot's "Circle of Steel," so when Neal Casal recalls the abduction of a Wisconsin 12-year-old to the tune of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," I'm right at home. The compilation is built around a flurry of boo-hoo singer-songwriters. Todd Thibaud misses his mom with enough eloquence to evoke Ron Sexsmith. Lowen & Navarro wax plaintive about a kid steering Santa to the neediest neighbors. And Jill Sobule deems 12/25 the "saddest day of the year" because our grade-school innocence has been replaced by adult consumerism. Her hushed indictment winds up having a lot more resonance than the Alarm's bloated proclamation of John & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." The most upbeat track comes from the Smithereens, who tell Rudolph's tale with the loose-limbed swing of a band who've been at the egg-nog bowl all night.

-- Jim Macnie

Shawn Colvin

Every Christmas album should have a few downer tunes to counterbalance the relentlessly upbeat holiday spirit, but Shawn Colvin risks overdoing it, both in tempo and in mood. Her "lullabies" are faultlessly tasteful, cruising along with folky piano, acoustic guitar, strings, and light brass accompaniment. Her subtle vocal phrasing fits the mood splendidly. But then Colvin goes beyond reflective, as she hints when kicking off Holiday Songs with the gloomy traditional "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." The lilting mid-tempo tracks sound downright buoyant in comparison, and the soft-rock jaunt "Windy Nights" and the country-inflected "Little Road to Bethlehem" gallop along like a confident horse striding through a snow-covered field. The material may teeter on dourness, but Colvin's a class act: she dedicates the disc to her cat, and she's enlisted Maurice Sendak to provide the marvelously subdued original artwork for the package. Along with a few glasses of egg nog (or decaffeinated coffee), this could be the perfect post-holiday panacea.

-- Richard Martin


(So So Def/Columbia)

Worth it for the cover alone: Atlanta R&B impresario Dupri, looking as if he were playing Santa as part of a court-mandated community-service stint, with an expression on his face that says, "Yeah, what you want for Christmas, beeyatch?" If your answer is something like "Slow, goopy lite-soul ballads, and plenty of 'em!", put this CD on your wish list. Why Dupri didn't recruit some of his So So Def Bass All-Stars to put some real booty under the tree is anybody's guess. Instead, we get returnable gifts from K-Ci and Jo-Jo, Brian McKnight, and Chaka Khan, who sounds as if what she really needs for Christmas would be a Rufus reunion.

-- Alex Pappademas

John Jonethis


Although billed as a follow-up to '97's Lounge Freak, Nashville supper-club mainstay John Jonethis's collection of Christian rock songs performed lounge-style, there's nothing explicitly "lounge" about this album aside from the retro-kitsch cover art. Jonethis has much more in common with Martin as in "Dean" than Martin as in "Denny," except Jonethis doesn't sound as if he'd guzzled a punch bowl of rum egg nog on his way to the studio. Instead, this is a dead-serious collection of Christmas carols sung with solemn, chestnut-roasted reverence -- and sung very well, I might add, in a soothing, molasses-smooth baritone -- but without one iota of martini-spiked humor. Guess the lounge tag, then, has to do with another inevitable by-product of the shop-till-you-drop season: good old-fashioned marketing.

-- Jonathan Perry


(Justin Time)

Diana Krall, Dave Young, Oliver Jones, and others will provide the pleasant if somewhat dull soundtrack to any yuppie holiday soirée on this disc from Justin Time. Of the cuts that don't belong in the cocktail-jazz continuum, Ranee Lee featuring Ray Brown performing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Jeri Brown with D.D. Jackson performing "White Christmas" are blues resettings so bone-dry and snail-paced that they'd fit nicely on the next boring Low record; the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir is wasted on an Afro-jazz telling of "Kings of Orient"; and Bryan Lee's "Santa Claus Is Messin' with the Kid" is not a tale of pedophilia. Only the Paul Bley Trio's "Silent Night" stands out. It begins with odd and ominous piano chordings of the "Silent Night" melody on piano, segues into jubilant trumpet motifs from "Joy to the World," and then alludes to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It's an apt reflection of the arbitrary behavioral shifts that exemplify the season and cause undue stress for its opponents. Bah humbug!

-- Kevin John

Diana Krall


This is an odd piece of holiday packaging featuring one of the rising stars among jazz and ballad singers today. Diana Krall has a gently robust, sensuous voice and the sophisticated sense of adventure that separates jazz singers from less creative interpreters of popular songs. She is also an attractive blonde gal, a quality played up in the 12-card calendar packaged with the EP, a card for each month of the coming year with different images of Krall in alternately thoughtful and carefree poses. For those who want to listen to the Canadian native who studied at Berklee rather than see her on their desk, there are just three selections. The title song is arranged by the famous ballad chef Johnny Mandel, with strings feathering a gentle guitar-bass-drum rhythm section behind Krall's wistful vocals. A trio also backs her on "Christmas Time Is Here." By far the bounciest of the three cuts is the solo "Jingle Bells," where Krall's cracked, streetwise whisper is well met by her own boppish piano accompaniment.

-- Bill Kisliuk

Cyndi Lauper


It's a shopgirl's Christmas in Cyndi Lauper's world, where Santa is drunk on the corner, money is tight, Christmas trees are made of white plastic, fishnet stockings are appropriate holiday wear, and winking old women tie a bow around themselves in anticipation of an amorous visit from jolly St. Nick. Lauper's bid for catalogue immortality is peppered with peppy, rhythmic original tunes ("Home on Christmas Day," "Early Christmas Morning," "Christmas Conga"), lullabies for her own infant ("New Year's Baby (First Lullaby)," "December Child"), judicious covers ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Silent Night"), and arrangements that are still oddly stuck in Lauper's '80s synth-pop heyday. If the tunes aren't all memorable, they're eminently listenable. Lauper remains a strong, original voice in search of songcraft that does her justice. She has a gift, but it's hard to stuff it in a fishnet stocking.

-- Gary Susman

The Lovemongers


Even when they're going acoustic, changing their name, and doing an album of seasonal songs, Heart still sound like Heart. So it all depends on how much of a weak spot you've got for this eternally earnest classic-rock act. The title track finds the Wilson sisters doing something they've always done well -- namely, rewriting "The Battle of Evermore." But anyone with a sentimental streak tends to overdo it at this time of year, and the Heart-mongers are no exception: "It's Christmas Time" has some nice "Penny Lane"-type horns but otherwise sounds an awful lot like "We Are the World"; and "The Last Noël" is as unsubtle as songs about lonely old guys dying on Christmas Eve tend to be. Their "Ave Maria" isn't quite the silliest version ever recorded (the Stevie Wonder one with the harmonica solo has it beat) but comes close enough.

-- Brett Milano

Mannheim Steamroller

(American Gramaphone)

(American Gramaphone)

Mannheim Steamroller's holiday offering this year is for those of us who are still hoping to wake up Christmas morning and find Olivia Newton-John under the tree. It's a How the Grinch Stole Christmas-type story told by Newton-John and MS honcho Chip Davis over (mostly) familiar MS arrangements like "Joy to the World," "Deck the Halls," and "Angels We Have Heard on High." A horrible creature called the Gargon steals the Angel from atop the village's Christmas tree, but a young mother named Dorothy follows him to the Northern Lights and manages to transform him; the concern here is not so much for the children who will have no toys as for the toys who will have no children. Newton-John gives the tale a spin with her trace of Aussie drawl, Davis raps his way through "Good King Wenceslas," and the wind blowing ghostly through "Silent Nacht" reminds you that Davis lives outside Omaha -- it's as if he'd found the secret heart of America. American Gramaphone has thoughtfully packaged the entire 45-minute production onto each side of the cassette version, so there's no break.

Renaissance Holiday is a Davis-produced effort featuring the London Symphony Orchestra Strings and the Musica Anima Renaissance Consort in a bountiful selection of tunes and dances, from the tried and true ("Ding Dong! Merrily on High," "Greensleeves," "There Is No Rose of Such Virtue") to the strange and new ("The Kings Mistresse," "Malle Sijmon," "Wolseys Wilde"). If nothing else, it'll provide classy background music for your holiday parties.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

Dean Martin

There's something wonderfully bogus about a Dean Martin Christmas album. Martin's specialty was a playfully sensuous form of insincerity, an uncaring nonchalance conveyed by a lightly slurred legato and the judicious use of a self-mocking vibrato. He had the singing voice of a seducer for whom all conquests are foregone conclusions -- relaxed, coaxing, faintly bored. Just the guy you want to hear sing "Silent Night." Actually, he's on his best behavior on "Night" -- merely mellow -- though he does inject a tincture of lasciviousness into "Jingle Bells." Some of the songs are more fitting -- "Let It Snow," "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" fit his roguish persona like a glove. Others -- "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer," "A Marshmallow Christmas" -- are enjoyable toss-offs. If you're susceptible to Dino's boozy charm, this can be fun. Unfortunately the arrangements -- all 14 of 'em -- suck. It'll take more than a few stiff egg nogs to make their inanely prancing strings and anonymously crooning back-up singers palatable.

-- Richard C. Walls

Martina McBride

At the very least, Martina McBride's "White Christmas" is the year's weirdest piece of pop archivism. McBride wanted to make her version of the classic Christmas albums she grew up listening to, the sort you reach for when it's time to wrap presents or trim the tree or have some other Hallmark moment. Freely mixing the secular and the sacred, the album finds every saccharine string arrangement and white-bread back-up singer right in place. And damned if it doesn't work anyway. McBride, who produced with Paul Worley, and Dennis Burnside (who arranged and conducted), have somehow managed to banish self-consciousness. "White Christmas" is performed and recorded as if the sort of MOR pop music it's emulating had never gone out of style. What keeps it from being a novelty is McBride's voice -- big and free without ever getting showy and (along with Bobby Cryner's) possessed of more genuine emotion than perhaps any other singer in slick, mainstream country.

-- Charles Taylor


When you consider that this set includes "Do You Hear What I Hear" with wah-wah, "The Christmas Song" with double bass drums, and Ted Nugent, the big surprise is that it's nowhere near silly enough. Not only do most of the hotdoggers on this disc (ranging from Billy Idol sideman Steve Stevens to some guy who got kicked out of Whitesnake once) all sound overly tasteful, they all sound exactly the same -- and you know something's wrong when you can't count on Al DiMeola to overdo it. There isn't even a blues track like the one Joe Perry stuck on the first Axemas volume last year; and Trevor Rabin's "O Come All Ye Faithful" proves only that if he wants to go berserk with quasi-classical themes, he might as well just rejoin Yes. But then along comes Ted to save the day, with a version of "Deck the Halls" so ridiculously over the top that it turns this midnight Mass into the drunkest office party in town. That sound you hear as the band kick in isn't really double bass drums, it's Santa getting his ass punted straight back up the chimney.

-- Brett Milano

'N Sync

What better way to celebrate the rampant commercialism of the holiday season than with a vocal group specifically designed for maximum consumer appeal? Justin, Chris, Joey, Lance, and JC (!), the baby-faced fellas known collectively as the chart-topping 'N Sync, sing their little hearts out on Home for Christmas, an album with a slicker, shinier surface than a box of tinsel. Classic carols like "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" and "The First Noël" come complete with an icy synthesized backdrop for the boys' voices to glide around on. They ladle out some less familiar G-rated romantic material as well, rhapsodizing about a special kiss on the silky R&B joint "In Love on Christmas" and crooning about a special lady -- in fact "an angel shining bright," as they put it in unison -- on the glimmering "I Never Knew the Meaning of Christmas." It's an album that's safe, sweet, and probably on sale.

-- Richard Martin

Squirrel Nut Zippers

Some Christmas fans cherish traditionals -- or contemporary takes on the classics; others prefer original twists on seasonal songwork. But Squirrel Nut Zippers have their genre- and era-blurring perspective. The tone here ranges from open-hearth sentimentality ("My Evergreen," the country strains of "I'm Coming Home for Christmas") to boogie-woogie rowdy ("Indian Giver," the sizzling "Hot Christmas"). While snow graces "some Northern town," the Zips celebrate a "Carolina Christmas" by "chillin' in our underwear." The gospel-bluegrass strains of Jim Mathus's "Gift of the Magi" strike a note of poignancy as a poor couple pawn their treasured possessions in exchange for tokens of love. Christmas Caravan's only familiar moment is the Zips' rave on "Sleigh Ride," and unusual cover selections like Chester Church's "Hanging Up My Stockings" maintain the group's flair for reviving overlooked gems.

-- Mark Woodlief

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