Christmas CD Buyers Guide (Volume 1)

(Originally published 12/95) With the Yuletide season now in full swing, this is the perfect time to check out some of the holiday music available. The selection of new (good) Christmas music over the last few years has been slim at best. This year however, there are several new CDs that deserve a listen. Ranging from the traditional favorites, to punk, and everything in between -- 1995's holiday releases have a lot to offer. We'll start off with some of the newer releases, then move on to a few of the better titles from years passed. We'll wrap it all up with some things that are a bit harder to find.

One of this year's most eagerly awaited holiday releases is the third Christmas CD from Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas in the Aire" (American Gramaphone). Combining 16th century instruments with modern electronic instruments, Mannheim Steamroller has created some highly entertaining music over the years, in both its Fresh Aire series and its Christmas CDs. The sound quality is impeccable, with lush orchestration throughout. 11 of the 12 songs on this CD were selected by fans who mailed in their requests. Though the CD includes several of the old classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bells, etc), the two highlights are "Pat a Pan" and an instrumental version of the traditional Spanish carol "Los Peces en el Rio".

Gipsy Kings contribute a vocal rendition of "Los Peces en el Rio" to a new CD from Atlantic called "Winter, Fire & Snow". The CD includes tracks from Clannad, b-tribe, and Andreas Vollenweider. In addition, you get songs from Jewel, Phoebe Snow, and Jane Siberry, as well as the hard to find Robbie Robertson track, "Christmas Must Be Tonight".

While "Winter, Fire & Snow" features mainly artists of the new age and "world music" genres, "You Sleigh Me" (also on Atlantic) concentrates more on pop/rock artists. Tori Amos contributes her live rendition of "Little Drummer Boy", and Collective Soul does an interesting take on "Blue Christmas" (with a riff similar to "Willie & the Hand Jive"). Several of the tracks on "You Sleigh Me" were available last year on a promotional CD from Atlantic called "So This is Christmas". The promo CD also contains traditional carols performed by Hootie and the Blowfish, Evan Dando, and Bad Religion.

Capitol released one of the best all-around compilations of traditional Christmas songs this year, "Superstars of Christmas 1995". This one contains 11 Christmas standards including John Lennon's "Happy Xmas", The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick", and Frank Sinatra's "The First Noel". The CD also includes a new recording of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper", and Diana Ross' rendition of "Silent Night" (available for the first time in the US).

If you're looking for a wide variety of musical styles this holiday season, look no further than Rhino Records. With the new releases available this year, the label now has over 30 Christmas titles in print. Need to add a bit of humor to your holiday festivities this year? Check out Rhino's new "Holidays in Dementia". The songs were hand-picked by Rhino's musical comedy expert himself, Dr. Demento. With tracks like The Waitresses "Christmas Wrapping" & "The Twelve Pains of Christmas" by Bob Rivers' Comedy Corp, "Holidays in Dementia" is sure to please those with a slightly bent sense of humor. Not to be missed on this CD is Joseph Spence's hilarious version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". See if you can keep from laughing when you listen to this one.

What if you're really not into the traditional style of Christmas music, and the Sex Pistols are more your style? No problem. Pick up a copy of Rhino's new "Punk Rock Xmas". Sure to please the hard-core fans out there, "Punk Rock Xmas" includes several songs available for the first time on CD. You get The Dickies rocking version of "Silent Night", The Damned's classic single "There Ain't No Sanity Claus", and Stiff Little Fingers' live version of "White Christmas". If that's not enough, you get new tracks from The Frogs, surf-punk band Bouquet of Veal, and (even though he's not really punk) Mojo Nixon, doing "Christmas, Christmas" to the tune of "Louie, Louie".

Also available from Rhino this year is Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "I Believe in Father Christmas". The new EP features Greg Lake's original single version of the title track, plus ELP's rendition as well. It also includes the single's rare B-side, "Humbug" (available on CD for the first time), and two more tracks.

When it comes to holiday music that's been out for a while, there are several good titles to choose from. As far as pop/rock artists, there are now two volumes of "A Very Special Christmas". Both CDs have their moments, with songs from the likes of U2, Sting, Eurythmics, The Pretenders, John Mellencamp, and a classic version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" performed by Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper. Another good one to look for is the IRS release, "Just in Time for Christmas", featuring original tracks by Squeeze, The dB's, Wall of Voodoo, Dread Zeppelin, and many others.

Also worth checking out are the various Christmas albums by Elvis Presley (all on RCA). The most popular one is probably "Elvis' Christmas Album" from 1957. If you're lucky, you may be able to find a digitally remastered mono copy on green vinyl. Be sure to check out "Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas" for The King's great renditions of "Merry Christmas, Baby" and "Winter Wonderland".

For the traditional standards, Rhino can't be beat with its two volumes of "Billboard's Greatest Christmas Hits". The only thing bad about these (and this is a problem with a lot of Christmas releases) is that they're too short. Rhino should combine the two volumes onto one CD. With classic tracks like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas", Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock", Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer", and Eartha Kitt's classic "Santa Baby", these two CDs are essential.

For those of you who might prefer your holiday music in the classical vein, there are several versions of the perennial favorites, Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" and Handel's "Messiah". If you're looking for something a little more contemporary, check out "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" (American Gramaphone). It keeps things in somewhat of a classical style, yet has enough of a modern sound to keep it interesting.

If you're into jazz, you can check out the three volumes of "A GRP Christmas Collection". With the likes of Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, Patti Austin, and Tom Scott, you can be sure to please the jazz aficionados on your list. If you want something with more of a traditional jazz sound, try "God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen" (Columbia) with artists like McCoy Tyner and Dexter Gordon. If acoustic jazz is more your style, try the Vince Guaraldi Trio's soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (Fantasy). This is another essential Christmas CD.

For those of us with a sense of humor, there are a few more must-have Christmas CDs - although these may a bit harder to find. Pat Godwin's "Reindeer Games" (Rage'n Records) is a great source of laughs over the holidays. Listen to "Grandpa Got Worked Over by a Mobster" or the continuing "12 Days of Rehab".

Can't find that Pat Godwin CD? Try the second release from Bob Rivers & Twisted Radio, "I am Santa Claus" (Atlantic). Imagine a Christmas song to the melody of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man". Fans of The Wizard of Oz will want to hear "The Magical Kingdom of Claus". The CD's closing track, "O Christmas Tree" is classic. You can't go wrong with this one.

You want something that will satisfy the kids' sense of humor over the holidays too? Bring home a copy of Ren & Stimpy's "Crock O' Christmas" (Epic). With songs like "Cat Hairballs" and "Happy Holiday Hop" you'll have no trouble entertaining the little ones.

There are several Christmas songs that are only available on singles. Most of these are hard to find, but are worth your money if you happen to see them. Try to find a copy of Eagles' "Please Come Home For Christmas" (Elektra), or Pearl Jam's rare fan-club single "Let Me Sleep (It's Christmastime)" (Epic). Other singles to seek out are the Bruce Springsteen B-sides, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "Merry Christmas, Baby" (both on Columbia). Daryl Hall and John Oates released a single of "Jingle Bell Rock" that was only pressed on green vinyl. Another good one to search for is Natalie Cole's 1991 version of "The Christmas Song".

While we're on the topic of hard to find Christmas music, check the cutout bins for a copy of Jon Anderson's "Three Ships" (Atlantic). This excellent album (it's only available on CD in Japan) has been out of print here in the US for years. Add this one to the list of essentials. Another hard to find collection of Christmas music is the Warner Brothers promo-only release, "Winter Warnerland". The double-LP package (one album is red, the other is green) features exclusive tracks from R.E.M., Los Lobos, Peter Cetera, Daniel Lanois, Throwing Muses, & several others.

Here's a couple more interesting Christmas CDs, if you can find them. "Yule Tunes" (Black Vinyl) has exclusive cuts from the likes of Material Issue, Matthew Sweet, The Cavedogs, and 13 others. "A Lump of Coal" (First Warning) is also a good one to buy. Henry Rollins' take on "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is worth the price of the CD by itself. Plus you get traditional carols respectably performed by Hoodoo Gurus, Crash Test Dummies, and more.

There are a lot of instances where there may be only one Christmas song on an album or CD. Such is the case with Pat Benatar's bluesy version of "Please Come Home For Christmas" from her "True Love" CD (Chrysalis), and David Bowie/Bing Crosby's classic rendition of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" from his latest singles compilation on Rykodisk. Virgin recently released a new King Crimson CD single with the rare 1979 Frippertronics version of Silent Night. The Alarm recorded a cover of "Happy Xmas" for their IRS compilation, "Standards".

As you can see, there is quite a bit of good Christmas music available. You may have to do some hunting to find some of it, but that's half the fun.

Happy holidays!!!

© 1995 Steve Marshall