Christmas CD Buyers Guide (Volume 2)

(Originally published 12/96) Well, the midst of the holiday season is upon us once again. Time to pull out the Christmas music. Before long, you're dreading the thought of having to hear those songs over and over again, right? Don't worry, there are a lot of excellent new titles available this year in a wide range of musical styles--rock, blues, jazz, pop, and lounge--just to name a few. I'll tell you about the best of this year's new releases in each of those categories and a whole lot more in our 2nd Annual Christmas CD Buyers Guide.

First up is O Come All Ye Faithful (Columbia), the new Rock For Choice benefit CD. With artists ranging from Henry Rollins to Deep Forest and Wes Modiko, the disc has an interesting lineup, to say the least. Sponge does a good REM impression on "Christmas Day" and Bush gives us a great new live track entitled "Good King Somethingorother" interpolating "Hey Joe" with new lyrics - 'hey Santa, where you going with those presents in your hand.' In an unusual move for them, Luscious Jackson's track, "Queen of Bliss" sounds almost ambient.

Another excellent new collection is New Wave Christmas (Rhino). It's the seasonal companion to the label's massive 15-CD series of 'new wave' hits, Just Can't Get Enough. Some of the best tracks here include the Bowie & Bing classic "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," and a personal favorite of mine, Wall of Voodoo's excellent "Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas." There are a few rare indie singles here too. Be sure to check out "Xmas at K-Mart" by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.

One of the more disappointing holiday releases this year is Just Say Noel (Geffen). This CD also boasts an all-star lineup of current 'alternative' artists (Beck, Sonic Youth, Aimee Mann with Michael Penn, and several others), but most of the songs just don't cut it. The only thing that doesn't fall flat is the Southern Culture on the Skids cover of "Merry Christmas Baby." There are a few original cuts on Just Say Noel, but nothing you'll want to hear more than once.

If your musical tastes lean more toward soul or R&B, pick up a copy of The Original Soul Christmas (Rhino). Clarence Carter's classic "Back Door Santa" gets things off to a great start, and the three cuts from the Booker T & the MG's Christmas album are good as well. The highlight on Soul Christmas is King Curtis' version of "The Christmas Song," featuring the late Duane Allman on guitar. To date, this remains one of the classiest Christmas performances around.

For those who like a bit of the blues mixed in with their holiday music, there are some excellent titles available. Bullseye Blues Christmas (Bullseye Blues) is a great contemporary blues collection. Little Jimmy King's "Happy Christmas Tears" features some superb guitar work. Accompanied only by himself on the Hammond B3, Charles Brown contributes a new medley of his holiday standards, "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home for Christmas." Be sure to check out my personal favorite on the disc, "Five Pound Box of Money" by Michelle 'Evil Gal' Willson.

If a traditional blues sound is more your style, look no farther than Blue Yule (Rhino). This superb 18-song collection contains tracks by the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and many others. Blue Yule contains several rare singles and B-sides, such as The Insight's 1965 version of "Please Come Home for Christmas" (featuring 'newcomers' Johnny and Edgar Winter) and Jimmy McCracklin's "Christmas Time - Part One." Other highlights include Eddie C. Campbell's "Santa's Messin' With the Kid" and the instrumental "Jingle Bell Boogie" by guitarist Big Jack Johnson.

Verve's new CD, Jazz for Joy is an excellent new disc for the jazz purists on your list. This collection of 13 new recordings features an impressive lineup of musicians--both veterans and relative newcomers alike. About half the tracks are instrumentals. Shirley Horn turns in a masterful performance on "The Christmas Song" and Abbey Lincoln is delightful on "Christmas Cheer." Betty Carter contributes a fabulous rendition of the yuletide standard, "Let it Snow." All three vocalists are backed up on the CD by the 'Verve All Stars.'

If you're looking for something with a more contemporary jazz sound, one of the best holiday CDs released this year is Boney's Funky Christmas (Warner Brothers) from Boney James. For those who may not know the tenor saxophonist's musical styles, James plays a soothing blend of pop, jazz, soul, and R&B. Most of the tracks here are instrumental. This CD dips into the adult contemporary motif, but it won't put you to sleep. It's the perfect disc for those mornings during the holiday season when you want to hear some music but don't necessarily want it blasting in your ear.

Motown's jazz subsidiary, MoJazz, released A MoJazz Christmas Vol. 2 this year. This one's a mixed bag. Trumpeter Pharez Whitted turns in a funky version of "Winter Wonderland." Daryle Chinn's "Give Love on Christmas Day" is hopelessly MOR, and the Carol Riddick track will have you scrambling to find the No-Doz. The best tracks on this CD are Ronee Martin's updated take on the Eartha Kitt classic "Santa Baby" and guitarist Norman Brown's cool version of "Charlie Brown Christmas." Brown plays all the instruments on the track. There's a medley of three carols by the 'MoJazz All Stars' rounding out the CD, but the track is basically a throwaway.

"Jazz to the World" (Blue Note) contains 16 songs by the likes of Fourplay, Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole, Chick Corea and a host of others. The CD starts off with the first of two renditions of "Winter Wonderland." Herb Alpert and Jeff Lorber contribute a cool, funk version of the song. Later in the CD, Dave Koz serves up a surprisingly good version as well. Cassandra Wilson's version of "The Little Drummer Boy" is a prime example of the interesting new arrangements by the artists on this CD.

World Christmas (Metro Blue) includes 13 tracks by an assortment of renowned jazz/world music artists, such as Gipsy Kings, Deep Forest, and Papa Wemba. The CD doesn't hold up as well as Jazz to the World, but there are still a few tracks worth checking out. John Scofield & the Wild Magnolias turn in a rendition of the traditional "Go Tell it on the Mountain" unlike any you've heard before. Mino Cinelu and Dianne Reeves' sparse arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is interesting too. Proceeds of World Christmas and Jazz to the World benefit the Special Olympics.

What if new age is more your style? Windham Hill has some new holiday titles out this year. The Carols of Christmas is a fine collection of interesting and enjoyable new performances by George Winston, Will Ackerman, Liz Story, Michael Hedges and a host of others. Another excellent disc to check out is Kiho'alu Christmas, a collection of mostly instrumental traditional and Hawaiian seasonal classics performed on slack key guitar. Slack key playing is best described as the combination of a variety of tunings and the traditional Hawaiian style of finger-picking on the acoustic guitar. If you like acoustic music, you'll enjoy both of these discs.

There are several new holiday CDs in the pop genre this year. The best is the new one from Vanessa Williams, Star Bright (Mercury). Williams' voice suits these classic carols perfectly. I've never been a big fan of Williams in the past, but she does a superb job with the twelve tracks included here. Her tasteful, gospel-tinged arrangements leave plenty of room for the lush, jazzy instrumentation, yet still allow her vocals to shine through. On "I Wonder as I Wander," the vocal similarities to Barbra Streisand are uncanny. Even if you're not a fan, this one is highly recommended.

Virgin released an excellent pop holiday disc this year too, entitled The Best Christmas Ever. This CD features 17 mostly traditional songs by artists like Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, and Lena Horne. The liner notes are a bit skimpy, but the songs sound great - especially when you consider the age of some of them. The Best Christmas Ever also has a few non-traditional tracks to keep things interesting, like Louis Armstrong's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and B.B. King's "Christmas Celebration."

Guitarist/crooner John Pizzarelli released his first holiday CD this year entitled Let's Share Christmas (RCA). Aside from his instrumental version of "Sleigh Ride" (which features some nice guitar work), the rest of the CD is nothing more than a cure for insomnia. Also new this year from RCA is a compilation of easy listening chestnuts called RCA Christmas Dinner with tracks by the likes of Guy Lombardo, Jose Feliciano, Chet Atkins and Henry Mancini. This is a great disc to play when the grandparents come over and comes complete with holiday recipes.

One of the best holiday CDs available this year is also one of the shortest. Billboard's Family Christmas Classics (Kid Rhino) has all the songs that you remember from movies and television as a kid. Who can forget Jimmy Durante's version of "Frosty the Snowman?" Or Burl Ives' classic "Holly Jolly Christmas?" Not to mention "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. In case the songs themselves aren't enough, the liner notes are excellent too. You get full details on every track. Family Christmas Classics is the perfect holiday CD for the kid in all of us.

There are some good holiday compilations for the country fans out there too. Billboard's Country Christmas Hits (Rhino) features 10 tracks from the more traditional country artists, like Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb and Tex Ritter. Tubb's classic rendition of "Blue Christmas" is included here, along with Johnny Cash's version of "The Little Drummer Boy." (Reviewer's note: Almost 40 years after he recorded that song, 'the man in black' is covering Soundgarden and Beck songs on his new CD, Unchained.) Country Christmas (also on Rhino) has a better mix of old and new artists than the Billboard CD, but two of the songs are duplicated between the discs.

Out of all the musical styles around these days, one that's really been making a comeback recently is lounge music. A lot of it is cheesy, but there's a lot that's really good too. Capitol's new Ultra Lounge series hit the streets in 1996 to rave reviews and they just released a great new holiday collection entitled Christmas Cocktails. Grab your smoking jacket, mix up a batch of martinis, and sit back as Christmas Cocktails serves up 18 of your favorite holiday tunes, lounge-style. You haven't heard The Nutcracker Suite until you've heard it performed by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. This disc also includes three very cool bonus tracks. The first is from The Continental. Some of you may remember a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live by the same name. This is the original. The second is a mix of three commercials for the Marine Reserve and Toys For Tots with cameos by Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and Nancy Wilson. The last is an old holiday promo for Capitol by Johnny Mercer that was sent to record stores and distributors.

Another excellent new lounge title is Arthur Lyman's In a Christmas Vibe (Rykodisc). Out of print for years, the disc puts a tropical twist on all the old holiday favorites with spectacular results. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Winter Wonderland" are both very cool, as is the interesting arrangement of "We Three Kings." With his trademark use of exotic instrumentation, Lyman serves up an aural mai-tai sure to evoke images of surfing Santas and ornament-strewn palm trees. There are two unlisted bonus tracks on this CD too--one at the beginning of the disc and a version of Auld Lang Syne (complete with fireworks and crowd noise) at the end.

When it comes to holiday lounge music, this year's best is Juan Garcia Esquivel's excellent Merry Xmas From the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Bar None). Esquivel is widely known as the master of lounge music and this CD is the perfect example of why. It's hard to explain his musical style to someone who has never heard it before, but suffice it to say that if you're only going to buy one holiday CD this year, this is the one to get. You can't help being in a good mood when you listen to it. Don't pass this one up.

There aren't really a whole lot of blatantly awful Christmas CDs out there, but one of the worst is Christmas in the Stars (Rhino). Originally recorded in 1980, this was to be the first in a series of Star Wars Christmas albums. Fortunately, that idea fizzled out quickly. Star Wars collectors have been searching for vinyl copies of this since it made its race to the cutout bins. The big selling point now is that it features lead vocals by then 18-year-old John Bongiovi (before he forgot how to spell his name). If that's not enough to dissuade you from buying this, think about the inane beeping of R2D2 on every track. Frisbee anyone?

As anyone who has already perused the Christmas section in your local record store can tell you, there's an enormous amount of holiday music out there. I've only skimmed the surface. If you want to find out about other titles deserving of your hard-earned cash, click here. You'll be whisked away to last year's buyer's guide where you can read about several other titles in an assortment of musical genres--none of which are mentioned in this year's guide. Classical, punk, comedy, and hard to find collectors' items are all included, plus more pop, rock and jazz titles too.

Happy Holidays to all and Feliz Navidad, baby!

© 1996 Steve Marshall