Christmas CD Buyers Guide (Volume 3)

(Originally published 12/97) This has been a great year for new Christmas music. To say that the musical choices are just a wee bit overwhelming is a major understatement. Keeping that in mind, this year's guide will concentrate mainly on this year's new releases, with the occasional older title thrown in where necessary. Jazz, rock, blues, lounge, folk, orchestral, new age, pop, comedy and a whole lot more--it's all covered here in our 3rd Annual Christmas CD Buyers Guide.

The Holiday Album from Millennia (Sony/Portrait) is one of the most interesting new releases this season. Part of a new series of discs, Millennia performs instrumental takes on today's biggest hits in imaginative new settings. Songs that you previously couldn't care less about seem to take on a whole new life. The traditional carols on this disc will give you perfect examples of just what they can do. Check out "The First Noel" and "Deck the Halls" and you'll see what I mean. If you don't see this one in the stores, ask for it.

On Christmas Eve and Other Stories (Lava/Atlantic), the Trans-Siberian Orchestra combines the impact of a 60-piece orchestra and chorus with the raw edge of a rock band, and the results are outstanding. Released late in the season last year; the CD sold out quickly, and was next to impossible to find in most areas. It's a mixture of instrumental and vocal tracks, but the instrumentals are clearly the best. The vocals get a bit bombastic at times (ala Jim Steinman), but the instrumentals are fresh and exciting. If there was ever a Christmas record that cried out to be played loud, this is the one.

If you're looking for a Christmas disc that's sure to please just about anyone, check out the Mannheim Steamroller titles. This year, American Gramaphone released Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Live, a new collection of live performances from the band's last tour. Based on the last three CDs, I had high expectations for this one. Unfortunately, the concert setting doesn't translate well to disc. Some of the songs are still quite good, but too many of them just don't work. Stick with the studio discs, especially the first one. You can't go wrong.

Also out this year is Superstar Christmas (Epic), a new compilation benefiting the T.J. Martell Foundation. Made up of mainly pop, rock, and R&B Christmas standards, this is sure to be one of the season's biggest sellers. They couldn't go wrong with an artist lineup like this one--John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand... Hey, wait a minute. This CD also has cuts from the king and queens of over-singing; Michael Bolton, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. Still, this CD is sure to be a hit.

Like the previous two volumes; A Very Special Christmas 3 (A&M) is a benefit for the Special Olympics, and covers a wide spectrum of musical genres. Once you program around the cuts from Smashing Pumpkins, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews, No Doubt and Mary J. Blige, you'll find there are a few gems as well. Highlights include Sheryl Crow's trip-hop "Blue Christmas," Natalie Merchant's surprisingly soulful "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," and songs from Jonny Lang and Tracy Chapman.

Rock guitarist, Steve Vai assembled some of rock's hottest guitarists for Merry Axemas - A Guitar Christmas (Epic). Vai encouraged the guitarists to make each track their own, and some of them managed to come up with tasty results. The best tracks are from Vai, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Alex Lifeson, and Richie Sambora. Unfortunately, the rest of the CD suffers from 'look what I can do syndrome,' a common ailment among today's rock guitar greats.

If blues is more your style, be sure to check out Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues (Bullseye Blues). Originally released back in 1994, this one is one of the best discs around. As you would expect, the piano playing is outstanding throughout the CD. Johnny Otis' performance on "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" is one of the many highlights here. This is a great disc to share with that special someone too. Throw a yule log on the fire, cue up "Christmas in Heaven," and you're set for a warm night under the mistletoe.

America's best little big band, Roomful of Blues just released their first holiday album, entitled Roomful of Christmas (Bullseye Blues). Containing R&B versions of some of the best loved holiday classics--including a few rare tracks, like Fats Domino's "I Told Santa Claus" and Lloyd Glenn's "Christmas Celebration"--this CD is sure to please the group's fans. Highlights include the band's Cajun take on "White Christmas," and the bluesy "I Want You With Me Christmas."

When you think of soul, one of the first names to come to mind is invariably Ray Charles. Rhino recently overhauled much of Brother Ray's catalog, including his long out-of-print 1986 holiday album, The Spirit of Christmas. A mixture of R&B, funk, and jazz, this CD has been a favorite of fans for years. From his swinging take on "What Child is This" through the bonus track, "Baby It's Cold Outside" (the 1962 duet with Betty Carter), there isn't a bad track on this disc. His versions of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" & "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" are outstanding.

Epic pulled together an all-star lineup on the new Soul Train Christmas Starfest, featuring classic soul and R&B tracks from Natalie Cole, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, and a host of others. Rising star Simone Hines is stunning on "God Bless the Dreamer," sounding like a more refined Mariah Carey, without the vocal acrobatics. You'll be hearing a lot more from her. Teen idols Immature serve up a hip-hop version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town;' while the hardest working man in show business, James Brown takes Santa straight to the ghetto. Christmas doesn't get much cooler than this.

Another new R&B disc this year is You're All I Want for Christmas (also on Bullseye Blues) from acapella legends, The Persuasions. These guys have been performing together for 35 years now, and show no signs of stopping. CDs like this just go to show that you really don't need a band to make great music. If you're into vocal groups, you should also check out Doo Wop Christmas (Rhino); with tracks from The Penguins, The Cadillacs, The Orioles and more.

One of the best jazz holiday discs is A Swinging Christmas by Big Rhythm (Warner Resound). Big Rhythm is made up of Steve Grossman on drums, and multi-instrumentalist James Hollihan, Jr. on everything else. Hollihan also produced, recorded and mixed the album. This CD will appeal to just about everyone, not just jazz fans. Highlights include the cool rendition of "Happy Holidays," the tropical "O Holy Night," and the superb guitar work on "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Don't let the low-budget packaging fool you. This easily overlooked disc is highly recommended.

Hip-O scores big this year with Louis Armstrong and Friends' What a Wonderful Christmas. Several of the tracks appeared on Rhino's excellent Hipster's Holiday disc back in 1989; but since that one's a bit hard to find these days, this one will do just fine. Besides the six tracks from Satchmo are tunes from Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Peggy Lee, and Louis Jordan. Like the label's country disc (see below), this one has a few rare cuts among its many highlights too, such as Lena Horne's playful version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Dave Koz is one of those pop/jazz musicians that never really did much to impress me. I always perceived him as just a step above 'that G guy.' Well, Koz has a new holiday CD on the shelves this year called, "December Makes Me Feel This Way" (Capitol), and it's not bad. Mostly traditional, the unusual arrangements are what really make this CD. His rendition of "Winter Wonderland" has an almost country feel to it, and Koz makes his vocal debut on the title track. The best thing about this CD is the bonus track. Phil Hartman (of Saturday Night Live and News Radio fame) turns in a beat poetry reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that is one of the best things released this year.

Blue Note managed to outdo last year's excellent World Christmas with their latest holiday effort, Yule Be Boppin'. An eclectic collection to be sure, Yule Be Boppin' is full of outstanding tracks. Dianne Reeves scats her way through "Jingle Bells," and Eliane Elias tears up the ole 88's on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Guitarist Fareed Hague turns in an interesting rendition of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," but the melody gets lost in the flourishes. One of the best cuts on this disc is the ultra-cool "Be-Bop Santa Claus" by Sweet Daddy Love and the Blue Note Ad-Hoc Orchestra. Jacky Terrasson's funky "Adeste Fidelis / Little Drummer Boy Jam" is another highlight.

Nashville's biggest stars shine brightly this year on A Country Superstar Christmas (Hip-O). Vince Gill shows off his pickin' prowess on his instrumental version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Trisha Yearwood's beautiful version of "The Christmas Song" and Wynonna's bluesy cover of "Let's Make a Baby King" are just a few of the CD's many highlights. The CD also contains rare tracks from The Mavericks, and Gary Allan.

One of the best country releases this season is the new one from Dwight Yoakam. Come On Christmas (Reprise) covers a wide range of musical styles; ranging from country to blues, pop to folk, even a touch of jazz. The majority of the songs on the CD are the traditional favorites, but Yoakum's two originals are both winners. The wistful title track is one of the best things he's written, and "Santa Can't Stay" is a real toe-tapper. "Here Comes Santa Claus" has a cool twist on it with an almost tropical feel.

Singer/songwriter fans will be happy with last year's Snow Angels (Compass), featuring ten songs from Catie Curtis, Jonatha Brooke and more. One of the best is Joan Osborne's acapella performance of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee." Accompanied only by her finger snapping, this inspired track is one of the best on the CD. Another highlight is the sparse, jazzy arrangement of "Winter Wonderland" by Dave's True Story.

David Arkenstone's new disc, Enchantment (Narada), is a compilation of traditional tracks from prior Narada releases, plus a few new ones. The lush arrangements are perfect for those times when you need something a bit more relaxing. He's probably in the new age section of your local record store, but he's not your typical new age fare. Arkenstone plays a variety of traditional and original songs on the CD. The Nutcracker excerpts are some of the highlights.

Rhino just released a new age collection of holiday tunes called Visions of Christmas. All of the material is previously released, but the songs capture the true holiday spirit. John Boswell's arrangement on "The First Noel" is a highlight, along with John Doan's "Carol of the Bells" (featuring his signature 21-string harp guitar). Ottmar Liebert's energetic take on "Little Drummer Boy" is the most unusual track on the CD, sounding like a cross between flamenco and Eastern European music.

Windham Hill released a new collection of holiday music this year called The Carols of Christmas II. One of the first labels to bring new age to the masses, Windham Hill has branched out a bit to include a variety of new artists. There are several highlights on the CD; including Steve Lukather's inspired version of "O Tannenbaum," Steve Morse's interesting take on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and Loreena McKennitt's tribal "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

After the success of last year's delightfully cheesy Christmas Cocktails CD, Capitol decided to serve up a second one. Mix up some martinis, light up a Cuban, and get ready for 20 more of your favorite holiday tunes, lounge-style. Volume Two includes classic and rare tracks from the Nat King Cole Trio, Julie London, Peggy Lee, and many more. The first one was great. This one is too. One of the best new CDs this season.

Rykodisc released a new holiday collection this year that defies categorization. Xmas Marks the Spot contains a menagerie of Yuletide carols in just about every musical genre you can think of. Ranging from alterna-pop to Hawaiian lounge music, country to comedy, drunken blues to calypso, this CD has something for everyone. The only bad thing is that practically no one will like this disc all the way through. Great musical variety for a single disc though.

What if you're the type of person that likes a little comedy with your holidays? If so, you're in luck this year. Bob Rivers just released More Twisted Christmas (Atlantic), a new collection of holiday parodies, and 'new' versions of classic rock songs played with Christmas lyrics. Be sure to check out "Sled Zeppelin," "There's a Santa Who Looks a Lot Like Elvis," and the hilarious "Buttcracker Suite" featuring a guest appearance by Richard Simmons (nah... too easy). And don't miss 'Sinatra doing the Stones' on "Hey You! Get Off My House" and "Holidaze" (featuring Yes' Alan White on drums).

How about something for the Beatles' fans out there? Check out Xmas! by The Beatmas (ISBA). This one might be a bit harder to find than the other CDs listed here, but it's worth it. Just imagine your favorite Christmas carols sung to the melodies of your favorite Beatles tunes-"Jingle Bell Rock" (to the tune of "Please Please Me"), "Silent Night" (to the tune of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). You get the idea. The songs are immediately recognizable, yet different enough to avoid a lawsuit.

RuPaul's new holiday offering, Ho Ho Ho (Rhino) is one of the scariest CDs to 'come out' this season. Consisting mainly of dance tunes, Ru struts his/her stuff through tracks like "RuPaul the Red Nosed Drag Queen," "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus" and a fairly 'straight' rendition of "Here Comes Santa Claus." "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is especially scary.

Originally recorded back in 1993, Tiny Tim's Christmas Album (Rounder) isn't near as bad as you would expect. OK... Maybe that's a bit generous. He warbles his way through unintentionally hilarious takes on "The Christmas Song" and "Silent Night." His "O Come All Ye Faithful Medley" is overdone, but his renditions of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" are actually pretty respectable.

Are you looking for something a little more, shall we say, musically challenging this year? One of the strangest Christmas CDs comes from the folks at Leapin' Records. A Froggy Christmas is a collection of ten traditional favorites. The difference is that all of the 'vocals' are performed by frogs, owls, and assorted other wildlife. Yes, I'm serious. You get to hear such artists as Frog Marley, Ribbit Goulet, Elvis Frogsley, The Surf Toads, and The Hoot Owl Boys Choir in various musical styles ranging from reggae to hip-hop, blues to surf.

If you have any pre-adolescent girls in the house, you probably already know that there is a new holiday CD out by those Hanson boys--Simon, Theodore & Alvin... er, I mean, Issac, Taylor & Zac--called Snowed In (Mercury). Snowed In finds the boys' voices cracking through a mix of classic holiday tunes, and a few originals. Hey--whatever happened to that Spice Girls Christmas CD? Just kidding...

If you have younger kids around the house, there are two great new holiday CDs for the whole family to enjoy. The first is from the Animaniacs, entitled A Hip-Hopera Christmas (Kid Rhino). This read-along CD leads your little ones on an updated version of the timeless Charles Dickens tale of Scrooge, complete with a script and colorful pictures to help the kids keep track of what's going on in the story. Rapper Kool Moe Dee, jazz diva Ronee Martin and others provide the musical accompaniment.

The other new holiday CD for the kids is the soundtrack to Annabelle's Wish (Rising Tide); a touching story of a little boy who can't talk, and a loveable calf named Annabelle who wants to fly like one of Santa's reindeer. Country stars Randy Travis, Alison Krauss, and Dolly Parton perform most of the music on the soundtrack. Screen stars Cloris Leachman, Rue McClanahan and Jerry Van Dyke are among the cast providing the voices. Proceeds from Annabelle's Wish will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

As you can see--whether you're young or old, naughty or nice, there's something out there for everyone this holiday season. You may have to do some hunting to find some of it, but that's half the fun.
Happy holidays!!!

© 1997 Steve Marshall