As certain as are eggnog, tinsel and Black Friday this time of year we are faced with a bevy of holiday tunes. To help you wade through the offerings, we offer our annual survey.
A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years (Big Machine Records) The latest in this impressive series gathers an eclectic 16 songs. The tastiest might be Cheap Trick’s festive update of their monster hit “I Want You to Want Me,” retitled here as “I Want You for Christmas.” The power pop chords are intact, and the lyrics track the original. Vince Gill, no stranger to holiday music, offers a tender “Breath of Heaven.” The younger set will gravitate toward cuts by Jordin Sparks and Jason Mraz. Train, Jewel and Amy Grant have noteworthy tracks as well.
It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! (Vicom/Nickelodeon) Seeming irreverence has never been this clever. A dozen tracks cover the ground (surf? ocean floor?) that SpongeBob SquarePants has carved out. The lead track is “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas)” and the lyrics pretty much sums up the collection.
BRING JOY TO THE WORLD IT’S THE THING TO DO
BUT THE WORLD DOES NOT REVOLVE AROUND YOU
DON’T BE A JERK
THERE’S A SIGN ABOVE THE LINE THAT SAYS “EXPRESS”
THAT MEANS TEN ITEMS OR LESS
DON’T BE A JERK
The disc was built with creative input from Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob SquarepPants since the series’ inception in 1999) and his songwriting partner and music producer Andy Paley. Featuring no cover songs, the album stands up to repeated listening. A particularly sly track is “Wet, Wet Christmas” with the refrain ‘and may all your Christmases be wet’ which might have Irving Berlin spinning in his tomb.
PumpYouUp: Christmas Nutcracker Dubstep & Techno Classics This 22 track set will get Granny a bit anxious. The title is a testament to truth in advertising, as you get aggressive takes on familiar melodies. It is doubtful any instruments made of wood were used in the making of this collection, but swooping arrangements and many bass-heavy dubs raise eyebrows. “Dubstep of the Bells” and “Hark the Herald Angels Complex” get repeated spins around our house.
Chicago: Ultimate Christmas Collection I have a warm spot in my heart for this band, as they were the first band I saw in concert (about one hundred years ago). I have long since drifted from their album releases, despite occasional flashes of brilliance in the ensuing decades. This 2 CD collection gathers the band’s prior Christmas discs in a convenient package, so you get 34 tracks. That is a lot of horn rock, but most of the tracks are very pleasant. A couple collaborations are sprinkled across the tracks, from the likes of Dolly Parton, Bebe Winans, Steve Cropper and America. Chicago and America once shared management, with the result that both bands spawned a unique scripted font.
Brooke White Christmas: It is becoming evident that NOT winning on American Idol is a good thing. Brooke White finished fifth, and her indie roots are showing nicely. The Arizona native brings a bucolic flavor to her Christmas collection, deftly blending chestnuts with originals. Of the latter batch “Christmas Card” and “California Christmas” are standouts.
Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights (Idelsohn Society) There have been several notable efforts over the years to bridge the gap between the two major winter holidays. This two disc compilation of Hanukkah and Christmas songs sung (and in many cases written) by Jews features performers from the 1930s to the present. Erudite liner notes from Greil Marcus describe how circa 1870 as Christmas became a national holiday (moving from a somber to an increasingly lavish event) an arms race commenced. The once obscure Jewish holiday of Hanukkah was pitted against Christmas, and music was not left behind. Just about every Jewish singer of significance cut a Christmas track, many collected here on the second disc: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr, Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass, Ramones, Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore and others. The first disc is devoted to Hanukkah songs, some obscure and others more familiar. Several cantors are interspersed with selections from Woody Guthrie, Don McLean and the Klezmatics. A generous 36 page booklet describes each track’s historical and musical significance. And who before has seen the list of 16 ways to correctly spell Hanukkah?
A Very Funky Christmas: Redtenbacher’s Funkestra (Wooden Hat Records) Featuring real brass, this 5 track collection starts with perky rearrangements of four classics and finishes with an original, the title track. It is the best arrangement of the lot; the solid rhythm section serves as a backdrop for Thomas Feurer’s array of flutes, clarinets, saxes and yes Virginia a cowbell.
Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas! (Capitol) This series had runaway success in Europe before coming to these shores. The record labels rotate distribution rights, each hoping their release captures the most big new hits. The series now numbers over 3 dozen releases, several of which are Christmas compilations. The most recent holiday collection offers fairly non-controversial interpretations from otherwise noteworthy artists: Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Nora Jones, Maria Carey, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen. Also present and accounted for are the seemingly ubiquitous Train, Onerepublic, Christina Aguilera and Rascal Flatts, each of whom also appears on the first disc in our round-up.