Eddie G. has it exactly right. An Emmy Award-winning TV comedy writer, G. (nee Gorodetsky, and no relation to saxophonist Kenny . . .) has long circulated among his friends wacky Christmas compilations he's put together. This year Columbia released one called "Christmas Party With Eddie G.," and in the liner notes Eddie says:
"Christmas has probably inspired more music than any other holiday. If you don't believe me, go back to the store you bought this in next April and see how many Arbor Day records they have in stock. And the great thing about this cornucopia of holiday melodies is the diversity. They range from devout hymn to cynical diatribe, from the arctic regions of the North Pole to the sun-drenched islands of the Caribbean. And whether Santa pilots an airborne sleigh or a swamp-bound raft, the message is still the same - good cheer to all."Well, usually . . . there is the occasional dark or
depressing "carol," believe it or not. (You doubt? Please see Rhino Records' 1989 release, "Bummed Out Christmas!")
The thing is, while the record company vaults are brimming with Christmas Product Past, today's artists continue to churn the stuff out at an alarming pace (alarming, that is, if you're a Scrooge or a reviewer, which can eventually amount to the same thing), and the vintage recordings keep resurfacing in fancy new CD packages.
The recycled releases cover the musical spectrum, from favorites of a generation ago to collections by contemporary top-of-the-line country, rock, soul and pop artists. Most of the brand-new creations target specific audiences and tastes, including the plethora of placid new age instrumentals we've seen the past few years and new solo outings by the likes of Julie Andrews and even Barry Manilow.
For those curious about this year's crop of would-be chestnuts, we've tried to lend an ear to as many as we could . . . but frankly, the following mini-reviews sample only the tip of the seasonal iceberg.
Or is that avalanche?
SKIP EWING; "Following Yonder Star" (MCA).
There doesn't seem to be anything destined to become a classic on Skip Ewing's Christmas album, but fans of the rising country star will like it. From the a cappella "O Come All Ye Faithful" to the jazzy "Following Yonder Star" medley to the ever-popular "White Christmas," the album is a pretty good reflection of Ewing's tone and style.
Half the songs on the album are Ewing originals and show a good range of ability. Among them: the pure-country "Christmas Carol," the soft lullaby "Alleluia," the folky "I Trust You." The placement of "Mrs. Santa Claus," tucked between two Nativity carols, seems a bit incongruous, but it's a pleasant-enough tune. "It's Not His Child," told from Joseph's point of view, was a bit harder to follow but may grow on you.ERICH KUNZEL & THE CINCINNATI POPS ORCHESTRA; "Christmas with the Pops" (Telarc).
Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops helped lift the symphonic-music-for-the-masses concept into the all-digital CD age with opulent forays into movie music (such collections as "Chiller" and "Star Tracks"), Western themes ("Round-Up" and its "Happy Trails" sequel), as well as classical works. Kunzel adds notable soloists and big choirs to the mix, and the result is often spectacular, sometimes grandiose, almost always highly entertaining.
"Christmas with the Pops" applies this epical approach to 23 familiar carols, and a nicely varied set it turns out to be.
The orchestra on its own can be sentimental (as in "The First Noel") or stately ("Silent Night"), while the brass section basks in the spotlight occasionally ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Come, All Ye Faithful"). Add the May Festival Choir and the songs become lush ("Deck the Halls") or celestial ("O Holy Night"). A children's chorus sweetens a medley of childhood favorites, and Rosemary Clooney, Toni Tenille and opera's Sherrill Milnes contribute humanizing vocals on several tracks.PATTI LaBELLE; "This Christmas" (MCA).
Pop/soul diva Patti LaBelle turns her versatile voice loose here on a blend of new and a few older Christmas songs. The title song, Donnie Hathaway's "This Christmas," is solid, while "O Holy Night" later on is gospel-like and about as close to traditional as she gets in the set.
The fresh tunes underscore timely sentiments (family and loved ones, Christmas 365 days a year, seasonal scenes), but generally miss the mark melodically . . . The strong few, though, ("'Twas Love," "I'm Christmasing With You" and "Country Christmas") may realistically have a chance at being numbered among the standards of tomorrow.OTTMAR LIEBERT; "Poets and Angels" (Higher Octave).
Ottmar Liebert gives Christmas the rhythmic heart and soul of a Spanish gypsy guitar. The album features five original songs and his arrangements of 10 traditional carols.
The overall treatment is lively and upbeat. In some places ("The Little Drummer Boy," for example), the rhythmic beat seems a bit heavy-handed. But overall, Liebert has an innovative and talented approach. There are strains of flamenco in pieces, such as "Shepherd's Nite Watch," while others such as "The 1st Nowell" have a more folksy flavor. "O Holy Nite" is given a soft and gentle treatment that is purely pretty.BARRY MANILOW; "Because It's Christmas" (Arista).
The very idea of a Barry Manilow Christmas album repulses some people. Well, he didn't record these songs for them, did he.
Fans, on the other hand, will find "Because It's Christmas" has an agreeably warm fireside feel. Manilow eases into the mood with an as-expected ballad setting of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting . . . ," etc.). He then proceeds to mingle his patented, and often saccharine, serenades with spritely swing (as in "Jingle Bells," with the ladies of Expose' serving as the Andrew Sisters to his Bing Crosby) and sassy love songs (including a cuddly duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with K.T. Oslin). Plush orchestral interludes sample revered carols like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World." His a cappella "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a treat, too.
Barry partisans won't be disappointed. Others steer clear.LEON REDBONE; "Christmas Island" (Private Music).
Want it ever so smooth and mellow? Want it like the lazy flow of golden molasses? Visit "Christmas Island" with Leon Redbone.
With inimitable style, and what one reviewer calls a "fudge-rich" baritone, Redbone glides through such old favorites as "Let It Snow," "Toyland," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Blue Christmas." He teams up with Dr. John on "Frosty the Snowman"; gives "That Old Christmas Moon" a full bluesy treatment; and treats the title cut, "Christmas Island," with tropical whimsy. Redbone's crooning on "White Christmas" has been compared to that of the legendary Bing.
This is a re-release of an album that first came out in 1987 and became an immediate hit in certain hip circles. The tracks were laid down in just three days, but that doesn't detract from the full-ballroom feel of the background, a perfect complement to Redbone's rich, old-timey voice.THE RITZ-CARLTON ORCHESTRA; "Swing Ye Noel" (Newport Classic).
Of all the musical flavors possible for Christmas, the big band sound could easily have been the one overlooked. But here it is, sassy, brassy and danceable. A Swing Era Christmas party? Why not.
Under the direction of William Noll, the Ritz-Carlton Orchestra resurrects - and updates - the bright legacy of Glenn Miller, the Dorseys and Harry James in an all-digital CD collection of favorites. No single big-band style dominates as the spotlight roves over this 18-member band, zeroing in on the trumpets and trombones here, the saxophones and woodwinds there; even the sticks (make that the drums) get plenty of crisp solos.
The tempo swings on yuletide variants like "We Wish You a Cookin' Christmas" and "Jingle Bells," and moderates for slower dancing on arrangements of "O Tannenbaum" and "White Christmas." But this big band isn't stuck in a 1940 time warp: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" sports an electric blues guitar line B.B. King and his "Lucille" would admire, and "Joy to the World" owes a debt to Blood, Sweat and Tears, Maynard Ferguson and the funksters of Earth, Wind and Fire.THE ROCHES; "We Three Kings" (Paradox Records-MCA).
The Roches - sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy - contributed two a cappella carols last year to Rhino Records' pleasantly original compilation "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; this year we get those two ("Adeste Fideles" and "Angels We Have Heard on High") and 22 other short, sweet selections on the trio's own sparkling Christmas album, "We Three Kings."
If any seraphim hear these carols, they may turn green with envy - not that all are sung in the angelic mode. A third of them are a cappella, but even one of those, "Winter Wonderland," is given a for-laughs treatment, with the ladies emphasizing Brooklyn accents.
For variety, the arrangements shift from unaccompanied voices to songs backed by organs or guitars or percolating synthesizers. Two, "Christmas Passing Through" and "Star of Wonder," are originals, written by Suzzy and Terre, respectively.SERAH; "Love of Christmas" (Great Northern Arts Ltd.).
Serah's new holiday album, "Love of Christmas," has little in common with most other Christmas collections, filled as they are with frolic and rambunctious cheer. As with her recent "Flight of the Stork," this is an atmospheric album. Hers is a Christmas season of memories and peaceful images, of harmony and warmth.
Serah's whispery-soft voice and contemplative lyrics play the central role, awash in lush arrangements featuring synthesizers, acoustic guitars, a string quartet and choirs. The melodies aren't overly memorable - in fact, if it were possible, they could be said to go in one ear and out the other. . . . Only one number, "Sweet Was the Song," is a traditional carol, a little lullaby that will prove new to most; nine are originals by the songstress and occasional co-writer Samuel Taylor.
"Love of Christmas" is lavishly packaged, the CD offered in a tall book format that holds another small, colorfully illuminated booklet containing the song lyrics.STEVE WARINER; "Christmas Memories" (MCA).
This album shows off the many talents of country artist Steve Wariner. He sings, he plays guitar, he's written some of the songs; there's even a nice watercolor painting by Wariner printed on the jacket (a la Ricky Van Shelton last year).
Wariner's songs include the soft and mellow "Saviour Is Born" and the instrumental "Christmas Memories."
He also teams up with a number of guests on the album. The pairing with the Irish folk group The Chieftans works particularly well on "I Saw Three Ships" and "Past Three O'Clock." And vintage Chet Atkins shows through on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." However, the talents of folk singers Nanci Griffith and Maura O'Connell and fiddle champion Mark O'Conner, all given cover credits, seem rather lost.
According to Ozark legend, babies born on Christmas Day, as Wariner was, have a special place in the season. He lives up to that potential with this pleasant offering of Christmas songs.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Acoustic Christmas" (Columbia).
Those who titled and compiled "Acoustic Christmas" decided the name and concept gave them a good deal of leeway. "Acoustic" apparently rules out full orchestras and hard rock, but not much else. As a result, we're treated to everything from, as might be most expected, folk (T Bone Burnett's gutsy "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and Roseanne Cash's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear") to jazz (Harry Connick Jr.'s instrumental "Winter Wonderland" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" by Wynton Marsalis).
In between we get milder, near a cappella fare from Art Garfunkel, boisterous folk-rock by the Hooters and a few seasonal oddities. One's a Waikiki-in-the-French-Quarter ditty by Poi Dog Pondering and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band; another's a melancholy original by Britain's Shelleyan Orphan.
Whatever: "Acoustic Christmas" does offer an antidote to those tired of hearing the same old tunes served up the same old way.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Christmas in the City" (WTG-CBS).
Christmas with a contemporary, street-wise Latin beat is presented on the all-vocal "Christmas in the City," which features such artists as Louie Louie, Paris By Air, Brenda K Starr, Nayobe and Luis Enrique.
"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," given a lively half-rap treatment by Louie Louie, and "Feliz Navidad" by the Latin All Stars are the only "traditional" (the words may be familiar, but the treatments aren't) songs included. The other songs are original and speak mostly of love both lost and found for the holiday (Nayobe's "When You Love Someone, It's Christmas Everyday," "All I Want 4 Xmas Is Your Love" by Denise Lopez). "This Christmas," with W. Chirino, offers a plea for unity: "let's sing together . . . the world will sing along."
The most telling phrase may come from Brenda K Starr on "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." "This is a Christmas song," she says, "and I'm going to do it my way."VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Christmas Party with Eddie G." (Columbia).
Eddie G. wins the prize for Offbeat Christmas Album of the Year. Maybe ever. If Stan Freberg and Dr. Demento had put their heads and music collections together, they might have come up with something like this - a strange but entertainment mix of radio chatter, comedy bits (including a running dialogue by three mock-Stooges) and about a dozen certifiably non-traditional Christmas songs.
The music includes '50s and '60s novelties like "I Want to Spend Christmas with Elvis (Heartbreak Noel)," blues and soul, surf rock, a cajun carol - and a beat-poet reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," retailored as "Cool Yule," by artists ranging from Louis Prima to George Jones and Tammy Wynette and more recent groups like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and NRBQ.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Creole Christmas" (Epic).
Christmas is given classic New Orleans R&B treatment by a collection of Southland's soulful musicians in this album, which sounds like it comes straight off Bourbon Street.
Allen Toussaint starts things off with a rollicking instrumental version of "White Christmas," and it's "Big Easy" all the way on through. For example, legendary jazzman Pete Fountain uses his sweet-n-low clarinet to transform "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" from a lullaby into a second-line stomp. And Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters provide a swampy squeezebox version of "Jingle Bells." The gospel group Zion Harmonizers move body and soul with "Go Tell It On The Mountain," Frankie Ford gives "Jingle Bell Rock" a shuffle beat, and Johnny Adams' "Please Come Home For Christmas" has a deep-blue flavor.
If a trip to New Orleans isn't on your holiday agenda, this may be the next best thing.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "A Jazzy Wonderland" (Columbia).
This anthology from Columbia's jazz artists (including four Marsalises: Wynton, Branford, DelFeayo and papa Ellis) argues persuasively for a new definition of a "cool" Christmas. The musicians give 14 standards and maybe-standards jazz treatments traditional as well as cutting edge.
Standouts include Tony Bennett's tastefully subdued "White Christmas" (with Dexter Gordon on saxophone); Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis teaming for vocals and soprano sax, respectively, on a sophisticated yet sunny version of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas"; and striking impressions of "The Little Drummer Boy" (a raga-inflected vision from Karl Lundberg and Full Circle) and "The Christmas Song" (by keyboardist Fred Simon, guitarist Ross Traut and acoustic bassist Steve Rodby).VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Just in Time for Christmas" (I.R.S. Records).
Eclectic-eccentric rockers from Wall of Voodoo to Timbuk 3 dabble in seasonal fare on the I.R.S. label's bumpy but often humorous and tongue-in-cheek collection, "Just in Time for Christmas."
The songs include originals like the Beatlesque pop of "Christmas Day," a contemporary retelling of the Nativity by Squeeze, and Timbuk 3's peace-prayer "All I Want for Christmas," and retooled carols like Torch Song's radical synth-take "Hark" and Steve Hunter's crystalline guitar overlays on "We Three Kings."
. . . And then there's "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," in which outlandish Dread Zeppelin manages once again to Osterize a concoction that's part Elvis Presley, part reggae and part Led Zep guitar riffs. Not as good as "Black Dog/Hound Dog," but clever-silly nevertheless.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "The Narada Nutcracker" (Narada).
Eager to hear something new - yet friendly and familiar? "The Narada Nutcracker" may be the Christmas set you're looking for. Eleven of the instrumental-oriented label's headline musicians, as well as a backing orchestra, contribute to this silky-spritely rejuvenation of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet.
With the explosion of new age/progressive instrumental music in recent years, as well as the proliferation of Christmas recordings, someone was bound to give us an expansive "Nutcracker." In fact, synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos did a cute and gurgly trilogy of "Nutcracker" dances on the Moog 15 years ago, and selections from the work have appeared here and there, including a "Trepak" ("Russian Dance") by the Modern Mandolin Quartet on the new "A Winter Solstice III."
Although David Arkenstone's synthesizer is prominent on several of the tracks (he's also one of the primary arrangers), "The Narada Nutcracker" sits somewhere between the orchestral and avant garde treatments; indeed, it may lean to the traditional, for the arrangements and performances in general have the smooth majesty and swirl, as well as the elfin magic, of the century-old original.
These 16 movements - which constitute neither the entire ballet nor Tchaikovsky's excerpted Suite - are orchestrally luxuriant on occasion, take on a folkish air (in "Children's Galop" and "Pine Forest," for example) or even sport a European-cafe feel ("Mother Gigogne," spotlighting Brian Mann's accordion and Nancy Rumbel's woodwinds).
"People well-acquainted with `The Nutcracker' will discover many different arrangements, edits, key changes and additional instruments in our version," says producer Eric Lindert. " `The Narada Nutcracker,' I believe, is the first entirely fresh orchestral rendition of this music in 100 years."
This is light, bright, all-purpose Christmas fare - fine for playing in the background while wrapping presents or for up-close personal enjoyment.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Our Christmas" (Word-A&M Records).
Now here's a concept for you: a Christmas album by avowedly Christian entertainers - not seasonal dilletantes or solstice worshippers. The performances range from pop to soul, and from the nice but unexceptional to the stirringly heartfelt. It's also interesting how dependent the genre has become upon synthesizers in the background.
Christian music princesses Amy Grant and Sandi Patti interlace vocals on a duet linking "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Michael W. Smith creates an imaginative medley with "Sing We Now of Christmas," Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and "Emmanuel." Other strong contributions come from Al Green, David Meece and the dependable Roberta Flack.VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Winter Solstice III" (Windham Hill).
Of Windham Hill's three "Winter Solstice" albums, this one is the most Christmasy. Although there are a few original pieces ("Hopeful," by Michael Manring on piano, "Snow Is Lightly Falling," by Nightnoise, and the stately "Earth Abides," by pianist Philip Aaberg, for example,) for the most part this offering includes traditional Christmas favorites that have been given the elegant Windham Hill treatment. The music is soft and mellow, sometimes bordering on folk, but always lyrical. There are also more vocals than on previous winter albums.
From the quietly beautiful "Veni Emmanuel" by the Turtle Island String Quartet to the light-hearted "Sleeper's Awake" by Andy Narell, and the soft and melodic "Little Drummer Boy" by Schonherz and Scott, this is an album to savor throughout the season.
A sample of earlier collections
If none of this year's releases sounds all that inviting, maybe these earlier collections will fit the Christmas bill (oh, that word!):
- "An Airus Christmas with Kurt Bestor," on the Salt-Lake based Airus label, features some of Utah's finest recording musicians performing creamy versions of 10 carols.
- "A Very Special Christmas" (A&M) collects 15 tracks, peaceful to perky, by today's top hitmakers (Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bon Jovi, etc.) - and profits benefit the Special Olympics.
- "Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits" (Rhino Records), in two volumes (1935-54 and 1955-present), showcases a remarkable parade of musical Christmas memories, from Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Spike Jones' "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" to Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Elmo 'N Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
- "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" and "A Fresh Aire Christmas" (American Gramaphone), by Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller, are probably the most popular releases of the past decade. Often featured on TV Christmas ads and newscasts, as well as in shopping centers, the music offers both traditional and synthesizer-fantasy interpretations of classic carols and original compositions. - Ray Boren