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September 2006 Archives

Christmas Joy, The Ventures (Varese Sarabande)

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ventrjoy.jpgNot many acts persevere over 40 years in exactly the same form they pioneered at the start, at least without becoming fixtures in Branson, Mo., but The Ventures are one of them. Which means you're likely to find you prefer the earlier bursts of inspiration from their original Christmas album. This one was recorded new in 2002, has a longer set list and revisits some of the same tunes from the original. The liner notes mention the inventive arrangements from the earlier work and then go on to say they don't do much of that here, but that's not entirely true, thank goodness. A medley of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" blends in a bit of Del Shannon's "Wandering," "Needles and Pins" sneaks into "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" gets a dose of "Secret Agent Man," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" cops the "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" intro, their own "Walk Don't Run" kicks off "Sleigh Ride," there's a piano playing the riff from Heart's "Magic Man" on "What Child is This," and plenty of other tunes on here work in familiar licks that were a little too brief for me to name. The real revolution is this is one Ventures album with vocals; the last two songs, "Feliz Navidad" and "Christmas Joy" feature some singing. The latter song was a Japanese hit as an instrumental in the 1970s. Gotta say I prefer the guitars to the voices.

weisstro.jpgAn EP from 2000 by this roots-rock combo, five songs including two originals. "Jingle Bells" gets the "Hot Rod Lincoln" country boogie treatment, "Silent Night" appears in a standard arrangement with lots of guitar riffing, although they throw in a little girl listing her Christmas wishes, and they do a perfunctory "Santa Baby," recorded live with a guest vocalist. Of the originals, "Nothin' Comin' Good This Christmas" is a good shuffle blues and "Sweet Baby Jesus" is a hand-clapper and guitar workout that will slightly remind you of Donovan's "Atlantis," at least in the chord progression anyway. A bit of a throwaway effort, but not bad in total.
fromm.jpgThis singing psychologist gets a lot of support in what is supposedly his avocation. Playing behind Fromm on this song are Clarence Clemons, Rick Danko, Maria Muldaur, Pete Sears and Eric Anderson. Really. The song is a decent rocker, complete with patented Big Man saxophone break (rest his soul), and you can buy it directly from his website on a CD with several other, non-holiday songs. My wife heard this on WXPN-FM Philadelphia, so somebody's taking it seriously. Available only on his website.

"Dear Mister Santa Claus," Suellen Vance (Vivybe)

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suvance.jpgThis 2002 pop-lounge number treads an increasingly familiar road: the hot female vocalist making goo-goo eyes at Santa. This one's pretty good too, although a bit more demure than Sarah Taylor's take on the concept. This is just a single with an instrumental version on the "flip" side.
vertical.jpgFrom the band that came out of nowhere with a couple of big radio hits in 2001, "You're a God" and "Everything You Want," this contemporary rocker originated with the 1992 album Running On Ice. It's a sweet parable about giving love to your children. Not too Christmas-y sounding, you could play this any time of year. This was on a compilation called Aware Greatest Hits as well, but that's long out of print, though Amazon can hook you up with it pretty cheaply.

gano.jpgWritten by Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes for the soundtrack to the 2002 film "Hitting the Ground," with the chorus capper, "Merry Christmas everyone, whoever you are." A mid-tempo rocker that hits all the traditional notes and shouts out to Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the next-to-last verse. (I wonder if Cynthia's some relation to the songwriter; try pronouncing the two names. UPDATE: Per the Google, brother and sister.)
orchid.jpgThese folks (Tony and Kimberly Paglia of Georgia) came to my attention via the Christmas Underground compilation and their acoustic take of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." From 2000, this just finally crossed my desk. I might have waved it away as being a folkie deal rather than the rock 'n roll aesthetic we're looking for here, but despite the mellow sounds, no backbeat and the selection of all traditional tunes (except the original "Tony in Toyland"), this CD definitely has its own vibe, a little bit of Low, a bit of 60s psych-pop with an occasional touch of Melanie, and lots of instrumentals. Some out-of-the-way selections, including the title song, "Somersetshire Wassail" and "Good Christian Men Rejoice." Not a barn-burner, more of a thought-provoker. The band appears to be moribund, but the website is still up and offering this disc for sale.
blitch.jpgYour basic CD-is-as-advertised title, Blitch Bango is the doing-business-as name for a guy named B. Mathis, who put this out just three weeks before Christmas 2001. No question the title is accurate; there's reggae on "Blue Christmas," a choppy almost-ska "Holly Jolly Christmas," a sitar-drenched belly-dancing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Gang of Four influences on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," what sounds like a foxtrot (I'm lousy on detecting the fancy dance tempos) version of "Let It Snow," a touch of exotica on "Sleigh Ride," a bit of Bo Diddley on "O Christmas Tree," a "Little Drummer Boy" who's trying to impress "My Sharona," and so on. A little sedate in places, and maybe 12 cuts instead of 18 would have been just the thing, but overall a solid rocker.

Comfort and Joy, Rockapella (Amerigo)

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rockpel2.jpgAs much as we promote Christmas music and encourage artists to do their own rockin' takes on the season, there's always a touch of suspicion when people you haven't heard from for years upon years (shout out to Chicago, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special, Carly Simon, America, et al) suddenly rush out Christmas albums. A similar impulse grabbed me when I heard about this album, Rockapella's second Xmas CD in just two years. Not to be picky, but Elvis waited 14 years before cutting a second holiday album. Like the first one, it's mainly Christmas favorites augmented with a few astute originals, this outing's "Love and the Lights," "Little Mary Snowflake," "Peace On Earth" and "Snowstar." They take on the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling," "Please Come Home For Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the non-holiday "It's a Small World." And again like the first one, they go from fairly ballsy and imaginative a capella sounds to easy listening and jazz, sometimes in the course of a single song. I'd have to say only serious fans should have both, and I think the first one was better.
38specl.jpgHaving taken a quick taste of Christmas cheer by throwing a cut onto 2000's Lynyrd Skynyrd Christmas album, fellow Southern rockers 38 Special chug the whole bottle for 2001 with their own holiday album. You don't really have to go any farther than the title cut to know what you're up against; good ol' boy rock circa the 1970s. They do a pretty good job with evergreens like "Jingle Bell Rock," "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Santa Claus is Back in Town." But like Skynyrd, they feel a need to serious things up with sedate versions of "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Good quality stuff, maybe even better than the Skynyrd album, although they recycle "Hallelujah! It's Christmas" from that album. The album's since been repackaged as a 20th Century Masters collection, but it's the same group of songs. UPDATE: There was a budget CD that combines cuts from the Skynyrd and 38 Special CDs, but it's out of print.
lynyrd.jpgAlbum rock radio of the 1970s conspired to make me dislike this band a lot, since "Free Bird" is the second most overplayed classic rock track in history after "Stairway to Heaven." The current band, despite being short several original members thanks to a 1977 plane crash, continues on through this day, and here's their 2000 ode to Christmas, serious blues-rock crunch leavened with a bit of country swing. They lose their way with new-agey instrumentals of "Greensleeves" and "Classical Christmas," and the album closer, "Skynyrd Family," is just filler. But there are good versions of "Santa's Messin' With the Kid," "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin" and "Run Run Rudolph." They also do the other Rudolph song in an arrangement similar to the Smithereens', Charlie Daniels comes aboard for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and 38 Special brings along their own "Hallelujah, It's Christmas."
another.jpgDon't know much about these guys, except they're from Atlanta, they saw this website, e-mailed us back in 2000 and told us they had something we might be interested in featuring. They were right. A sharp, well played rocker, and give it extra points for sneaking in the Bryan Adams quote in the bridge. Almost forgot: Hanukkah Alert! Go click the art, what are you waiting for? The song was featured on two compilations, the 99X holiday album, and a Red Cross benefit album. Both are out of print, but Amazon has the song, and that's all that's necessary.

A Merrilly Christmas, Alan Merrill (MEC Records)

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merilly.jpgThis is the guy who originated Joan Jett's biggest hit, "I Love Rock 'n Roll," with his former band The Arrows, who were a minor sensation in Jolly Olde back in the mid-70s, even having their own TV show for a while. Sometime in the mid-90s Merrill hooked up with Jon and Sally Tiven, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and several others to make this album, released finally in 2001, a mostly Christmas outing, but with a couple of non-holiday items, including a duet with the late Arthur Alexander on "Let's Think About It." Given the cast of characters, you can assume lots of blue-eyed soul and boogie behind such song titles as "Christmas In the City," "Holiday Heroes," "Christmas Without You," "Christmas In Love" and "Give All the Children Christmas," the latter a set-closing workout with Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Laura Merrill. Surprisingly, given Merrill's claim to fame is writing a hit song, he doesn't write much of the material here; that honor goes to the Tivens, Penn and Oldham for the most part, although Jim Carroll and Tony Visconti have writing credits here too. A little low-key, but not too sedate.
setzer.jpgIf you saw the flick "Jingle All the Way," you got a preview of this disc, as Setzer's big band had several cuts on that soundtrack, by themselves and with guest vocalists Darlene Love on "Sleigh Ride" and Lou Rawls on the Setzer original "So They Say it's Christmas." Those two cuts reappear, same arrangements and all, with Setzer singing, as does the film's "Jingle Bells," which kicks off both CDs. He did an instrumental version of "Jingle Bells" for Merry Axemas, too. Having already put all that work into it, you can't fault Setzer for figuring he may as well finish the job of putting out a whole Christmas album. Although the orchestra is your basic big swing band, Setzer's Stray Cats sensibilities still reign. The uptempo stuff is the best, like "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," "The Man With the Bag" and "Winter Wonderland," although a nice stride boogie beat underpins "Blue Christmas" and the Elvis Presley blues "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" is a solid rendition too. Setzer may have tried a little too hard to mix up the menu; he resorts to the lounge-music toolbox twice with the Rawls tune and a duet with Ann-Margret (really!) on "Baby It's Cold Outside." "The Nutcracker Suite" mixes up rockabilly strut with a few too many Lawrence Welk-isms to suit me. UPDATE: Chris Candreva objects to my Welk characterization of this latter tune, noting it is an updated version of a record by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Duly noted. Still, a good outing all around, especially if you didn't see Arnold and Sinbad's movie already. Brian has since gone on to make a nice business out of the holiday; his press materials even refer to his orchestra as "BSO," a nod to that other Christmas staple TSO.
hifichr2.jpgWe gave Vol. 1 a strong recommendation when it rolled out a few years ago, so we had high hopes for this one. (Disclosure: So high we co-sponsored this 2006 release.) Like the last one, sales of this alt-pop Christmas CD raise money for research into Von Willebrand's disease. Dan Pavelich of the Bradburys produces again, gathering up 17 fresh looks at the holiday, nearly all originals except for young Mari Pavelich's brief "Up on the Housetop," the Brothers Figaro Orchestra's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in a New Vaudeville Band vein, and Husky Team's instrumental of "Auld Lang Syne," brought to us by way of Booker T. and the MGs. The Elvis Brothers kick off with "Rock-a-Billy Christmas," no description needed, The Spongetones' "Christmas Boy" gets brushed off for this compilation, and Joey Molland & the Echo Boys contribute "King of Kings" -- I'm assuming that's Badfinger's Joey Molland we're talking about here. Lisa Mychols returns from the previous disc with Wondermints in tow for another Spector-esque classic, "Lost Winter's Dream," in which she sounds a bit like Lesley Gore. Other top cuts include The Bradburys' "A Christmas Wish," the Gripweeds' "Christmas, Bring Us," Rob Paravonian's "We're Breaking Up For the Holidays," Sketch Middle's "Turtlenecks & Eggnog," Ed James' "Will You Marry Me (On Christmas Day)?" and Marti Jones' quirky "Snow," written and orchestrated by Don Dixon. Great album, good cause, what are you waiting for? (The Amazon link will connect you to a copy, although guaranteed new copies appear to be available only from CDBaby.) A third edition is expected for 2011.

Hi-Fi Christmas Party, various artists (Vandalay)

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HiFiXmas.jpgYes, there's a "Seinfeld" fan behind this charity compilation (note record label's name), released in 2002 and still available this year. Proceeds from this CD are being used to fund research into Von Willibrand's disease, a rare condition that prevents blood clotting. The many alternative rock and pop artists involved here rushed to provide their tunes on the request of producer Dan Pavelich, whose daughter has a manageable case of the disease. Most are original tunes except for Mari Pavelich's "The Chubby Little Snowman," the Spongetones' "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and the Lolas' "Little Drummer Boy." On hand are the Jellybricks with "We'll Be Together," Jim Babjak's Buzzed Meg with "Christmas Morning" from their EP, alt-pop producer Don Dixon with "Christmas Is Saturday," Andrea Perry's "Fat Aunt Bet," and Lisa Mychols' Spector homage on "Listen to the Bells Ring," with the help of Brian Wilson road keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. Ted Ansani cocktails things up with "The Kriss Kringle Jingle," Rob P. and the Qs offer "It's Christmas and I'm Going Home," an uptempo one-man-band performance except for drums. Cool King Chris exhorts us to raise our glasses in a holiday toast with "High Glass Jingle," Bill Lloyd gives us a witty original take on "The Twelve Days of Christmas," October Elsewhere sings about "Christmas Every Day" and they mean it literally. Other acts include Glowfriends, Phil Angotti, John McMullan, Dom Mariani, Jeremy, and The Bradburys. All told, an excellent alt-pop holiday album. The Amazon link at the album cover will lead you to a copy, but guaranteed new copies appear to be available only through CDBaby.
setzer2.jpgOne might be advised to be cautious when somebody comes off a solid Christmas album just a couple of years ago and throws yet another one at us. From the standpoint of "been there, done that," you might be tempted to let this 2005 album slide, especially if you already have Boogie Woogie Christmas, the one from 2002. But with all fresh performances and different songs, you're likely to be tempted by such things as the title tune, "Zat You, Santa Claus," the Grinch song, and a fairly jumpy version of "White Christmas." He throws in a couple of originals, "Santa's Got a Hot Rod" and "Hey Santa." Old folks like me get a little uncomfortable with the orchestra's lounge music tendencies, heard on such things as "Angels We Have Heard On High," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," and the Christmas-ized version of "In the Mood." But younger folks with a taste for Naugahyde might not object so much. Setzer's also got a live DVD out in 2005, Christmas Extravagaza, devoted mostly, but not entirely, to Christmas music. UPDATE: Setzer's 2007 album, Wolfgang's Big Night Out, a collection of Setzer-ized classical themes, includes "Take a Break, Guys," an adaptation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." FURTHER UPDATE: Setzer's record company has been relentless in repackaging his Christmas material, with numerous compilations in the racks. But all of it stems from the two original albums, Boogie Woogie Christmas and Dig That Crazy Christmas. (Plus the aforementioned "Take a Break, Guys.") In 2010 he added a live album, Christmas Comes Alive, which features concert recordings of songs he did on his previous albums.

A Very Special Christmas 5, various artists (A&M)

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The franchise continued in 2001, keeping a number of previous participants and adding a selection of modern artists to keep things up to date. Like Volume 4, most of the tunes were taken from a live concert in 2000 at the White House. Macy Gray kicks things off with her version of "This Christmas," Wyclef Jean mixes it up by rapping over Stevie Wonder's "Merry Christmas Baby" and taking the lead on a medley of "Little Drummer Boy/Hot Hot Hot" (really!). Jon Bon Jovi does the Elvis version of "Blue Christmas," Stevie Nicks reprises her "Silent Night" from Volume 1, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put a holiday spin on "Little Red Rooster" and Sheryl Crow joins the Heartbreakers for "Run Run Rudolph." A highlight, for me anyway, is Powder's version of "Christmas Don't Be Late (The Chipmunk Song)"; see, Vonda Shepard, you had dibs and you let it slip away. SR-71 does Billy Squier's "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" and Eve 6 do "First Noel," B.B. King and John Popper trade riffs on "Back Door Santa" and Darlene Love does a note-perfect version of her "White Christmas" from the Spector album. Dido is on here too with her own "Christmas Day" from the Nettwerk album. UPDATE: Another addition to the series was A Very Special Acoustic Christmas in 2003, but as it was made with all country and bluegrass artists, I took a pass on it.

"Christmas Singles," Erik Voeks (Parasol)

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voeks.jpgThis 2000 song has a Jimi Hendrix-sounding instrumental backing leading into the vocal, an original Christmas song that hits a number of pop-culture landmarks, from the title item to the TV weather girl and not failing to mention the annual airing of "It's a Wonderful Life." Nice work. Later became the title song of a Parasol Records compilation, which you can download from Amazon by clicking on the single sleeve art at right. Flip side is a demo of "The Cruel Tide," which doesn't seem to be particularly holiday oriented even though it's on Parasol's Stuck in the Chimney Christmas compilation.
special4.jpgTaken from a White House concert at Christmas 1998, this 1999 disc was an easy way to get another album in the marketplace to benefit the Special Olympics. While some of these performances are reprises from the first three Special Christmas albums (Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis," Jon Bon Jovi's "Please Come Home for Christmas," Tracy Chapman's "O Holy Night," Vanessa Williams' "What Child Is This"), there are a few original moments on this one, most of which fall under the Sheryl and Eric show that dominated 1998's concert scene. Sheryl Crow duets with Mary J. Blige on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and with Eric Clapton on "Merry Christmas Baby," the Bruce Springsteen arrangement. Eric then solos on "Christmas Tears," duets with John Popper on Canned Heat's "Christmas Blues" and with Tracy Chapman on "Give Me One Reason," her non-Christmas hit. Bon Jovi returns with "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,)" sounding suspiciously like Bono from the first Special Christmas album. The whole cast then gets together on the Phil Spector version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Say, there's an awful lot of blues on the set list for a White House concert; that probably won't happen again any time soon.

A Very Special Christmas 3, various artists (A&M)

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special3.jpgWith two well-received predecessors already in the racks, most listeners will want to know who's on this 1997 Speclai Olympics collection and how it compares to the other two. Answering the second question first, it's not quite as good as 1 but it's better than 2. The biggest weakness this collection has from the rock 'n roll standpoint is that most of the artists are a bit too reverent for their own good; everyone's too much on their best behavior this year. No Doubt wins the rockingest cut in a walk with "Oi To the World" against little competition. Still, there's plenty to like here. Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow and Blues Traveler turn in good performances, characteristic of their regular releases but not too solemn. Natalie Merchant breaks out with a gospelly "Children Go Where I Send Thee" and Sting's "I Saw Three Ships" is serious but sprightly. An all-star cast of rap stars take on Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and blues prodigy Jonny Lang tears into "Santa Claus is Back in Town." Dave Matthews and Mary J. Blige perform original tunes, and the remaining artists, Steve Winwood, Tracy Chapman, Patti Smith, Chris Cornell and Enya all fall on the too-serious side of the ledger with their performances of Christmas standards. Overall, though, this is a worthwhile album.

A Very Special Christmas 2, various artists (A&M)

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special2.jpgFive years passed before the Special Olympics tried to surpass their initial achievement with this 1992 album. They didn't, actually, but it wasn't for lack of trying, given the artist roster. Still, we could have done without sappy old Debbie Gibson, Luther Vandross and Michael Bolton, and Randy Travis' "Jingle Bell Rock" was mainly a sop to the country market. Still, we do have to give props to the duets: Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Bonnie Raitt and Charles Brown on his classic "Merry Christmas Baby" and even Cyndi Lauper with Frank Sinatra on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Then we have Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with "Christmas All Over Again," Paul Young in a fine version of Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means To Me" and Jon Bon Jovi and Run DMC offering new performances, the former's "Please Come Home For Christmas" being the subject of an over-shown video with Cindy Crawford. Aretha Franklin provides the diva moment with "O Christmas Tree," while Sinead O'Connor gives us a non-Christmas Dylan song, "I Believe In You." Also on hand are Extreme, Nancy and Ann Wilson, Boys II Men, Tevin Campbell, Vanessa Williams and Wilson Phillips.
decpeeps.jpgBelieve it or not, there's still a constituency out there for 70s style progressive rock, and this 2001 semi-supersession of folks from that era is the proof. It's organized by Robert Berry, who has had a solo career in this kind of music for years and is best known for his stint as front man for the Keith Emerson-Carl Palmer project called simply 3. He apparently did a lot of this album himself with Pro Tools, but the album also includes an original tune by Kansas (yes, that Kansas) called "The Light," which is typical of the genre but not particularly memorable. Other guests include Trent Gardner of the bands Magellan and Explorer's Club, John Wetton of Asia and Roxy Music fame, Jake Livgren, nephew of Kansas' Kerry Livgren, and Steve Walsh, who has had a solo progressive rock career for years but was also a member of Kansas. If you're a progressive rock fan, you know what to do. For the rest, this veers toward Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller territory, not nearly as corny but with a lot of the same melodic and instrumental approaches. You'll hear particular guitar and keyboard licks that will remind you of folks like Kansas, for example. On the other hand, the mostly traditional carols are good grist for the progressive approach, as that music is often built around subject matter from the epic storytelling tradition. Aside from "The Light," the only non-traditional Christmas song is a full-cast recording of John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas," recast with lots and lots of orchestral Beatles touches, mainly from "I Am the Walrus," and is kind of cute in a "look what we did" way, but the ripped-off "Abbey Road" conclusion gilds the lily a bit to my way of thinking. The December People issued a second holiday disc in 2010 with a more pop-rock approach.

A Very Special Christmas, various artists (A&M)

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special1.jpgIf there's anything better than buying rock 'n roll Christmas records, it's knowing that at least part of the money you're spending will benefit a good cause, in this case the Special Olympics. All of the five albums released since 1987 have their moments, though I have to say I still prefer the first one as a listening experience. For one thing, it has a strong connection to the Phil Spector album, with U2's cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the Pointer Sisters' rendition of Phil's arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Jon Bon Jovi is here with "Back Door Santa" and Run DMC perform "Christmas in Hollis," The Pretenders do a classy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Bruce Springsteen donates his version of "Merry Christmas Baby." Madonna acquits herself well on Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and John Cougar Mellencamp has an interesting take on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Whitney Houston is here to present the set's diva moment on "Do You Hear What I Hear." Others on the initial outing include Eurythmics, Sting, Alison Moyet, Stevie Nicks, Bryan Adams and Bob Seger. UPDATE: A DVD out for 2007 brings us a collection of selected videos and live performances from the entire Special Christmas series. FURTHER UPDATE: For 2008, there's a three-disc package offering the first two volumes plus the Acoustic Christmas disc, which is mainly country artists and isn't reviewed at this site. Another "limited" package for 2011 has the first two volumes plus the DVD.
stratjkt.jpgCan't argue with the squib on the cover of this 2002 disc, "13 Rockin' Christmas Instrumentals!" This Nashville-based instrumental combo specializes in the vintage rock instrumental sound of Link Wray, the Ventures and their numerous imitators. In fact, their version of "Sleigh Ride" is essentially the Ventures' original version, complete with quotes from "Walk, Don't Run." They rock up a dozen more, like "Jingle Bell Rock," "Marshmallow World," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" superimposed over "Pipeline," and throw in a couple of originals, "Christmas in Las Vegas" and "Christmas Weekend." They end sedately with a cover of "The Christmas Song." Great work, something fans of vintage rock especially will appreciate. It went so nice, in fact, that a few years later they did it twice.

"Merry Xmas Everybody," Oasis (B-Unique)

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oasis.jpgThe Britpop bad boys performed this for a Christmas TV show in England and have now donated it to 1 Love, a 2002 British-only charity compilation commemorating New Musical Express's 50th anniversary and benefiting War Child, a charity that brings emergency and support aid to children suffering through the displacements of war, famine and disease. It's mellower than the Slade original, with only tambourines and jingle bells for percussion, but it retains the sing-songy quality. This collection is out of print, but the song found its way to the Gift Wrapped II collection, where it remains available; click the album art to visit it at Amazon.
jill2.jpgThis is Jill's Christmas record for 2001, and while it has more music than last year's, it only has three Christmas songs out of nine, two of which were released previously. The new Christmas song is an acoustic version of "Christmas Time Is Here," the pop standard, combined with reruns of "Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner" and "Merry Christmas From the Family." In keeping with the post 9-11 mood, she does "This Land Is Your Land" with Kim Richey and Bill Lloyd, and rabid Jill fans will be happy to see a live version of her semi-libelous "Kathy Lee." Acoustic versions of three songs from her last "real" album and the unreleased "St. Francis" round out the set. UPDATE: This was reissued in 2005 with another Christmas-appropriate song, "That Hat," reviewed here, and with the non-Christmas songs excised. There's also different cover art, which I saved for the "That Hat" entry. Jill typically offers the disc at Christmastime via her website only; at the time this entry was updated, it wasn't on offer.

"Christmas in America," Pat Benatar (Gold Circle)

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benatar.jpgThe first new music from Pat in some time, this 2001 release is a ballad tempo tune that joins Christmas to the Sept. 11 attacks. It's the only one of its type I've encountered so far; the other attack-inspired songs didn't tie into the holiday. Artistically it's OK but no better, the lyrics pretty much going where you expect them to go. But in this age of divas, it's refreshing to hear a female singer who's willing to do just enough singing to serve the song, even though she has the chops to overdo it, unlike a lot of other people I could name. This single includes an instrumental version of the song plus Pat's other Christmas performance, the Charles Brown song "Please Come Home For Christmas," just in case you don't have it. It's out of print, though the Amazon link will take you to folks who have copies. "Please Come Home," which is from the 1980s as far as I know, turns up frequently on rock-based holiday collections, of course.

Holiday Harmony, America (Rhino)

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amerika.jpgIf Bob Dylan bridged the folk music trend into the rock era, and people like the Byrds, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young made folk-rock mainstream, then it was America who transitioned folk-rock into the world of easy listening. Hard to make a big case for this 2002 album as a way to rock your Christmas season, then. They are working hard here, and there are sparks of life throughout the disc, including three original tunes, but overall, if you stopped listening to them when I did back in their salad days, you can pick right up where you left off with this. Beyond "A Christmas to Remember," "Christmas in California" and "Winter Holidays," the set list is straight off the pop Christmas list, no surprises or twists, although "Frosty the Snowman" is suitably Spectorish rather than granola-fed. OK for them and their fans; the rest of us will have to look elsewhere.
jillsong.jpgJill sold this EP directly from her website, and it's worth having, even if you're not one of her fans. "Merry Christmas From the Family" is the Robert Earl Keen song she performed on the You Sleigh Me compilation, "Christmas Is the Saddest Day of the Year" was out on Velvel's A Christmas to Remember, and I don't know where else you could find "Jesus Was a Dreidel Spinner," a witty little slice of thrash-klezmer. Oh, I know: see below. As a bonus she throws in "Mom," a bit of social commentary that ends up as an ode to the title character. As this was a private issue, it's not surprising that it went away. The tunes, however, got another life on a subsequent Jill issue; read here and here.

Christmas Is Almost Here, Carly Simon (Rhino)

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carly.jpgIn terms of the Mistletunes aesthetic, this one isn't exactly a barn-burner. But as a contemporary pop Christmas record, it's not bad at all. Carly hooked up with Don Was to put together this 2002 album that is about half standard carols, some favorite covers and two originals, with just enough roughage in the auditory experience to keep folks like me from saying "just what you'd expect." The title song is by Livingston Taylor, her former brother-in-law, and the presence of "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" in an arrangement faithful to the original is an indicator that the song is now a standard part of the holiday repertoire. Her two originals are "The Land of Christmas (Mary)" and "Heaven," co-written with her sister Lucy, and both are solid holiday ballads. The reggae version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is not an original idea, but it is a nice icebreaker for this set. More of a surprise is blues -- she covers the Rev. Gary Davis' "Twelve Gates to the City." And she duets with Willie Nelson on his "Pretty Paper," but I'm not a big fan of folks duetting with Willie; he just doesn't blend all that well with others. This might not make your mix CD or tape, but you wouldn't be ashamed to give it as a gift. In 2003, the album was reissued with two additional songs and retitled Christmas Is Almost Here Again.

Holiday Feast, Gastronomical Unit (Tetanus Farm)

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gastroun.jpgThis independent release has apparently been cooking for a long time; its CDBaby.com listing shows some of these tunes were recorded as far back as 1991 through 2004. Apparently this is a compilation, with a shifting cast of characters over time. "Egg Nog #5" opens the disc with a parody of Lou Bega's "Mambo" of the same number, a pretty good takeoff. "The Wassail Song" gets a hard rock/madrigal rendition in an odd time signature, "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is sung in an alt-folky arrangement, "A Pirate's 12 Days of Christmas" is the popular carol done in pirate-talk, and "We Three Kings" gets two lounge-jazz treatments, one vocal, one not. "Joy to the World" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" get noise-pop arrangements. There's an a cappella performance of "Crazy Night in Bethlehem" that sounds like a parody, but I don't know of what. They come up with the first version of "Dreidle Dreidle Dreidle" (Hanukkah Alert) to remind me of "Folsom Prison Blues," then follow that with "Tainted Nog," based on the Soft Cell hit. With 21 cuts, there's a bit too much distance between the best parts of the disc, but the good cuts are worth having. It's now available through Amazon, so click the disc cover. UPDATE: GU released a Vol. 2 with new material in 2008; will have to track that one down.

Cool Yule, Acoustix (Acoustix Productions)

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acoustix.jpgThis 2000 album really doesn't fit on this site. I picked it up because of my attraction to a capella music and the fact that a former member of Take 6 was involved, but these guys are basically pop-jazz easy listening. They give props to the Beach Boys with a cover of "Little Saint Nick" and the Boys' arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne," but that's as much rock as you get here; the cover of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is straight outta Branson, Mo. The rest of the tunes consist of your basic cross section of popular carols, well performed but nothing particularly edgy. You might consider it as a gift for a friend or relative who's into harmony singing, but you probably won't keep it for yourself. (It's long out of print, so there probably won't be much temptation at this late date.)

Christmas, Tony Perry (J-School)

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perry.jpgPerry was the leader of Tony Perry 3, once a popular acoustic rock combo in the Harrisburg, Pa. area that had two previous self-released CDs to its credit. He chose to issue this 2002 Christmas album under just his own name, featuring five originals, three traditional carols, one tune each from Bruce Cockburn and Dave Matthews, and the rest covers of songs written for the Christian pop music market -- the place where this album will be best promoted. Perry, husband of a minister in Montoursville, Pa., is a great singer and the sparse instrumental backing is well performed. Of the originals, "Only" is not overtly a Christmas song but is a solid rocker, "I'll Follow You" is a midtempo ballad that is a little more explicit, and the others are strictly religious Christmas songs, the best of which is "We Don't Talk About the Baby." The carols are straight readings, although the version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is pretty much the same arrangement done by Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan. Worthwhile, though the religious content may be too much for the more secular among us.
kustard.jpgThis 2002 release features the house band for the Loser's Lounge series of pop-rock tribute shows, featuring a rotating cast of NYC-area musicians, at least some of whose names you'll recognize, who have given props to everybody from Burt Bacharach to David Bowie and Roxy Music to Elvis Costello. Calling themselves a pop-funk-lounge ensemble, they're every bit that versatile and a little more besides. They throw in some spunky originals like "Snow Globe Symphonette," "U Sleigh Me," "3 Ho's," "Santa's Favorite Helper" and "A Custard Christmas." Kicking off and closing with The Beatles' "Christmas Time Is Here Again," they go for other covers with character, like "Welcome Christmas" from the "Grinch" story, "Heat Miser Strut," "Santa Baby" with a touch of Bryan Ferry's version of "The In Crowd," a crack at "I Want an Alien for Christmas" and medleys of "Holly Jolly Christmas/We Are Santa's Elves" and the inspired pairing of "Do They Know It's (Snoopy's) Christmas." Of the Confidential releases, this is the one to have if you're having only one.

Christmas in Memphis, Husky Team (Confidential)

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husky.jpgKeyboardist Dave Amels and drummer Dennis Diken, fresh off the Jon Graboff album, threw themselves into this 2002 gem, another all-instrumental go-round, only this time a front-to-back tribute to Booker T. and the MGs. Although that group did do a Christmas album back in the day, you might still want this one if you liked that one. Booker T. and Steve Cropper licks get merged into such tunes as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Auld Lang Syne," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Silent Night," "We Three Kings" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." A little bit of Box Tops' "The Letter" kicks off "Feliz Navidad." And the Beach Boys clean up with three covers: "Little Saint Nick," "The Man With All the Toys" and "Santa's Beard." Great work folks.

For Christ's Sake, Jon Graboff (Confidential)

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graboff.jpgGraboff is a New York-based session guitarist who steps out on this 2002 all-instrumental holiday album. He's assisted by some hometown friends, including The Smithereens' Dennis Diken and other folks who have played with such luminaries as They Might Be Giants, Joan Osborne, Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams. This is a fairly subtle affair, incoroporating styles and licks from across the spectrum for active listeners but not sticking out too much to be used as background music. Most tunes are familiar carols, but Graboff also digs into the catalog to take a crack at NRBQ's "Christmas Wish" in a Pet Sounds kind of arrangement, fairly straight readings of XTC's "Thanks For Christmas" and The Beach Boys' "Merry Christmas Baby," the latter with a pedal steel lead line. Graboff's one original, "Christmas Shopping," manages to keep the Christmas feel going with the help of carillon. A non-holiday tune by Laura Cantrell, "Too Late For Tonight," gets subtitled "Bombay Noel" for its use of electric sitar. "Run Rudolph Run" substitutes sax for vocals in an otherwise authentic original arrangement. A solid, if low-key effort.

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