Old, New, and In Between

Usually I ease into the Christmas music every year, letting holiday songs pop up at random on the laptop in the days after Thanksgiving. Not this year—I jumped into the pool fully clothed, doing four solid hours of Christmas tunes on the radio the day after Thanksgiving, which felt like an awful lot awfully fast. But today’s December 1, so nobody can say it’s too early anymore.

There is, as usual, a variety of new holiday releases this year, although “new” is a relative term, as we’ll see in a moment. The most talked-about is Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart. It’s been greeted with general head-scratching, and no wonder. In another lifetime, a Dylan Christmas album might have been sparely acoustic and as somber as a copse of bare trees, but Christmas in the Heart is neither. Most of the instrumental tracks are straight MOR that would fit the vocal stylings of everyone from Engelbert Humperdinck to Michael Bublé. Some of them include cheesy choral accompaniment. Dylan’s voice is no more than a croak. It’s an easy record to make fun of and/or hate, but I’m unwilling to do either one, and here’s why: Unlikely holiday albums succeed when the music fits the artist’s particular worldview—I’m thinking here of recent albums by Aimee Mann and Mary Chapin Carpenter—or when the music conforms to a particular artistic vision, like Willie Nelson’s classic Pretty Paper. Even though it might not seem like it, Dylan could be ticking both boxes—he’s past having to satisfy critics or explain himself, and Christmas in the Heart is an eloquent way of telling us so. Key track: “Must Be Santa,” which is utterly demented and completely fabulous.

So Dylan wins the award for Most Unlikely Artist to Do Christmas Tunes, but the first runner-up could be REO Speedwagon. Their Not So Silent Night is not going to impress anybody who’s not already a fan of REO, although it’s not always recognizable as REO since Kevin Cronin’s voice is shot. A cover of the Kingston Trio’s “White Snows of Winter” and a power-ballad version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” are decent, but the rest of it runs the gamut from unnecessary to awful. Unlike the Dylan album, it’s hard to discern REO’s point in making it, beyond a holiday cash-in.

Like ’em or not, at least the Dylan and REO records are all new material. Many others require you to pay for stuff you may already own. Take for one example the Beach Boys’ Christmas Harmonies, which consists mostly of mono tracks from their 1964 Christmas album. It does include four additional tracks that can be considered rare, including the elusive 1974 recording “Child of Winter,” but it also includes the execrable “Santa’s Beard,” formerly the worst Christmas record in the world.

Neil Diamond’s A Cherry Cherry Christmas is largely recycled from Diamond’s early 90s Christmas albums. The title track is new, however, and awkwardly name-checks several Diamond tunes: “Wish you a very merry Cherry Cherry Christmas/And a Holly Holy holiday too/Underneath your tree may there always be/Sounds of harmony not a Song Sung Blue.” Diamond gains points for covering Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” but loses them again for changing Sandler’s “smoke your marijuana-kah” to “don’t smoke your marijuana-kah.” Michael McDonald’s up to the same thing. (Reissuing, not smoking.) This Christmas features four tracks from McD’s 2001 album but adds some new material as well. (For what it’s worth, Allmusic.com likes the new stuff.)

Straight reissues, no new material: Mannheim Steamroller is celebrating 25 years since their first Christmas album. In case you don’t already own their staggeringly popular holiday series (but how is that possible?), there’s a two-CD best of that covers the bases. And there’s a remastered version of A Christmas Gift for You, produced by Phil Spector and featuring the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. It’s the first issue in a series: All of Spector’s work produced for his Philles label is set to be remastered and reissued in both physical and downloadable form with replica artwork. Interesting fact about A Christmas Gift for You: It was originally released on November 22, 1963. The album didn’t become a hit during that first holiday season, perhaps because it landed in a season filled with grief.

Much More Merriment: At WNEW.com, I’ve started writing the history of some famous rock and pop Christmas songs. Last weekend it was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”; today it’s John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” (If you like ’em, comment on ’em.) At Popdose, Jason and Jeff are preparing to confront all things Christmas-musical with their annual Mellowmas series. The first installment is up today. Any Major Dude With Half a Heart goes old-school with the Christmas music;  AM, Then FM goes not quite so old.

“Angels We Have Heard on High”/REO Speedwagon (buy it here, cheap)

3 responses

  1. Chicago put out a solid Christmas album in 1998/2004. In 1998 they released Chicago XXV, and in 2004 they released What’s It Gonna Be Santa which was essentially Chicago XXV +6 new songs that hadn’t been on XXV. They stick to mostly standards and familiar tunes. But there are 2 original songs one co-penned by Bill Champlin and the other co-penned by Jimmy Pankow. The songs featuring the children’s choir are god-awful and always fall prey to the skip button. But for the most part the album holds up. The arrangements are exceptional and what one would expect from a Chicago Christmas album.

    Another somewhat recent one I recommend is Steve Lukather & Friends Santamental. It’s just plain fun Christmas music in the tradition of the hard rockin’ Merry Axemas CDs . Lukather does not take himself seriously and just has a good time with the music and the fun he has comes across in spades.

  2. Myself and Erica Viola have set up a blog dedicated to haiku inspired by Christmas in the Heart.

  3. Thanks for the mention. It’s pretty damn likely that almost all of the new records you mentioned will find a day in the Mellowmas spotlight. For the record, though, Sandler’s very first version of “The Chanukah Song,” sung on SNL, included “don’t smoke marijuana-kah” — he couldn’t get away with advocating pot on national television. Not that year, anyway.

    I haven’t been able to ease into Christmas music since we started our stupid holiday. I started listening in October and, according to iTunes, have listened to 320+ “new” (to me) holiday songs this year. But today, December 1, it finally feels acceptable.

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