Christmas CDs and the people who love them
December 8, 2005
My wife wants to hear what she calls traditional Christmas music. I want to hear something fresh and different, while understanding that Nice and Natty, a CD of Christmas songs done in reggae style, might not be everyones cup of tea for the holidays. Meanwhile, our daughter just wants to sing and hum her favorites Deck the Halls, Let It Snow and Silent Night 24/7, from the first snowfall through Presidents Day. So finding the right CDs from the stacks of new stuff is critical to a Merry Christmas.
(Western Beat)This alt-country collection is not only for a good cause raising funds for young Nashville sisters Kate and Caroline Kirk, both afflicted with a rare and fatal genetic disorder but cuts that perfect balance between artistic statement and Christmas feel. For Kates Sake mixes new songs (Jim Lauderdales Holly & Her Mistletoe, the Big Happys naughty Gift Wrapped Boy), with old favorites (Buddy & Julie Millers excellent Away In a Manger, John Prine doing Ill Be Home for Christmas) and even older tunes reimagined as holiday numbers (Joe Ely doing Bob Dylans Winterlude). Note to self: Put this away in a place where youll be able to find it come next December.
(New Line Records)Yes, that John Waters, maker of such wonderful, offbeat trash as Hairspray and Pecker. No, Waters doesnt sing here. Instead, he puts his twisted sensibility to a curatorial purpose, choosing the oddest of past recordings. Especially priceless and not to be played during Christmas Day opening of presents with the kiddies is Here Comes Fatty Claus, which should have been on the Bad Santa soundtrack. (Here comes fatty with a sack of s–t/And all them stinkin reindeer.) Balancing out such tracks as Fat Daddy, Santa Claus Is a Black Man and Tiny Tims rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are family-friendlier songs like a Motown-ish take on I Wish You a Merry Christmas, that dates to the early 60s that Waters loves. You get the sense that Waters already knew this stuff by heart, and was just waiting to gather them on a CD.
produced by Kate and Anna McGarrigle(Nonesuch)The extended McGarrigle family including Kates children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright gather around for a high-minded take on Christmas music. The material goes more for the sacred (O Little Town of Bethlehem, with Emmylou Harris on guest vocals, Seven Joys of Mary, Some Children See Him), with a bit of the popular (Blue Christmas, What Are You Doing New Years Eve) sprinkled in. In sound, as well, the McGarrigles reach high, giving the songs dense choral treatment and sophisticated arrangements of strings and piano. Yet another keeper.
produced by Tommy LiPuma and Diana Krall (Verve)On the surface, jazz singer Diana Kralls Christmas CD is too predictable, in terms of song choices (name it, its probably there), use of the solid but old-fashioned Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and her usual producer, Tommy LiPuma. (Might it not have been cooler if she had just collaborated with husband Elvis Costello?) But Christmas Songs is also predictably good and tasteful, and at its best, is inspired and smoking. Jingle Bells never swung so hard, Let It Snow was never so sexy. Ranks, though, a half-step below rival jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves Christmas Time Is Here from last year for contemporary jazz takes on Christmas music.
produced by Jeff Daniel and David Hargis(Six Degrees)On first sight, this caused some eye-rolling. Christmas and remix can they possibly be right together? But this is a surprisingly sensitive treatment. Christmas Remixed takes classic, old versions of the classic songs Rosemary Clooneys Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Bing Crosbys White Christmas, Patti Pages Frosty the Snowmass and gives them generally subtle twists, so that theyre jazzed up, but not altered beyond recognition. For those dubious about the remixing concept, this is a good introduction.
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produced by Baker and Barry J. Eastmond (Blue Note)Singer Anita Baker takes an intimate and playful approach to traditional songs; she has an especially good time with Frosty the Snowman, turning it into Frostys Rag, and putting her heart into Christmas Time Is Here. She and co-producer Eastmond also dare to place their own songs Christmas Fantasy, Moonlight Sleighride and Family of Man in the mix with the well-known. And it closes with a take on My Favorite Things, a jazz standard, not a Christmas tune, but appropriate here, particularly when she sings, Bright paper packages tied up with strings.
produced by Chris Nole (Spa Creek)Singer Mack Bailey, a member of folk groups the Limeliters (named for Aspens Limelite Lodge) and the Hard Travelers, puts his rich, earnest voice to a variety of songs, all given acoustic settings. Bailey goes for the occasional familiar tune (Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful), but most of it is lesser-known, along the lines of Sweet Little Jesus Boy, Adeste Fideles and his own title track. Many of the musicians here (flutist Jim Horn, guitarist Pete Huttlinger, pianist Chris Nole) are, like Bailey, regular performers in the annual John Denver tribute concerts at the Wheeler Opera House.Mack Bailey performs a Christmas Concert Thursday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Snowmass Chapel.
produced by Heat and Tim Alexander(Yep Roc)No surprises here. Rockabilly thrasher Rev. Horton Heat and his rhythm section pound out the favorites, with volume and a beat. Heat is an exceptional guitarist, so songs like Jingle Bells and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town get more than the usual instrumental flourishes. Given the Rev.s nature, the best of We Three Kings leans toward the rockers, like Run Rudolph Run and Santa on the Roof. Heat has somewhat less success trying to show the proper restraint of Silver Bells and Willie Nelsons Pretty Paper.
produced by Ricky Skaggs(Skaggs Family)Ricky Skaggs keeps his commercial country-to-acoustic roots reinvention alive here. Joining hands with the members of his Kentucky Thunder band, plus a handful of singers from the Skaggs and White clans, singer-mandolinist Ricky puts a cheery, acoustic stamp on the favorites, as well as Mary, Did You Know? and The Christmas Guest. Theres some bluegrass flavor here, but its not a bluegrass album, as folk, Celtic, traditional pop and old-timey sounds are just as prevalent.
produced by Dave Darling (Surfdog)Who does Brian Setzer think he is, Bing Crosby? His Brian Setzer Orchestra returns with its second Christmas CD in as many years. Setzer really does seem inspired by the holiday; his take on Angels We Have Heard on High is epic, ambitious and sizzling, and he contributes tunes Hey Santa! and Gettin In the Mood for Christmas to the repertoire.
produced by David Benoit (Peak)Smooth jazz takes on the music of Vince Guaraldi, who is, in fact, best known for his soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. The album features new takes on Guaraldis tunes by the likes of pianist David Benoit, saxophonist Dave Koz and singers Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight. Filling out the space are Its the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, The Christmas Song (can we change the name to Chestnuts Roasting, for claritys sake?) and Beethovens Fr Elise. Upon reflection, it may be that Guaraldis classic Linus and Lucy is the best smooth jazz composition ever. Its the only one that makes me the least bit merry.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org