In search of a Christmas album worth remembering | AspenTimes.com

In search of a Christmas album worth remembering

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado

Singer Joan Osborne has released the Christmas music CD, Christmas Means Love. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)

I cant explain this fascination I have with Christmas music. Being Jewish, I was raised more on Dreydel, Dreydel, Dreydel and Maoz Tzur than Silent Night and The First Noel. (Although, being a New Jersey Jew, I had a warm spot for Bruce Springsteens version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.) And, yes, I recognize that most of the Christmas CDs released are, as we say, dreck.But from the time holiday-themed recordings started showing up on my desk, I started reviewing them. And over the years, Ive developed a perverse sort of interest: What was the schlockiest concept for a Christmas CD? (Lots of competition there.) Whose version of The Christmas Song could make you beg hardest for the end of the yuletide? (Which reminds me of a great idea for a compilation of alternative-country Christmas songs: Yalltide.)And also, who could make a Christmas CD that you might consider playing on Dec. 26? There are a few, and I think it is that possibility of finding them that drives me, come Thanksgiving, to make a pile of the latest Christmas albums and go through them obsessively.Here are reviews from the latest crop.Joan Osborne, Christmas Means Love produced by Tor Hyams (Time/Life)Joan Osbornes got some experience mixing the religious and the secular remember her hit One of Us, which pondered God as a regular guy? On Christmas Means Love, she does an even better job of it, blending the spiritually inclined Away in a Manger, Children Go Where I Send Thee with more earthbound tunes like Santa Claus Baby, which gets a wonderful retro-girl-rock spin here. Osbornes soulful but sassy voice goes naturally with both kinds of material, and she also seems to have given plenty of thought to this project: Theres her original song, the slow blues What Do Bad Girls Get? and takes on such little-covered songs as Robbie Robertsons Christmas Must Be Tonight and Great Day in December.This joins my list of personal favorites: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands The Christmas Album; A Winters Night: The Best of Nettwerk Christmas Albums, featuring tracks by Jack Johnson, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan; and Aimee Manns One More Drifter in the Snow.Mindy Smith, My Holiday produced by Steve Buckingham (Vanguard)Singer-songwriter Mindy Smith, too, has done more round up the usual suspects. Yes, she does cover The Christmas Song, but so does everyone else; Mel Tormes tune, often referred to as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, is the most-covered Christmas tune, by far. But Smith had a hand in writing five of the songs here, including the title track and the romantic Santa Will Find You. Smiths voice and the acoustic setting give My Holiday a nice, warm feel; the one misstep is when she gets away from that with a beat-heavy take on Ill Be Home For Christmas.Malt Shop Memories Christmas (Time/Life)At its best the Beach Boys Little Saint Nick, Little Evas bopping I Wish You a Merry Christmas this canned blast of 50s nostalgia is goofy fun. But Frankie Vallis take on Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is torturous, and sorry, Ricky Nelson, Jingle Bells isnt going to rock, no matter how hard you push it. And some of it makes no sense at all: Can you picture a bunch of cats and birds at the malt shop grooving to O Come, All Ye Faithful, even if it is Bobby Darin singing?Fred Claus, Music from the Motion Picture (Warner Bros.)The soundtrack to a movie, starring Vince Vaughn, about Santas brother, Fred? Recipe for disaster, right? Surprise. Fred Claus offers a stroll down memory lane in a less kitschy, more diverse and creative way than does Malt Shop Memories. Here, Johnny Mercer, along with a horn section and a group of girl singers, gives serious swing to Jingle Bells; Elvis Presley rocks out on Santa Claus is Back in Town, and the Jackson 5 do their thing to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town; and there are appearances by Guy Lombardo. There are also some relatively fresher sounds: Sinead OConnors appropriately hushed Silent Night, and 80s band the Waitresses doing the very 80s-sounding Christmas Wrapping. The movie wont get my $10, but the CD gets my attention.Darlene Love, Its Christmas, Of Course produced by Shawn Amos & Kevin Killen (Shout! Factory)Darlene Love, from the 60s girl group the Blossoms, has established a firm Christmas niche, having performed her Phil Spector-produced hit (Christmas) Baby Please Come 17 years running on David Lettermans show. That signature song is absent from Its Christmas, Of Course, but the album is packed with lesser-known 70s and 80s compositions The Pretenders 2000 Miles, Billy Squiers Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You, Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas? all done with in a style reminiscent of 70s urban soul. Love is best when shes got some protest in her voice, as on a funky version of James Browns Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto.Monster Ballads Xmas (Razor & Tie)The abbreviation Xmas is bound to turn off the purists who insist on spelling out the name of the Savior. But is any purist religious, musical or otherwise going to be attracted to hard-cheese versions of the holiday repertoire done by such 80s metal relics as Twisted Sister, L.A. Guns and Stryper?Classic Soft Rock Christmas (Time/Life)Heres the brightest spin I can put on this collection: Id rather hear soft-rock Christmas tunes than non-Christmas soft rock by the likes of Christopher Cross, Chicago, America and Air Supply. Elton Johns opening track, the grating Step Into Christmas, sets the tone for most of the CD: annoying. Were he alive, Jim Croce would protest having his It Doesnt Have to Be That Way folky, not soft-rock included on this flaccid CD.Keith Sweat, A Christmas of Love (Rhino)Keith Sweat does his thing slow, high-pitched, feel-good, glossy R&B on upbeat originals and a few traditionals (including, of course, The Christmas Song). Sweat is apparently a believer, and the love of the title has more to do with Jesus than with the sort of loving his albums are usually intended to initiate.Patti LaBelle, Miss Pattis Christmas produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (Def Soul)Patti LaBelle hooks up with the songwriting/producing team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and the results are remarkably similar to what Keith Sweat achieves on his A Christmas of Love: slow, linear, praiseful, lots of handclapping and finger-snapping. LaBelle goes more for the standards Away in a Manger, Do You Hear What I Hear? Its the Most Wonderful Time of the Year though Jam & Harris contribute a handful of originals.Yo Yo Yo Kids, Yo, Its Christmas produced by Frederick Sargolini (Razor & Tie)What every parent wants to put in their kids hands a rap-lite, childrens Christmas album. Wait, it gets worse: Yo, Its Christmas brings the commercialization of the holiday to pimping levels, with such songs as Presents (Its Christmas, gonna get myself some presents), Trick Out the Tree and Jingle Bells reworked to refer to a blinged-out Christmas sleigh and include a nod to a Cadillac.Loves Holiday: A Gospel Christmas (Time/Life)The songs are from the gospel end of the Christmas repertoire (Remember Not to Forget Jesus and Oh Holy Night, and not Jingle Bell Rock). But with contributions from Alicia Keys (The Little Drummer Girl), Christina Aguilera and Luther Vandross, the gospel gets buried under a storm of heavily produced R&B.Alvin & the Chipmunks: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Razor & Tie)A quasi-Christmas album it features three versions of The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Dont Be Late) from the long-anticipated bug-screen debut of the screeching Alvin & the Chipmunks. I couldnt bring myself to listen to it even once, for fear of getting that sound stuck in my head.stewart@aspentimes.com