Holiday Music Roundup '09

Weird Christmas records: They're not just for Dylan anymore

With the crappy economy, neverending wars, and toxic health care debate, we're gearing up for another merry fucking Christmas indeed. Maybe that's why we need the diversion of holiday music so badly right now. Here are some recent, listenable stocking-stuffers in that vein, with the lumps o' coal conveniently removed.

Let's start on the adult-contemporary tip, a/k/a "gifts for your parents," a/k/a "good background music for arguing with your relatives." On Michael McDonald's This Christmas (Razor & Tie), the yacht-rock titan proves he's still got the pipes. It's a little mannered, but if light r&b grooves are your thing, pig out here. Toward the end, he might even move non-believers with the New Orleans shuffle of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," soulful horn jabs on "Everytime Christmas Comes," and a ripping guitar solo and Little Richard quote on "White Christmas."

Though he's cloying on his own songs, Neil Diamond is having much more fun with the oldies on A Cherry Cherry Christmas (Columbia): "White Christmas" is done as cheesy doo-wop, "Deck the Halls" features a barbershop quartet, "Jingle Bell Rock" reconstructs the Wall of Sound, and Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" sounds joyful and triumphant (and, yes, Neil gets the jokes). If you need higher-brow fare, there's Sting's If on a Winter's Night . . . (Deutsche Grammophon), which mixes lively English folk with a Robert Louis Stevenson poem and borrowings from Bach and Schubert. Sting gets a nice, spare, somber sound from his small, unplugged band, but if he'd just put more of his own voice into the proceedings, he might temporarily have silenced his detractors who complain about his Bono-sized ego.

If that AARP trio doesn't do it for you, there's jollier fare, too. Los Straitjackets' Yuletide Beat (Yep Roc) is a belated, livelier follow-up to their 2002 holiday debut, 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! In a breezy 25 minutes, they make beach-party instrumentals out of ye olde standards like "Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells," and "We Three Kings," adding lightning-fast "I Fought the Law" rhythm guitar, flashbacks to Morricone Westerns, and honking r&b saxes. It's fun, but still, it could use a little more good ol' schlock. Thankfully, Cartoon Network stars Aqua Teen Hunger Force hold little back on the wonderfully immature Have Yourself a Meaty Little Christmas (Williams Street). Over inappropriately dainty holiday music, the lovably stupid Meatwad (voiced by Dave Willis) rules the roost with a Neko Case duet ("Santa Left a Booger in My Stocking"), a fouled-up "Felix Navidad" (as "Meat Naviwad"), a plea for dental insurance on "All I Want for Christmas Is My One Front Tooth," and a "Silent Night" that includes a plea to tip strippers.

Another time-honored holiday-album approach: the what-were-they-thinking record. Thankfully, Bob Dylan's got some company this year. On the surface, former Judas Priest shrieker Rob Halford's Winter Songs (Metal God) seems like a Spinal Tap joke, but, like Dylan, he dares you to laugh, Beavis. Though he leans too much on power ballads, he makes "We Three Kings" swing with a stomping beat and shredding guitar solo, and even has some respectable originals, getting a good roar going on the Ministry-like electro of "Get in the Spirit," the Chuck-Berry-goes-glam "Christmas for Everyone," and the strutting Motörhead boogie of "I Don't Care." Those tunes actually earn Halford the right to indulge the Elton-like drama of the title track, the Zep-like hippie mysticism of "Light of the World," and the Queen-like pomp of "Come All Ye Faithful."

The Sounds of Christmas 2009 (SOC) is a more bizarrely scattershot affair, albeit one with some hidden gems. Here, producer Ken Kessler hooks up with overwrought thespian William Shatner for a children's charity benefit CD featuring assorted unhip pop legends. The roster: gimme-decade balladeer Richard Marx (on a lowdown r&b version of Elvis's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"), ex-Styx schlock-master Dennis DeYoung (who sounds like he's remaking "Babe" on "When I Hear a Christmas Song"), '70s balladeer Stephen Bishop (cute and easy-swinging on "Rock Little Reindeer"), and one-time MTV staples Huey Lewis & the News ("Winter Wonderland," a cappella). Then there's Shatner himself (his "Good King Wenceslas" recital is relatively understated, but still side-splitting), bluegrass jokesters Hayseed Dixie (hilariously mashing up "Winter Wonderland" and Zep's "Misty Mountain Hop"), and various YouTube and MySpace sensations who range from girl-group dreamers (including Kessler's wife, Lisa) to sweetly multitracked angelic types (Tina Lambert) to balmy Anne Murray imitations.

Still flummoxed? Try the jazzbo route with pianist/composer Carla Bley's Carla's Christmas Carols (ECM). Teaming up with a brass quartet and bassist/partner Steve Swallow, Bley the master-arranger shines after shaking off reverent recitals of the traditional melodies: "The Christmas Song" sounds even more sublimely beautiful than usual, "Ring Christmas Bells" has a smoky bop groove, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" goes through a succession of bright horn solos before Bley lays on some Monk moves, and "Jingle Bells" gets a nice ska-like groove. She gets the holiday music recipe just right: Pick the right standards, put your stamp on it, and ditch the sappy crap.

 
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