Music for a Holy War Holiday
8 Days of Christmas
If you're looking for the best new Christmas album for this year, look no further than Destiny's Child's 8 Days of Christmas, a Christmas record that actually has some meat to it. 8 Days opens with the title track, which is destined to be a classic. Sample lyrics: "On the fourth day of Christmas my baby gave to me/a candlelight dinner just for me and my honey/On the third day of Christmas my baby gave to me/a gift certificate to get my favorite CDs/On the second day of Christmas my baby gave to me/the keys to a CLK Mercedes/On the first day of Christmas my baby gave to me/qua-li-ty T-I-M-E!" Damn, girl, damn! The song is a hyperactive romp, replete with plinking bells, thick, juicy R&B/hiphop beats, and the divine voices of the Mistresses Kelly, Michelle, and Beyoncé.
No, Christmas doesn't get any better than this. The remainder of the album is smooth, soulful, and exactly what should be playing in every spirited holiday home. Beyoncé kicks out a gorgeously overwrought version of "Silent Night," showcasing her magnificent voice; and the other gem is "A DC Christmas Medley," with snippets of "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Frosty the Snowman," "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas," and "Deck the Halls."
When these girls go "thumpity-thump-thump" during the "Frosty" section, your booty will most definitely be going bumpity-bump-bump. I don't know about y'all, but after one spin of this disc, I'm dreaming of a black Christmas. Haaaaay!
America's most self-indulgent perfectionist turns out yet another Christmas album. What could be worse? Barbra does reggae? But I'm being harsh... because I secretly love the idea of Jews doing Christmas albums. I feel Babs' condescension in all the right places. Crack open Christmas Memories, however, and there's not a trace of irony, or even humor, to be found. Indeed, Streisand is characteristically so full of Christmas whimsy (and of her own self-worth), you begin to think she's Mrs. Claus herself. The accompanying easy-listening music vacillates between lushly orchestrated strings (er, studio keyboards) and tinny, '80s-caliber backtracks over which Streisand's voice is prominent, degraded, and cheap. As expected, Streisand busts out "Ave Maria," which is actually very pretty, as well as newly penned songs like "Closer," destined for the schmaltz pile.
The most revealing thing about this record, however, isn't the songs themselves, but Streisand's grandstanding liner notes: "I had finished recording all the songs for this album when September 11th, 2001 happened. The United States... indeed our world... would never be the same.... To all those who grieve those who have perished ["Perished"? How Presbyterian.]... may you celebrate their precious lives with gratitude for the time you had together...." Thanks, Barbra.
Call Me Claus (CD single)
Call you Claus? No, I'm not going to call your wannabe redneck ass "Claus." Especially not if this three-song sampler of selections taken from the upcoming Capitol release The Magic of Christmas is the kind of holiday cheer you're capable of mustering, Garth. "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" is a stretch for Brooks, and I'm always a fan of a cowboy who's willing to stretch. Unfortunately, it's a stretch in the wrong direction.
The production, coupled with Brooks' willfully hammy vocal delivery, sounds more like a selection from a high-school production of A Chorus Line than a timeless Christmas classic. "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is impotent as all hell, replete with a chorus of women practically screaming "Mary had a little lamb of God"--presumably with the intention of sounding impassioned, but ultimately sounding like the Supremes on helium. The title song, "Call Me Claus," is an original. Yeesh. I will go so far as to say that I feel betrayed (not to mention violated) by Brooks' Christmas selection. It's fluffed up by a glib, awful section of horns, and Brooks' voice is so wimpy and chipper I suspect he's been hanging out with the cast of Rent to prepare for this Yuletide bullshit he's trying to dump on us. If Garth Brooks is a cowboy, I'm Tom Waits.
God Bless America
It would be very funny if Celine Dion sang so hard while performing "God Bless America" that she actually choked on her own vomit, because I'm choking on mine just listening to her. And besides, she's from Canada. Thank god, however, that the booze-cured corpse of Ol' Blue Eyes is exhumed for a haunting rendition of "America the Beautiful"--for if anyone signifies the U. S. of A. to me, it's Frank Sinatra.
This album is a disappointment. And it's not even a Christmas album, but it's the perfect stocking stuffer for this embarrassingly patriotic holiday season. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." is trotted out yet again, still fresh after the gazillionth karaoke performance. In fact, there's nothing new on this album, save for Dion's track and an "unreleased live acoustic version" of John Mellencamp's "Peaceful World." I love John Mellencamp, but classic turns of phrase like "If you're not part of the future then get out of the way" just aren't working for me in my present state of mind.
Our Favorite Things
(Based on my Uncle Bob's holiday music criteria.)
If I'm not mistaken, Sinatra once said that Tony Bennett had "balls of brass," but here his chestnuts are merely roasting on an open fire. Don't get me wrong. My Uncle Bob would be "milking the old Italian cow beneath the mistletoe" to this album. And if that didn't leave him spent, "O Holy Night," featuring Charlotte Church and Plácido Domingo, would more than finish him off. Church's voice is undeniably beautiful, while Domingo has turned into a self-parody. But the real treat--the one that would have old Uncle Bob in a tailspin--is Vanessa Williams' "Do You Hear What I Hear?" ("Do you see what I see?" Yep--your legs, spread across seven pages of Penthouse.)
When attempting to gauge exceedingly traditional holiday material, I always use my wise, drunken Uncle Bob's criteria: Is the orchestration painfully overwrought? Absolutely. Do the vocalists smoothly bludgeon me with every phrase? No doubt about it. And, lastly, does the album feature at least one hot chick who's appeared in Penthouse? Score!
A Nancy Wilson Christmas
(Manchester Craftsmen's Guild)
When Nancy Wilson sings "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," you can bet she knows exactly what she's singing about. Her backup singers could stand to quit oooh-ing and aaaaah-ing behind her for a good five measures of every verse, but Wilson's voice is haunted, full, and exalted here.
"They made you be born in a manger," she sings, and then continues on to croon sadly: "We didn't know who you were." Her voice alternately flutters and goes apeshit. At one point, she says "boy" as if she's speaking to her son, or, at the risk of scandalizing the religious Ms. Wilson, a prospective lover. Of course, the final, whispered, "We didn't know..." is melodramatic, but it's a Christmas album, after all. The rest of the album, which features the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band and Herbie Mann, among other supporting musicians, is clean and unremarkable. The highs and lows come in accordance with your own holiday music preferences. Songs like "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" are all given smooth, blustery big-band treatment here, and if you want a spot-on, traditional record featuring a classic American lady, look no further than A Nancy Wilson Christmas. Perfect for a Rob Reiner film or that uncle you hate--the one who wears Perry Como sweaters and talks over everyone at dinner.
DAVE KOZ & FRIENDS
A Smooth Jazz Christmas
Aside from Rick Braun's rich, bright trumpet playing on "Jingle Bells"--a section of the "Smooth Jazz Christmas Overture" that opens Dave Koz & Friends' horrifying Smooth Jazz Christmas--I had a difficult time keeping the gun from my head while listening to this record. Needless to say, within that same overture, shortly after Rick Braun's juicy little tidbit, Brenda Russell's chipper, growling, and thoroughly overtrained voice bursts forth with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." You can bet that .44 caliber is re-poised and ready before the first verse is over.
What kind of giddy egghead would be willing to make this kind of happy-jazz hogwash? Dave Koz, that's who. As for Russell, she humiliates herself with a bit less frequency as the record progresses, but at her best she's a mediocre vocalist. And, as if Russell's self-debasement weren't enough to fill me with holiday rage, enter Kenny Loggins on "December Makes Me Feel This Way." Hey, I never cared if the guy was gay, but if he is, this dippy, overwrought performance is definitely a "coming out" song. Loggins' delivery calls to mind Erasure's Andy Bell--fluttery, faggy, and most definitely too moved. "It's like the world is new," he sings. "Inhibitions disappear. Laughing in the snow... the world is new and precious as a baby... December is inside of me." (Right. I think Mr. December needs to pull out at this point.)
There's only one kind of holiday celebration I imagine this record being a hit at: a gathering of newly moneyed gays. And, by all means, if you're a newly moneyed gay, bust out the Burberry scarf and have yourself a Smooth Jazz Christmas.