From gospel to country rock from blues to chirping frogs, from Bermuda to Las Vegas, Christmas music of every stripe is busting out all over. Again this year we've sifted though huge piles of CDs -- the best and the worst of it -- and listened for weeks on end in our cars, computers, laptops, friends' SUVs, on airplanes on Play Stations and on portable players while jogging to bring you the following round up. For your consideration we present three sections in this millennial collection: recommended, as in those discs one can let spin with joy from end to end; 50/50, discs with some great tracks but not entirely great CDs; and the flat out, possibly rude, yet self-explanatory no category: buyer beware.
& & Recommended: & & & &
& & Lynyrd Skynyrd - Christmas Time Again (CMC) & & & &
Once a year somebody makes a Christmas record with all the effort that would normally be put into a studio album: full band, original songs, and go-for-it production. Such is the case with the newly revived Skynyrd. The title track is a delicious slice of southern-fried, smokey rock 'n' roll with classic, sing-along, male/female harmony vocals from Johnny Van Zant and Dale Rossington. There's a song for mothers ("Mama's Song") and a radio ready one for lovers ("Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'") and guest spots with Charlie Daniels and .38 Special. Served up with plenty of Skynyrd's trademark sounds: a little rock, a little prog rock, a little country and a whole lotta of southern boogie.
& & Francine Reed - Here Comes Frani Claus (CMO) & & & &
The husky voiced singer from Lyle Lovett's Large Band steps out on her own with a fun and funky four song EP. "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is pure gospel with organ and choir. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" swings with dirty saxophone and Francine doing her best Ella thing. Not copping anyone's style, Reed is the genuine article who can scat like Fitzgerald and get the blues on like Etta James and Koko Taylor. If this is the salad, I'm already hungry for the dinner.
& & Christina Aguilera - My Kind Of Christmas (RCA) & & & &
Like her or hate her it would be hard not to admit that this is one smokin' record. There's top-notch production, deep grooves, subtleties and excellent vocal performances. Aguilera adds new life to "Angels We Have Heard On High" and then gets funky with a special vocal duet appearance by Dr. John on "Merry Christmas Baby."
& & Bob Rivers - Chipmunks Roasting On an Open Fire (Atlantic) & & & &
Bob Rivers and his troupe of singers and comedians return for their annual Christmas frolic this time reviving Alvin & amp; The Chipmunks long enough to get them on the BBQ. It's like an episode of MAD-TV on compact disc full of comedic vignettes and rife with mishap and rock 'n' roll impressions.
There's a gleefully raunchy '50s send up with "Who Put The Stump?" a beautiful studio recreation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" with new words and goofy background noises; probably the funniest anti-drunk driving song in "Carol of the Bartenders" and a hilarious and horny office "Christmas Party Song." Rate the whole thing PG and surprise your friends. They'll probably want to sing along.
& & Various - A Las Vegas Christmas (L.A.S. Music Group) & & & &
One need only hear the name Las Vegas to conjure up images of high rollin' good times and lavish new hotels. But there is also a fertile local music scene and this compilation, a benefit for The Shade Tree shelter, brings together some of the city's most popular rock bands.
Stringing the project together is Epstein's Mother doing their best Hootie & amp; The Blowfish thing on an alt-rock take of "Let It Snow" followed by Inside Scarlet doing a Pat Benatar-sounding "Santa Baby." There's even a "Howdy!" from a local TV weatherman and a Christmas greeting from Seigfried & amp; Roy.
& & 50/50: & & & &
& & Ricky Van Shelton - Blue Christmas (Audium) & & & &
With Van Shelton's smooth baritone and John Hobb's honky tonk piano, this album sounds like an Elvis tribute. "Silver Bells" is melancholy with the cry of Sonny Garrish's steel guitar. "Winter Wonderland" gets a bouncy Texas swing going and then, like a good jazz group, Van Shelton's band gets to show off with one tasty solo after another. This recipe works fine up to and including the original "Country Christmas."
& & Linda Ronstadt - Merry Little Christmas (Elektra) & & & &
For the first half of her Christmas offerings, Linda Ronstadt is in the chanteusey same mood as on her big band recordings with Nelson Riddle. Ronstadt does justice to Joni Mitchell's "River," adopting Mitchell's breathy style. There's a special guest spot from Rosemary Clooney who adds unexpected richness to "White Christmas." And things proceed with delicacy until the title track when Ronstadt finally opens up. Then the whole project takes a jarring turn, leaving the pop realm behind for sessions with a full Renaissance choir. At this juncture Ronstadt steps back into the role of soloist, and gets lost in the greater mix. Sure it's beautiful music, but what happened to Linda?
Though we've heard it thousands of times, Yolanda Adams breaths fresh air into "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It's an upbeat, happy take with full orchestra, a horn section, and Greg Phillinganes on piano. And Adams is backed by the Ricky Grundy Singers, definitely the hippest gospel choir on the planet, on an inventive and funky re-working of "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear."
But from there the album becomes confusing as producers Buster & amp; Shavoni can't seem to decide if they are making a Natalie Cole album or a smooth jazz-meets-gospel mess with a flaccid take on "Little Drummer Boy." While the scriptures say to "make a joyful noise," somehow I don't think the Lord had smooth jazz in mind.
& & NO: & & & &
For a wide variety of reasons the following albums are best avoided, and it's not always the artists' fault.
& & Charlotte Church - Dream A Dream (Sony Classical) & & & &
As an opera singer, baby girl Charlotte Church concentrates heavily on her vowels. But the songs that someone put her up to: "Come All Ye Faithful," "Little Drummer Boy," etc., simply have too many words and too many hard consonants for Church's diction. Things get so screechy and annoying on "Winter Wonderland" that one just wants to run up to her, grab her by the throat, and yell: "Stop It!" Church then rambles from one ill-fitting song to the next until the 14th track when she finally finds her footing again on "Ave Maria."
O'Donnell is paired on each song with widely known pop singers from Jewel to Ricky Martin, Donna Summer, Barry Manilow and more. Sometimes Rosie sings along, sometimes she sings in duet, and sometimes the guest is left alone and O'Donnell just tosses in a few asides.
Things get really weird with a version of "Winter Wonderland" by Macy Gray that is so out-and-out awful, it's got to be a mistake. Worse yet, with the help of the Dixie Chicks in a fake live setting, they trash Robert Earl Keene's beguiling and insightful "Merry Christmas From The Family," making it into a wino's sketch comedy. This is sacred ground, friends. To mock Keene with such ignorance is nearly a Cardinal sin tantamount to dumping dung on Janis Joplin's grave.
& & Ottmar Liebert - Christmas in Santa Fe (Epic) & & & &
Liebert kicks into that mystical Santa Fe-meets-Sergio Leone guitar playing that he's branded, but he and producer Gary Lyons realize they need help. So, before the second track ("Celebration/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen") is over, we get a nice, melancholy trumpet solo from Mike Middleton, and a sublime closing shot with the trumpet and solo hand percussion. The question then is: Is this enough to carry the record through? Some answers are: Yes, when the trombone is used. And yes, when Liebert solos. But neither happens with enough frequency, making for one repetitious and snoozy affair.
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