Calendar music critics and writers present their opinions on the year's recordings to help you through the holiday season. Some of the reviews may assist the gift-impaired: See our Top 40 Shopping Guide for the nation's most popular or critically acclaimed albums, and subsequent tips on the year's best children's recordings, the class of classical releases, which boxed sets are wothwhile (and which are merely long and expensive) and a spin through jazz and pop holiday music. The ratings range from one star (poor) to four (excellent). Five stars are reserved for outstanding historical retrospectives.
For the Christmas cheerless, there's a hearteningly grumpy anthem on "Crock o' Christmas," the new holiday collection from Ren & Stimpy. Sings the irascible Ren:
Every Christmas I am listless
Giving gifts just ain't my bag .
Sleigh bells ringing and off-key singing
Christmas music makes me gag .
To play that junk should be a crime
I hate Christmastime.
The critter exaggerateth not: Though the season is supposed to bring out the best in everyone, singers recording Christmas albums often prove the exception.
It's the time of year you hear enough identical versions of "The Christmas Song" to want to roast Mel Torme himself on an open fire. It's an annual occasion for masses of Nashville crooners to rent an orchestra for a day and mine the public domain for a quick buck. It's the season when otherwise decent folks commit heinous crimes against humanity like albums of carolling cats and dogs.
That's why finding a gem amid the coal amassed in Santa's music bag is all the more welcome. So, first, the good news in this roundup of '93 Christmas releases.
* * * * Bruce Cockburn, "Christmas," (Columbia). For those whose definition of traditional doesn't begin and end with Perry Como's sweater. The folk-rocker covers obscure carols from the exotic climes of France, Spain and North and South Carolina, while putting his own sterling 12-string spin on familiar classics in styles ranging from barrelhouse to baroque. It's reverent yet rowdy--and as a multiculturalist Christian, Cockburn is one of the few here equipped to tackle hymns as a soulful extension of his craft and not just an exercise in nostalgia.
* * * 1/2 "A John Prine Christmas," (Oh Boy). Another cult singer-songwriter triumphs, in a more secular vein. Prine plays the warmhearted curmudgeon, reprising his holiday-timed divorce anthem "All the Best" and the joyless perennial "Christmas in Prison," while leavening the wry depression with less downcast fare like a countryish "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." This eight-song mini-album is slightly on the short side, but still everything you'd want a postmodern Christmas record to be--original and classic, cynical and sentimental.
* * * 1/2 Chris Stamey and Friends, "Christmas Time," (East Side Digital). Putting the Chris back in Christmas is this communal collection of alternative jangle, which repackages six songs from Stamey's 1985 vinyl mini-album with a whopping 11 new bonus tracks. Guests include Alex Chilton, Syd Straw and the dB's, but Stamey claims the celebratory highlights with his title rocker and "You're What I Want (for Christmas)," two of the best holiday pop songs of the past decade.
* * * Alan Jackson, "Honky-Tonk Christmas," (Arista). Jackson enjoyably avoids country's syrrupy-chestnut trap with 10 new or lesser-heard selections, requisite twang and nary a string chart in sight. There's some gunk: Jackson should have cut off the duets after Alison Krauss and let the Chipmunks be. But no winter should go by without at least one tipsy-Santa weeper like "Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas" or a crying-in-his-eggnog ego-shrinker like "Merry Christmas to Me."
* * * Aaron Neville, "Soulful Christmas," (A&M;). Having been called "angel-voiced" more than any other human, Neville may be uniquely qualified to pronounce tidings of joy. The title is something of a misnomer: This one aims squarely at traditionalists, and the listening is so easy you might obsess unnaturally on just how radical Neville's vibrato becomes on every slow syllable. But he does break up the uvular balladry with a pair of light Louisiana stomps, including a swell Christmas Eve take on "Such a Night."
* * * "A LaFace Family Christmas," (Arista). This urban label roundup is almost as fun as it is incestuous. Best is TLC kicking out the hip-hop jams with a near-unrecognizable "Sleigh Ride" update.
* * 1/2 "A Cabaret Christmas," (DRG), and "A Broadway Christmas," (Lockett Palmer). Celebrants on the other end of the demographic scale can take heart in two new diva-dominated compilations that rely just on voice, piano and rhythm section. "Cabaret" lets Margaret Whiting, Barbara Cook and other veterans of Christmas past give Christmas presents anew, interspersing some melodramatic, to-hell-with-love holiday saloon songs amid the usual chipper fare for depressive romantics.
There's some crossover between the vocalists on "Cabaret" and those on "Broadway," a whopping 45-song double-CD that includes everyone from Tommy Tune to the cast of "Forever Plaid" waxing jolly for AIDS fund raising. It's uneven, but original material is intriguingly rampant, and--guaranteed--it's the only place this year you'll hear "It's Christmas and We're Jewish" and "Wishing You a Drag Queen Christmas."
* 1/2 RuPaul, "Little Drummer Boy," (Tommy Boy). The only new Christmas single of note puts a moderate hip-hop beat under an otherwise surprisingly straight-(no pun intended)-forward reading of the percussive perennial--proving even Uncle Miltie's cross-dressing sparring partner can provoke an old-lang-yawn.
* 1/2 Vince Gill, "Let There Be Peace on Earth," (MCA). You better watch out: Somnambulist Claus is coming to town, and dragging 101 Strings wanna-bes with him. "Peace" creeps along with sonorous predictability--until it climaxes with his one original, "It Won't Be the Same This Year," a well-meant but ill-timed lament for a dead brother that abruptly drops Gill's drowsy listeners off at the graveyard. Next time, Vince, let there be liveliness on earth.
* 1/2 Gloria Estefan, "Christmas Through Your Eyes," (Epic). The title refers to the eyes of a child, so be forewarned: Though not ostensibly a kids' album, this is more lullaby music. The occasional hint of a Latin beat and a bilingual "Silent Night" are among the few distinguishing features Mama Estefan offers.
* 1/2 Carnie & Wendy Wilson, "Hey Santa!," (SBK). Most singers wait until safely established in a career to trot out Christmas product, which makes the sugary self-sabotage of the Wilson sisters' first extra-Phillips affair all the more curious.
* Kathy Lee Gifford, "It's Christmastime," (Warner Bros.). Notable not just for cameos by son Cody and son-surrogate Regis, but also for being the only holiday album this year in which you can actually hear the artist grinning.
* Jingle Cats, "Meowy Christmas," (Jingle Cats), and Three Cool Cats & the Do Dogs, "We Woof You a Meowy Christmas!," (Tri-Light). Cats and dogs, mewing and barking carols together--didn't Bill Murray say that would be a sign of the apocalypse? A good argument for SPCA vigilante squads, gunning for anybody with a pet and a digital sampler.
Now you're ready for that antidote.
* * * "Ren & Stimpy, Crock O' Christmas," (Nickelodeon/Epic). C'mon get happy happy: This cartoon crockpot includes such soon-to-be-standards as "Fleck the Walls," "Cat Hairballs" (to the tune of "Jingle Bells") and other odes to joy joy--er, bodily excretions, actually. Yule especially love the closer, "Decorate Yourself," a moving, Michael Jackson-ish anthem that invokes holiday universalism with such instructions as "Tape a cheese log to your nose" and "Hang your mistletoe where the sun don't shine." Ah, Christmas is for children. And Chihuahuas.