Advertisement

2010 Holiday Music: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Rev. Jason Poling is pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.

It's that time of year again, and if you're dreading the prospect of throwing the same old discs into the changer while you tend to the roast, here's a rundown of several 2010 holiday offerings.

Advertisement

The Good

This disc is by far my favorite of this year's new holiday music, and I think Erin Bode is my favorite discovery of the year. With a voice and style reminiscent of Norah Jones, Bode displays both greater musical range and a deeper sense of perspective. The opening track, "Skating," which Bode co-wrote with backing musician Adam Maness, establishes the mood right away: comfortable but not lazy, relaxed but not apathetic, friendly but not garrulous, thoughtful but not brooding, cool but not self-consciously hip. Much credit is due to Bode's band; Syd Rodway's basswork establishes a musical foundation that flows when it needs to and sits still when it should. The entire ensemble seems to be taking the music seriously, themselves not too.

Bode's album succeeds where so many other solo female holiday albums fall short: Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies is heavy and over-produced, Sarah McLachlan's Wintersong is thin and over-produced, and Sara Groves' O Holy Night bears an unrelenting intensity that just doesn't fit the artistic form. This is an album I wanted to listen to again after it was done, and I've kept coming back to it as often as possible.

The December People: Rattle and Humbug

What would your favorite Christmas carols sound like if they were played by the bands you hear on classic rock stations? Bassist Robert Berry gathered some of California's top session and touring rock musicians to produce "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" as it would have been played by Boston, "Angels We Have Heard On High" as Peter Gabriel would have done it in the '80s, and a '90s U2 rendition of "What Child Is This?" Santana gets aped on "Feliz Navidad," of course.The arrangements and acoustical textures of classic songs are unmistakeable even as the actual notes have been written to stay on the clean side of the copyright fence. Drummer Mike Vanderhule is far too sober and consistent in his efforts to replicate Keith Moon on "Joy To The World" as the Who might have handled it; he's a lot closer to Neil Peart. (How about a Rushesque version of Little Drummer Boy? Maybe next year.) But if you ever wondered what it would have sounded like for Queen to play "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" this is the album for you. This would be a great disc to listen to with anybody who ever played in a garage band anywhere from the '70s to the '90s.

Indigo Girls: Holly Happy Days

Either you like their harmonies or you don't. If you don't, this album will drive you nuts. If you do, it will make a pleasant addition to the aural wallpaper of your holiday festivities. The influences of various genres are felt, but not attempted beyond the capacities of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. A few originals round out a collection of well- and not-so-well-known pieces. Saliers' "Your Holiday Song" is difficult to imagine coming from any other place, but Amy Ray's "Mistletoe" will certainly be picked up by other singers down the years.

The album packaging includes three lyrics printed on cardboard Christmas tree ornaments the size and shape of CDs. Without any sharp corners, they traced a lovely arc straight to the recycling bin. By this point the breadth of the Indigo Girls' political activism has exceeded their gatefolds' capacity, so they simply direct the conscientious listener to their website. Perhaps they will lead this trend as they led the one that had what seemed like every band plugging Amnesty International below the credits back in the '80s.

The Bad

If I didn't know what Phil Keaggy is capable of, I might have put this in the "not bad" category. Some of the pieces are lovely, including an instrumental version of "In The Bleak Midwinter." But Keaggy's re-casting of "All Through The Night" is ponderous, and the originals that comprise most of the disc are easily forgettable.

Annie Lennox: A Christmas Cornucopia

Generally speaking I don't think Christmas albums are supposed to frighten anybody. Yes, the shepherds watching their flocks by night were sore afraid. But they would have been petrified if somebody had broken out an iPod with Annie Lennox's new album. "Lullay Lullay (Coventry Carol)" presents itself as the beginning of a lullaby, but you wouldn't want Annie Lennox singing anybody to sleep unless you wanted them to have nightmares. "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant" begins with dissonance better suited to "Nous attendions cet heureux temps" than "Il est ne." Future producers may wish to note that a vocoder conveys neither comfort nor joy, as is abundantly clear from Lennox's rendering of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." A few pieces receive more suitable treatment: Lennox shows restraint in "In The Bleak Midwinter," and proclaims, "Hail thou ever-blessed morn/ Hail redemption's happy dawn/ Sing throughout Jerusalem/ Christ is born in Bethlehem" without stridency in "See Amid The Winter's Snow."

Advertisement

Sean Smith: Christmas

It's my guess that whoever wrote "The First Noel" was not particularly angry when he wrote it. But Sean Smith's heavy hand on this opening track is felt throughout not only this piece but the entire disc of guitar instrumentals. One can almost hear him concentrating intently on his fingering as he plays these arrangements with nary a touch of humor or grace. The silence in "Silent Night" comes from the agonizing pauses between phrases; one might have hoped for some softness if not silence, but even in this piece he seldom drops below a mezzo-piano. For the most part his dynamic range goes from loud to thunderous, which is what you want from a power trio but not a solo acoustic guitarist.

The Ugly

Advertisement

Like Tupac Shakur (link includes language unsuitable for small ears), Jimi Hendrix continues to put out music from well beyond the grave. This year saw the release of Valleys of Neptune, whose title track alone was worth the price of the whole disc. The Hendrix estate took great care with that project to turn a cache of old session tapes into an album of music well worth listening to. From the extensive liner notes to Eddie Kramer's skillful work at the mixing board, Hendrix fans were treated to a first-class introduction to music previously difficult or impossible to find.

The same cannot be said of this Christmas EP, which consists of a single mashup of Little Drummer Boy, Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne in both short and long versions, with a throwaway tune called "Three Little Bears" to round out the whole mess. Despite the occasional flash of brilliance, the Christmas medley (of sorts) sounds like a very talented guitarist playing, while very inebriated, music which he was very unaccustomed to playing. Folks, there's a good reason Jimi never released these tunes, or (apparently) ever thought to; halfway through "Three Little Bears" it sounds like he's ready to quit. Halfway through the first minute of the Christmas jam you'll be ready to. These tracks should have stayed in the vault, or at least on the cutting room floor. Save your money and buy the new box set West Coast Seattle Boy instead.

This album is the sort of thing you'll like, if you like this sort of thing. No doubt the marketing folks would have objected to "Have Yourself A Snarky Little Christmas," however accurate it would have been as a title. About half of the cuts on the disc are novelty songs, but novelty songs devoid of whimsy or cheer or anything else that might make the ideas behind them sound new. Jeff Daniels' opener "Won't You Please Stay For Christmas, Santa Claus?" has a run time of 5:28 but feels like twice that. True to the genre, songs like Megon McDonough's "The Christmas Guitar" end up being about the singer-songwriter more than anything else. (The difference between a puppy and a folk singer? If you ignore it the puppy will eventually stop whining.)

This collection of singer-songwriter treatments contains the occasional gem; Darryl Purpose's rendition of Dar Williams' "The Christians and The Pagans" may well be better than the original. Still, not everyone will embrace the idea of celebrating the Incarnation with a song that suggests it wasn't all that significant. This is an album perfect for people who can't stand the holidays. So why didn't I like it, being one of said people? I think it reflects not only an aversion to the holidays and the way our culture celebrates them, but to the very impulses that fuel the whole mess. I hate the way they pervert the holy days, but desires for family togetherness, generosity, festivity and such are not entirely bad things. One gets the sense that the musicians on this album are commenting on the holidays as a cultural phenomenon that can't be avoided, but nevertheless doesn't really hold much personal interest for them.

The All-Time Great

A songwriter who has received far less attention than he deserves, Bill Mallonee brings both comfort and joy in this rootsy EP. I'll go out with the following refrain from "On To Bethlehem," which he recorded with his erstwhile band Vigilantes of Love:

It's cold this year, and I'm late on my dues

It's cold this year, ah, but that's nothin' new

My heart's electric with your love again

So it's on to Bethlehem ...

Advertisement
Advertisement