Christmas is a holiday we want to feel the same year after year and yet different every time.
We want the comfort of tradition, of old songs re-sung. But at the same time, we also harbor a childlike hunger for newness, for the perfect present wrapped and waiting beneath the tree.
Maybe this is why we keep buying new Christmas albums every holiday season. Even though the new CDs invariably feature the same songs as the ones bought last year and the year before that, the fact that we haven't heard (or yet grown tired of) these new renditions makes the old songs seem exciting. At their best, Christmas CDs provide the perfect balance of old and new, fresh and familiar.
Unfortunately, finding the best of these albums isn't easy. Every season, dozens of new ones are released, ranging from the crassly commercial to the sincerely inspired. Like fad toys, most such CDs are quickly forgotten, having less to do with the season than with the momentary popularity of a certain star or style.
It may be too early to say which of this year's Christmas discs will endure, and which will be shoved to the back of the shelf, but it seems a reasonable bet that -- musically, at least -- this will not be a Christmas to remember.
Although few titles are outright awful, fewer still seem great, or even very good. For the most part, what this year's holiday albums offer is predictability and professionalism, qualities unlikely to leave the listener feeling like a child on Christmas morning.
Just as one person's cup of Christmas cheer is another's unpalatable beverage, not every listener will cherish the same carols, or carol-singers.
Jewel, for example, is a lot like eggnog in this regard. Some folks just can't get enough of her warm, creamy voice and approach her every recording with gusto, while others gag on her syrupy sentiment and too-sweet soprano. Personally, I belong to the latter camp, and had a hard time enjoying her shamelessly self-indulgent rendering of classic carols on "Joy: A Holiday Collection" (Atlantic 83250).
To her credit, the album takes a fairly traditional approach to its material, augmenting old-fashioned orchestrations with only occasional hints of folk-rock guitar and mercifully few moments of scat-style vocalizing. Not my cup of cocoa, but if you love Jewel's voice as much as she does, "Joy" will likely be just that.
Kenny G is another artist who tends to divide listeners into "love him" and "hate him" camps, but it would be hard to imagine something as mildly melodic as "Faith: A Holiday Album" (Arista 19090) provoking an extreme reaction of any sort.
G's second seasonal effort offers little that's challenging or surprising. His soprano saxophone is as pungent and lyrical as ever, while the gently grooving rhythm arrangements deftly walk a line between the slick and the soporific. Granted, much of it sounds like the sort of thing you might hear on the Weather Channel as the local forecast scrolls by, but it does make for pleasant background music.
And let's be honest -- not everyone wants in-your-face Christmas music. Many people think of seasonal songs as a part of the holiday ambience, like the smell of a fresh-cut Christmas tree. For these people, Christmas music is a mood enhancer, which is precisely the reason Mannheim Steamroller sells a kajillion CDs every December.
Under the direction of arranger Chip Davis, the Steamroller uses an assortment of synthesizers and stringed instruments to generate the sort of sonic gingerbread many people associate with the holiday season. "Christmas Live" (American Gramaphone 1997) differs from the group's other albums only in that its tinkly prettiness and synthesized drama is interrupted by periodic bursts of applause.
One of the least celebrated Christmas traditions is the Teen Idol Album. Every season whatever teen group is currently in vogue uses its popularity to wrest a few more dollars from the fans before the flame of popularity burns out.
'N Sync was last year's Christmas Teen Idol act; Hanson the year before that. This year's entry is 98 Degrees, whose relentlessly harmonized "This Christmas" (Universal 01215 3918) is pleasantly forgettable, the sort of album that, in the distant future, will only cause mild chagrin when discovered in the back of one's CD collection.
But why wait years to be embarrassed when you can be mortified right now? That's the thinking behind the "South Park" seasonal spin-off, "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" (American/Columbia 62224).
Apparently convinced that their Comedy Central cartoon hasn't quite offended enough people, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone go for broke this time out.
In addition to a full-length and dizzyingly scatological rendition of "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo," the album includes a version of "O Tannenbaum" as done by Adolf Hitler, and the aptly-titled "The Most Offensive Song Ever," mercifully only mumbled by the frequently dead Kenny McCormick.
Definitely not a Hallmark moment, that.
Those seeking slightly offbeat Christmas wackiness would be better served by seeking out the Klezmonauts album, "Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas" (Satire 0175). Klezmer music -- a Russian/Yiddish style that could be considered a sort of kosher hot jazz -- is not usually associated with holidays such as Christmas, but it's hard to argue with such spirited renditions of "Deck the Halls" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Why should Hanukkah celebrants have all the fun?
Equally fun, but considerably less exotic, is Ringo Starr's "I Wanna Be Santa Claus" (Mercury 314 546 668). The idea is simple enough -- dress up a bunch of Christmas songs in classic rock arrangements -- but wonderfully effective nonetheless. Who would have guessed that "Winter Wonderland" could be made to sound so much like Huey "Piano" Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu"?
Natalie Cole's "The Magic of Christmas" (Elektra 62433) takes a more traditional approach to classic carols, but somehow, neither her singing nor the London Symphony's sumptuous orchestrations manage to lift this disc above the pedestrian. True, it does include a posthumous duet with her father, Nat "King" Cole, on "The Christmas Song," but to be honest, it's hard to see what she adds to it.
In fairness, my hearing of Natalie Cole's album may have been colored by having first spun a practically perfect collection of her father's work. Not only does Nat Cole's "The Christmas Song" (Capitol 21251) include the definitive version of Mel Torme's title tune, but it also includes a dozen and a half additional Christmas carols, each offered in Cole's inimitably easy croon. Even those too young to remember when these recordings were new will find themselves awash in nostalgic warmth by album's end.
Few pop singers seem to enjoy Christmas quite as much as Amy Grant, who has just released her third album of holiday fare, "A Christmas to Remember" (Myrrh 80688600723). If only the music lived up to the title. Apart from an overworked, under-rhythmic rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock," little on the album will sound familiar (though "Mr. Santa," a seasonal rewrite of "Mr. Sandman," comes close), nor is it likely to become so. Surely Grant couldn't have run out of reliable material in just three albums?
Garth Brooks is another Christmas recidivist, having released "Beyond the Season," his first collection of carols, in 1992. His current effort, modestly titled "Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas" (Capitol 23550), will be reassuring to longtime fans, as it finds him abandoning that Chris Gaines silliness for a more traditional country and pop sound. That's not to say he doesn't do some experimenting, adding a gospel flavor to "Baby Jesus Is Born" and paying homage to Johnny Mathis in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," but at least he doesn't do any rapping on this album.
Brooks isn't the only country singer who sees a connection between the Nashville sound and the sort of string-drenched pop arrangements that were common in Christmas albums of the '50s. Martina McBride's "White Christmas" (RCA 0786367842) is so surely rooted in Perry Como-style pop you'd almost think she recorded it via time machine.
Fortunately, there's enough warmth and finesse in McBride's singing to support such stylistic ambition. Not so Reba McEntire. As "Secret of Giving: A Christmas Collection" (MCA 088 170 092) makes painfully clear, her tart, twangy delivery is far better suited to country than to pop or rock fare. So even though she can't quite handle "Up on the Rooftop," tear-in-my-eggnog weeper "Santa Claus Is Coming Back to Town" is completely convincing in her hands.
Jazz doesn't generally suit Christmas carols very well. Once musicians veer away from the melody and dive into improvisation, our link to seasonal cheer is severed.
Fortunately, the groove-oriented approach of "smooth jazz" makes it much easier to hold onto the tune, which is why Fourplay's lithe, easygoing "Snowbound" (Warner Bros. 47504) is so pleasant. Meatier than Kenny G but no more demanding, it offers a near-perfect blend of mood and melody.
Those who like their jazz less electric and more swinging should act like wise men and seek the Ray Brown Trio's "Christmas Songs" (Telarc 83437). Elegant, classy, and blessed with a bevy of good jazz singers (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diana Krall, Marlena Shaw), the album offers enough in the way of carols to keep the improvisation seasonally grounded.
Although new age music, in its acoustical incarnation, is sometimes derided as "jazz without the benefit of improvisation," that jibe can work to the listener's advantage on Christmas albums. For instance, when David Lanz expands on seasonal favorites on his holiday best-of, "The Christmas Album" (Narada 724384 78482), his modestly virtuosic ornamentation reinforces rather than obscures the themes, making his renditions of "Silent Night" and "What Child Is This?" quietly compelling.
By contrast, the Windham Hill compilation "Winter Solstice On Ice" (Windham Hill 01934 11459) looks, at first glance, like somebody's idea of a joke. But the double-CD set really is the soundtrack to a holiday ice skating special (available separately on video and DVD). It's also a nicely organized collection of new age Christmas -- oops, "Winter Solstice" -- music, with one disc devoted to soft, atmospheric fare like George Winston's "Skating," while the other tends more toward smooth jazz stuff like Tuck & Patti's "Christmas Wish."
Finally, what would Christmas be like without children? Quieter, cheaper and less chaotic, sure -- but would it be as much fun?
If you answered "no," it is probably because you have so far escaped exposure to the Olsen Twins' Christmas album, "Mary-Kate & Ashley's Cool Yule" (Kid Rhino 75929). An unrelentingly cute collection of ersatz soul and kiddie-rap, it's the sort of thing likely to make any listener without children determined to keep things that way.
Were kiddie Christmas records always so painful? I'm afraid so, and if you don't believe me, you may want to take a spin through "First Christmas Record for Children" (Harmony/Legacy 65957), a collection of youth-oriented Christmas hits from the '50s. Offering more corn than cute, it includes one of the most loathsome Christmas singles of all time, Jimmy Boyd's boyishly lisping "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
I tell ya, kids these days don't know how good they have it.