Even as a child, Christmas carols got on my nerves. In music class during my painfully awkward years in elementary school, I hated singing "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and all those other seasonal favorites. You see, I wasn't like the other kids. I was a moody old man trapped in a chunky boy's body. I was more interested in the blues and funk records Daddy had at home. Forget "White Christmas." It rarely snowed in Arkansas, anyway.
But now I've let the warmth and glittery good cheer of Christmas music wash over me, and it feels fine. I don't know why I no longer feel the need to reach for a B.C. headache powder when I hear "Joy to the World." And I don't know what has contributed to my sudden change in attitude toward yuletide classics. I want joy in my life, so I guess I need to be, well, more joyful -- especially around this time of the year. Christmas music is supposed to get you in that happy-happy, goodwill-toward-men mood. And it's slowly working for me. Who knows? You may see me on your doorstep this year, holding a candle in a cup and leading a small knot of carolers in "Silent Night."
Yeah, right. That's so not gonna happen. But here are some new Christmas albums you'd like much more than my singing.
A John Waters Christmas: Leave it up to the Baltimore king of kitschy cinema to come up with a colorfully weird, brilliantly eclectic seasonal album. "Just when you think you can't stand to hear another Christmas carol," Waters says in the liner notes, "here I come with a holiday treat that will make you actually appreciate the insanity of the Yuletide season." He's right. The collection is mostly nostalgic. Some of the cuts are hard-to-find singles that have been unavailable for years. The best among them include "Fat Daddy" by, uh, Fat Daddy and "Sleigh Bells, Reindeer and Snow" by Rita Faye Wilson. Roger Christian's "Little Mary Christmas," a sweetly maudlin tune about an orphaned girl who's repeatedly passed up for adoption till Santa Claus brings her new parents, is the CD's real tender moment. And Rudolph and the Gang's "Here Comes Fatty Claus," a ditty sung from the perspective of a disgruntled shopper, is the set's most hilarious cut. (But you may wanna skip this catchy, expletive-laced number if the kiddies are around.) Overall, a John Waters Christmas is tuneful, surprising and a little strange. But, hey, what would you expect from the guy that brought us Pink Flamingos?
Dionne Warwick, My Favorite Time of the Year: In her 40 years of making records, it's hard to believe that the pop-soul legend hasn't already put out a Christmas album. But this is her first one, and it's a beautifully intimate affair -- nicely lush in spots. Mellow. A little jazzy. Just what Dionne Warwick fans would expect. (Behind Luther Vandross, I'm probably her second biggest fan.) The production is consistent and tasteful. Dionne's vocals are a little husky now but still stately and affecting. Ripe with emotion. Highlights include "My Favorite Things" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a duet with her longtime homegirl, Gladys Knight.
Various Artists, All-Star Gospel Hits Vol. 4 Christmas: The title is misleading because not all the artists on this collection sing gospel. In fact, not all the selections are actually gospel Christmas tunes. But it's a fine, soulful set nonetheless. You get several treats: Luther Vandross' moving "At Christmas Time" (a rare 1976 recording he made for Cotillion Records before he blew up five years later on Epic) and Natalie Cole's elegantly orchestrated "Mary, Did You Know?" (the only example on the set where a secular artist sings a gospel Christmas song). Perhaps the nicest highlight on the collection is Fairfield Four's "Last Month of the Year," a rockin', old-school a capella number glowing with airtight, folksy harmonies.
Will Downing, Christmas, Love and You: He's a smooth brotha, Will Downing. So it's no surprise that Christmas, Love and You is perfect for a romantic evening of snuggling by the Christmas tree with your special somebody. (Oh, what do the lonely do at Christmas?) Will keeps things soft and grooving with such jazz-laced numbers as the title track, "Christmas Time is Here" and "White Christmas." A pleasant set overall.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable: Rhino Records (gotta love that label) has just reissued this 1980 holiday record by one of country's brightest stars. It's a sparkling acoustic set that never feels dated. Expanded with three new songs ("There's a Light," "Cherry Tree Carol" and "Man is an Island"), Light of the Stable shimmers with lively bluegrass versions of such traditional carols as "Little Drummer Boy," "Christmas Time's A-Coming" and "Away in the Manger." I'm sure the Dixie Chicks own copies of this little masterpiece.
Dianne Reeves, Christmas Time is Here: The Colorado native and three-time Grammy winner possesses one of the warmest voices in jazz -- a wide, wondrous range that she has put to good use on her most recent albums, especially last year's A Little Moonlight. On Christmas Time is Here, Dianne radically reconstructs such holiday chestnuts as "Christmas Waltz" and "Little Drummer Boy," injecting them with new life and vibrancy. The band, which includes drummer Gregory Hutchinson and pianist Peter Martin, provides exciting, multi-hued arrangements that frame Dianne's strong, horn-like vocals marvelously. A gem you may wanna pay all year round.
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