The snow has fallen, the presents are all bought (well, almost), the lights are lit and providing a steady drain on your electric meter ... but is your stereo ready for the holiday season? This week and next, Pop Stops offers its annual Christmas album roundup, providing a glimpse at the content of more than a dozen new Christmas albums released this year. So let's get to it!
A POP CHRISTMAS:
Another Rosie Christmas
Rosie's Christmas collection last year was the hit of the season, largely because of its novelty hook — Rosie O'Donnell dueting with big name pop stars from all sides of the MTV aisle. All the proceeds from that disc went to O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation.
This year she tries to repeat the trick, and is less successful, both because the mix of artists and songs isn't quite as strong and because this disc doesn't stick with the formula of the last. Rosie either doesn't sing or is relegated to nearly unheard background vocals on almost half the songs here.
On the plus side: O'Donnell joins Jessica Simpson to romp through "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and goofs off with Smash Mouth on a jaunty rock version of "Nuttin' for Christmas." She also has a lot of fun in a live concert recording with the Dixie Chicks as she strolls onstage claiming to be "Trixie Dixie" in order to sing the trailer park classic "Merry Christmas from the Family." A boogie woogie bit of humor comes out in Billy Gilman's "I'm Gonna E-Mail Santa" and Rosie gets to mambo it up with Ricky Martin on "Ay, Ay, Ay It's Christmas." It closes with a Barry Manilow duet that's appropriately children-themed on "Because It's Christmas (for All the Children)."
On the down side: Macy Gray's painful voice murders "Winter Wonderland" with O'Donnell in tow and Destiny's Child offers a staccatto rap with soul harmonies that, while it mentions Christmas, doesn't sound very Christmas-y (Rosie is absent from this one as well, though the band mentions her in the lyrics). Jewel offers her semi-religious (though not really holiday-themed) hit from last year, "Face of Love" with O'Donnell providing a background vocal. Sugar Ray provides a sparse run-through of "Silver Bells" with O'Donnell that sounds loosely thrown together. O'Donnell only serves to introduce Marc Anthony in a live performance of "Christmas Auld Lang Syne" and she's also absent from Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "The Prince of Peace"(featuring Marlene Danielle from the Broadway production of Cats). Donna Summer provides a title track (but no Rosie vocals) on the disco-syncopated "Rosie Christmas." It's a well-intentioned Christmas offering with some enjoyable offerings. But as with many sequels, it doesn't live up to the tenor of the original.
My Kind of Christmas
Christina's kind of Christmas is... all about Christina. Forget about the songs, and letting their message ring out. This is about showing how many notes Christina can sing in five seconds.
What is up with that?
Aside from a couple of forgettable dance-beat original numbers, the young Mariah Carey wannabe triples the number of notes that should be found in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Oh Holy Night," "This Christmas" and "The Christmas Song."
She also slinks up the bluesy "Merry Christmas, Baby," into a horn-punched strip-ready strut, which seems both beyond the believable range of her years and the scope of the song.
She has a beautiful voice; now if she'd just concentrate on spotlighting the power of the songs instead of the elasticity of her vocal cords, she'd really be a star of grace and prowess. Sometimes you have to step out of the way of a song to let its power shine. Aguilera steps all over these carols instead.
IT FEELS LIKE A TV 'CHRISTMAS SPECIAL' CHRISTMAS:
Merry Little Christmas
Linda Ronstadt offers the kind of Christmas album in vogue 30 years ago. Listening to this album brings back memories of those big orchestra-backed "family" Christmas TV specials they used to have in the '60s and '70s. Ronstadt provides the sweet and light voice to guide 14 classic holiday songs filled with warm horn and string arrangements and apple pie sweet choral backgrounds.
Included are "The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Away in a Manger," Joni Mitchell's "River" and "White Christmas" (the latter, dueted in a sweetly lilting arrangement with Rosemary Clooney, who sang it in the classic Bing Crosby movie "White Christmas.")
She also turns in arrangements of some Christmas songs of earlier centuries, from the Aztec composition "Xicochi Xicochi," to the "Welsh Carol" to the choral hymn "O Magnum Mysterium."
Radio City Christmas Spectacular
I'm not sure why you'd want this disc if you hadn't been to the popular Radio City Christmas Spectacular show. A listen to it only leaves you feeling as though you've missed something...sort of like listening to a concert in the theatre lobby without ever going in. The music's good, but it's just not the same if you can't see the lights and the action. And since many of the holiday numbers here feature long segments of tap dancing, you can truly "hear" what you're missing.
Of course, that's also a good marketing gimmick, since the Radio City Christmas show is on the road this year, and is currently playing at the Rosemont Theatre! So if you buy it for a dose of new Christmas music and wish you could see what's going on onstage during those "instrumental" dance segments, well, for the next couple of weeks, you can.
Musically, "Santa" and the Rockettes sing both new and old songs, from "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll" and "The Man with the Bag" to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." The orchestra also touches on many other familiar holiday themes, from "Deck the Halls" to "Sabre Dance."
LEFT OF CENTER CHRISTMAS:
If you've had enough of the tried and true standard Christmas carol run-throughs and want something with a holiday spirit, but a dose of the bizarre, check this one out from the former member of Devo and current musical force behind Nicolodeon's "Rugrats" show. Mothersbaugh combines coughs, grunts, a tinkly Casio keyboard line, and a bunch of oddly altered voices to produce the rhythmic opener "Jingle$, Jingle$, Jingle$"
Much of the rest of the disc is strictly instrumental, albeit with Mothersbaugh's offbeat, mad-musicbox style of layering bells, strings, percussion loops, the occasional vocal sample and various synthesizer sounds into an ever expanding, evolving sonic package.
Inside the CD booklet is a story about Rudolph having jury duty on Christmas Eve and Santa's secret past as a juggling circus clown. What Mannheim Steamroller did for classical Christmas music, Mothersbaugh does for the avant garde. The titles for his studio "Frankenstein" mixes include "Happy Woodchopper," "Only 12 Shopping Days Left," "Enough Xmas for All," "I Don't Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night)."
It's a mind-numbingly cool listen.
Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire
This is Seattle DJ Bob Rivers' fourth "Twisted Christmas" parody album since 1987, when he launched the original Twisted Christmas. In the PG-13 Steve Dahl and Jonathan Brandmeier tradition, Rivers takes popular songs (or arrangements that sound suspiciously like artists you know) and builds hysterical (sometimes vulgarly so) ditties about the holiday season.
On "The Twisted Chipmunk Song" he revisits the classic David Seville Chipmunk song, but transforms those sweet little chipmunks of old into a trio of juvenile delinquents who the Seville stand-in threatens to sell for shampoo experimentation. The 'munks reappear on the title track (sung, naturally, to the tune of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" wherein Rivers advises that "everybody knows, some pepper and a garlic clove/help to make them seasoned right./tiny rats with a crisp golden coat/will really hit the spot tonight."
"Who Put the Stump" finds the angel at the top of the Christmas tree singing in '50s cheerfulness about "who put the stump in my rump-pa-pump-pa-pump?" The "Carol of the Bartenders" finds the "Carol of the Bells" transformed into a warning "Don't drink and drive, don't drink and drive."
"Home for the Holidays" becomes "Homeless for the Holidays" ("If you're down on your luck, you can really graze/for the holidays we throw those bums a bone"). The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" becomes "Decorations," "Sleigh Ride" becomes "Flu Fide" and a faux Bruce Springsteen turns up to mimic Springsteen's classic arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in "Santa Claus is Foolin' Around" ("Santa's with your woman right now...you better get home and don't be late")
This one's not quite as consistently hysterical as my favorite Rivers Christmas parody album, 1993's I Am Santa Claus, but if you like your holiday music spiked with a shot of irreverence, pick this one up.