Ahhhh...that chill is in the air, my wallet complains of having negative dollars in it and I've spent the past few days listening to nothing but holiday carols, the same jingle bell-embossed songs sung over and over again by a cross-the-board scattering of artists. Yep, Christmas time is here again. And I'm here to tell you which Christmas albums to run out and buy to play around your chestnut roasting fire this year. This week and next, it's nothing but Pop Stops Christmas music. I received a couple dozen holiday discs to review this year, so to ease your navigation, I'll lump them into some rough categories.
This is a double live album recorded last year in New York and the third release on Siberry's own "Sheeba" label since she left Warner Bros. a couple years ago (earlier this year she released a "just for fans" disc called A Day In The Life which was a diary style recording of the progress she was making on her various projects and collaborations with Joe Jackson, k.d. lang and others.)
For fans of Siberry's ethereal compositions who haven't seen her perform, this album is a must. While her studio recordings tend to sound very serious and precious, Siberry lets her wry humor flow easily in a live setting, and her anecdotes sprinkled throughout this disc are great fun. Her French accented banter with duet partner Rebecca Campbell on "Quoi Ma Voisine? (Neighbor Neighbor)" which chronicles the gossip of two women about the Virgin birth, sends the audience into gales of laughter.
The disc is not without its somber moments; Siberry's spoken poem "New Year's Baby" will likely bring a tear to any eye as she recounts the story of a teen's birth to his comatose body following an attempted suicide. The material ranges from obscure carols from various countries ("What Is This Lovely Fragrance Stealing," "Mary's Lullaby," and "In The Bleak Mid-Winter," one of the choral highlights of this disc) to familiar ("Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "What Child Is This" and "The Christmas Song") to her own wintery compositions ("The Valley," "Hockey," "Are You Burning, Little Candle," "An Angel Stepped Down," "Caravan.") Several members of her jazzy, orchestral ensemble step forward to handle lead vocals in spots, including Gail Ann Dorsey and Phillip Brown. This is a loose, arty, beautiful Christmas album that makes you feel as if you've just been to a Christmas concert, without having to leav e the comfort of your couch.
Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra
A Christmas Cocktail
While the other "jazz" Christmas albums I've reviewed are played in a more late night lounge style, the Jaymz Bee CD is Christmas jazz hepcat style. Bee's vocals transmute through a variety of beatnik and Vegas lounge styles. There are fast bass flails, slinky female leads and "ba-ba-ba-ba" harmonies, salsa interludes and Brat Pack crooning vocals on cocktail cool songs like "Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer" and the "Love Boat" theme cousin "Christmas Cocktail" ("Yes Virginia, Santa's gone to happy hour," Bee sings). This album winds a strange road between The Andrew Sisters, Frank Sinatra, a 1955 children's science fiction television show and Harry Connick Jr. It's a bit kitschy, and a lot of bongo-beating, olive-popping fun.
Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party
If saxophones are your thing, you'll want to pick up the Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party. This is great music for eggnog imbibing, sitting 'round the fire listening. Cool jazzy renderings of classics with a couple of originals by jazz greats ranging from Joshua Redman, Al Jarreau, Boney James, Bob James, Bela Fleck and more. Some are instrumental, some cool blue vocal jazz. Songs range from "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," "Silent Night," "Christmas Time Is Here" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" to originals by Bob James and Michael Franks.
Manchester offers a torchy collection of classy jazz-influenced standards in Joy. Her voice holds all the quiet pressures and release of the year's end as she lazily glides through "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," "When You Wish Upon A Star," and "I'll be Home For Christmas," among others. She also offers two Manchester originals. "There's Still My Joy," a piano ballad co-written with Beth Nielsen Chapman, is a stirring hymn that brings to mind Billy Joel's melancholic "And So It Goes." "Christmas Angel," written with Carole Bayer Sager, is a scatty bit of a Christmas love wish list put to lounge piano and brush-heavy drums. This is music for cleaning up the dishes after everyone has gone home, or for just staring out sleepily at the season's new-fallen snow...
Ann Hampton Callaway
Turn back the clock a good three decades, and this is the sort of piano, bass, horn and drum combo jazz I'd expect to hear filtering out of a jazz club in December. Callaway, the daughter of newsman John Callaway and the voice behind the theme song of TV's "The Nanny," sings with a rounded 11 p.m. quietness as the combo behind her barely restrains themselves (as if in deference to the sleeping neighbors upstairs). In some ways, Callaway's vocalese is reminiscient of moments from Manhattan Transfer. She offers sleek covers of "Jingle Bells," "The Christmas Song," "Baby It's Cold Outside," and "White Christmas," as well as three originals.
Peace on Earth
Those silky tones that gave Disney hits with "Beauty and the Beast" and "A Whole New World" are unmistakable; and no doubt will be welcome to calm the frantic family frenzies of the season. Bryson lends his smooth croons to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "The Christmas Song," I'll Be Home For Christmas" and gorgous duets with Sandi Patti ("O Holy Night") and Roberta Flack ("As Long As There's Christmas"). The duet with Flack, a new song from Disney's Beauty & The Beast: An Enchanted Christmas video, appears on her album as well.
Ho Ho Ho
A drag queen's Christmas.
Sometimes you've just gotta wonder how Rupaul gets away with it. This is a pretty funny album that turns some holiday standards on their collective ear. There's "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus" and a synth disco dance workout in "Rupaul the Red Nosed Drag Queen" (just the sort of lyric you want your kindergartner spewing in school!).
"All I Want for Christmas" moves from its traditional concentration on two front teeth to a recitation of the joys of plastic surgery ("all I want for Christmas is my nose fixed up...my teeth capped...my cheek implants"). Rupaul does manage to sing a few Christmas standards without changing the words — "Santa Baby," "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and a medley of "Jingle Bells, Joy To The World" and others survive his dance-pop updating intact. Rupaul is never too explicit in his genderbending jokes, but parents will still probably want to relegate this to the after-hours all-adult Christmas parties.
Ray Stevens Christmas
Through a Different Window
Stevens spends a lot of time on this album chortling at the dysfunctional nature of family gatherings at Christmas. While the redneck jokes come just a bit too frequent and easy, it is often quite funny stuff. The album opens witha theme most can identify with: "(I'm Giving) Guilt For Christmas" is sung by a curmudgeonly man who gets guilt "the gift that keeps on giving" from everyone so "this year they'll get it back." Stevens follows that up with a twist on the old standard of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" as he announces "I Won't Be Home For Christmas" in an effort to avoid freeloading relatives who trash his house every year.
Stevens pokes fun at people who send the ever popular "Xerox Xmas Letter" which usually brag about incredible exploits of people you barely know (his response is the write the ultimate trailer park trash letter in return). And in "Nightmare Before Christmas," he has fun with political correctness as in his dream Santa is arrested because of cruelty to reindeer, workshop violations of OSHA safety regulations, product liability suits, discrimination (he only hires elves) and more (he wears fur and smokes tobacco!). This is an album of Christmas humor for the whole family.
The Christmas Album
Roberta Flack's holiday offering is a laidback, smooth flowing affair that opens with "The Christmas Song" and closes with "Oh Come all Ye Faithful." In between are a couple of nondescript original Christmas songs, her duet with Peabo Bryson on "As Long As There's Christmas" (which also appears on his Christmas disc) and a cover of "There's Still My Joy," the Melissa Manchester original that appears in a slightly more moving version on Manchester's current Christmas album. Flack sounds a little weathered on this album, which would make good background music, but doesn't ever fill up the center stage.
The Soul Train Christmas Starfest Album
This is a collection supervised by Don Cornelius of 16 songs both old and new. Total Commitment's harmony rich new recording of "Silver Bells" serves as the radio single, but other aritsts include Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, New Edition, Boyz II Men, En Vogue, Johnny Gill and more, adding soul to classics like "Let It Snow," "The Christmas Song," "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and more.