Last week I began the jingling chore of reviewing the couple dozen holiday discs I received this year; this week's column concludes that foray.
There's a youthful exuberance that kid groups from The Jackson 5 to The Osmonds to Musical Youth have capitalized on that older groups, no matter how energetic, can never quite capture.
The Hanson brother's chirpy harmonies certainly are proof of the power of youth in selling a pop song to the world, and that grade school power serves them well on this collection of upbeat standards. The kids rock their way admirably through "Merry Christmas Baby,' "Little Saint Nick" and "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" (the latter of which really brings out those Jackson 5 "Rockin' Robin" comparisons). The most mature-sounding songs, interestingly enough, are the Hanson's original holiday offerings. "At Christmas" is a slow, thoughtful ballad about the importance of family that hints of Bon Jovi, with a trickle of piano and a somber cello. And "Christmas Time" gets a backing of funky bass and strings as the boys trade off vocals and sing "let's love one another on this holy night."
Snowed In offers a take on Christmas with guitars and drums and a twinkle in the aural eye. It's a lot of lighthearted fun.
There are three vocal tracks on this 13-song CD, but it's for his big-sounding solo piano excursions that Brickman is known, and they fill the bulk of this CD (which features seven original holiday songs from Brickman). The collection takes its name from Brickman's current hit single sung by Collin Raye and Susan Ashton, which is an odd choice for the leadoff song for a holiday disc since lyrically, with the exception of mentioning "winter snow," it has nothing to do with Christmas, but hey...it's his album, right?
Brickman's solo piano does a grand job on "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," "Joy to The World" and "What Child Is This?" Kenny Loggins turns up to sing breathily on the Brickman original "Starbright." That song is followed by a Brickman instrumental original, "Angels," which opens with a run of flutes and bells before settling into typically emotive piano trills that borrow a bit from "Gloria In Excelsius Deo." Probably the most moving track on the disc is "Hope Is Born Again," an uplifting anthem Brickman co-wrote in part with Brent Bourgeois that is sung by the Wilson Phillips of Christian pop, the female foursome Point of Grace.
The Carols of Christmas II
This collection includes new and old Christmas recordings of original and standard holiday hymns by Windham Hill associated artists. While nearly all instrumental, it breaks the no-voice rule with Loreena McKennitt's Celtic by way of the Far East recording of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (from her 1995 holiday EP) and Janis Ian's "Emmanuel." The rest of the album is predictably (for those familiar with the New Age Windham Hill sound) a pleasant, quiet mix of acoustic guitar and piano holiday recordings by Liz Story, Steve Lukather (of Toto fame), Steve Morse, George Winston, Jim Brickman, Leo Kottke, Will Ackerman and more.
Yep, I've always said, "ya know, there just aren't enough acid house dub Christmas albums." Now I don't have to say that anymore. For those who feel the need to turn their living room into a downtown strobe-light enhanced dance hall on Christmas, this is the disc you need. (Listen up, DJs). There are warbling synths and an electric drum trip in "Carol of the Bells (A Demonic Christmas)" by D.J. Demonixx, an "aliens are landing" weird synth intro to the handclapped drums of D.J. Rob E.'s "Jingle Bells" (I'm sure the song is in there somewhere, I just can't hear a melody) and who could pass up an ambient instrumental electronica version of "Greensleeves" from Noel W. Sanger?
Yep, the other thing I've always said is, "ya know, there just aren't enough instrumental rock guitar Christmas albums." Now I don't have to say that anymore either. Orchestrated by six-string god Steve Vai, Merry Axemas offers classic holiday anthems performed in glowing rock guitar excess by the kings of the trade: Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Richie Sambora, Joe Perry and, of course, Vai himself. Kenny Wayne Shepherd leads it off with a wild "Green Onions" organ-punctuated take on "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." Johnson offers a predictably well-orchestrated, contemplative and classical leaning run-through of "The First Noel," and Beck gives a Delta blues guitar whine to "Amazing Grace." Hotei offers an exotic percussion arrangement of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," The Brian Setzer Orchestra swings things up on "Jingle Bells," Satriani hangs a loose whammy bar and stretches out the melody of "Silent Night" with the help of a lot of cymbals and Steve Morse offers a fast fretted workout of "Joy To The World." Vai himself pairs up with a pianist to tackle the Peanuts classic, Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here." All of these superstar guitarists handle their Christmas carols with restraint and innovative orchestration. This is my pick for best Christmas album of the year.
Collections of Christmas Albums Past
Every year we get some compilations of songs from various artists' past Christmas albums. This year we have compilations of holiday songs from both the '50s and the '80s and '90s.
Hot Rod Holiday
(The Right Stuff)
This is a disc of classic surf influenced holiday fare from The Beach Boys ("Little Saint Nick" and others), The Ventures ("Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman"), Dion ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"), Bobby Helms ("Jingle Bell Rock") Chuck Berry ("Run Rudolph Run") and more.
With the exception of John Lennon's 1969 recording of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," Bruce Springsteen's 1986 take on "Merry Christmas Baby," and a couple others, the rest of the songs on this 16-song collection were recorded by the various artists in the '90s. Included are Celine Dion's take on "The Christmas Song," Cyndi Lauper's original "Early Christmas Morning," Mariah Carey's "O Holy Night," Frank Sinatra's version of "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and Michael Bolton's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." There are also tracks from Boyz II Men, Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Amy Grant, Pacido Domingo, Collin Raye, Gloria Estefan, Barbra Streisand and Luther Vandross.
Sounds of the Seasons
It's a little slimmer than Superstar Christmas (only 11 songs) but like that disc, the majority of the songs on this collection were recorded by these artists for their own Christmas albums in the '90s. Vince Gill offers "Do You Hear What I Hear?," Kenny Loggins offers "Celebrate, Me Home," Shawn Colvin sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Patti LaBelle sings "O Holy Night." Bruce Springsteen's perennial favorite live recording of "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" and Willie Nelson's "Blue Christmas" are included, as are songs from Elton John, John Mellencamp, B.B. King and Tony Bennett.
Come On Christmas
Yoakam's original offering to the holiday season repetoire, "Come On Christmas," is nothing to run out and grab. It's a dirge of a jazz-country hybrid, not exactly the sort of introduction you'd hope for in a holiday disc. The album ends on a more upbeat note – Yoakam's Christmas boogie "Santa Can't Stay." Yoakam sticks to standards for the rest of the disc: a country boogie take on "Run Run Rudolph," a cajun reel on "Silver Bells," and a horn-punched slide on "I'll Be Home For Christmas." His "Silent Night" rests softly on a church organ and "Santa Claus is Back In Town," brings in a fiddle to the countrified rock of "Santa Claus Is Back In Town."