Only two weeks 'til Christmas. Are you ready?
OK, stop throwing things. Strike that last question. But here's one thing to think about: a little Christmas music never hurts to get you in the mood for the season's trials (and it's nice to have something to play if you're hosting seasonal parties and family gatherings.) There are a ton of Christmas albums out there, and I've received a couple dozen new ones to review this year. I'll spend the next couple weeks running through them for you, giving you the list of which ones are tawdry and which ones are nice. So, Christmas 1998, here we go...
A ROCK 'N' ROLL CHRISTMAS
The Christmas Attic
One of the big Christmas hits of the past two years was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas Eve and Other Stories album, a rock Christmas opera that mixed classic holiday themes with new music. The band was a loose collective, essentially made up of mastermind producer Paul O'Neill, members of the hard rock act Savatage (who O'Neill has long produced) and a host of other guests. O'Neill and Savatage leader Jon Oliva collaborated on half the songs and brought in outside vocalists (mostly from Broadway) to sing them. The result was a powerful, operatic but rockin' album of Christmas spirit.
With The Christmas Attic, O'Neill, Oliva et al have managed to turn the same trick again, with similarly powerful results. The band remains intact, though most of the guest vocalists are different from those featured on the first TSO album. This time, around the opera's story is of a little girl visited by an angel on Christmas Eve resulting in the girl's touching the lives of many other people whose things she finds in an attic. It's a warm holiday story (told in the CD booklet) and a grand, glorious collection of holiday rock. There are choirs of children singing angelic ooohs and ahhhhs, rowdy guitars and pounding drums underscoring the pomp and glory of some of the opera's segments, plaintively beautiful piano parts and huge orchestral string moments. There are rock guitar solo run-throughs that borrow pieces of "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," and "Angels We Have Hear On High" and other songs utilize "Joy" and "O Holy Night" among other bits of Christmas theme music, all incorporated in new rock holiday anthems.
This is a great collaboration that young and old can appreciate.
Merry Axemas, Volume 2 - More Guitars for Christmas
Last year guitar-meister Steve Vai pulled together some of the all-time great rock guitar soloists for an instrumental rock guitar Christmas album. This year, he does it again, only this time, Vai himself doesn't contribute a track. The nice thing about the new and old Merry Axemas discs is that there isn't a single song covered or artist appearing twice — so you can listen to both discs for an amazing variety of guitar-driven Christmas classics. Whereas last year we heard from Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Steve Morse, Joe Perry and more, this year we get Toto's Steve Lukather doing a beat happy stretch on "The Christmas Song," Journey's Neal Schon putting some echoey six-string atmosphere to "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," Robin Trower showing a little whammy bar bend on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and Ted Nugent bashes, I mean "Deck(s) the Halls." Also included are Al Di Meola's subtle, jazzy take on "Carol of the Bells," Yes-man Trevor Rabin's big production of "O Come All Ye Faithful, Zakk Wylde's down-home picking on "White Christmas" and John Sykes' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
A POP CHRISTMAS:
Merry Christmas...Have A Nice Life
Cyndi Lauper's new Christmas album has a nice touch of Bayou rock to it, thanks to contributions from former Hooters member Rob Hyman, who co-wrote several of the original songs with her and also plays accordion, beatbox and synths on the album. Lauper's and Hyman's "Home on Christmas Day" should prove a popular staple at radio over the next two weeks; it's a heartland guitar rock-pop number following the well-worn theme of "It's Christmas and I'm missing you." Hyman and Lauper go back a long way, actually — he co-wrote "Time After Time" with her on her very first record, and also co-wrote "Feels Like Christmas" from her Hat Full of Stars album of a few years back (which also appears on this Christmas disc).
Merry Christmas ... Have A Nice Life finds Lauper refreshingly quirky and upbeat, on new, silly holiday songs like "The Christmas Conga" and the polka "Minnie and Santa," as well as on classics like "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and "Three Ships." She does get a little serious on the quietly contemplative album closing hymns "In The Bleak Midwinter" and "Silent Night." This is exactly the sort of head boppin' Christmas album you'd expect from a girl who just wants to have fun.
Christmas At Home
Donny returns to the record stores with a truly traditional holiday album. Backed up by several other Osmonds, Beth Neilsen Chapman, Marty McCall and others, Donny shows what he learned from his long stint in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in modern, slightly funky touches to "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Who Took The Merry Out of Christmas" and "Deck The Halls/Hark The Herald Angels Sing." He does a brief moody dirge of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and offers an easy listening radio friendly pop run-through of Patti Smythe's "I've Been Looking For Christmas" and the Kyle Vincent-sounding "The Kid In Me." His "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" sounds like an arrangement right off a TV Christmas special, and his covers of "After December Slips Away," and "My Grownup Christmas List" are perfect adult contemporary love song radio offerings. This is an album of celebration and veneration, a warm, heartfelt Christmas card on CD.
Home For Christmas
New Kids knock-offs NSYNC offer an album of mostly original bland soul holiday songs with lots of layered oooh/aaahhh vocals and overly emotional tremelo crooning. The warm synthesizers have lots of bell tones and the harmonies are as perfectly sugary as a Hallmark card, but all this only serves to make for an album with absolutely no character whatsoever. If you want some pleasant ooh-aah holiday background music featuring "The Christmas Song," "The First Noel," "O Holy Night, and a bunch of oooh baby holiday originals, this is probably a good choice.