Most Christmas records are get-rich-quick schemes, shots in the dark by unknowns hoping to score a novelty hit (who ever heard of Elmo & Patsy after "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?) or "rockin'" takes on the same old department-store sound track by established artists looking to plump up their own stockings while expending minimal creative effort.
If you've any room left in your heart at all for Christmas albums, as usual there are a few worth looking into: I've always liked fingerpicker John Fahey's austere holiday collections, and this year guitarist Dan Crary has made a flatpicking album that belongs in the same class. On Holiday Guitar (Sugar Hill) he's joined in his warm, faithful arrangements by fellow flatpicker Beppe Gambetta and bluesmen John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. And while at first listen Dwight Yoakam's Come on Christmas (Reprise) may seem as glib as any other holiday record, repeated spins yield the same eclectic pleasures as last year's Gone. A pair of downright depressing originals bookend eight bouncy, stylistically varied standards, including a Tex-Mex romp through "Silver Bells," a Memphis soul reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and a Vegas lounge version of "The Christmas Song."
At the opposite end of my list are Snowed In (Mercury), Hanson's attempt to pad their college tuition fund before their voices finish changing, and Warner Brothers' blander-than-unspiked-eggnog Jazz Christmas Party. And while it's always hard to fault the good intentions behind the numerous charity records--like A&M's A Very Special Christmas 3, which features Sting, No Doubt, the Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, and Hootie and benefits the Special Olympics--it's even harder to listen to them.
And then there are some holiday concept albums that are just too stupid to be true. A chunk of anthracite to you if you can figure out which of the following really are polluting the shelves this year:
VARIOUS ARTISTS Acid
X-Mas (Street Beat) Pounding house and techno grooves are supplemented by relentless loops of familiar holiday melodies. Gems include "Nutcracker Suite (Dance of the Funky D.J.s)" and "Little Drumma's Dub."
NICK CAVE A Bastard Is Born This Day (Reprise) Given Cave's longtime fascination with biblical themes, this twisted take on immaculate conception is hardly surprising, but Christian groups are bound to object to "Bethlehem," a barely disguised remake of 1985's "Tupelo" in which Mary buries Jesus's stillborn twin out back in a shoe box.
ANTON LaVEY Anton Repents: The Other Man in Black Sings Songs of the Saviour (Amarillo) This collection suggests that the late founder of the Church of Satan had an epiphany prior to his sudden death this past Halloween. The fruits of his conversion include "Satan Takes a Holiday--For Good" and a Gary Numan-esque version of "Jesus Loves Me" retitled "Jesus Loves Me and I Think He's Okay Too." No wonder his kids tried to keep this under wraps.
MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER A Fresh Aire Chanukah (American Gramaphone) After three Christmas records, Chip Davis, leader of this quasi-classical New Age behemoth, finally realizes that Christians aren't the only ones with better stereo equipment than taste.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (Epic) Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Rush's Alex Lifeson, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora, and six more rock guitarists wank their way through instrumental hymns and rock-era faves like John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Most folks indulge themselves over the holidays--but these guys do it all year round.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Nomad
Christmas: A World Music Celebration (Nomad) Musicians from India, Brazil, and the Middle East come together to worship at the altar of capitalism.
PUFF DADDY & THE FAMILY A Bad Boy Christmas (Bad Boy) Sean "Puffy" Combs caps off a remarkable year with a holiday quickie. True to form, even originals like "It's All About the Benjamins (RemiX-mas '97)" are built on familiar hits, in this case "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Covers billed as such include Lil' Kim's X-rated take on "Santa Baby" and Jay-Z's street-tough version of James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto." And Notorious B.I.G. fans beware: though Puff Daddy prominently pimps out the late Biggie Smalls on the front of the CD, he's exploited only once inside, on the pieced-together "Santa's Got a Gat."
DENNIS RODMAN Wild Xmas Party (MTV/Captain Lou) To compensate for his waning basketball career Rodman's taken up acting, pro wrestling, and whatever they call working for MTV; music was the next logical step. Apparently emboldened by his cameo on Crystal Waters's latest, Rodman calls on chums Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan, Liquid Soul, and Poi Dog Pondering to join him on a dozen holiday favorites.
RuPAUL Ho Ho Ho (Rhino) America's favorite drag queen gender-bends her way through house versions of standards like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which turns into a tune about...drag queens. Other unavoidable twists include "I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus" and a lyrically faithful rendition of "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" that's anything but straight.
No kidding: Acid X-Mas, Ho Ho Ho, Merry Axemas, Nomad Christmas
March Records celebrates its fifth anniversary Friday at Lounge Ax with performances by the Aluminum Group and the Singletons. The show doubles as a farewell party for the "cuddlecore" label's founder, John "Skippy" McFadden, who's taking the operation to New York next month. There he'll be running the east-coast office of the new indie Emperor Norton, through which subsequent March releases will be distributed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.