By Tim Neely
In central Wisconsin, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even more so than usual. The first significant snowfall in this part of the state in years blanketed the ground on Nov. 15.
But even if snow on Christmas isn’t always a given, a true harbinger of the season is the veritable boatload of new Christmas CDs that are begging to be bought, some of which are pretty darn good. So roll over, Bing Crosby, and tell Harry Simeone the news!
Some of the 2005 crop is interesting, some isn’t, and others won’t get much attention except here, though they deserve more. There is also a growing number of store exclusives. (Two store exclusives were certified platinum in 2004, so why not?) So without further ado, let’s open some shrink-wrapped Christmas cheer!
CDs you might have missed
Davie Allan And The Arrows, Fuzz For The Holidays (Wicked Cool WC 001): Fans of cheesy 1960s soundtracks will remember Allan, who did the instrumental music for cult movies such as Wild In The Streets and Wild Angels. He’s still at it, playing the fuzz-drenched guitar on 12 Christmas staples. The highlight of the album, produced by ex–E Street Band member Little Steven, is a medley of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with the James Bond theme. If you buy the CD from Allan’s Web site, he’ll autograph it for you. (www.davieallan.com)
Blackmore’s Night, Christmas Eve (SPV/Steamhammer SPV 055-9921A): Ritchie Blackmore and Candace Night give us a four-song EP for the holidays. The title song has the feel of Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” and, if it’s discovered, could become a classic.
Marah, A Christmas Kind Of Town (PHIdelity/Yep Roc YEP 2104): Marah, from Philadelphia, have been doing their own thing for 10 years. This eclectic, truly enjoyable CD has one new song, “New York Is A Christmas Kind Of Town,” and if you’ve ever been there during December, you know that’s true.
The Marshall Tucker Band, Carolina Christmas (Ramblin’/Shout! Factory DK 37463): MTB band members old and new, plus family members, contribute to this enjoyable CD. Runner-up for the best title of a new destined-for–Dr. Demento song: “My Christmas In Custody.”
Odetta, Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert For The Holidays (M.C. MC-0055): Odetta is a living legend of folk music. This CD is a recording of a concert she did at Fordham University, complete with the announcer’s introduction and Odetta’s between-songs patter, and it is righteous!
Reverend Horton Heat, We Three Kings (Yep Roc YEP 2096): The self-proclaimed “psychobilly” band has put together a fun collection for Christmas. The many highlights include a rollicking version of “Frosty The Snowman”; “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” as if the man with the sack had just seen the Batsignal; and a cool instrumental version of “What Child Is This” that lifts riffs from “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” and “Hang ’Em High.”
Martin Sexton, Camp Holiday (Kitchen Table KTR 004): Sexton is a folk singer, and he’s done some wonderful things with the mostly familiar songs he performs. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the opening track, is now almost upbeat, and things keep going from there. I enjoyed this CD a lot. (www.martinsexton.com)
Ricky Skaggs and Family, A Skaggs Family Christmas Volume One (Skaggs Family 69890-20152): Bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs joins with assorted family members and the group The Whites to make an alternately fun, moving and just plain good Christmas CD.
Various artists, Ansel Adams: Sounds Of Christmas series: These are four two-CD sets that are spottily available at best, but they’re worth finding. Each one has a beautiful black-and-white winter-scene photo taken by Adams on the cover, and the music inside is equally peaceful; it’s great background music for holiday entertaining, and it’s mostly, if not entirely, new. In numerical order, they are Christmas Classics (Genius Entertainment 34922); Celebrate The Season (Genius Entertainment 34932); Winterland Christmas (Genius Entertainment 34942); and Peace On Earth (Genius Entertainment 34952). If you’re a member of AAA, you may have received an e-mail offer for the last two of them.
Various artists, Holiday Heart (Volunteer VolRec 002, two CDs): From the people who gave us the wonderful Ho Ho Ho Spice several years ago (if you don’t have it, what are you waiting for?) comes another 44-song collection by mostly alternative and college-radio types. Proceeds go to the Saint Barnabas Hospice And Palliative Care Center in New Jersey. Buy it! (www.hohohospice.com)
Various artists, Nick Holiday (Nick/Sony BMG 82876-73642-2): Fun for young kids, and tolerable for older kids of all ages, this CD features Christmas songs as sung by Nickelodeon favorites such as The Rugrats, Dora The Explorer, Jimmy Neutron, and even SpongeBob SquarePants.
Various artists, Taste Of Christmas (Warcon WRCN 03) contains 18 songs by mostly hardcore bands. This is definitely not your father’s Christmas CD. It might not even be your Christmas CD. The first voice you hear is the sampled sound of George W. Bush chanting “War… is over… war… is over” as an introduction to the version of “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by Street Drum Corps Featuring Bert McCracken. There are more remakes than I would have expected from a compilation like this. The whole thing is worth a listen; you might even be touched.
Various artists, To: Kate/A Benefit For Kate’s Sake (Western Beat 60394 70002 4): Not only is this 14-song CD loaded with alt-country and Americana stars doing Christmas music (among the participants: BR5-49, John Prine, Joe Ely, Raul Malo, Jason & The Scorchers, Steve Earle & Allison Moorer), but all the proceeds go to research on Niemann-Pick Disease Type A/B, a rare congenital metabolic disease. Highly recommended! (www.forkatessake.org)
Robin And Linda Williams, The First Christmas Gift (Red House RHR CD 188): The country-folk duo have been making records since 1975, but this is their first holiday release. They stay away from most of the warhorses, instead performing songs such as “Mary Had A Baby” and Roger Miller’s underappreciated “Old Toy Trains.” One of their originals gets the unofficial award for best title of a new song this year, “Shotgun Shells On A Christmas Tree.”
CDs you may have heard about
Anita Baker, Christmas Fantasy (Blue Note 09463-32173-2): Baker’s first Christmas album contains 10 songs; she’s backed by a small jazz combo with greats such as Larry Carlton, Joe Sample and George Duke.
Il Divo, The Christmas Collection (Syco Music/Columbia CK 97715): Imagine The Backstreet Boys as classically trained vocalists and without the canned beats, and you sort of have Il Divo. With the right material, it’s a great concept, and on this holiday CD, they have the right material. The version available at Target (Syco Music/Columbia CK 97759) contains the bonus track “Isabel,” from their upcoming release Ancora.
Kenny G, The Greatest Holiday Classics (Arista 82876-72234-2): The popular “lite jazz” saxophonist is back with a collection of 16 holiday tunes as only he can do them. Twelve are from his previous three holiday CDs, and four are new.
Kidz Bop Kids, A Very Merry Kidz Bop (Razor & Tie 7930189090): I mention this kiddie CD because there is a version at Target (Razor & Tie 7930189109-2) with a bonus track.
Diana Krall, Christmas Songs (Verve B0004717-02): Probably the hottest and coolest of the mainstream releases this year, the sexy chanteuse sings 12 songs of the season and does right by them. I’ve been waiting for this ever since that three-song EP came out a few years ago.
Regis Philbin, The Regis Philbin Christmas Album (Hollywood 2061-62549-2): America’s favorite mid-morning talk-show host croons 12 holiday songs, with help from friends such as Steve Tyrell, his wife Joy, and of all people, Donald Trump, in full Apprentice mode, “hiring” Rudolph for Santa’s sleigh. In all, it’s not as bad as it could have been. For even more of Philbin, the Target edition (Hollywood 2061-62566-2) has the bonus track “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.”
The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Dig That Crazy Christmas (Surfdog 44101): Setzer has an all-new Christmas CD out, and just as his first one was, this one is a lot of fun. So far, he and/or his label haven’t played the same games as with the first one, which exists in eight different versions in the United States alone. The only “bonus track” so far is in Japan.
Various artists, 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak PKD-8534): Produced by David Benoit, this CD consists of contemporary jazz and R&B artists remaking the songs from the classic Vince Guaraldi soundtrack, with a few unrelated songs included as well. It’s a noble effort, but the Guaraldi soundtrack still reigns. The version at Target (Peak PKD-8536) contains bonus tracks by LaToya London and former basketball star Wayman Tisdale.
Various artists, Martha Stewart Living series: Three Christmas CDs are the result of a deal between Martha Stewart Living and Sony Music: Jazz For The Holidays (Epic/Legacy EK 97699) includes 16 mostly modern Christmas jazz recordings, though it has Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington mixed in; Classical Favorites For The Holidays (Epic/Legacy EK 97701) has 19 orchestral and solo favorites, including, for perhaps the first time, different Boston Pops recordings with Arthur Fiedler, John Williams, and Keith Lockhart on the same CD; and Traditional Songs For The Holidays (Epic/Legacy EK 97702) contains 18 well-known tracks from the Sony BMG archive, again including both older and newer recordings. Finally, all three are available together in a box set, The Holiday Collection (Epic/Legacy E3K 97704), which also contains a collection of recipes and decorating tips from Stewart.
Various artists, WOW Christmas (Green) (Word WD2-886414, two CDs): The WOW series is the rough Christian-music equivalent to the Now! series, usually consisting of popular CCM hits. This is the second WOW Christmas collection; this one has a green cover and, unusual for WOW, 15 new recordings
Brian Wilson, All I Really Want For Christmas (Arista 82876-70300-2): A very nice collection from the former Beach Boy, including a lengthier remake of “The Man With All The Toys” and two new songs. The title song was written by Wilson with Bernie Taupin, and “Christmasey” was a collaboration with Jimmy Webb. Believe it or not, this also is available on vinyl (Arista 82876-70300-1); the CD has three older bonus tracks. Contrary to the listing on Amazon. com, this CD is not copy-protected.
Nat King Cole & Dean Martin, Holiday Favorites (EMI Music Special Markets 09463-36261-2-6): This year’s Kohl’s Cares For Kids CD ($5) features six songs from each of these Capitol legends.
Amy Grant, My Best Christmas (YMC WDMG-CD-0101): For the first time in many years, Radio Shack is offering exclusive holiday compilations, five in all. (A sixth CD at Radio Shack, Vanessa Williams’ Silver And Gold, is exactly identical, including catalog number, to the 2004 standard release — at least the copies I examined were.) This is a 14-track collection drawn from all of Grant’s past holiday releases, including two somewhat rare tracks, “Merry Christmas Darling” and “Child Of God.”
Michael McDonald, Through The Many Winters — A Christmas Album (Hallmark PR 3756): The former Doobie Brother releases his second Christmas album, this one exclusively through Hallmark Gold Crown stores. This, the 20th annual exclusive Hallmark Gold Crown Christmas release, is $7.95 with the purchase of three greeting cards.
Willie Nelson, The Christmas Album (YMC WDMG-CD-0102): The second of the Radio Shack exclusives consists of some newer Nelson holiday recordings, including a new version of “The First Noel.”
Joan Osborne, Christmas Means Love (Hylo Entertainment/Womanly Hips HP214-80062): Osborne will probably be known forever as a one-hit wonder for her smash “One Of Us.” But there’s so much more to her than that; this 11-song holiday CD is outstanding and deserves to be heard. It’s available exclusively at Barnes & Noble bookstores and on the store’s Web site for $12.99 (www.bn.com).
Various artists, Christmas Classics On Piano, Volume 1 (YMC WDMG-CD-0103): The third of the Radio Shack CDs consists mostly of new-age pianists such as George Winston, John Tesh, and Jim Brickman, with a cut by Michael W. Smith and 10 tracks by David Huntsinger.
Various artists, A Christmas Festival Of Songs (Decca B0005471-02): A Barnes & Noble exclusive (it’s even marked as such on the back), this has 18 songs from the classical side of Christmas.
Various artists, Disney’s Family Christmas (Walt Disney 61376-2): Again this year, Target has an exclusive Disney-themed compilation, with a fold-out poster cover and a new song, this time “The Silly Words Of Christmas Time.”
Various artists, Elton John’s Christmas Party (Hear Music/Universal B0005466-02): This outstanding 21-song collection, chosen by Sir Elton, includes rarely licensed songs such as two from the Phil Spector Christmas album and Eagles’ “Please Come Home For Christmas.” It also has a new track from John and Joss Stone. It’s available only at Starbucks.
Various artists, Good Grief! Charlie Brown: 2 Holiday CDs! (Peak PKD2-8538): This Barnes & Noble exclusive collects the new 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak PKD-8539), complete with yet another bonus track by David Benoit, with the original Vince Guaraldi soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy FCD-8431).
Various artists, Happy Holidays, Volume 40 (EMI Music Special Markets 09463-40791-2-9): True Value Hardware’s newest Christmas compilation is a bit of a disappointment. It includes the usual 12 songs, one of which just appeared on Happy Holidays Volume 38 (“The First Noel” by Suzy Bogguss) and three of which are by The Mistletones. It does contain Chris LeDoux’s version of “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” which is a plus.
Various artists, Holiday Classics Volume Three (EMI Music Special Markets 09463-33265-2-1): Ace Hardware started doing exclusive Christmas CDs in 2003, but I just found out about them late last year. This has 12 songs, and it’s a better mix than the True Value CD, with material from the 1940s through the 1990s on it. A cool addition is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” credited to The Oakbrook Orchestra; it’s the same recording that was on a True Value CD a few years ago credited to “Orchestra True Value”!
Various artists, Holiday Jazz (Universal Music Special Markets B0005411-02): A Target exclusive, this 12-track collection contains five new songs and four unavailable elsewhere. A highlight is Sergio Mendes’ recording of “The Christmas Song” (he recorded a version in 1968, but this is new), and another is Al Jarreau’s new song “Christmas Morning.”
Various artists, The Perfect Christmas: Holiday Music 2005 (Madacy BBW2-51678-3, three CDs): This is a follow-up to The Perfect Christmas, which went platinum a year ago even though it was sold only at the Bath & Body Works chain. Once again, B&BW offers an extensively cross-licensed collection with a bonus CD of Make-A-Wish child Paige Armstrong singing four favorite holiday tunes. This is well worth the $11 it costs (with any other B&BW purchase).
Various artists, The Pure Gold Collection series: Again, the kiosks in the Christmas decor section at larger Target stores have several volumes of this ongoing exclusive series. Two new volumes were issued this year. Baby, It’s Cold Outside: A Crooner Christmas (Compass Productions 09463-37555-2-9) features most of the usual suspects (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Dean Martin) plus one oddity, Bobby Darin singing “I’m Beginning To See The Light.” The Gift Of Giving: R&B Christmas (Compass Productions OPCD-7823) includes 12 Christmas classics ranging from The Drifters’ “White Christmas” to familiar tunes by Donnie Hathaway, The O’ Jays, and Brook Benton. And yes, it contains the title song by Bill Withers.
Various artists, Smooth And Soulful Christmas, Volume 1 (YMC WDMG-CD-0105): The fourth of the Radio Shack exclusives has 12 tracks, 10 of them new, by performers such as Anita Baker, Fourplay, Al Jarreau, The Pointer Sisters, Take 6 and more.
Various artists, Sounds Of The Season series: Target’s $4.99 exclusives once again are the best bargain in holiday CDs; each has 12 tracks, and two of the three have exclusive tracks. Sounds Of The Season: The NBC Holiday Collection (Rhino Special Products R2-76456) has eight songs recorded in 2005, including new ones from Rod Stewart; Seal; Goo Goo Dolls; and Earth, Wind & Fire. Sounds Of The Season: The NBC R&B Holiday Collection (Sony BMG Music A 96034) contains three new songs, by Babyface, Martin Luther, and Heather Headley. Sounds Of The Season: The Country Collection (Sony BMG Music BMK 96070) has two new tracks, by Phil Vassar and Lonestar.
Various artists, Sweet Tracks 2005 (Best Buy ST-2005): For the past three years, Best Buy has given a Christmas CD to members of its Reward Zone program who show up at the store on a particular date. This year’s was distributed Nov. 6, and there may be extras (or you can buy it on eBay for less than it costs to join Reward Zone). They are housed in a round tin that looks like a peppermint candy. The songs, all new for this disc, are by Pussycat Dolls, Sting, Lifehouse, Avant, Keane, Kaci Brown, Mary J. Blige, and Feist.
Various artists, Totally Awesome Christmas, Volume One (YMC WDMG-CD-0106): The fifth and last of the Radio Shack exclusives contains mostly Radio Disney regulars, plus a track each by SheDAISY and Rascal Flatts.
Treasures from the bargain bins
The Freedom Country Band, Christmas In My Heart (Sleigh Bells 35362): Subtitled A Country Christmas Salute To Our Soldiers, that pretty much says it all. It’s a competent, if generic, 10-song CD of songs such as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”
Kay DeKalb Smith, Stephen Charles, and Emily Faye, Humbug! Christmas Songs For The Scrooge In Your Life (Wonder Disc W-0041): This one caught my attention in the less-than-$5 bin at Wal-Mart and Kmart. New lyrics to old standards include “On the first day of Christmas, O Scrooge, he gave to me/A Partridge Family LP.” And it gets better from there. This was an unexpected pleasure and good for a few laughs. (By the way, the singers are not mentioned on the outside of the packaging at all.)
Various artists, Disney’s Merry Christmas Wishes (Walt Disney 61344-7): Once again, we have a new disc with 10 Christmas songs from the Disney archives. It has no front insert, but the CD has a wonderful image of Mickey and his friends singing Christmas carols.
Various artists, My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas (Genius Entertainment 34962): I thought My Little Pony was a relic of the 1980s, but I guess not, as this is a brand-new CD. Much of this is music that appears on the kiddie DVD of the same name.
Here we go again: Selected reissues
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Christmas Album (Shout! Factory DK 34411): At last, this classic holiday record, first released in 1968 and available on CD for about 15 minutes in the early 1990s, is back! It’s a straight reissue with a digipack and a bonus booklet with notes from Alpert. I’d forgotten how enjoyable this album is. This has the best instrumental version of “My Favorite Things.”
The American Boychoir, Voices Of Angels: Christmas Favorites From The American Boychoir (Albemarle AR 1004): This wonderful group of boys in grades five through eight, one of the best in the States, sings 19 carols of the season, both familiar and not. These tracks were recorded in 1992, 2000 and 2001 for CDs no longer in print and for a one-time radio performance; any fan of good choral music will enjoy this CD. (www.americanboychoir.org)
Charlie Byrd, Christmas Carols For Solo Guitar (Koch KOC-CD-9923): This excellent 1967 album featuring the jazz guitarist has been overlooked in recent years. It’s wonderful, and it’s nice to see it again.
John Denver, Rocky Mountain Christmas (RCA/Legacy 82876-68634-2): The 1975 best-seller, which contains wonderful songs such as “Aspenglow” and “Christmas For Cowboys,” returns with two bonus tracks, “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.”
Paul Revere And The Raiders, A Christmas Past… And Present (Koch KOC-CD-9922): Like the Alpert album, this 1967 flower-power relic was available on CD for a short time in the 1990s. Get this reissue before the album vanishes again.
Dwight Twilley, Have A Twilley Christmas (Digital MusicWorks 879254004238): This is a reissue of last year’s digital download–only EP, with four new tracks for a total of 10. The availability of the CD version may be spotty. (www.digitalmusicworks.com)
Various artists, The Essential Winter’s Solstice (Windham Hill/Legacy 82876-69545-2, two CDs): If you don’t have any of the A Winter’s Solstice series and are interested to know what they are like, this collection is an excellent overview.
Various artists, 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection series: This extremely popular Universal reissue series continues to grow. Eight more were added to the catalog in 2005 to join the 30 that already exist. Four single-artist sets include The Four Tops, Engelbert Humperdinck, Loretta Lynn (the first time her entire Country Christmas LP of 1967 has appeared on CD) and Donna Summer; four various-artists sets are Great Voices Of Christmas (a new compilation), Motown Christmas, Volume 2, Santa’s Greatest Hits, and Smooth Jazz Christmas (another new compilation).