“Put a Santa hat on your noodle, and a snowflake on your little red nose…” So began my venture into this season’s holiday music offerings. On the surface, making a decent Christmas album seems like a fairly simple equation. Start with warm holiday sentiments, a solid voice that can carry an already written tune, and the occasional sound of sleigh bells. An orchestra always helps, as does a children’s choir. Add it all up and you’ve got yourself acceptable holiday fare. Or so you’d think. The problem with holiday albums these days seems to be an overabundance or complete lack of one of the above-mentioned ingredients. Do we really need to call my head a noodle? And do people actually still wassail? Some bands appear to be catching on to this schmaltz-fest, but their response is just as problematic. Take From First to Last’s tune “Christmassacre” for example. Does the word “Christmas” thrown into an otherwise cheerless metal-fest really qualify something as a seasonal song? I think not. It’s a rough crop to weed through, but with a little searching, there is some good holiday music to be found. Here are a few of this season’s offerings: - Sarah Hammill
The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Dig That Crazy Christmas (Surfdog Records; October 2005) The Brian Setzer Orchestra seems to nail at least a part of the equation with this year’s rockabilly holiday album, Dig that Crazy Christmas. If you can get past the young, blond, tattooed Santa Claus cartoon on the cover of the album, presumably a caricature of Setzer, and the wince-worthy title, there are moments of true Christmas magic. Though there are some decent tracks written by Setzer himself, he is at his best when blending his big-band sound with holiday classics such as “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” and “Cool Yule.” (And just in case you want to see it live, Setzer plays the Chumash on December 23.)
Steve Lukather and Friends
SantaMental (Favored Nations; October 2005) You’ve gotta respect a bunch of 40-year-old former glam rockers still sporting goatees and heavy jewelry, especially when Eddie Van Halen is among them. Certainly these guys have the heart and skill to make good music. A Christmas album, however, may not be the best avenue for such talents. Lukather and Friends’ SantaMental isn’t bad. The musicianship is impressive, as it should be with contributors from ’80s legend Toto and the like. What the album lacks is relevancy. With very few vocal tracks and a distinctly ’80s vibe, the disc ends up sounding more like a jam session down memory lane.
Taste of Christmas (Warcon; October 2005) Taste of Christmas gets right what Lukather and Friends misses: a contemporary audience. The album is composed of tracks by The Used, Funeral for a Friend, Vs. the World, and others performing both reworked Christmas classics and original songs. Tracks like Bert McCraken’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” and Emery’s “The Last Christmas” strike the right balance between edgy rock and traditional holiday sentiment. But most of the disc is composed of harder-rocking songs, such as Opiate for the Masses’ “Christmas Evel,” which tip too far on the side of musical rage to be considered even alternative holiday fare. Added up, it’s not so much a Christmas album as a confused novelty rock compilation fit for only the hardest of fans.
New Beginnings at Christmas (Self-produced; November 2005) Santa Barbara’s Shawn Thies dishes up a subtle batch of Christmas tunes on her recently released New Beginnings at Christmas. It’s the type of album you throw on for mood music while wrapping presents next to the fire, or in my case, next to the metal grate in the floor, and that’s not a bad thing. What the album lacks in energy, it makes up for with soul. Thies’s velvety voice is perfect for channeling the ghosts of Christmas past and breathing new life into old favorites. The result is a nicely crafted Christmas lullaby.
A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc; October 2005) I know I’m from California and all, but I’ve watched enough Sex and the City and Seinfeld to know that Marah’s A Christmas Kind of Town simply wouldn’t fly with any self-respecting New Yorker. And yet, it’s precisely the city all 20 tracks refer to. The carolers’ nasally, high-pitched voices are reminiscent of Alvin and the Chipmunks without any of the adorable charm. And the space between tracks is punctuated with lines like, “Why he’s making snow angels. What a fellow!” without any of the irony necessary to carry it off. On the other hand, according to the merry carolers, the term wassailing refers to boozing it up at the bars, so I guess it isn’t as outdated as I thought.
Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations; November 2005) Strange that an acoustic album ends up showing more range than many of its more vocally driven competitors. Each track on Acoustic Christmas, a compilation album that includes Andy Timmon, Adrian Legg, and Marty Freidman, blends its own style’s sensibilities with an awareness of the integrity of the album as a whole. Johnny Hiland’s sparse guitar solo “Home for the Holidays” showcases the kind of down-home fancy finger-work you’d find in the Midwest, yet feels right at home next to a full children’s choir in Peppino D’Agostino’s beautifully rendered version of “We Pray Sanctus.”