Six holiday albums
December 22, 2012
For two decades I’ve been a Christmas-music enthusiast. An odd one, to be sure, since I’m Jewish, and I’m not exactly a fan of the gushing, flashy vocal pop-style that most Christmas music is rendered in. Still, around October each year, my antennae go up: “Whoa, Joan Osborne’s doing a holiday album?” “Did Roy Orbison actually record ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ or is that playing just in my head?” “Hmmm, I wonder how ‘A Death-Metal Christmas’ album would go over.”This year, though, I’ve had a tough time getting the old enthusiasm up. Here, I think, is what’s going on. With the recorded music industry in steep decline, holiday CDs is the rare category that’s in growth mode. It’s hard to gift-wrap a digital download, but a CD by John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John looks nice under the tree, even if it contains the nine millionth versions of “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” (and even if it’s John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John).So flocks of singers rush to record Christmas songs, even those who have no business doing them. My ears have thus been bombarded by endless takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (which, by the way, has become the holiday song of the moment. So much so that Lyle Lovett included it on his most recent album, which wasn’t even a Christmas album – it was released in late February).But I haven’t succumbed yet to the bah-humbug attitude. I’m still in there listening for the good stuff. It just seems like you’ve got to wade through the musical equivalent of fruitcake (that would be Barry Manilow’s “A Christmas Gift of Love”) and neckties (“Roseanne Barr Sings the Christmas Classics”) to get to the decent stuff.Here’s the latest batch.John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, “This Christmas”//Hip-O//Remember the last time someone thought it would be a good idea to reunite the co-stars of “Grease?” The result was the 1983 romantic comedy “Two of a Kind,” in which Travolta and Newton-John team up to save the world from a vengeful God who is sick of mankind’s attitude. The twist is that both of their characters are shady – a thief and a con artist. I was torn between saying “This Christmas” is as bad as that, or rating it as at least a slight improvement – and then I heard the take on “Silent Night,” an unholy mix of schmaltzy string arrangements, overdone emotions and a childrens chorus, and suddenly I was thinking, “You know, at least ‘Two of a Kind’ had Olivia Newton-John in her physical prime.””This Christmas” features some notable guest turns: Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Chick Corea. (To clear up the obvious mystery: both Corea and Travolta are Scientology adherents.) A take on “Winter Wonderland” might be great if you could isolate just the guest artists – Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra – and strip away Travolta and Newton-John’s parts, especially that outro of the two squealing, “Oh, Tony!”Cee Lo Green, “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment”//Produced by Adam Anders & Peer Astrom (Elektra)//Quiz: What does Cee Lo Green, the offbeat, sometimes off-color, critically acclaimed R&B singer have in common with John Denver, the late folkie? There is the Aspen connection: Denver lived his adult life here, while Green gets the spotlight gig of New Year’s Eve at Aspen’s Belly Up this year.And both have collaborated with the Muppets on a Christmas project. Denver did a TV special, “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together,” in 1979. “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment” features the new song “All I Need Is Love,” which features the Muppets. (Why does it feature the Muppets? Because Green also did a TV special to promote this album, and the Muppets probably look better on TV than they sound on a recording.) Other notable guests include Christina Aguilera, a duet partner on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; and Rod Stewart and Trombone Shorty, who add to “Merry Christmas, Baby.”Green’s voice is not only strong, high and flexible, it is versatile enough to span from a gospel-like take on “Mary, Did You Know?” to a gentle touch for Joni Mitchell’s “River.” But Green is best when he’s revving things up, making an all-out funk party of “What Christmas Means to Me,” and giving “White Christmas” the most boisterous go it’s ever seen.Green, featuring Goodie Mob, will play Dec. 31 at Belly Up in Aspen.James Taylor, “James Taylor at Christmas”//Produced by Dave Grusin (UME)//It’s hard to deny the charms of “James Taylor at Christmas,” which features J.T. giving tasty readings of the standards and earned a Grammy nomination for best traditional pop album. But it’s also hard to see any good reason for the re-release of the album, which initially came out in 2006. For additional material to justify the reissue, Taylor included a track he had released for an earlier project – George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” which clearly doesn’t belong on a winter-themed album, and crummy version to boot – and a song outside the English language – “Mon Beau Sapin,” a French version of “O Christmas Tree.”Various artists, “Holidays Rule”//Hear Music//General rule: Holiday collections like this are generally better than albums by a single artist. Most good singers can find one old Christmas song to get enthused about and give a decent reading. Sustaining that interest through an entire album is asking a lot.”Holidays Rule” is a fine example. It gathers a bunch of acts, mostly from the indie fringe, and strikes a nice balance between edgy and traditional. As it happens, four of the artists are coming to Aspen soon. The Shins (Dec. 14, Belly Up) deliver a stomping, Beach Boys-ish take on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”; Rufus Wainwright (Dec. 27, Belly Up) duets with Sharon Van Etten on a stylishly boozy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Feb. 10) backs Irma Thomas on a “May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas” that’s straight off Bourbon Street; and Punch Brothers (Saturday, Dec. 8) put an edgy acoustic spin on “O Come, O Come Emmanual.”As for highlights, Ohio rockers Heartless Bastards do a fine job on “Blue Christmas”; Black Prairie with singer Sallie Ford give an Appalachian twist to “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man with the Bag”; and alt-violinist Andrew Bird closes things with a swinging “Auld Lang Syne.”And McCartney, who probably counts as fringe himself these days, adds a passable version of “The Christmas Song,” done straight-up standards style.Kenny Vance & the Planotones, “Mr. Santa”//Produced by Johnny Gale (LaPlano Records)//There is much to note about Kenny Vance: As an original member of the ’60s pop group Jay & the Americans, he opened for the Beatles and the Stone; he gave a start to Steely Dan and served as Steely Dan’s first producer; he picked the music for “Animal House”; he booked Prince and James Brown on “Saturday Night Live.” The memorabilia he collected during this career, stored in his Long Island home, was washed away recently by Sandy.And there is much to like about “Mr. Santa” – the overall doo-wop sound and the early rock ‘n’ roll vibe of “Run Run Rudolph,” which sounds exotic compared to most Christmas-music pap. Vance has an ability to employ nostalgia without getting overwhelmed by it; there is a tone of longing to his versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”Still, nothing on “Mr. Santa” beats Vance’s dedication printed inside the jacket: “For my mother, Ethel Rosenberg.” (Vance, a Brooklyn native, was born Kenneth Rosenberg.)Rod Stewart, “Merry Christmas, Baby”//Produced by David Foster (Verve)//The most predictable Christmas album ev- … wait, make that the most predictable album ever. With Rod Stewart having committed fully to the “old rocker turns crooner” career track, the only wonder is that it took this long for Stewart to trot out versions of “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas” and a “Silent Night” with a kids chorus. The results are tame, but not bad; after a decade doing this, Stewart knows how to sing standards-style without embarrassing himself. Even his special guests are by the book: Michael Buble and Chris Botti. The real treat here is when Stewart shares the microphone with the unexpected guests; a take on “Merry Christmas, Baby” with Cee Lo Green and Trombone Shorty wakes up the ears. And the duet with Ella Fitzgerald on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” should be a classic.