Separating the naughty from the nice among this year's holiday CDs
The Christmas album is rife with peril. Where else do musicians face such potential for producing something they'll be embarrassed to have their faces on just a few years hence? Results of a recent (and decidedly unscientific) survey on the Billboard website showed a majority of respondents felt that holiday CDs are made mostly for profit — which may be partly true. But the real reason so many artists attempt to troll them ancient yuletide carols probably has more to do with sheer vanity. After all, music careers come and go, but some lucky songbirds have hit the holiday lottery with jingles added instantly to the Christmas canon.
Sadly, for every Brenda "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" Lee, there are countless lumps of coal that barely see the light of day, even in December. The line between kitsch and keepsake can be wrapping-paper thin.
Despite the risks, this holiday season finds yet another batch of pop sensations, leather-lunged legends and blue-haired crooners alike smiling beneath Santa hats and cracking the old chestnuts for holiday fun and profit. Here's a smattering of what's new and notable this Noel:
Destiny's Child, 8 Days of Christmas (Columbia). In what may be one of the freshest seasonal albums in years, Destiny's Child finds a happy medium between innovation and tradition. The enigmatic title track lets the girls daydream about diamond belly rings and dirty denim jeans, although lead singer Beyonce Knowles also belts classics like "Silent Night" with absolutely no bootylicious overtones. "Spread a Little Love on Christmas Day" is perhaps the most P.C. holiday song ever recorded, extending greetings for a Feliz Navidad, happy Hanukkah, merry Kwanzaa and happy New Year. Who isn't ready for this jelly?
Nancy Wilson, A Nancy Wilson Christmas (Telarc). It's hard to believe that this Teflon Jazz chanteuse is just now getting around to putting out a medley of Christmas favorites, but this is definitely a case of better late than never. Though the collection of standards ("White Christmas," "Silver Bells") sometimes threatens to become department store background noise, Wilson evokes the warmth and vigor of her obvious mentor, Ella Fitzgerald, on tracks like "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" On a side note, Wilson apparently got the memo that "Christmas Time Is Here" — yep, from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — is the song to cover in 2001. It appears on a mind-boggling number of new holiday CDs.
B.B. King, A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA). Another golden oldie, 76-year-old King squeezes the blues out of the season with his first Christmas album. It probably should get the award for the least-fitting title of the year, as there's not much hope to be found here. But King somehow finds the joy in tracks like "Lonesome Christmas" and "Blue Decorations." Besides, who can resist any holiday collection that includes "Back Door Santa"?
Deana Carter, Father Christmas (Rounder). This wonderfully understated roundup of holiday cheer is so soothing you might forget that Carter is still a relatively new talent on the country scene. She croons "Blue Christmas" and strolls through "Winter Wonderland" with the aplomb of an Opry veteran. Even non-country fans will appreciate the acoustic resonance of this seasonal gem.
Toni Braxton, Snowflakes (Arista). No two snowflakes are ever identical. Too bad the same can't be said for most of the tracks on this album. While the part-time Atlanta resident's amazing voice sizzles on classics like "The Christmas Song," most of these flakes drift into a seamless bank of moans and sighs. "Christmas in Jamaica," a duet with Shaggy, best exemplifies the CD's sultry, screw-me-under-the-Christmas-tree vibe. Worth investing in, but best saved for after the kiddies go to bed.
Barbra Streisand, Christmas Memories (Columbia). Though her 1967 Christmas Album is a must-have for every good Gentile family, the high-maintenance diva majorly disappoints on this follow-up. Dreary ditties like "Grown-Up Christmas List" are enough to tip seasonal depressive types right over the suicidal edge. "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe" almost redeems the disc, but Babs' blue Christmas collection is, overall, a far cry from butter.
Various Artists, Christmas at Rao's (Columbia). Unlike other retreads of holiday hits from the '50s and '60s, this compilation does more than rehash the old standards. Frank Pellegrino, owner of the landmark Rao's Italian Restaurant in New York (and a singer himself), picked the best Christmas selections from his bistro's jukebox. The results are a pleasantly eclectic and surprising mix from Mel Torme, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett and the like. Louis Prima's lost treasure, "Shake Hands With Santa Claus," is a happy reminder of why Christmas music, in spite of its camp value and potential for catastrophe, is often worth the risk.??