Every year, as I sit down to don my elf’s hat, jingle my bells and write
the introduction to the Sun-Times’ annual roundup of new Christmas
recordings, I can’t help feeling like a bit of a Grinch.
I love Christmas. Honest, I do! It’s just that my critical colleagues and
I value good music just as much — especially during the holidays, when there
is a canon of great tunes dating back centuries. And we see no reason to let
our critical standards slip in the name of a little yuletide cheer.
You see, a small mountain of recent Christmas recordings arrives each and
every year, and a “new” Christmas disc has to be pretty darn good if it
wants to secure a spot in the pantheon next to so many classics. It needs to
be original (there is simply no need to hear another lackluster version of
“The First Noel”). It has to have passion. It has to have personality. And
most of all, it has to work as great music, period, on top of just being
great holiday music.
Any disc that falls short of these standards must be suspect of being a
quick, cheesy Christmas cash-in. With that in mind, here’s a look at how
this season’s offerings stack up.
SMASH MOUTH, “THE GIFT OF ROCK” (SMASH MOUTH) ***
These Southern California bubblegum garage-rockers have long been a
guilty pleasure — fie on you if you don’t appreciate the joys of hits such
as “All-Star,” “Walkin’ on the Sun,” their cover of “I’m a Believer” in
“Shrek” or their tributes to Question Mark and the Mysterians — and they
don’t disappoint with their first Christmas disc, which is being made
available only on the Internet through several music download sites and the
band’s own Web site (www.smashmouth.com).
The one new original, “Baggage Claim,” is no great shakes, but most of
the covers are a jolly good time, including “Father Christmas” by the Kinks,
“Don’t Believe in Christmas” by the Sonics, “The Christmas Song” by the
Raveonettes, “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen and “Merry
Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” by the Ramones.
Sure, it’s all as disposable (and lightweight) as tinsel. But it joins
Dave Allan and the Arrows as my pick for the Christmas trash-rock hit of the
DAVE ALLAN AND THE ARROWS, “FUZZ FOR THE HOLIDAYS” (WICKED COOL) ***
Here’s a disc that excels where the Rev. Horton Heat and Brian Setzer
fall short: with fuzz, fuzz and more fuzz! Produced by garage guru (and
moonlighting E Streeter) Little Steven Van Zandt, and with liner notes by
Rhino Records hero Gary Stewart, this disc packs 11 gloriously distorted,
wonderfully whammy-barred and brilliantly Farfisa-flavored surf/garage-rock
instrumental versions of standards ranging from “Angels We Have Heard on
High” to “Sleigh Ride.”
No, it’s nothing new. But it is certainly a rockin’ good time, perfect
for warmin’ up the crowd before you pull out the real Christmas classics.
THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA, “DIG THAT CRAZY CHRISTMAS” (SURFDOG) **1/2
It’s strange but true: The new Christmas disc from former Stray Cats
leader Brian Setzer is undeniably cooler than the Rev. Horton Heat’s Xmas
offering. The production here is as overly mannered as “We Three Kings” —
hey, fellas, a little fuzz tone is as cool at Christmas as it is during the
rest of the year! — but Setzer succeeds by keeping the rhythms jaunty, the
arrangements heavy on the festive horns and, with a few exceptions (the
ubiquitous “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Let It Snow!”), the song selection is way past cool to the point of being
Among my favorite tracks: “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus,” “’Zat You Santa
Claus?,” “Santa Drives a Hot Rod” and covers of Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule”
and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Setzer loses me whenever he indulges in
faux boogie-woogie — Buster Poindexter, he’s not — but the aforementioned
tunes would make a strong EP.
BRIAN WILSON, “WHAT I REALLY WANT FOR CHRISTMAS” (ARISTA) **
As the driving force behind one of the all-time classic rock ’n’ roll
holiday discs, “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album,” Brian Wilson has a lot to
live up to with any new yuletide offering. As he has with most of the recent
releases during his late-career resurgence, here the pop genius falls short
of the mark.
For the most part, Wilson relies on the same hoary old standards — “God
Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “O Holy Night,”
etc. — with a smattering of “new” originals that are hardly new at all. The
best of these, “The Man With All the Toys” and “Little Saint Nick,” are
remakes of tunes from “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” — inferior because
they lack those famous brotherly harmonies — while the fresher originals,
“What I Really Want for Christmas” and “Christmasey” (co-written with Jimmy
Webb) are just nothing special.
On the plus side, Wilson is in fine voice, and if you have to hear
“Silent Night” for the umpteenth time, it might as well be him singing it,
with the accomplished if not particularly original backing of his L.A. band
the Wondermints and Chicagoans Paul Mertens on woodwinds and Scott Bennett
REV. HORTON HEAT, “WE THREE KINGS” (YEP ROC) *1/2
There’s something about Christmas music that can make the most raucous
soul turn saccharine and mushy, but I expected better from Jim Heath, a k a
the right Rev. Horton Heat, one of the most gonzo purveyors of rockabilly
and surf music on the current rock scene.
Alas, the Rev. and his rhythm section — the three kings of the title, of
course — pull their punches with overly polite, barely rocking-at-all genre
versions of the usual tired standards: “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells,”
“Silver Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and so on. Yawn. Snore.
Wake me when it’s over.
Actually, wake me when this disc is midway through, in order to catch the
only real keeper here — and the only reason its gets a star and a half
rating instead of a lump of coal — an almost hootenanny-worthy version of
“Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” by Buck Owens and Don Rich, the one chestnut
MARAH, “A CHRISTMAS KIND OF TOWN” (YEP ROC) 1/2
I don’t know about you, but I’ve just been dying for a Christmas disc
with not one, not two, but three versions of “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” to
say nothing of “Counting the Days: A Christmas Polka.”
No, sorry, I lied. This obnoxiously kitsch-heavy 20-song set from
Philadelphia’s alt-country favorites/E Street Band wannabes Marah is only
marginally more pleasurable than Aunt Irene’s fruitcake or drinking Uncle
Ernie’s eggnog until you puke. Re-gift this one to someone you really don’t
like, and/or Nick Hornby.
This one’s gotta be a joke, right? Can anyone really be hankering for
aging Southern rockers/proto Dave Matthews light-jazz jammers drawling their
way through (you guessed it) yet another collection of the most tired
Christmas standards (“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” “Have Yourself a Merry
Little Christmas” and of course, “White Christmas”)? Say it ain’t so, and
pass the Jack Daniels — quick!