Do you hear what we hear?


December 4, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Do you hear what we hear?


December 4, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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.


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 (

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 season.


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.


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 frigid.

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.


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 on keys.


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 worth reprising.


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!