Each year around this time, we receive packages in the mail full of CDs of holiday-themed music.
What follows is a handy guide to a handful of this season's notable releases. Aside from the brief reviews of each, we've judged them on the following criteria: whether or not they include a version of "The Little Drummer Boy," which happens to be our favorite Christmas classic, ever since we cried ourselves to sleep at age 4, knowing full well that it would be a whole year until we got to hear it again; whom the proceeds of the albums' sales benefit; and finally, an overall rating, on an oh-so-clever scale of 1 to 4 trees.
Keep reading and spend wisely.
40 Faces of Christmas, Various artists
THOUGH WE DIDN'T receive a copy of 40 Faces of Christmas in the mail, it more than merits mention. The locally produced disc comes courtesy of Rainbow Guitars owner Harvey Moltz and was organized by store employee Julie Klein. The fourth in a series of holiday albums (the others were released 1996-1998), 40 Faces gets its title from Old Pueblo Children's Homes, the state-run agency it benefits. Old Pueblo operates four group homes for abused and neglected children, and every penny from sales of the CD go directly to giving the homes' 40 residents the Christmas they wouldn't have otherwise, as Moltz and Rainbow generously absorb all production costs.
The music itself is mostly performed by Rainbow employees, but also features contributions from members of Giant Sand and Calexico, former Giant Sandwoman Paula Jean Brown, Jonathan Richman, and some of the children who live in Old Pueblo's homes. The disc, which includes some original tunes sprinkled among the holiday classics, spans genres, as well--everything from jazz, Indian-inpired ragas, electronica, and, of course, rock and roll, can be found here.
40 Faces of Christmas can be purchased for $15 at Rainbow Guitars, Hear's Music, CD City, and all Zip's, Borders, and Zia locations, as well as online, at www.opch.org.
"Little Drummer Boy" Factor: Present, in a nifty Eastern reimagining, retitled "The Little Tabla Boy."
Beneficiary: see above
Verdict: Just go buy it, willya?
Maybe This Christmas, Various artists (Nettwerk)
THE 13 TRACKS ON Maybe This Christmas are split pretty evenly between the tried and true ("Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Happy Xmas [War is Over]") and ones newly written by the performer. Featuring the most Big Names per capita than any of the other discs we received, Maybe features contributions from the likes of Bright Eyes, Jack Johnson, Jimmy Eat World, Coldplay, and Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan.
Highlights among the cover songs include Coldplay's smooth take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," in which singer Chris Martin demonstrates he's quite the crooner, a la Chet Baker, when he wants to be, and Conor Oberst's typically heartfelt quiver of a voice on Bright Eyes' "Blue Christmas." Among the originals, Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," easily the best tune on the disc, is, in a word, gorgeous, while Ben Folds vamps it up on the irreverent "Bizarre Christmas Incident," in which a butt-naked, Crisco-greased Santa is found dead in the Folds homestead, prompting Ben to quip, "Honey, call the lawyers fast/Mrs. Claus is gonna sue our ass."
Elsewhere, Dan Wilson's beautifully inspiring "What a Year For a New Year" and Neil Finn's Lennon-esque "Sweet Secret Peace," which features stellar violin work from Lisa Germano, are also top-notch. Missteps are present but few, with Barenaked Ladies predictably winning the Most Annoying Contribution award. Bonus points given for the gift-shaking monkey on the Paul Frank-designed cover art.
You should be able to find this one at local bricks and mortars.
"Little Drummer Boy" Factor: Sadly, it's missing.
Beneficiary: A portion of the proceeds go to the U.S. Marines Toys For Tots, which donates holiday gifts to needy children, via charitable contributions.
50,000,000 Elves Fans Can't Be Wrong, Various artists (Stereoriffic)
THIS CLEVERLY TITLED collection's subhead, Transatlantic Pop Christmas Vol. 1, pretty much says it all: With the exception of The Weisstronauts' instrumental take on "Silent Night," the disc compiles 12 holiday-themed tunes written specifically for this project, courtesy of mostly unknown indie-pop bands from the U.K., the U.S., the Netherlands and Sweden. It's probably not the best choice to play at the family Christmas gathering, unless you want to send grandma and gramps home early (and on second thought, maybe that's not such a bad thing), but hipsters would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect holiday album to play in the car while Christmas shopping with friends.
Among the welcome offerings: The Rory McBrides' garage-surf rave-up "(We Like) Eggnog!"; the wispy but whimsical "The Loneliest Snowman" by Menswear Endowment; Seks Bomba's "Double-O Santa," in which Father Christmas becomes a secret spy, both musically and lyrically, giving new meaning to the words "When you sleep he'll be watching you/And when you're awake, he'll know that, too/He's got piles and piles of files to help determine your worth/After that he'll track you to the end of the earth."
On the other hand, Weevil's "Coventry Carol," a six-minute synth and vocoder wank-off, and The Professor's spoken-word "Thank You," are big fat lumps of coal.
For more information log onto www.stereoriffic.com.
"Little Drummer Boy" Factor: Again, sadly not present.
Beneficiary: Who It Benefits: The bands, apparently. Greedy bastards!
Ho Ho Ho Spice, Various artists (Volunteer)
THIS TWO-DISC COMPILATION rounds up 49 bands, some well known, some not, performing mostly original Christmas songs, with a mere few traditional ones tossed into the mix. Some of the tracks have been previously released elsewhere, but even the majority of those are tough to hunt down these days; and once the initial pressing of Ho Ho Ho Spice is sold, no more will be made, so they'll continue to be rare.
While the tunes found here vary a bit stylistically, the overwhelming vibe is decidedly "pop," in all its various forms, and surprisingly, considering its breadth, duds are kept to a bare minimum. Names you'll likely recognize include Flat Duo Jets, The dB's with Chris Stamey, Brave Combo, NRBQ, Better Than Ezra, Graham Parker with Nona Hendryx, and Klark Kent (the alias of The Police's Stuart Copeland).
But some of the no-names' contributions are so great you just might find yourself trolling the Web in order to hunt down their respective albums. Among those are The Idea's "It's About That Time," a glorious, chiming-guitar power-pop gem; Ed Haynes' homespun "Holiday Song," which perfectly encapsulates the holiday dinner experience; and the jaunty country ditty "And to All a Good Night," by 5 Chinese Brothers. And those are just from the first disc.
To purchase Ho Ho Ho Spice for $15, log onto www.cdbaby.com.
"Little Drummer Boy" Factor: 49 tracks, and not a single version among 'em.
Beneficiary: Proceeds go to the care of Hospice patients, hence the disc's title.
My First Christmas With You, Jim Wilson (Hillsboro)
IT SEEMS TO BE a rule that each holiday season, some turtleneck-wearing, new-age dork must foist a disc's worth of adult contemporary pap on the music-buying public. This year, that dork is pianist Jim Wilson.
Look for it at your neighborhood record store, if you must.
"Little Drummer Boy" Factor: Present, in a version in which Wilson claims he "incorporated some subtle Native American drumming, so that it takes on a new slant as you imagine an American Indian boy as the drummer." Whatever you say, dude. Trust us, it sucks.
Beneficiary: Jim Wilson, natch.