Whether it's (kids: spoiler alert!) pretending there's a fat guy who lives on the North Pole and flies around the world once a year to hand out presents to children or watching grandma get pissed on eggnog and bringing up that affair she had with a commie back in the '60s, the holiday season is full of traditions.
And so it is, each year, our resident Jewish music critic (that's me) gives you the lowdown on his favorite new releases in the Christmas album section--or, in today's parlance, "holiday album section"--of your local record store, albeit only the ones we received for free in the mail. My primary qualification: When I was probably 3 or 4 years old, I cried myself to sleep because I knew it would be a whole year until I got to hear "The Little Drummer Boy"--Best. Christmas. Song. Ever. --again. (See, Jews don't keep Christmas albums around the house; we rely on seasonal TV specials to get our dose of carols. And, for the record, I still get misty each time I hear the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet of "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth," which I actually broke down and bought a few years ago.)
Let's see what the record companies left under our tree this year, shall we?
Barenaked for the Holidays
Did anybody see this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade? My favorite part was watching Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page attempt to lip-sync one of these songs (nobody actually sings at the parade) and being so humiliated that he got himself into an uncontrollable laughing fit. Talk about great live TV! Anyway, these arch Canucks play it straighter than you'd think throughout most of this album, which is a mix of Christmas classics, a few Hanukkah songs and some Ladies originals. Sure, there's the section of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" where they sing happy birthday to Jesus, and their shmaltzy Casio-tone take on "O Holy Night," but they're largely more reverent toward the classics than you'd assume. Oddly, this also includes what is likely the first cover version of the lighthearted ode to starving children in Africa, "Do They Know It's Christmas?," complete with spot-on Bono impression. Irreverent enough to please the teens, but not so much that it'll offend the grandparents.
Maybe This Christmas Tree
This is the third album in the Maybe... series, which gathers together indie-ish artists to benefit the Marines Toys for Tots Foundation, and they're obviously running out of clever titles to go along with the theme (previous titles are Maybe This Christmas and Maybe This Christmas, Too). Earlier volumes largely consisted of newly written songs in the holiday tradition by the likes of Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, and Jimmy Eat World. This time around, most of the acts stick to time-tested favorites, and the roster of artists is a bit weaker than usual. Only two bands contribute originals (The Raveonettes and Belasana, which includes members of The Juliana Theory and Sense Field), and for every Death Cab for Cutie or Pedro the Lion, there's a Jars of Clay or a Copeland (yeah, I've never heard of them either). Among the disappointments: Royal Crown Revue's way-too-mannered take on the saucy "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Ivy's "Christmastime Is Here," which would be much better if the vocals didn't sound like they were phoned in from the North Pole. On the positive side, some band called Pilate opts to cover the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," and Lisa Loeb at least attempts to funk-up "Jingle Bells."
A John Waters Christmas
For the culturally illiterate not sure what to expect from this collection, filth-maven Waters implores us on the cover sticker to "Have a merry, rotten, sexy, biracial, ludicrous, happy little Christmas." And, no, he hasn't taken to singing. Instead, he collects 12 of his predictably oddball holiday favorites, the tamest of which are cuts from Tiny Tim and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Highlights include the incredibly twisted "Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child's Prayer)" by Little Cindy, which is exactly as advertised--a Southern-accented little girl's rhyming, spoken prayer to Jesus that includes such choice lines as, "She told you was so awful good (sic), and then she made me cry. She said they nailed you to the cross; they wanted you to die"; Rudolph and Gang's foulmouthed country ditty, "Here Comes Fatty Clause" ("Here comes fatty with a sack o' shit .."); and Roger Christian's tale of "Little Mary Christmas," a crippled orphan who gets passed over for adoption year after tear-jerking year ("She just turned and hobbled back to her room ...").
Now this is what I call Christmas!