Good morning, Virginia. It's me, your resident Jewish music critic, here to discuss the merits of newly released holiday-themed albums sent to me for free by the record companies.
Don't fret about the religious complications, though: I actually like this stuff. In fact, I once cried myself to sleep on Christmas night because I loved "The Little Drummer Boy" so much, and I knew it would be a full year until I would hear it again. (Jews don't keep Christmas albums in the house, you see, until they get old enough to buy their own copy of, say, Bing Crosby and David Bowie's rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth," which certain Jewish music critics think is one of the prettiest things they've ever heard.)
Without further ado, here's what Santa brought us this year ...
MarahA Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc)
One of the finest bar bands in America, NYC-via-Philadelphia's Marah checks in with a platter unpredictably heavy on traditional tunes, with a mere few originals tossed in, most notably the jaunty "New York Is a Christmas Kind of Town," the speedy, accordion-fueled polka "Counting the Days ('Til Christmas)" (which reappears in a longer instrumental version at the end of the album as "Counting the Days, A Christmas Polka"), and "Christmas With the Snow," a salute to Phil Spector's girl-group arrangements of the '60s, sung by The Shalitas. Songs are interspersed with skits, with varying degrees of success, and the traditional tunes here don't stray too far from the, well, traditional: With the help of a choir, Dave Bielanko lends his convincing croon to a pretty, piano-led take of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas," and the male-female give-and-take rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," one of the sultriest holiday songs ever written, is more than passable. Still, one can't help but think that if Marah had injected the proceedings with its trademark Philly soul-meets-rock and roll sound, things might have turned out a bit better.
Rev. Horton HeatWe Three Kings (Yep Roc)
Well, this one is pretty much exactly what you'd expect. The trio who put the "rock" back into rockabilly zoom through a dozen Christmas classics, including a few obscurities such as "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," "Santa Bring My Baby Back," and Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper." But the good Rev. mostly sticks to the tried and true, including a Batman-ified "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," a surprisingly reverent version of "Silver Bells" and a Link Wray-inspired "We Three Kings." As an added bonus, the album includes an original tune, "Santa on the Roof," but there are very few punches pulled otherwise. A fun if largely predictable collection.
Herb Alpert and The Tijuana BrassChristmas Album (Shout! Factory)
Under the banner of the Herb Alpert Signature Series, Shout! Factory has been reissuing the Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass catalog in immaculate fashion all year long, fully remastered and with extensive liner notes. The long out-of-print Christmas Album, which hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts three years in a row (1968-1970), is the 11th in the series and is no exception.
True to the group's signature sound, the songs here are mostly given south-of-the-border arrangements, with highlights including the Alpert-sung "The Christmas Song," which became a No. 1 single upon its release (Alpert also takes vocal duties on "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle," in which Jack Frost assists a non-functioning ornament; vocal and string arrangements were provided by Shorty Rogers, best known for his work with Maynard Ferguson); an idiosyncratically paced "Sleigh Ride," whose almost eerie choral arrangement was clearly influenced by The Beach Boys; and a "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" that takes a cue from the Burt Bacharach playbook. All in all, it's a quaint trip to a bygone era.
Various ArtistsHoliday Heart (Volunteer)
This is the sequel to 2002's Ho Ho Hospice, one of our past holiday favorites, and the MO is largely the same: 44 songs spread over two discs, mostly by largely unknown artists but with a few ringers thrown in for good measure (The Dismemberment Plan, Ron Sexsmith, Rick Derringer), with proceeds benefiting Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center, a nonprofit New Jersey hospice. The artists span genres but mostly fall into left-of-the-dial territory--indie rock, folk, power-pop, alt-country, singer-songwriter, etc. This time around, each disc has a theme of sorts: According to the liner notes, disc one "follows the ebb and flow of romance during the holidays," while disc two "traces the path from the excitement of the coming celebrations, to the feeling of 'enough is enough,' then concludes with hoping that the true meaning of the holidays keeps all year."
As was the case with its predecessor, the disc boasts exceptional quality control; nearly all the songs are originals, not traditionals, and highlights are plentiful. Some of my personal favorites include The Dismemberment Plan's never-before-released cover of Donnie Hathaway and Nadine McKinnor's "This Christmas"; Ron Sexsmith's gorgeous "Maybe This Christmas"; and the infectious power-pop of the Montgomery Cliffs' "Christmas Lights" and Marc Bacino's "Merry Christmas, I Love You"--and those are just from the first disc.
You won't find this CD, which was released in a limited run of 4,000 copies, at your local record store, but you can purchase a copy online at CDBaby.com for $17.97.
The LeeVeesHanukkah Rocks (Reprise)
Finally, one for us Jews! After decade upon decade of sardonically singing "The Dreidel Song" ("Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel / I made it out of clay / Now dreidel, dreidel, dreidel / Dreidel I shall play") and lamenting that none of us had actually made our own dreidels, we've found our own saviors in The LeeVees, a pair of Jews who have just released what is, to my knowledge, the first album of its kind: an album strictly relegated to songs about Hanukkah (or, if you prefer, Chanuka--a joke explored in "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?"). "Jewish Girls (At the Matzoh Ball)" sounds like a Tommy outtake; "Kugel" laments the low-fat updating of the dee-lish Hanukkah dish, and "Nun Gimmel Heh Shin" is a faux-bluegrass homage to the dreidel.
Produced by Peter Katis (Interpol, The Get Up Kids), the disc sounds a lot like what They Might Be Giants might sound like if they weren't goyim; a variety of genres are explored, such as Beach Boys-style pop ("Latke Clan"), Hawaiian Tin Pan Alley ("Goyim Friends") and punk-pop ("Gelt Melts"). Hell, the first two songs are about latkes, and when was the last time you heard one song about latkes?
The brilliance here is that these are truly good songs, rendered in quirky TMBG style. Sure, there's nothing that will hold up over time, like the dozens of Christmas traditionals have, but that's not the point. The point is, we Jews finally have a holiday album to call our own.