Cheese. What would the holidays be without it? I don't mean the kind that comes wrapped in colored foil, nestled in plastic grass in a mail-order gift box; I mean the musical kind. Most Christmas songs, let's be honest, dance merrily near, if not on, the line separating art and kitsch (even Messiah has its aromatic moments), and plenty of recording artists have pushed them over the edge. Here's a brief overview of the genre—music to give your holiday festivities that crowning touch of bathos. It's a pretty random selection, though I did hunt for CDs that included "O Holy Night" (my favorite carol) as a point of comparison. And I do solemnly swear that I listened to every last second of every track of all of these. Like He whose birthday we celebrate this season, I suffered so you don't have to.
The Usual Suspects
At least I think I heard all of A Romantic Christmas by Mr. Velveeta himself, John Tesh (GTS, $16.99). I may have dozed off, so bland and labored are these arrangements. It's not a matter of the line between art and kitsch here, but of the line between leaden and utterly inept. This disc also features, on Franck's "Panis Angelicus" in particular, the squarest and crudest boys' choir singing I've ever heard. A boys' choir has never exactly been my idea of "romantic," anyway. It may be yours.
Under the name Mannheim Steamroller, composer Chip Davis has released about three zillion faux-orchestral-pop recordings, five of which are devoted to Christmas music. On The Christmas Angel (American Gramaphone, $11.99), he and special guest Olivia Newton-John read Davis' own tale of an angel kidnapped from atop the village tree and rescued by a stalwart band of toys. The village children can't receive the toys as gifts, you see, until the angel is returned (that particular cause-and-effect eluded me), thus no Christmas. This heartwarming holiday message of materialism and acquisition is accompanied by Steamroller's customary pretentious, synth-heavy carol arrangements, with a generic light-rock backbeat in the fast numbers.
The pale-gold-on-white cover art for The Christmas Album by pianist David Lanz (Narada, $11.99) is the spiciest aspect of the production. One-Note Lanz offers 12 tracks, all of an identical saccharine wistfulness—Kathie Lee Gifford staring out the window at the snow. Lanz has an unerring knack for adding that perfect touch of smarm: cloying harmonies, soulful pauses, lite syncopation . . . and he's pretty much ruined the suspended cymbal for me. His variations on Pachelbel's "Canon" are as interminable as they are unimaginative, and he pours the same New-Age syrup over "O Holy Night," as if Adolphe Adam's original harmonies weren't good enough.
Michael Bolton. My goodness, is this man short-winded! He has no technique. When he sings "Joy to the World" on his Christmas collection This Is the Time (Columbia, $17.99), he makes three distinct phrases out of the second line, each ending with a panicked gasp for breath: "Let earth. Receive. Her King." Bolton's peculiar genius has been to turn his very audible vocal strain into a selling point, variously known as "passion," "feeling," or "intensity." Trouble is, he applies, out of necessity, the same passing-a-kidney-stone delivery to everything he sings, regardless of text or mood. The very definition of hubris is for a voice like this to sing a duet with Placido Domingo—Schubert's "Ave Maria," of all things. But Bolton husbands his vocal resources, and the result, though overwrought, is only a minor travesty. (He sounds worse on the rematch on Domingo's Merry Christmas from Vienna album; he can barely get through the first word without choking for air.) His "O Holy Night" sounds very much like the impression of Cher that Paul Shaffer used to do each Christmas on the Letterman show.
As for Kenny G, I'll confess that "smooth jazz" and the soprano saxophone were two of my least favorite things long before he came along, so I can't blame the unpleasantness of Miracles: The Holiday Album (Arista, $17.99) on any personal failings on his part. I will suggest that he's not doing his fans any favor by giving them a CD that clocks in at a rip-offy 36 minutes. The arrangements do seem to be, in sophistication, a cut above those on the above recordings.
You Might Not Think It'd Work, But Lo, It Does
On Merry Axemas (Sony, $16.99), 11 rock-guitar gods do pretty imaginative and virtuosic covers of traditional carols. The over-the-top highlights of Volume 1 (of two) are the last three tracks. Alex Lifeson turns "The Little Drummer Boy" into a moody spaghetti-Western soundtrack; Richie Sambora plays a spacy and excessive "O Holy Night" (it opens with didgeridoos!); and Hotei offers a throbbing symphonic version of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," with the distinctive guitar tremolos of John Lennon's original recording "quoted" deep in the mix. Cyndi Lauper's Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life (Sony, $17.99) is also lots of fun. It mostly comprises her own peppy or poignant originals, with a few carols in spare, restrained arrangements. Except, that is, for "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which includes one of those home organs with push-button percussion, the very avatar of cheese.
A Complete Waste of Time
Novelty-pop aficionado Dr. Demento has put together two collections of holiday tunes. The second, Holidays in Dementia (Rhino, $16.99), includes Hanukkah and New Year's songs among its 17 tracks. Not a one of them, unfortunately, is funny or even interesting (even the Spike Jones number is substandard). Most, in fact, are actively disgusting, including an absolutely appalling contribution from Ray "The Streak" Stevens and two unlistenable parodies of that easiest of targets, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"—one of which, "The Twelve Pains of Christmas," was recorded by some folks at Seattle's own KISW. Sorry.
Le Bon Fromage and a Pleasant Surprise
I must admit a weakness for Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," the Boston Pops' signature Christmas tune, so I was glad that Keith Lockhart included it on his Holiday Pops CD (BMG, $12.99), along with that wistful Gen-X Christmas anthem, Vince Guaraldi's ice-skating jazz-waltz from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (albeit here in an overelaborate orchestration). The album's not completely free of crap like Randal Bass' contemporary-Christian "Gloria," but in general the arrangements and the playing are, as expected, top of the line.
And only the packaging is cheesy in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas (Rhino, $11.99)—the contents are downright subversive. Some slyboots at Rhino put together what has to be the gayest, campiest Christmas CD ever that doesn't actually involve a men's choir. Check out this lineup: Johnny Mathis ("Carol of the Bells"), Anita Bryant ("The First No묢), a cut from the original cast album (natch!) of Mame ("We Need a Little Christmas"), and—Judy Garland, who sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and puts more genuine emotion into the single line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" than can be found in the entire recorded oeuvre of Tesh, Lanz, and Steamroller combined. Plus, there's Jackie Wilson's "O Holy Night" (talk about soul!), the Roches' tour-de-force performance of Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus for three women a cappella, and Mahalia Jackson's devastating, unforgettable "Silent Night."
Gavin Borchert writes about classical music for Seattle Weekly.