Rock around the Christmas tree
Looking for CDs that will impress your holiday guests? Here are five surefire ways to perk up ears come Christmas party time.
You’ve got a problem: Friends are coming over for a Christmas party. Hip friends. Friends who know a little something about music and have sharply honed senses of irony. These are people who, should you bring out the Nat King Cole Christmas album, will roll their eyes. If you put on the Boston Pops playing The Nutcracker Suite, they will groan audibly. If you put on Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, they’ll enjoy it (because no one with a pulse can listen to that album and not enjoy it), but they won’t let you see that they’re enjoying it, and they will silently condemn you for your unoriginality.
No, for this crowd you need something different. Something unique. Something that will jack up your hipster credibility just a bit in the eyes of these very, very hip friends of yours, because you definitely want to be invited to their New Year’s Eve party.
As always, the RN&R is here to help you. Our expert scoured the mail-order catalogs, the holiday music racks, that dusty box in the garage under the pile of fake garland and jalapeño pepper lights, and has come up with five can’t-miss CDs that will absolutely, positively make your Christmas party the topic of next-morning conversations at every Starbucks and smoothie kiosk in town.
Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all, one of the most wonderfully horrible, gloriously tacky and hideously misconceived albums of any genre. Its title is The Night Before Christmas (Thomas Nelson Audio), and since there are any number of similarly titled cheapo compilations out there in bargain bins, you’ll have to look carefully. The cover shows a painting of three stockings hung on the mantel of a white fireplace; the copyright date is 1989. Look at the song listing and nothing seems amiss: “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Jingle Bells,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful"—nothing challenging there. But the arrangements vary from plainly awful to genuinely repugnant.
“Little Drummer Boy” is a pseudo-rock wankfest complete with fake electric guitars. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is clunky, awkward reggae. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is sung by what sounds like a 10-year-old girl trying her hardest to be a teen diva. This album has the distinct whiff of a low-budget family project—you can hear a mom’s voice, a dad’s voice and several kids on most of these songs. Once you recover from the initial shock and horror, it’s really kind of charming … and perfect for situations where you need to get people relaxed and talking.
Why is it cool? When the cheesy keyboard starts trying to pull off Eddie Van Halen licks on “Little Drummer Boy,” every male in the room will fall to his knees and play air guitar.
Where can you get it? This one may be tough to find. Look in bargain music bins at grocery stores, Target, Kmart or Wal-Mart. My copy is a cassette, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it on CD. Pay no more than three or four bucks in either format.
Next on the list is Christmas Remixed: Holiday Classics Re-Grooved (Six Degrees). This one will also appeal to your guests’ sense of sophisticated irony, but not because of its charming dreadfulness—on the contrary, the music is great. But it’s great in two conflicting ways: On the one hand, it brings together such classic recordings as Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Johnny Mercer singing “Winter Wonderland” and Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” But each track has been remixed and transformed into one or another kind of techno dance music. Watch your guests’ eyes widen as they realize they’re hearing Mel Tormé crooning on the trip-hop tip, or when they hear the cutting and scratching that wrecks up the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of The Nutcracker Suite. This may be the best Christmas album of all time. (After Ella’s, of course.)
Why is it cool? Dean Martin vs. Dan the Automator. Nuff said.
Where can you get it? www.sixdegreesrecords.com.
The Roches are a trio of singing sisters who made a name for themselves back in the 1970s with several albums of quirky, intelligent folk-rock that focused on their unusual voices and intricate harmonies. You can imagine, or maybe you can’t, what We Three Kings (MCA), their 1990 Christmas album, sounds like. Again, the songs are almost all familiar classics: “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Joy to the World,” etc. But the arrangements are harmonically unusual, and though their voices are a bit more piercing and nasal than one might normally prefer, the album is delightful and just weird enough to make an impression on your guests.
Why is it cool? The Roches sing “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” from the Messiah, unaccompanied, in three-part harmony. And it rocks. Conversations will stop during that track.
Where can you get it? Tower Records or www.towerrecords.com.
If you want to inject some snob flavor into the proceedings, try any of Anonymous 4’s many Christmas albums. Anonymous 4 is a quartet of female singers who specialize in obscure music of the medieval and early-Renaissance periods. Any of their Christmas albums (On Yoolis Night, Legends of St. Nicholas, A Star in the East or their latest, Wolcum Yule, all on the Harmonia Mundi label) offers stunning singing and a refreshing repertoire of music that no one (except those who speak fluent Latin and listen very carefully) will recognize as having anything to do with Christmas. That’s actually less true of Wolcum Yule, which includes some familiar British Christmas songs, and more true of, say, A Star in the East, which consists entirely of Christmas music from medieval Hungary.
Why is it cool? Please. Nothing is hipper than Christmas music that doesn’t sound like Christmas music.
Where can you get it? www.harmoniamundi.com.
Another Christmas album for the electronica enthusiast is hOMe for the Holidays (OM), which includes techno settings on familiar tunes like “Winter Wonderland” and “O Christmas Tree” and new compositions—in moods ranging from relaxed and chilled-out to bracingly funky. The highlight is Kaskade’s sumptuous atmosphere in the German Christmas classic “Still Still Still.” This one is equally suited to a quiet evening by the fireplace or a party.
Why is it cool? There’s a picture on the cover of a stylized lotus blossom with presents under it.
Where can you get it? www.omrecords.com.