Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, December 7, 2001

Christmas CDs, clockwise from left, are by B.B. King, Destiny's Child, Universal artists ("Now That's What I Call Christmas"), and Barbra Streisand.

Give a holiday gift of music

By Gary C.W. Chun

I love the music of Christmas so much that I start going through my stack of holiday music CDs when Dec. 1 rolls around. It's never too early to get into the holiday spirit and desire to make every wish come true. And imagine how many musicians are wishing you'll buy that Christmas CD they made just for you ... and, of course, millions of others.

But that's just the ol' cynic talking. The seasonal songs of celebration and love for all humankind touch me deeply, and the best kind of Christmas music can be enjoyed at all times of the year, just when you need a bit of a pick-me-up.

So, give a gift of Christmas music. The great ones are timeless.

I'll start with a bit of a curiosity. The music of the '80s is coming back strong (the requisite distance of 20 years now achieved, allowing for full exploitation of that decade's pop culture for nostalgia and kitsch purposes), so it should be no surprise that a remastered version of "Scrooged (Original Film Soundtrack)" (A&M) is out.

If you never fell out of love with that now-dated synthesizer sound that dominated pop in 1988, tracks like "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," sung by Annie Lennox and Al Green (produced by Lennox's Eurythmics parter David Stewart), should put a smile on your face, plus a hop in your step with Dan Hartman and Denise Lopez's charming "The Love You Take" and the partyin' fun of "Get Up 'N' Dance" from pioneer East Coast rapper Kool Moe Dee.

Three tracks make this a worthwhile holiday purchase. A spare, moody version of "We Three Kings of Orient Are," a song that always lends itself well to jazz interpretation, is done here by an all-star lineup of Miles Davis, Larry Carlton, Dave Sanborn, Marcus Miller and Paul Shaffer. Former Band leader Robbie Robertson offers up "Christmas Must Be Tonight" in the atmospheric, roiling rock style typical of his solo work back then. And Natalie Cole has a go with her father's hit "The Christmas Song," fleshed out with an orchestral, almost balletic, arrangement by Van Dyke Parks, with bits of accordion, mandolin and steel drums.

MULTI-ARTIST compilations are usually a surefire way to draw listeners, but two of this year's compilations are real hit-and-miss affairs. "Now That's What I Call Christmas" (Universal Music Group) is based on the mega-selling "Now That's What I Call Music" two-disc series, gathering hit singles from all major labels into one package.

The set's first disc is a no-brainer; just slap it into your CD player and go with the flow. It starts with the usual suspects -- Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley -- then slides into Frank Sinatra's 1957 Capitol version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; Tony Bennett doing "Winter Wonderland"; a swinging "Sleigh Ride" by Ella Fitzgerald and the Frank DeVol orchestra; Dean Martin's '66 chestnut "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"; and that ol' smoothie, Perry Como, with a jaunty "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" from 1960.

There's a bit of a bump with Johnny Mathis' and Burl Ives' merely OK remakes of their hits "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "A Holly, Jolly Christmas," but things get back on track with singing cowboy Gene Autry's charming Western swing rendition of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" from 1949, that cleverly segues into the Elmo & Patsy comedy novelty hit "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Three great rock 'n' roll Christmas tunes follow -- Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" and the Beach Boys' very cool "Little Saint Nick." The disc ends with three inspired choices, "Merry Christmas Darling," the wonderful 1970 single from the Carpenters, country/folk singer Kathy Mattea with a specially recorded "Christmas Collage" medley and the affecting "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, from Crosby's last holiday TV special in 1977.

Disc No. 2 doesn't offer many surprises, with the exception of Paul McCartney's lo-fi "Wonderful Christmastime" from 1979, Harry Connick Jr.'s Nawlins original "(It Must Have Been Ol') Santa Claus," an inspirational "O Come All Ye Faithful" from Luther Vandross, and "Jingle Bells," showcasing Diana Krall's sultry voice and piano.

Most of the tracks are serviceable at best. Two new originals by Michael Bolton (he's still around?) and the Big Yard Family featuring Shaggy are mediocre, and three tracks from R&B singer Joe, Britney Spears and 'N Sync already debuted on last year's "Platinum Christmas" release.

The repeats from "Platinum Christmas" continue on "MTV TRL Christmas" (Lava/Atlantic). You'll find another dreary 'N Sync song, "I Don't Wanna Spend One More Christmas Without You" (the feeling's not mutual!) and a fun, hip-hoppy 1993 "Sleigh Ride" from TLC.

If MTV's "Total Request Live" and host Carson Daly mean nothing to you, pass on this slapdash collection. Willa Ford's "Santa Baby (Gimme Gimme Gimme)" gets my vote for worst Christmas song of the year, a bit of humorless, rhythmic bombast celebrating the bling-bling (isn't materialism supposed to be a thing of the past?).

Christina Aguilera's gospel/urban R&B take on "Angels We Have Heard On High" is a near miss, and is included on her solo Christmas release, "My Kind of Christmas." And Sugar Ray's version "Little Saint Nick" pales to the classic original, even with Brian Wilson's daughters Carnie and Wendy helping on harmonies.

There is some salvageable material: a couple of great anti-Christmas songs from blink-182 (the trio's 1997 holiday single, "I Won't Be Home for Christmas") and Weezer ("The Christmas Song," with its doleful sentiments); plus four fun tracks in Smash Mouth's "Better Do It Right"; the wonderfully named Bif Naked with her rockin' version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"; "Saturday Night Live's" Jimmy Fallon doing his Ramone-ish original "Snowball"; and "Snow Angel" from the wacky (not wack!) white New Jersey rap duo of Little T and One Track Mike, whose debut album "Fome Is Dape" is one of the year's more pleasant surprises.

POPULAR acts like Destiny's Child, Olivia Newton-John, Toni Braxton, B.B. King and Barbra Streisand all have Christmas albums this year, and here's the rundown from the weak to the strong:

>> Olivia Newton-John -- "The Christmas Collection" (Hip-O): The gentle-voiced pop star has culled 12 holiday songs recorded between 1995 and 2000, but only three of them have any kind of impact. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is from her guest duet with Kenny Loggins on his 1999 cable TV special. The other two songs were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra for a limited release in Hallmark card stores last year. Her "Silver Bells" has a nice theatrical touch to it, and Newton-John brings a pleasant, delicate quality to "Ave Maria." The rest is for avid fans only.

>> Destiny's Child -- "8 Days of Christmas" (Columbia): With the three women planning to go on indefinite hiatus sometime in mid-2002 (in other words, Beyoncé Knowles is ready to go solo), this may be one of the last projects by the popular trio.

It's one I almost gave up on after the first four uninspiring tracks. The disc picks up with their standard groove on "Little Drummer Boy," "White Christmas/Platinum (not silver) Bells," a cover of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and a sassy and savvy "Spread a Little Love on Christmas Day," which asks the age-old question, "Do you have my back this Christmas day?"

And each of them gets a solo number. While Knowles' rendition of "Silent Night" shows off her production skills rather than any sensitivity to the song, and Michelle Williams' "O Holy Night" needs a lot of vocal overlays to almost work, it's Kelly Rowland who stands out with "Do You Hear What I Hear." It will be interesting to follow her post-Destiny career in light of Knowles' aggressive moves.

>> Toni Braxton -- "Snowflakes" (Arista): There's more sultry secular than religious love emanating from this collection. While Braxton's voice is perfect for the majority of the songs, her come-hither approach is distracting on a song like "Christmas Time Is Here," originally done by a children's chorus on the TV perennial "A Charlie Brown Christmas." There's more attention paid to her vocal technique than the song's original sweet message, more suited for a lover than for kids.

Her bedroom voice is better suited for the snuggly "Holiday Celebrate" and "Christmas in Jamaica," featuring the ubiquitous Shaggy. Braxton is at her best with "Snowflakes of Love," the slow sizzle of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (with a fine orchestral arrangement by Clare Fischer), and especially "This Time Next Year," a solid ballad.

>> B.B. King -- "A Christmas Celebration of Hope" (MCA): Done as a benefit for the City of Hope biomedical research and treatment center, the gentleman of the blues' first holiday album is solid. His lone seasonal recording, the 1960 "Christmas Celebration," gets an update here as a straight-up blues number filled with the spare, tasty guitar phrasing King is known to coax out of his Lucille.

In contrast to the quiet and heartfelt "Christmas in Heaven," performed with a horn and string section, the more jaunty numbers ("Lonesome Christmas" and "Back Door Santa" in particular) jump at you with vigor even more apparent in the best rendition of "Merry Christmas Baby" I've heard in years.

King kicks some life into the Charles Brown standard, taking what's usually been an intimate, late-night kind of song and making it boisterous, earthy and life-affirming. I don't know what inspired King that day in the studio, but his spirited work is nearly frightening in its intensity. Knowing of his failing health of late, all the better for him.

>> Barbra Streisand -- "Christmas Memories" (Columbia): It's the grand diva's first holiday collection in 35 years, and it's a winner. She is still the pre-eminent interpreter of American popular song, a master of vocal phrasing and subtlety, and the epitome of class. With the exception of a lustrous version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that opens the album and a lovely reading of Schubert's "Ave Maria," everything else is relatively unfamiliar.

She turns to songs by longtime collaborators Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("A Christmas Love Song" and "Christmas Mem'ries"), that, while not memorable in and of themselves, become important when Streisand wraps her pipes around them.

She also got Stephen Sondheim to rewrite an early, minor song of his as "I Remember," and, combined with William Ross's evocative arrangement, it almost brought tears to my eyes with its vivid imagery and Streisand's yearning delivery.

Other highlights include "Christmas Lullaby," written by Ann Hampton Callaway (who wrote "I Dreamed of You," which Streisand sang to husband James Brolin at their wedding); "Grown-Up Christmas List," a wistful and lovely song in spite of its awkward title; "Closer," alove song written by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford (the local-born songwriter who won Tony and Oscar awards for "Footloose"); and "One God," from a 1954 Johnny Mathis spiritual album, with its closing, cinematic sweep.

The King and Streisand albums will go into my collection, as well as an instrumental album by guitarists Ozzie Kotani and Steve Sano called "A Taro Patch Christmas" (Daniel Ho Creations). This is the perfect mood setter for sharing quiet holiday times with a small number of friends and family, or for contemplating alone.

While both guitarists usually play in the local "Taro Patch" slack-key G tuning, there's no overt Hawaiian feel to this project. Kotani made a name for himself here as a local-born ki ho'alu guitarist, Sano's from Palo Alto, Calif., and has Western classical training.

Both men are sensitive players presenting familiar and obscure Christmas song. The pairing of Kotani and Sano on steel and nylon-string guitars, respectively, is particularly good. "Away in a Manger" seamlessly melds its two melodies (one familiar, the other not). "Jingle Bells" has a bossa nova flavor to it, inspired by Jose Feliciano's samba version, with Sano on ukulele. And "The Christmas Song" shows their interplay at its most sublime.

Happy listening to all, and to all, a good night!

Best bets

Here are some of the better CDs I've collected in Christmases past that you may enjoy:

>> Traditional: "Christmas Spirituals" by Odetta (Alcazar), "Mahalia Sings Songs of Christmas" by Mahalia Jackson (Columbia/Legacy) and "A Merry Little Christmas" by Linda Ronstadt (Elektra)

>> Rockin': "A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector" (Abkco), "Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas" (Rhino) and "If Every Day Was Like Christmas" by Elvis Presley (RCA)

>> Island style: "With A Christmas Vibe" by Arthur Lyman (Rykodisc), "Ki Ho'alu Christmas" and "Hawaiian Slack-Key Christmas" (both compilations on Dancing Cat), "Mele Kalikimaka: A Hawaiian Christmas Party" (Hula Records compilation) and "Home for the Holidays" by Ho'okena (Ho'omau Inc.)

>> Jazzy yuletide: "Jingle Bell Jam: Jazz Christmas Classics" (Rhino), "Jazz to the World" (Blue Note), "World Christmas" (Metro Blue) and "Jingle Bell Swing" (Columbia/Legacy)

>> The best Christmas party CD ever!: "Christmas Party with Eddie G." (Strikin' It Rich/Columbia), with novelty tunes and comedy skits

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