The Best, Worst and Weirdest in Holiday CDs
Every year brings a flood of new holiday CDs, and with good reason: They're quick and easy to make, most if not all of the songs have already been written (many are even in the public domain), and they get reissued practically every year, making them a reliable source of royalties and exposure. Consequently, the genre is larded with quickie compilations and cash-ins — if you were to play all of 2006's new holiday albums back to back, it would take at least as long as it takes to beg for silence while punching yourself in the ears — but a few gems and entertaining oddities stand out. Here's a look at a dozen of the year's best, worst and weirdest.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The season of the holiday album is upon us. And to hear about the latest crop of holiday tunes, we turn to music writer Stephen Thompson. He's an editor and writer of NPR.org's song of the day. Good morning.
STEPHEN THOMPSON: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Happy holidays.
THOMPSON: Happy holidays to you, too.
MONTAGNE: Now I have to say, I get a lot of these CDs every year, and it seems like more and more. In your position, I know you've been sent a pile.
THOMPSON: Yeah, an unbelievable quantity. I mean just going through the stacks, you know, and obviously some of them are from previous years. But, you know, looking at Sarah McLachlan, and James Taylor, and Brian Setzer Orchestra, Manhattan Transfer, Wynonna Judd, Robin Gibb of the BeeGees. It goes on and on.
MONTAGNE: So in that whole group of the holiday CDs that you got, let's start with one that stood out.
THOMPSON: Well, yeah. One of my absolute favorites, and I had heard a lot of these tracks on the Internet in previous years, because they have been sort of been flying around various file-sharing sites. But the singer Sufjan Stevens every year would make a Christmas EP that he would send to his friends and just sort of freely circulate. And they were just kind of recorded as a lark, but this year his record label is finally putting them out formally in the form of a five CD box set called “Songs for Christmas,” and it really is a joy to listen too.
MONTAGNE: Well to start us off in the holiday spirit, pick a track.
THOMPSON: Yeah, let's go with “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
(Soundbite of song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)
Mr. SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy (unintelligible). And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
THOMPSON: It just seems to be coming from - it seems to be coming from a very warm and sincere place, as a lot of Sufjan Stevens' music does.
MONTAGNE: And for those getting into the Hanukkah mood, there are some CDs out there. And I think you brought one - Woody Guthrie's “Happy Joyous Hanukkah”.
THOMPSON: Yeah, by The Klezmatics. The Klezmatic's, a very venerated (unintelligible) band, been around for ages. They sort of spent this year sort of repurposing Woody Guthrie lyrics. This collection in an album of Hanukkah songs that Guthrie wrote, and the one I wanted to play with was “Hanukkah Gelt.”
(Soundbite of song, “Hanukkah Gelt”)
THE KLEZMATICS (Musical Group): (Singing) Hanukkah, Hanukkah, Hanukkah, one, two, three. Hanukkah, Hanukkah entity. Hanukkah, Hanukkah what makes you makes me loving you, you, you; makes me loving you, you, you.
MONTAGNE: Well, this is fun.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it really is. And I think it's a nice tribute to Guthrie, you know, who is often viewed as a very serious songwriter, but who had a, you know, rather mischievous streak and who explored a lot of different genres and ideas in his songwriting. These songs in particular were written for his kids as sort, you know, as a celebration of Hanukkah.
MONTAGNE: Now there are a lot of these albums of course that are, you know, you can dance to them.
MONTAGNE: And I know there is a one that's out by Bootsy Collins.
THOMPSON: Sure. Bootsy Collins is a, you know, was a member of Parliament Funkadelic and is sort of this larger than life funk icon. And so he put together a holiday album called Christmas is 4 - numeral four - ever. And it's just a very odd collection of, like, as you've indicated, a sort of very lively skits and vamping and goofing off.
MONTAGNE: Let's put it on.
THOMPSON: Yeah, let's put on “Sleigh Ride”, which has the added joy of a truly surreal pairing between - I think the world has long been waiting for Bootsy Collins and Charlie Daniels to team up. Charlie Daniels being the fiddling country singer who brought us “Devil Went Down to Georgia”. So this is “Sleigh Ride”.
(Soundbite of song, “Sleigh Ride”)
Ms. BOOTSY COLLINS (Singer): (Singing) For a sleigh ride together with you.
Mr. CHARLIE DANIELS (Singer): (Singing) Giddy-up giddy-up giddy-up let's go. Let's look at the snow. We're riding in a wonderland of snow. Giddy-up giddy-up.
MONTAGNE: Giddy-up, giddy-up. Now I know Bootsy Collins has never taken a ride on a sleigh.
THOMPSON: You know, I wouldn't put it past him. I don't know that it's his most essential work, but it's a fun record.
MONTAGNE: While we're on the subject of unlikely Christmas albums, Aimee Mann has one out.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And listening to it, it's sort of like Aimee Mann's A Very Dour Christmas.
MONTAGNE: Not called that, though. It's called “One More Drifter in the Snow”.
THOMPSON: It is called “One More Drifter in the Snow”, and then the imaginary parenthetical A Very Dour Christmas.
(Soundbite of “I'll Be Home for Christmas"
Ms. AIMEE MANN (Singer): (Singing) I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me.
THOMPSON: It's definitely not Aimee Mann gathering around the campfire with some sleigh bells and a cup of eggnog. You know, it still sounds like an Aimee Mann record. And for those of us who love Aimee Mann, I could say it's a great thing.
MONTAGNE: There are of course low points with this music every year. And of all the really bad holiday albums, if you had to pick one for us to play right now, which one would you pick?
THOMPSON: It's definitely somewhat of a difficult album to listen to, but it also brings to mind an important lesson for people. I as a kid absolutely wore out the grooves on my copy of “Christmas With The Chipmunks”.
THOMPSON: To this day, you know, I put on “Christmas With The Chipmunks” and be filled with the sort of warm nostalgic glow.
(Soundbite of “Christmas Time”)
Unidentified Man #1: (As David) All right you chipmunks, ready to sing your song?
Unidentified Man #2: (As Simon) Yeah, let's sing it now.
Unidentified Man #1: OK, Simon? OK, Theodore?
Unidentified Man #3: (As Theodore) OK.
Unidentified Man #1: (As David) OK, Alvin? Alvin? Alvin!
Unidentified Man #4: (As Alvin) OK.
THE CHIPMUNKS (Group): (Singing) Christmas, Christmas time is near, time for toys…
THOMPSON: It's important to remember if you have young children to only play holiday music that you yourself would want to be nostalgic for someday.
MONTAGNE: Stephen, thank you for that holiday tour of holiday music, good, bad, and nostalgic.
THOMPSON: Well, thank you so much for having me. I think Sufjan Stevens, Bootsy Collins, and Alvin and The Chipmunks have been segregated for too long. I'm glad to bring them together in one place.
MONTAGNE: Stephen Thompson is a writer and editor for NPR.org. And that's where you can go to see all of his picks for holiday music, including the newly reissued “Christmas With The Chipmunks”.
(Soundbite of song, “Christmas Time”)
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.