Snowed Under Dreaming of white noise? Welcome to the season of Christmas CDs, where merry bands roast the same old chestnuts in a blizzard of sameness.

December 10, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

There's nothing unusual about dreading the holidays. Some people can't cope with the pressures of gift shopping, while others get anxious over family issues that arise each season. Sometimes, just the amount of work that goes into Christmas preparations fills folks with apprehension.

My case is a bit different. What I dread has to do with Christmas music.

At the moment, there is a 3-foot stack of Christmas CDs teetering in my living room. There are some 91 albums piled there, everything from Hanson's "Snowed In" to RuPaul's "Ho Ho Ho." They started coming in August, and new ones are arriving daily.

And the vast majority are rubbish.

Still, Christmas music is big business. A successful Christmas album can sell thousands of copies a season, with some artists -- Kenny G, Mariah Carey, Amy Grant and Barbra Streisand -- selling in the millions.

Even though dozens of Christmas albums are made each year, there aren't dozens of Christmas songs to choose from. So hapless reviewers like myself end up hearing the same songs over and over and over again, in every style imaginable. Over the years, I've endured everything from disco Christmas (such as the Salsoul Orchestra's relentless "Christmas Jollies") to hardcore carols (including the punk classic "Oi! to the World").

Why people do this is beyond me. If you want to hear techno at Christmas time, then put on a techno album. There's no reason to drag "Silent Night" into it.

"Acid X-mas" (Street Beat 1032) does anyway, offering acid house and techno versions of carols for those who prefer Christmas raves to Christmas revels. As is usually the case with this stuff, these tracks are not exactly long on melody, making more use of droning synths and thumping electrobeats than of the songs themselves. As such, whole minutes go by before Bass Trip's thumping rendition of "Silent Night" even touches on the tune, while "Little Drumma's Dub," by D.J. Voodoo vs. Mr. Knightlife featuring Sunny, completely avoids the verse and chorus of "Little Drummer Boy" -- though, to be honest, that's not entirely a bad thing.

Coming next year: "The Little Drum 'N' Bass Boy."

If you want to hear synthesizers take a more traditional role in Christmas music, look to the newest release from Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas Live" (American Gramaphone 1997). By blending synths with recorder, harpsichord and violin, the group gives "Pat a Pan" a quaint, old European feel, though with all the modern conveniences. (Think of it as the musical equivalent to the Epcot Center.) But when the synths take over, they make "Joy to the World" sound like somebody's 11 o'clock news theme.

By rights, Jim Brickman's "The Gift" (Windham Hill 11242) ought to appeal to much of the Mannheim Steamroller audience. A pop instrumentalist with a pretty good track record, Brickman seems a perfect candidate for seasonal success. And when he sticks to piano instrumentals, his album is quite pleasant, thanks to his soothingly upbeat arrangements of such carols as "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel."

Trouble is, Brickman isn't interested in staying instrumental and so brings in a crew of guest vocalists, including Kenny Loggins, country star Colin Raye, and the contemporary Christian vocal Point of Grace. None add much to the album, though, and the treacly, semi-romantic sentiments of the title give a sour taste to the rest of the album.

Celtic music is the season's other big trend. Given how little Irish traditional music has brought to the Christmas catalog (go on -- try and name an Irish carol), this may seem a bit odd. But as Steve Schuch and the Night Heron Consort's "A Celtic Celebration, Volume Two" (North Star 40098) demonstrates, the most important Irish element is instrumentation, not material.

Although none of the songs on this "Celtic Celebration" are Celtic, Schuch and company make them feel that way. Flavoring the likes of "Ding Dong Merrily on High" or "O Come All Ye Faithful" with fiddles, tin whistle, uileann pipes and bodhran may not be the most traditionally Irish approach to Christmas music, but it's remarkably pleasant to hear.

Would that all instrumental Christmas albums were so pleasant. Instead, I get stuck listening to stuff like "Merry Axemas" (Epic 67775). Subtitled "A Guitar Christmas," it gives 11 guitar heroes the chance to crank and shred through favorite carols. Unfortunately, it's generally the songs that end up shredded. It's fun to hear Kenny Wayne Shepherd do a Stevie Ray Vaughan on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but to be honest, the song itself just gets in the way of his solo. Likewise, Joe Satriani's "Silent Night/Holy Night Jam" offers more jam than night, "Silent" or "Holy."

On the plus side, Jeff Beck turns in a lovely reading of "Amazing Grace." But since when is that a Christmas carol?

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