Re-Roasting the Chestnuts

We love our old favorite holiday songs, but the new Christmas CDs under the tree will hold few surprises.

November 26, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Christmas is a holiday we want to feel the same year after year and yet different every time.

We want the comfort of tradition, of old songs re-sung. But at the same time, we also harbor a childlike hunger for newness, for the perfect present wrapped and waiting beneath the tree.

Maybe this is why we keep buying new Christmas albums every holiday season. Even though the new CDs invariably feature the same songs as the ones bought last year and the year before that, the fact that we haven't heard (or yet grown tired of) these new renditions makes the old songs seem exciting. At their best, Christmas CDs provide the perfect balance of old and new, fresh and familiar.

Unfortunately, finding the best of these albums isn't easy. Every season, dozens of new ones are released, ranging from the crassly commercial to the sincerely inspired. Like fad toys, most such CDs are quickly forgotten, having less to do with the season than with the momentary popularity of a certain star or style.

It may be too early to say which of this year's Christmas discs will endure, and which will be shoved to the back of the shelf, but it seems a reasonable bet that -- musically, at least -- this will not be a Christmas to remember.

Although few titles are outright awful, fewer still seem great, or even very good. For the most part, what this year's holiday albums offer is predictability and professionalism, qualities unlikely to leave the listener feeling like a child on Christmas morning.

Just as one person's cup of Christmas cheer is another's unpalatable beverage, not every listener will cherish the same carols, or carol-singers.

Jewel, for example, is a lot like eggnog in this regard. Some folks just can't get enough of her warm, creamy voice and approach her every recording with gusto, while others gag on her syrupy sentiment and too-sweet soprano. Personally, I belong to the latter camp, and had a hard time enjoying her shamelessly self-indulgent rendering of classic carols on "Joy: A Holiday Collection" (Atlantic 83250).

To her credit, the album takes a fairly traditional approach to its material, augmenting old-fashioned orchestrations with only occasional hints of folk-rock guitar and mercifully few moments of scat-style vocalizing. Not my cup of cocoa, but if you love Jewel's voice as much as she does, "Joy" will likely be just that.

Kenny G is another artist who tends to divide listeners into "love him" and "hate him" camps, but it would be hard to imagine something as mildly melodic as "Faith: A Holiday Album" (Arista 19090) provoking an extreme reaction of any sort.

G's second seasonal effort offers little that's challenging or surprising. His soprano saxophone is as pungent and lyrical as ever, while the gently grooving rhythm arrangements deftly walk a line between the slick and the soporific. Granted, much of it sounds like the sort of thing you might hear on the Weather Channel as the local forecast scrolls by, but it does make for pleasant background music.

And let's be honest -- not everyone wants in-your-face Christmas music. Many people think of seasonal songs as a part of the holiday ambience, like the smell of a fresh-cut Christmas tree. For these people, Christmas music is a mood enhancer, which is precisely the reason Mannheim Steamroller sells a kajillion CDs every December.

Under the direction of arranger Chip Davis, the Steamroller uses an assortment of synthesizers and stringed instruments to generate the sort of sonic gingerbread many people associate with the holiday season. "Christmas Live" (American Gramaphone 1997) differs from the group's other albums only in that its tinkly prettiness and synthesized drama is interrupted by periodic bursts of applause.

One of the least celebrated Christmas traditions is the Teen Idol Album. Every season whatever teen group is currently in vogue uses its popularity to wrest a few more dollars from the fans before the flame of popularity burns out.

'N Sync was last year's Christmas Teen Idol act; Hanson the year before that. This year's entry is 98 Degrees, whose relentlessly harmonized "This Christmas" (Universal 01215 3918) is pleasantly forgettable, the sort of album that, in the distant future, will only cause mild chagrin when discovered in the back of one's CD collection.

But why wait years to be embarrassed when you can be mortified right now? That's the thinking behind the "South Park" seasonal spin-off, "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" (American/Columbia 62224).

Apparently convinced that their Comedy Central cartoon hasn't quite offended enough people, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone go for broke this time out.

In addition to a full-length and dizzyingly scatological rendition of "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo," the album includes a version of "O Tannenbaum" as done by Adolf Hitler, and the aptly-titled "The Most Offensive Song Ever," mercifully only mumbled by the frequently dead Kenny McCormick.

Definitely not a Hallmark moment, that.

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