Tinsel, treasures, and trash

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      We don’t want to hear any more about this Santa Claus guy. We’re still a little p.o.’d at the jolly old elf for not delivering the pet monkey we asked for at age nine. And then there was that all-expenses-paid trip to the moon we wanted when we were 12. Was that really so much to ask? And last year, we did our best to be really good. I mean, we hardly ever got so drunk that we had to call in sick the next day, and we were almost totally successful in refraining from punching our in-laws in the face at family gatherings. But did we rise, eyes a-bleary and head a-pounding, on Christmas morning to find the keys to a 1965 Mustang Fastback in our stocking? Well, we wouldn’t have stuffed the Christmas tree into the roaring fire in a rum-and-eggnog-fuelled fit of rage if we had, would we? So we’d rather not hear any more songs about that big fat jerk. Apart from that, however, we love all the joyful sounds of the holiday season. Well, not quite all. Maybe not even most. Here’s how we’ve rated this year’s crop: The good stuff gets a wrapped gift, the bad stuff gets the Charlie Brown tree, and everything in between gets a pair of tighty-whiteys. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to hose down the roof in the hopes that it’ll freeze over and get good and slippery on Christmas Eve. Let’s see how the old bastard likes that trip down Santa Claus Lane.

      Bing Crosby

      Christmas Classics (EMI)

      He might have whipped his kids with Christmas lights, beaten them with candy canes, and pelted them with frozen sugarplums, but damned if Bing Crosby didn’t know his way around the songs that make Xmas magical. Those who already own the crooner’s essential 1998 two-disc compilation The Voice of Christmas will be happy to discover there’s not a lot of duplication on this 16-track outing. Thanks to the inclusion of staples like “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Little Drummer Boy”, and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, Christmas Classics more than lives up to its title. And if he were alive, Der Bingle would grab a yule log and beat the living shit out of anyone who dared to argue otherwise.

      > Mike Usinger

      Sarah McLachlan
      Wintersong (Nettwerk)

      This Starbucks special blend is definitely the most tasteful holiday album to hit the stands this year (Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas notwithstanding). And that’s not saying much. After all, there really isn’t a more egocentric pursuit than putting your voice to Christmas classics under the false pretence of spreading joy, and our Lilith Fair princess is no exception. Kicking off with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, McLachlan doesn’t waste any time playing the UNICEF card. But what’s more perplexing than her decision to water down John Lennon’s song is her choice of cover art; she looks less like a winter-wonderland songbird than a keeper at the gates of hell.

      > Sarah Rowland

      Nat King Cole
      The Christmas Song (EMI)

      It’s Nat King Cole singing his signature holiday tune (three versions!), plus a whack of other seasonal chestnuts, including a couple of previously unreleased gems. Cole’s croon is smoother than a double shot of eggnog, and the string-heavy arrangements add just the right amount of syrup. What more could you ask for? A ride in Santa’s sleigh?

      > John Lucas

      Twisted Sister
      A Twisted Christmas (Razor & Tie)

      Some things simply aren’t meant to mix: bourbon and eggnog, elves and lawn darts, and Christmas and heavy metal. It goes without saying that Lieut. Doug Neidermeyer would be outraged by tuneless aging transvestite Dee Snider mangling timeless treasures such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Deck the Halls”. The insistent use of the cowbell on this plodding metal mess only ups the ugliness ante—and, if you’ve seen Snider lately, that’s saying a lot.

      > Mike Usinger

      il Divo
      The Christmas Collection (SYCO Music/Sony BMG)

      I wanted to like this for several reasons. First of all, there’s the cover photo: the Il Divo dudes look like they’re getting happily shit-faced on red wine, and one of them is a dead ringer for Dean Martin. Also, I think my mom would like this (just like everyone else’s mom). But if I have to hear the appalling atrocity of kitsch that is Il Divo’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” ever again, I’m going to bitch-slap the first Munchkin I set eyes on.

      > John Lucas

      Daryl Hall & John Oates
      Home for Christmas (DKE)

      As well as massacring classics like “O Holy Night”, Daryl Hall and John Oates, the latter of whom just may be the creepiest elf ever, included some stocking stinkers of their own. Hall offers up the romantic “Home for Christmas”, and Oates gives us “No Child Should Ever Cry on Christmas”. In itself, that’s a touching enough sentiment, but coming from a midget with a mullet of pubes on his head, it’s about as family-friendly as walking in on Santa corn-holing Rudolph.

      > Sarah Rowland

      Celtic Woman
      A Christmas Celebration (EMI)

      This is a saccharine—and not very Celtic-sounding—collection of songs that have been done to death already. Not too interesting, but it’s pretty enough, and it’s suitable for throwing on when your mother comes over during the holidays. Because your mom probably won’t appreciate the Vandals’ “Christmas Time for My Penis”.

      > John Lucas

      Bette Midler
      Cool Yule (Columbia)

      So after finally getting that annoying shrink-wrap off, I crack open Cool Yule by Bette Midler and, as dear sweet baby Jesus is my witness, there’s no disc inside. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus.

      > Mike Usinger

      Various Artists
      The Nightmare Before Christmas (Walt Disney)

      Disc 1 of this special-edition sound ­track reissue confirms that Danny Elfman rocks as a composer almost as much as he blew with Oingo Boingo. One listen to the wide-eyed show tune “What’s This?” will remind you that it’s time to schedule your annual viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The bonus CD has Panic! at the Disco, She Wants Revenge, and Fall Out Boy covering the songs that made Tim Burton’s classic one of the most strangely charming favourites of the season. Marilyn Manson’s goth-bomb cover of “This Is Halloween” proves that the former Antichrist Superstar might not have a lot of time for Saint Nick, but he’s clearly got something for Jack Skellington.

      > Mike Usinger

      Bootsy Collins
      Christmas Is 4 Ever (Shout Factory)

      Confession time: as much as I can appreciate the talents of its leading lights, I just don’t get funk. So I’m admittedly not this disc’s target audience, but I recognize a mess when I hear it, and Bootsy Collins ought to be bludgeoned with a candy cane for the sacrilege he’s committed against “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Sleigh Ride”. And since when does “Silent Night” need a porno-sonic beat and a trombone solo?

      > John Lucas

      Dean Martin
      Christmas With Dino (EMI)

      The great thing about Christmas With Dino is that whenever the infamous Rat Packer is around (if only in spirit), at least somebody will be more bombed than your permanently stinko Aunt Myrtle. Once you get past the sacrilegious rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (which grafts Martina McBride’s vocals onto the deceased booze brother’s timeless original), this disc is better than the Sands in the glory years. Cue up the kitsch-tastic swinger “Winter Wonderland”, pour yourself a double Manhattan (with mistletoe for garnish), and start chugging. Because as stressful as Christmas can be, liquor, as Martin knew full well, makes everything better.

      > Mike Usinger

      Various Artists
      A Canadian Christmas 3 (Universal)

      What a crap, er, crop of national treasures: Rita MacNeil, Anne Murray, Bruce Penisburn, and Bryan Adams (who, at this point, wouldn’t recognize a Canadian beaver if it was riding hell-bent for leather on his face). Can I have a can of gasoline for Christmas, Santa? That way I can burn the flag, my passport, and this CanCon embarrassment of a CD, in that order.

      > Mike Usinger

      Aimee Mann
      One More Drifter in the Snow (SuperEgo)

      Only someone as cool as Aimee Mann could record new versions of such painfully familiar tunes as “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” and make them seem fresh. This mellow, ever-so-slightly-twangy collection also features Jimmy Webb’s relatively obscure “Whatever Happened to Christmas” and one Mann original, “Calling on Mary”, both of which deserve to be heard at least once a year.

      > John Lucas

      Aaron Neville
      Christmas Prayer (EMI)

      With partial proceeds going to the American Red Cross, this one’s got our hands tied. Normally we would make jokes about how Aaron Neville’s monstrous goitre doubles as mistle-mole this time of year. But not under these conditions—that would be tacky.

      > Sarah Rowland

      Various Artists
      Elton John’s Christmas Party (Hip-O)

      The perfect gift from Elton John would be gold-glitter platform boots, oversize glasses with built-in windshield wipers, and the kind of rug that not even the president of the Hair Club for Men could afford. This compilation ranks a close second, with rock ’n’ roll’s reigning diva collecting his favourite holiday tunes. In addition to his own works (“Step Into Christmas” and the new Joss Stone duet “Calling It Christmas”), selections range from kitschy obscurities (El Vez’s cover of “Feliz Navidad”) to well-worn classics (Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run”). The inclusion of the Flaming Lips, Pretenders, and Kate Bush proves that, while he may be prone to dressing like a marginally less gay Liberace, John’s actually got some taste.

      > Mike Usinger

      Johnny Mathis
      Gold: A 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration (Columbia/Legacy)

      Hey, it’s the guy from the Gap commercial! Johnny Mathis released his first Christmas album in 1958, so your guess is as good as mine as to how this counts as the 50th anniversary of anything. This is easy-listening fare at its mellowest, with Mathis’s crushed-velvet crooning wrapped in silky strings and decorated with sugarplum chimes. Play this disc at bedtime on Christmas Eve and you won’t have to slip the little ones a thimbleful of rum to knock them out for the night.

      > John Lucas

      Emilie-Claire Barlow
      Winter Wonderland (EMG)

      Although Emilie-Claire Barlow sounds like she’s had one too many eggnog lattes on the skittishly caffeinated title track, the bulk of Winter Wonderland sounds like cocktail hour at a candlelit, white-linen lounge. What saves the 10-track release from being another jazz-pop also-ran is Barlow’s breathless enthusiasm; even when taking things down to a snow-dusted crawl, she still sounds as wired as a five-year-old on Christmas morning. Imagine Diana Krall if she were half as cool as Regina Spektor and you’ve got a good idea what makes this a minor wonder.

      > Mike Usinger

      Various artists
      Best Christmas 100 (EMI)

      As the title indicates, this collection comprises 100 tracks, which are spread over six discs, and it is a curiously mixed bag. It does include some unassailable classics (by the likes of Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and Peggy Lee), but to get to those you have to wade through shudderingly heinous contemporary pop (Stacie Orrico), some decent choral takes on traditional carols (the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral), and a bunch of songs by Brits whose fame never crossed the Atlantic. (Adam Faith, anyone? How about some Wizzard?) Most puzzling of all is the inclusion of songs that don’t seem to have anything to do with Christmas, like Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and versions of “Swinging on a Star” and “Moon River” by people you’ve never heard of. ?I guess this is why Santa Claus invented the iPod.

      > John Lucas

      Brad Paisley
      Brad Paisley Christmas (Arista)

      Chances are you’ve got a certain someone on your shopping list who owns a shotgun, smells like fresh road apples, and will argue that Jesus wore Tony Lamas and a Stetson. If you do, there’s no sense getting them the imaginatively titled Brad Paisley Christmas, because they’ve likely already made the three-hour drive to the big city to pick it up. Those with little appreciation for both kinds of music—country and western—will be horrified at what the Telecaster-toting Paisley does to “Jingle Bells”. But even if you don’t know Hank Williams from Hank Aaron, the majestic pedal steel on “Away in a Manger” will have you reaching for the Jack.

      > Mike Usinger

      Vince Guaraldi
      A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy)

      It may be revered as a timeless classic, but have you actually watched A Charlie Brown Christmas lately? Unless you’re pumped to the tits full of Paxil, the 1965 animated TV special will make you think seriously about hanging yourself from the chimney, and Vince Guaraldi’s meditative, jazzy score is a major reason why. So while “Linus and Lucy” is still as infectious as the day it was recorded, if you’re already suffering from seasonal affective disorder, the downbeat takes on “O Tannenbaum” and “Fí¼r Elise” aren’t going to make your Christmas any less dark blue.

      > Mike Usinger

      Kim Stockwood
      I Love Santa (EMI)

      If you’re one of the many (non-Montreal, non-Toronto) starving artists trying to crack the mysterious code that is the Canadian grant system, here’s a warm thought you can mull over during the holidays. This overhyped Newfie soccer mom (who was never all that great in her prime) managed to get federal funding to record this corny piece of shit. The only thing more sickeningly sweet than the opener, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, is her nan’s all-sugar white-pudding recipe on the inside sleeve. Think about that one when you open your next rejection letter from the Canada Council for the Arts.

      > Sarah Rowland

      The Ault Sisters
      Christmas Feelings (Orange)

      Judged on technical merit, any one of the tweenage Ault Sisters—Amanda, Alicia, and Alanna—could hold her own in a cage match against Charlotte Church. But Christmas isn’t about being pitch-perfect, which the three classically trained Mississaugans are on this annoyingly prissy collection of overexposed favourites like “Silent Night” and “The First Noí«l”. And the songs that Kerrisdale housewives listen to while farting through silk—“The Virgin’s Slumber-Song (Marií¤ Wiegenlied)” are almost as grating. Avril Lavigne may deserve a good kick in the cooter, but the Ault Sisters could certainly learn something from her; namely, that a little bit of attitude goes a long way. At the risk of hurting the siblings’ Christmas feelings, this symphony of saccharinity makes Sarah McLachlan sound like L7 on the rag.

      > Mike Usinger

      The Sounds of the Season (CBC)

      This CBC production is like one of those A Very Special Christmas compilations, only with considerably less star power. It’s a grab bag of Canadian artists doing holiday tunes in various styles, from old-school soul (Divine Brown’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “This Christmas”) to neo–doo-wop (In Essence’s a cappella take on “The Little Drummer Boy”) to jazz-tinted hip-hop (a pair of Pocket Dwellers originals) to sun-splashed world beat (African Guitar Summit’s “Afe Hyia Pa”, which I can only guess is a Christmas song of some sort, since it’s not in a language I recognize). This all-over-the-map approach ensures that no one will like all of The Sounds of the Season, but some might like most of it.

      > John Lucas

      Ho Ho Ho (Wannabe)

      With this CD you can headbang your way through that gingerbread-cookie high and still be in the holiday spirit. The 19-minute Ho Ho Ho blasts through nine songs that include hilarious original tracks about childhood holiday mishaps like “Police Nabbed My Dad” and “You Ruined Christmas”. Elsewhere, the London, Ontario–based metalheads put a rock ’n’ roll spin on your favourite Christmas carols, among them “Deck the Halls” and “Silent Night”.

      > Tina Lamanes