It hasn't been the greatest year for Christmas albums, which can account for some of the very best and very worst releases of any given year. Nevertheless, there are still a few holiday releases this season that might rock your world — or at least get you in the spirit.
The Fleshtones' Stocking Stuffer (Yep Roc) aims to be the rawkingest yuletide disc of 2008 and it almost succeeds. The classic East Coast garage band delivers new originals (mostly penned by frontman Peter Zaremba) and a few covers, while stretching the boundaries of what they usually do to include proto-metal ("Six White Boomers" actually sounds like an offshoot of Free's "All Right Now"). Covers here include "Hooray For Santa Claus" (the theme from the camp cult film classic, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but even though there've been various punk rock covers of this song over the years, nothing tops the delightful dadaism of the original), "Run, Rudolph, Run" (which transposes the Chuck Berry riff into something that resembles the Beatles' "Revolution" instead) and a wonderful version of Detroit's own late, great Nathaniel Mayer's "Mr. Santa Claus," which yet again demonstrates it's a classic holiday song that should be right next to Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms on every playlist this time of year. It simply rocks, babes.
Also on the garage rock tip, one of this year's finest Christmas tracks comes courtesy of Swedish garage kings the Hives, and is available only as a free download. Actually, "A Christmas Duel" is a duet (or duel, as the title suggests) between the Hives' zany lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist and one Ms. Cyndi Lauper, she of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" fame — and sounds a lot like something off Phil Spector's epic A Christmas Gift For You album... if the Spector album had featured a female vocalist trading such insults as "I slept with your sister" and "I went down on your mother" in a showdown with a male lead singer. Good stuff! Download it at thehivesbroadcastingservice.com. It's also posted all over youtube.com.
Seems that 9 out of 10 rock Christmas collections have to include the aforementioned "Run, Rudolph, Run" — and Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents Christmas A Go-Go (Wicked Vinyl) kicks off its merriment with Keith Richards' version, which is far from the best interpretation, vocally speaking (though Keef does get those Berry riffs down to perfection). But licensing is always part of the equation in any compilation of this kind, and Steven's collection is still an awesome r'n'r grab bag, including Detroit connections via Bob Seger & the Last Heard's James Brown-meets-Detroit Wheels hybrid on "Sock It to Me, Santa" and a shockingly good "Santa Claus is Surfin' to Town" by the one and only Soupy Sales. There are also a few must-have tracks from the likes of the Ramones, Roy Wood, etc.; a few garage-rock obscurities (including a track that commingles "Norwegian Wood" with "Silent Night"!) ... and any real fan should always welcomes another opportunity to hear Little Steven's own fantastic "All Alone on Christmas" as recorded by Darlene Love & the E Street Band, which remains the best Darlene Love Christmas song not produced by Phil Spector and simply one of the greatest holiday tracks of the last two decades.
Aretha Franklin has released her first Christmas album ever with This Christmas (DMI). Her biggest fans may love it, but her vocals don't seem to be up to par here, and it may make more discerning fans long for a Jerry Wexler or even a Clive Davis to work with Detroit's own queen again. Speaking of vocals, Sheryl Crow's voice always struck me as an acquired taste in the past, a taste that I simply never acquired. But rather than cloying and annoying, her new Home for Christmas (Hallmark) is surprisingly very good, even beautiful, mostly featuring unique takes on traditional classics, ranging from "Go Tell It on the Mountain" to "White Christmas" and such grand things as a bluesy yet gorgeous take on "The Bells of St. Mary's" that could've possibly made even Otis Redding himself smile in recognition.
There are plenty of great blues performances as well on Putumayo Presents A Jazz & Blues Christmas (Putumayo), with a few obscure gems from such not-at-all obscurities as Ray Charles, B.B. King, Charles Brown and Ramsey Lewis, as well as perhaps the best "Santa Baby" I've ever heard, courtesy of someone named Emil-Claire Barlow. It's certainly a much more fun genre-specific collection than We Wish You a Metal Christmas and a Headbanging New Year (Armoury), whose "highlight," I suppose, is Alice Cooper's fairly ridiculous "Santa Claws [sic] Is Coming to Town." But that's still a backhanded compliment to someone I once practically worshipped during his original heyday. Ronnie James Dio also appears (though the diminutive one misses his opportunity to perform a song about one of Santa's elves). And Lemmy performs that damn "Run, Rudolph, Run," but much like Keith Richards ... well, hell, Keith sounds like Roy Orbison in comparison to the Motörhead frontman. Unless you're Gary Hoey (or perhaps the Fleshtones), Christmas and metal don't mix that well.
Speaking of people who can't sing, one would probably have to include actor-musician Billy Bob Thornton to any such list. I mean, the guy really can't sing — and yet damned if he still doesn't make it work on the Boxmasters' Christmas Cheer (Vanguard). The musical trio's got that classic Bakersfield country-rock blend down perfect (Thornton also produces with scientific precision). And Billy Bob's harmonizing with himself (as well as with bassist J.D. Andrew) actually offsets Billy Bob as an iffy lead vocalist on some really fine originals and Christmas perennials. They even make the formula work on a Bakersfield-tinted version of Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" ... which ain't an easy song to cover. And that's yet another reason why this stands with Sheryl Crow's album as one of the best holiday releases of '08, certainly the most surprising.
One guy who could sing, of course, was Elvis Presley — and RCA and his estate have offered up a new collection this season titled Elvis Christmas Duets (Sony/BMG), which "magically" teams the King with modern female country superstars on songs taken from his rockin' '57 Christmas album and his inferior 1973 Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas. In addition to the new vocalists, the album also features — sin of sins! — newly recorded instrumental tracks. Winona, Lee Ann Rimes and Amy Grant don't exactly ruin their reworked tunes but they don't bring anything new to the party either. There are Elvis aficionados who've been known to drag that great '57 disc out in the middle of July, so what was the point here? This might best be described as technology attempting to reinvent the wheel.
Last year, we favorably reviewed the local Holiday Hootenanny album (MoPop Music), which features a slew of Detroit indie bands and artists (some of whom will undoubtedly be part of Dave Feeny's annual holiday Sounds & Spirits festival at the Magic Stick; this year's celebration is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 19, though the lineup had yet to be announced at press time). Earlier this season, we got an e-mail from one of the album's producers, informing us that copies are still available. Check it out at cdbaby.com/holidayhootenanny. And finally, on the local front, the Go is one of my favorite Detroit bands, but it's so like them to release a Christmas track only days before Christmas '07. In fact, if you didn't grab a copy at a Detroit show last Christmas season, you were out of luck until Dec. 31 of last year when Dave Buick made it available on his website. At any rate, "Christmas on the Moon" (Italy Records) — not to be confused with the Flaming Lips' new DVD and CD, Christmas on Mars (Warner Bros.), which, aside from a reference to Santa Claus' suicide, appears to have very little to do with the holiday itself ... but, hey, acid can still be a fine drug! — is a groovy, Latin-tinged holiday morsel that can still be purchased a year later on Dave Buick's Italy Records MySpace site at myspace.com/italyrecords.
Other 2008 releases: Neil Sedaka, The Miracle of Christmas (Razor & Tie); Rahsaan Patterson, The Ultimate Gift (Artistry Music Group); Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ultimate Christmas Collection (Surfdog); Melissa Ethridge, A New Thought for Christmas (Island ); Sixpence None The Richer, The Dawn of Grace (Nettwerk); Spyro Gyra, A Night Before Christmas (Heads Up); Brian McKnight, I'll Be Home for Christmas (Razor & Tie); Harry Connick Jr., What a Night: A Christmas Album (Columbia); Kristin Chenoweth, A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas (Sony Classical); Ledisi, It's Christmas (Verve Forecast).
Ledisi will be performing a Christmas show on Thursday, Dec. 18, at the Fillmore, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org