Rock 'n' roll Christmas albums and songs were around long before Phil Spector found that link between joyous pop-rock (with glockenspiels and sleigh bells piled on) and the historical, mostly romantic notions associated with the holiday season. Beginning with 1957's truly wonderful Elvis's Christmas Album (including one of the best pop Christmas tunes ever in "Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me," one of the dirtiest ever in Leiber & Stoller's "Santa Claus is Back in Town," and an adaptation of the Drifters' "White Christmas" on which the King sings all the parts himself), there have been a few real masterpieces over the years.
But for every great pop Christmas album, there are at least 10 more very high on that list of seasonal suckitude. It's been mostly downhill, in fact, since Mariah Carey decided a few years ago she had the right to cover Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" — from the above-referenced Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You — a tune some aficionados rate not just one of the greatest holiday songs ever, but one of the greatest pop songs ever, period. There was a point several years ago when a bunch of really lousy yuletide albums were all over the Billboard Top 40 — this year, it's all about Josh Grogan, if you dig that kinda stuff — when the most entertaining album of that particular year — the still tastelessly hilarious South Park Cast, Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics — happened to have a turd on its cover. Dressed in a Santa Claus hat. Interpret that as you will.
In 1991, however, an Illinois-based indie label released a truly classic pop-rock compilation, the now tragically out-of-print Yuletunes, featuring original compositions by such pop stalwarts as Matthew Sweet, the Cavedogs, the Shoes, Bill Lloyd and Marti Jones (with Don Dixon), among others. But that album is still most notable for Material Issue's "Merry Christmas Will Do" ("You don't have to say you love me/I know that that's not true ..."), my choice for the greatest power-pop Christmas tune of all time, and Spooner's "The Saddest Time of the Year." The latter — from Butch Vig's pre-Nirvana/pre-Garbage band — may not be the most depressing X-mas tune ever (that honor still goes to the Only One's "Silent Night," a British B-side on Epic Records). But with its Duane Eddy riff and cinematic lyrics, it's certainly one of the most hauntingly beautiful of all time.
There hasn't been a rock 'n' roll holiday compilation quite that powerful since. But I'll be damned if Detroit isn't now responsible for the best rock compilation I've heard since Yuletunes hit the snowy streets all those years ago. Holiday Hootenanny (MoPop Music) was created with a terrific cause in mind as well, with all proceeds going to feed the homeless and hungry at downtown's Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Co-producer April Jones Boyle — who was responsible for last year's Family Hootenanny, a critically acclaimed rock record for children — says the idea for this one was to also be a children's album. Interestingly enough, however, I had no idea it was meant for kids until Ms. Boyle told me so — and Holiday Hootenanny, for the most part, works just as well as a great holiday album for adult ears.
There are only a few traditional songs here, and since the producers didn't want songwriting royalties cutting into their benefit money, most of the 15 Detroit artists represented on Holiday Hootenanny have donated new originals to the disc. It features an interesting gamut, from Friends of the Diddlers' idiosyncratic folk-y but absolutely gorgeous "Christmas Wish," to the alluring experimentation of Slumber Party's "Friendly Beasts," to the hard rocking of the Candy Band's "I Want a Big Fat Cookie for Christmas" (and who can't get behind that sentiment?), to the pseudo-doo-wop punk-soul of Ultimate Ovation's "It's Christmas." Tim Pak's country-based "Detroit Christmas Blues" is kinda dark for kids (although, being about the city's homeless, maybe that's the point), albeit a mandolin and banjo-packed delight for grown-ups. The instrumentation on the Fondas' "Christmas Heart Attack" wouldn't sound out of place on the essential The Ventures' Christmas Album, and combined with Julie Benjamin's deadpan vocals, it sounds strangely reminiscent of the Trashmen's garage-rocking classic, "Dancin' Santa."
There are a couple of tunes you may want to skip (including a less successful experimental track that I think might scare the shit out of little kids), but you really could say the same thing about Yuletunes. Nevertheless, American Mars' "Little Baby Jesus" is country-pop perfection, while the Come Ons — featuring the album's other producer, Deanne Iovan — deliver a track called "More" that's so incredibly pretty, it reminds me of Mercy's "Love Can Make You Happy." Bravo!
On D-E-A-R S-A-N-T-A (Embassy Hotel Records), Ann Arbor's Whit Hill & John Latini also dish up a locally based Christmas album of all originals, jumping from swing to bluegrass to blues, with some of the better tracks being Hill's mellower, more serious music toward the end of the disc. On a national level, however, the pickings were basically lumps of coal this year, with disappointing releases from the Isley Brothers (the smooth jazzy I'll Be Home for Christmas), Aimee Mann (though her "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" cover on the pretentiously titled One More Drifter in the Snow is kinda cool), and especially Darlene Love's It's Christmas of Course. I won't miss Ms. Love singing the classics on David Letterman or Saturday Night Live, but it's a real pity there's nothing on her new disc as wonderful as "All Alone on Christmas," the Little Steven-written and -produced classic (with the Bruce-less E Street Band) that remains the best Phil Spector Christmas song that Spector had absolutely nothing to do with ... and the only great thing about the film, Home Alone 2. Love's takes on Tom Petty's "Christmas All over Again" and Chrissie Hynde's "2000 Miles" are interesting, but no one should do Lennon's "Happy X-mas (War Is Over)," as it's impossible to improve on perfection. Christmas With the Smithereens is one of the better releases this year, though it's as notable for its choice of cover versions as it is for execution. But Monster Ballads X-mas, featuring a bunch of big-hair metal refuges like Dokken and Skid Row (and Billy Idol?!), is, in a word, dreadful.
Who needs Faster Pussycat, after all, when someone like Dean Martin (now, there was a stylist) and John Waters (whose 2004 A John Waters Christmas album has some of the most brilliant — see: the marvelous "Fat Daddy" — and sickest/creepiest obscure Xmas marvels you're likely to find anywhere) still have Christmas albums in the stores?
Rock Christmas Hall of Fame
Best song of the past decade is easily the Jacobites' "Teenage Christmas" from God Save Us Poor Sinners, featuring the late Nikki Sudden. Not only is it a great rock album, but the Johnny Thunders/Rolling Stones-meet-Phil Spector vibe of that tune belongs on any modern compilation. ... No, wait! I forgot. The best song of the past decade is "The Christmas Song" by the ever-extraordinary Raveonettes! I swear, there has never been a better rock Christmas song in any decade than that one. So good, in fact, that Smash Mouth covered it as a bona fide classic the following year. The Raveonettes' version is available on several compilations; treat yourself and buy one.
1990's Christmas With Eddie G. remains one of the zaniest and most entertaining Christmas compilations ever, jumping from Detroit Junior's "Christmas Day" to Foghat's very Flamin' Groovies-ish "All I Want For Christmas Is You" to George Jones & Tammy Wynette's goosebump-inducing "Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus" to the Skeletons' great commingling of "Do You Hear What I Hear" with the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" — the latter a neat trick artists have been building on since the Ventures invented the idea.
ALSO: The Ramones, "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)"; Roy Wood, "Ring in the New"; Roy Wood & Wizzard, "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday"; Jimi Hendrix & Band of Gypsies, "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne"; "Hooray for Santa Claus," (theme from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, later covered by punk band Sloppy Seconds); Alan Jackson, "Holly Jolly Christmas"; Burl Ives, "Holly Jolly Christmas"; Can, "Silent Night"; Buck Owens, "Daddy Looked a Lot Like Santa"; Leon Redbone (with Dr. John), "Frosty the Snowman," (on Christmas Island); George Throrogood, "Rock 'n' Roll Christmas"; the Cocteau Twins, "Winter Wonderland," (on The Edge of Christmas); Jim Croce, "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way"; Adam Sandler, "The Chunakah Song"; Billy Squier, "Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You"; Aretha Franklin, "Winter Wonderland"; Everly Brothers, "Christmas Eve Will Kill You"; Jose Feliciano, "Feliz Navidad"; the Royal Guardsmen, "Snoopy's Christmas"; the Carpenters, "Merry Christmas, Darling"; and "Oh, Come All You Deadheads," (heard on a radio station once and never heard again).
American Mars plays with the Hard Lessons and numerous other Detroit bands at the Sixth Annual Detroit Sounds & Spirits Holiday Spectacular, Friday, Dec. 21, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. 313-833-7655.Bill Holdship is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org