All right, I give up. After repeatedly dismissing news reports of studies showing that our world has evolved into a less serious (read: less fun) place, where Gen Xers don't feel comfortable with the frivolity and whimsy of youth, this holiday season has thrown up a window and let some of that stale air in. Even holiday records are getting serious.
Granted, getting metaphysical about the meaning of life based on the sample of CDs seems like a bit of a stretch, but when the only goofy, totally irreverent musical mistletoe is Jingle Bells Swingin' Barnyard Christmas (Oglio), it's hard to think otherwise. Perhaps the only release that even occasionally catches the spiked-eggnog mood of the holidays is Merry Axemas, Volume 2: More Guitars for Christmas (Epic). Stu Hamm (a rollicking version of "Sleigh Ride"), Steve Lukather (a fusion of "The Christmas Song"), and Ted Nugent ("Deck the Halls" as only the Nuge can do it) alternate with more reverent fare by Zakk Wylde, Al Di Meola, and Neal Schon. Good in both cases.
This year brings many established artists' first Christmas albums. Kenny Loggins weighs in with a lighter-than-air new age collection called December (Columbia), which features Save the Whales renderings of tunes like "Coventry Carol" and "The Christmas Song." Urban contemporary Ybermensch Babyface performs cuts ranging from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to "Silent Night" on (what else?) Christmas With Babyface (Epic), which is exactly what you'd predict it would sound like. The prize catch is sure to be These Are Special Times (550/Epic) by Celine Dion, as she flexes her vocal cords on diva showpieces "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night," and more intimate fare like "Brahms's Lullaby."
The second tier finds Shawn Colvin's surprisingly affecting Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Columbia). Motherhood has resulted in some fortuitously chosen material such as "Now the Day Is Over" and "All Through the Night" in addition to holiday faves, all done in her no-nonsense, log cabin-folk approach. Heart's Wilson sisters turn their Lovemongers side project loose on Here Is Christmas (b2). Among some errant notes, Ann sweetens the mostly original effort with a cool shot at "Bring a Torch." Blues legend Etta James plies the same classic pipes that brought you "At Last" on Twelve Songs of Christmas (Private), on which the secular stuff just seems a better fit. Whoever Michael Dyke is, he counts among his friends on A Christmas Card '60s bubblegum star Tommy Roe for an earnest, straightforward, mostly original set that hardly anyone will ever hear.
One of the most aptly titled discs is Ultimate Christmas (Arista), but what else is there to say about a collection that includes Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas," and Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," yet still has enough room to shoehorn in Sarah McLachlan? A great Yuletide starter set. Windham Hill uncharacteristically has roped together such non-granola eaters as Peabo Bryson ("Born on Christmas Day"), Philip Bailey ("Silent Night"), and Sheena Easton (a goosebump-producing reading of "The Lord's Prayer") on The Colors of Christmas. Twelve Soulful Nights of Christmas (So So Def) finds producer Jermaine Dupri marshaling the talents of current vocalists like Kenny Lattimore and Gerald Levert, as well as perennials like Chaka Khan, on a pretty but ultimately everyday treatment of the season.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra rides a fine line between tradition and popular kitsch on The Christmas Attic (Atlantic/Lava), mixing strings, chorales, power chords, and somehow a sense of the season on an album that has something for someone who wants everything at once. Windham Hill checks in again with yet another excellently conceived collection called A Winter Solstice Reunion; such label stalwarts as Barbara Higbie Nightnoise and George Winston lend their singular colors to the Crayola box of musical expression. If you don't know how good that is, that's your loss. The same label hits the green again with Celtic Christmas IV, but having the album end with Ricky Skaggs's "Christmas Times A Comin'" makes you wonder whether Paddy got into the Guinness a wee bit early this year.
A Jazz Christmas from Windham Hill is a mostly satisfying mixed bag of vocal and instrumental performances by real jazz (Larry Coryell, Paul Horn) and toy jazz artists (Rickey Peterson's "A Child Is Born" is particularly good). This season's overachiever award goes to Allmans/Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, whose What's in That Bag (Capricorn) alternates between E Street Band strutting ("It's Just Not Christmas," "Even Santa Gets the Blues") and worshipful ("Bethlehem Greensleeves").
Of course there has to be at least one fad-driven release, and this year's model is Swingin' Christmas (Daddy O/Royalty), where you can cut the rug to the big-band stylings of the likes of the Swingtips and Heavenly 7. A tip of the fedora to the former for an inventive reworking of "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." Very hep.
By and large, it's a highly listenable bunch. But if I could put out an early wish list for next year, it would be for a couple more yuks. Hey, no one ever got hurt while listening to a Christmas Kazoos album. You can look it up.