On the 1st Day Of Christmas… “Christmas On Death Row” (album review)

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Hip hop and Christmas aren’t strangers. Run DMC’sChristmas in Hollis” even made the cut for the holiday compilation album A Very Special Christmas. Rapper Cee Lo Green dropped a seasonal disc, Cee Lo Green’s Magical Moment. DMC kept their track family friendly, and Cee Lo opted for a soulful take. Enter Christmas On Death Row. No, this isn’t an amalgamation of criminals bursting into joyous carols. Rather, Death Row in the title refers to the well-established rap record label which features notable artists such as West Coast legend Snoop Dogg.

Christmas On Death Row features original holiday tunes by a collection of the unlikeliest of folks. Snoop Dogg and the late Nate Dogg spit a West Coast Xmas ditty, “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto.” The funky bassline sets the tone for the entire album. Nate Dogg’s baritone hook actually could fit on a mainstream track, but the references to weed which proceed from (surprise, surprise) Snoop remove any illusions that this is a traditional holiday album. Directly following the comedic “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” is Danny Boy’s poignant “The Christmas Song.” I guess the producers deemed Snoop’s nasally drawl too sacrilegious for such a revered holiday favorite. Running down the tracklist, the ratio of classic Christmas hits and original hip hop tracks is pretty even.

While recognizable seasonal songs by Death Row crooners are enjoyable, the true standouts and reasons to bump Christmas On Death Row are the ghetto inspired tracks. They’re unique and manage to deliver seemingly honest messages. The Dogg Pound roc the mic on “I Wish,” with a chorus of “I wish I had love.” Verses present traditionally rap content, such as shout outs to recently deceased homies and admittances of dopage. Danny Boy reappears on “Peaceful Christmas,” and Michel’le provides an emotive “Silver Bells.” Thankfully, after these covers “Christmas in the Ghetto” steers the album back towards the holiday-themed Chronic. Again, the eggnog and indo play prominent themes, and hearing gangstafied Christmas tunes pleasantly mixes up the festivities. If you’re into alternate leaves of green, you’ll likely appreciate this West Coast rap take on Christmas.

As previously mentioned, the traditional tracks, though well done, feel like filler. They’re worth listening to, but everyone’s heard these songs more times than they’d like to recall. That’s not to say that the iterations found on Christmas On Death Row pale in comparison to their urban counterparts. Nate Dogg lends much appreciated appearances on several tracks. Much like Cee Lo Green, his booming voice feels natural rapping or spitting seasonal lyrics. He can hang with the funkiest of hip hop beats and schmooze with slowed down, expressive instrumental.

Christmas On Death Row offers an entertaining and unusual West Coast funk-soul-holiday fusion. Though the combination may sound incompatible, it works surprisingly well just like the sweet-salty M&M trail mixes. If you’re a hip hop head, definitely add this to the collection, though be mindful of tracks to skip if you’re among a more conservative crowd.

On the 2nd Day of Christmas… “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (album review)

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Elvis Presley dominated the airwaves for years, and maintains a posthumous presence today.  Though he’s renowned for hits such as “Hound Dog” and infamous pelvis gyration, his Christmas music ranks among the elite classics. Browsing the Elvis Christmas releases can be daunting, as his holiday tunes have been released and re-released an obnoxious number of times. For simplicity’s sake, I’m reviewing If Every Day Was Like Christmas. Grab a chair, crank up the stereo, and slip on the blue suede shoes.

Browsing the back of the album, you’ll notice that If Every Day Was Like Christmas is a hefty release. A whopping 24 tracks, it’s a purchase that feels well worth the cash. Every song is phenomenal. Festivities begin with “Why Can’t Every Day be Like Christmas.” Fair enough Elvis, I respect your holiday spirit, but that would require a year-round tree, decorations encroaching on other holidays, and a never-ending onslaught of relatives. Thus, it may be better that every day is not actually like Christmas. His point, however, is the tranquility and sense of unity which Christmas traditionally bestows upon the masses. Who can resist smiling with Xmas jingles blaring, jolly fat Santas ho-ho-hoing and red Starbucks cups adorning mittened hands?

As per usual, the content of Elvis’ album isn’t particularly new, but his renditions are the reason we all dust off the disc and throw it on the turntable, pop it in the CD player, or stream all 24 tracks. “Blue Christmas” bounces along merrily, despite the assertion of dampened sentiments. Presley brings his unique mumbling warble to each song. “Here Comes Santa Claus” shines with this recognizable delivery. As the song progresses you can almost see Elvis’ expression growing increasingly animated as his voice crescendos into an energetic “Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” Try playing Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” then the Elvis version. The contrast is remarkable, and highlights the positive vibe Elvis emanates. Gone are the wistful, church-like Bing baritones. No offense at all, Bing. Your version set a standard. But Elvis broke barriers, which earned fame (and infamy).

“Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” further illustrates the joyous nature so prevalent on If Every Day Was Like Christmas. Elvis sounds unlike a man depressed by absence from his gal, but rather finds consolation in begging Santa for a reunion. Why Santa has said female friend isn’t really explained. Let’s just hope Elvis hung a large enough stocking for his beloved. Interestingly, Elvis even brings his upbeat performance to serious tunes like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He understandably tones down the bulbous joviality which graces most other tracks, but he still manages to infuse such songs with a celebratory feel. Considering the fact that Christmas is intended as a season for generosity and caring, it feels more appropriate than funeral march adaptations which often pollute holiday albums. While you can’t go wrong with any Elvis Christmas release, If Every Day Was Like Christmas certainly comes with substantial play time and replay value. Spontaneous hip gyration is a known side effect, so grandma might be offended. Dance at your own risk.

On the 3rd Day of Christmas… “Jackson 5 Christmas Album” (review)

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Contrary to popular opinion, “Thriller” isn’t Michael Jackson’s only holiday-themed musical treat. In 1970, The Jackson 5 dropped Jackson 5 Christmas Album. As the album showcases Jackson and company’s early work, there isn’t any moonwalking, crotchgrabbing, or ironically, high-pitched screaming. One would naturally assume that the younger MJ would exhibit higher pitches than adult MJ. Clearly, one assumed wrong.

Running down the tracklist, it’s evident that the Jacksons opted for well-known pieces. Beloved Christmas anthem “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sets the mood with a soul-infused interpretation of the holiday classic. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” follows quickly, boosting the tempo, and featuring little Michael. He pretty much steals the show with energetic delivery and impressive vocal range. He jazzes up the track with “oh yeahs” in between lines. The album fluctuates between the soulful and upbeat tracks. While the songs found on Jackson 5 Christmas Album are tried and true, the Motown twist recreates the familiar seasonal sounds.

Additionally, the Jackson brothers bring their unique style to the caroling session. “Up On The House Top” offers the perfect example of the distinct flavor they craft. Michael gives a rundown of the boys’ Christmas wishes. Each of their gift choices are different. There’s a hilarious dialogue in the middle between Jermaine and Michael where they discuss the scroll of girls Jermaine wants to smooch. I imagine that at the time many young female fans reciprocated this sentiment. It’s this joviality and general sense of camaraderie that makes the album so enjoyable. “Frosty The Snowman” provides opportunities for most of the boys to sing, which paints an image of the brothers sitting around the living room passing the mic around. There’s even a track aimed at cheering Jermaine up after he breaks up with his current woman. “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year” opens with a snippet explaining Jermaine’s blue Christmas. Presumably he didn’t actually split with his girlfriend, but it makes the familial ties tangible.

The seemingly improvised intricacies further set Jackson 5 Christmas Album apart from its peers. At the end of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” the boys break into a joyful chant of “The Jackson 5 wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, and a groovy New Year.” Try finding a song where Johnny Mathis proclaims “Johnny Mathis wants to wish you a Merry Christmas and snazzy New Year.” The Jacksons sneak a few lines of “Jingle Bells” into “The Christmas Song,” which I hadn’t heard before. Excellent work Jackson boys. Radio stations love Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas,” but honestly I think the Jackson 5 iteration is better. The lyrics, envisioning a Christmas day free of earthly flaws feels rejuvenated through the Jacksons’ positive vibe. The true standout on the album, though each track is simply incredible, is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Michael Jackson performs the song as a naïve, innocent child tattling to his older brothers. He even exclaims, “Wow! I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus!” Later, he proudly states, “I really did see Mommy kissing Santa Claus, and I’m gonna tell my daddy.” You can’t help but chortle.

What with the natural dialogue between the Jackson boys, the Motown holiday jingles, and the chance to hear a young MJ belting out seasonal tunes, this should be an annual staple. The Jackson 5 jazz up traditional tracks, and let’s be honest. We’ve all heard about a bajillion versions of “The Christmas Song,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Luckily, the Jackson boys created a jolly Christmas album sure to lift your holiday spirits. Your Christmas spirit is high you say? Family gatherings. Ha. Now go put on Jackson 5 Christmas Album and pour a strong eggnog.

On the 4th Day of Christmas… “Christmas in the Stars” (album review)

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Usually the only Christmas-related star sits atop the tinsel adorned tree. However 1980’s Christmas in the Stars saw an unlikely holiday album. There have been more Star Wars crossovers than George Lucas can keep track of, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a Star Wars Christmas album entered the world of entertainment. Some would dub it a jump to hyperspeed, others jumping the shark. However, set your blaster to stun and don’t hastily dismantle this out of this world record. Despite the zany concept, it’s a stellar seasonal treat sure to get even Vader caroling.

Christmas in the Stars follows a loose narrative about droids creating toys, and the primary narrators are beloved robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Anthony Daniels reappears as the voice of our gilded friend. The opening, and titular, track “Christmas in the Stars” sets the tone for the album and introduces the plot. C-3PO rattles off a list of Christmas presents he’s purchased. The sing-songy end rhyme lyrics prance along to a Christmas tune that begins similarly to “Sleigh Ride.” Lyrically it captures the over-official nature of a protocol droid.  Continuing this theme, “Bells, Bells, Bells,” finds C-3PO explaining what bells are to R2-D2. Quite naturally, there are references to Einstein and H.G. Wells. Daniels maintains C-3PO’s characteristic, slightly awkward speech pattern. He doesn’t sing so much as speak the words to the song, presumably to stay in character.

“The Odds Against Christmas” finds yet another comical track where C-3PO ponders the odds against Christmas existing. Hilariously, after a quick intro by the droid, a David Cassidy-esque singer breaks into melody. Supported by a 70’s style holiday instrumental, the track evokes a singer-songwriter feel. “What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)” is arguably where the album blasts off, though the entire project is mind-blowingly awesome. As the title explains, the track explores possible Christmas presents for a Wookiee who has a comb. Apparently, though their hair traditionally appears rather matted and tangled, they appreciate hair care products. Maybe this is analogous to the man who has everything.

While C-3PO and sidekick R2 are clearly not the droids you are looking for, Jon Bon Jovi very well may be. After all, he wishes R2-D2 a very Merry Christmas. That’s right, “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas” features a then-unheard of Bon Jovi. Legend has it that his cousin owned the recording studio, and Bon Jovi was sweeping the floors. You’ll be diving for the rewind button. He’s unrecognizable as lead singer. Obi Wan may be able to clear up the transmission, however.

As you can probably guess “Sleigh Ride” is set to the tune of “Sleigh Ride,” however with Star Wars themed lyrics. C-3PO attempts to teach R2 to sing, a difficult feat. C-3PO’s “A Christmas Sighting (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)” delivers a Star Wars adaptation of the Night Before Christmas. Seriously, this must be converted into a movie. Not only is the concept creative, but the banter between R2 and C-3PO would crack up a Sith lord.

Truthfully, the only fault I can find in Christmas in the Stars is the brevity of the album. A mere 9 tracks, you’ll no doubt yearn for more. Additionally, physical and legal copies are difficult to procure. The few copies bouncing around the internet are fairly expensive, particularly for a blogger/freelance movie reviewer with an English B.A. They do exist however, as well as less legal versions, though I’m not condoning such behavior. Considering the prevalence of Star Wars, and relevance to all generations, this is the quintessential album for the season. And no, it’s not a trap. May the Force be with you…

On the 6th Day of Christmas… “This Christmas I Spend with You” — Robert Goulet (album review)

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If you enjoyed Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub, you may appreciate Robert Goulet’s This Christmas I Spend with You. Before rushing to the nearest record store though, understand that Goulet opts for a serious lounge-style holiday album. While it’s possible you’ve never heard Goulet’s music, likely you remember him for the goofy boss from “Beetlejuice.” Yeah, the boss dude with a commendable moustache.

This Christmas I Spend with You serves a head-bobbing, finger-drumming dose of Christmas tunes. Robert Goulet epitomizes the slightly silly Vegas music that Cheese parodies. He half-sings, half-speaks the lyrics in what seems to be a feigned boom of a voice. Kind of like middle school boys lowering their vocal tones to impress their female counterparts. That being said, Goulet pulls off the album tremendously. Titular track “This Christmas I Spend with You,” highlights Goulet’s unique bass-tone. Listening, you can picture him swaying back and forth drink in hand, basking in the spotlight. He even chuckles to himself while singing which further reinforces the notion that you’re watching a lounge singer live.

Aside from the opening track, “This Christmas I Spend with You,” the rest of the fare consists of tried and true holiday tunes. However, Goulet adds his classy twist to the mix. He provides earnest Christmas lounge music. Most of the songs feature significant pauses at the beginning of the track. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” continues for 14 seconds before Goulet initiates the serenading. Spicing up “Silver Bells” is a short intro which feels ripped from the script of a Bing Crosby musical. Therefore it’s no surprise Goulet stared in a production Camelot.

This Christmas I Spend with You really exhibits Goulet’s true singing prowess. The man can carry a tune and hold a note for a remarkably long time. With Goulet’s overpowering vocals, the instrumental backing is understated. It’s quite well arranged, and listening on a good stereo really shows the array of instruments. The strings, keys, percussion, and horns are exquisitely balanced. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” features a comically ill-timed horn though. Aside from the tuba toot, production is top notch.

The true standout tracks are the more emotive tunes, such as “Panis Angelicus” and “Ave Maria.” Though the lighter songs are pleasant, Robert Goulet’s bass tones feel more comfortable belting out serious, moving tracks. His bubbly Christmas favorites feel unintentionally comical. The latter half of the album, particularly “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” “Ave Maria,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” find Goulet in a calm groove. Just like Shakespearean actors who appear out of place in kitschy roles, Robert Goulet thrives in a traditional setting. If you enjoy Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and the likes, definitely spend Christmas with Goulet. Be warned however that spontaneous moustache growths and uncontrollable bouts of baritone may result.

On the 7th Day of Christmas… “Silent Nightclub” — Richard Cheese (album review)

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Richard Cheese may not be a household name, though after this review you’ll likely plow through his entire discography quicker than a one horse open sleigh. A comedic singer, he performs lounge and swing style takes on top 40 hits. Hitting play sucks you into a portal, transporting listeners into a Vegas cocktail bar complete with martini and halfway unbuttoned silk shirt.

Amid Cheese’s extensive catalog is an aptly titled Silent Nightclub. As the name suggests, the album is an amalgamation of “holiday” hits. A quick glance at the tracklist and the brow furrows in confusion. Only five of the 15 total songs are traditional Christmas tunes. The other 10 are mainly pop hits which slightly relate to the holidays. And most of the time the connection is more of a stretch than the Grinch shimmying down a narrow brick chimney. Cheese opens with Dead Kennedys’ punk anthem “Holiday in Cambodia,” presumably because it contains the word holiday. He does however, use jingle bells and a Christmas melody to provide a festive ambiance.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” follows up “Holiday in Cambodia,” a hilarious reference to the Virgin Mary. Conservative religious folks may be offended, but one listen to the disc and it’s obvious Cheese isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Cleverly, he includes “Like a Virgin” and unless you’re quick to ponder the non-commercial aspects of Christmas, the reason for inclusion may pass you by like Santa skipping the naughty kid on your block. Cheese also includes “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Imagine,” “Naughty Girl,” “The Trees,” “I Melt With You,” and finishes on an appropriate note with “Holidae Inn.” His choices are undeniably unique for a Christmas CD, and you’ll be gnawing the candy cane in your martini in no time.

Amusingly, though predictably, even the holiday tracks aren’t exactly straightforward. The version of “Jingle Bells” on Silent Nightclub features animal noises rather than the actual lyrics. This album by no means seeks to replace the original versions of your holiday favorites. “Last Xmas” is actually only 18 seconds long, and Cheese explains the shortened Wham cover by proclaiming “…that song sucks.” Sorry Wham fans. Take your problem up with Richie. As the sole original track “Christmas In Las Vegas” paints an entertaining portrait of Vegas with a twist. Rudolph bets on red and the Wise Men roll sevens. Cheese exploits both Christmas and Las Vegas clichés, stuffing both into a witty stocking.

Silent Nightclub serves up a hearty, creative dose of mildly, though carefully and astutely selected tracks. Additionally, Cheese’s mock-serious, sleazy delivery packs a ramshackle sled of laughs. Try not to keep from bursting into fits of giggles while the artist woof-woof-woofs in tune to “Jingle Bells,” double-times through “Christmastime is Here,” or jollily bounces down John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Just like spiking eggnog spices up the holiday merriment, Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub is sure to get the Christmas party popping.

On the 9th Day of Christmas… “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Review)

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A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the most celebrated films in the holiday movie canon. The jazzy, largely instrumental score composed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is equally as enjoyable, though severely underappreciated.

If you’ve seen any Peanuts animated video, Vince Guaraldi’s traditional loose jazz should be familiar. The soundtrack A Charlie Brown Christmas compiles recognizable holiday tunes and adapts them to piano-centric pieces. Furthermore, there’s almost no singing. One of the few vocal tracks is “Christmas Time is Here,” included in the intro to the animated film. As you may have guessed if you haven’t seen the movie, all tracks on the album appear in the Peanuts movie. “O Tannenbaum” kicks off the soundtrack, followed by a toe-tappingly catchy “What Child Is This.” A usually somber tune, Guaraldi breaks barriers with a unique rendition.

As expected, the Peanuts main theme, “Linus and Lucy,” is included on the soundtrack. My favorite track is “My Little Drum,” a spin-off of the Little Drummer Boy. The track features vocal “pa-rum-pum-pums” and “oohs” in time with the instrumentation. “Skating” is another personal favorite which, appropriately, seems to skitter across the speakers. Similarly, “Christmas Is Coming” may induce spontaneous cases of the Peanuts dance, so be careful when you push play.

While the album consists of 12 tracks, play time feels much shorter due to sparse lyrics. There isn’t a song you’ll want to skip. Guaraldi sets his album apart by providing Christmas tunes, many of which normally associate with a serious tone, in a lighter mood. Each track is upbeat, and refreshingly modern. Overall, Guaraldi masterfully crafts a finger-snapping album which serves as a lounge music twist on traditional holiday tunes. A Charlie Brown Christmas is at least as impressive and lovable as its film counterpart, and being mostly instrumental is the perfect album to liven up your Christmas party.