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 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.