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.