Nothing makes me want to hock my holly worse than being annually sentenced to four weeks of junky Christmas tunes. When they unleash that insufferable dog barking "Jingle Bells," I want to drop dynamite down their chimneys.
Even transmitted by human voices, "Silent Night" and "White Christmas" can wear out their welcome. Still, one doesn't want to completely shut out the joys of Christmas noise, and this year's list brings the spirit of the season without inducing another holiday headache.
For family gatherings or just quiet listening around the tree, the best collection of traditional songs this year is "Christmas Country," a tastefully rustic roundup of Christmas pop and circumstance. Herein, Hank Williams Jr. pauses from his hell- raising to offer a surprisingly sweet "Little Drummer Boy," Tompall and the Glaser Brothers perform a nicely layered "Silver Bells," and Mel Tillis, whose voice could charm the ornaments right off the tree, does a fine turn on "White Christmas."
Tillis, who should know better, recently recorded an awful duo album with Nancy Sinatra. On "Christmas Country," perhaps at gunpoint, he joins her for a wincingly bad "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It's the only truly awful cut on the record, but it's final proof, if any were needed, that Nance needs to get her boots on and take a hike.
Elsewhere on the album, Helen Cornelius puts an interesting yokel edge on tired old "O Holy Night," and Eddy Raven does a version of "Blue Christmas" that I far prefer (heresy!) to Elvis'.
For those who want to rock around the Christmas tree without benefit of Brenda Lee, there's "A Christmas Record," whose simple title belies its delightfully perverted nature. This is great stuff for escaping tinsel tedium, though it's not advisable to play it within earshot of family members who might frown on a hearthside hearing of Suicide's punky exhortation, "Hey Lord," or Cristina's enigmatic "Things Fall Apart."
"Christmas Record" gets down to some of the less-heralded psychological aspects of the season, namely the idea that noel nirvana is seldom achieved anymore except by retailers. In this context, it's pleasant and mildly avenging to hear August Darnell's "Christmas on Riverside Drive," the Waitresses' chatty "Christmas Wrapping" (read: rapping), and "It's a Holiday" by Nona Hendryx and Material. The highlight of the album, though, is "Christmas Time in the Motor City," a funky ho-ho performed by the ever-demented Was (Not Was).
Finally, for the kiddies, there's "In Harmony 2," a follow-up to last year's highly popular Sesame Street record. Granted, the only true Christmas song on the album is Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," but these compilations of pop tunes are perfect alternatives for children already bored with the usual Christmas fare, and Columbia has the good sense to release them at Yuletide for that reason.
Included on "Harmony" is Dr. John's "Splish Splash, "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Lou Rawls and Deniece Williams, and Crystal Gayle's "Here Comes the Rainbow." Janis Ian and Kenny Loggins, whose music often seems uncomfortable in the adult world, fit in quite well here with "Ginny the Flying Girl" and "Some Kitties Don't Care." Their contributions are so sunny and unstrained that they'd do well to consider a permanent residence on Sesame Street.
CHRISTMAS COUNTRY -- Elektra 5E-554.
A CHRISTMAS RECORD -- ZE ILPS 7017.
IN HARMONY 2 -- Columbia BFC 37641.