Fit to Be Yuletide: A look at two modern takes on the holiday season

Just Say Noel

Not that long ago, Christmas albums mostly served as the genre of last recourse for over-the-hill pop and country stars who couldn’t get up off their lazy bums to write new material but still had those pesky alimony bills to pay. But nowadays even alterna-rockers are getting in on the holiday act — though when the youngsters deign to toss off standards, it’s in the guise of irreverence. Same difference: Is there really that much artistic distance between Collin Raye recording the 10,000th ”Christmas Song” and Bush tacitly admitting they couldn’t be bothered to remember the real title of ”Good King Somethingorother”? Meet the new Claus … same as the old Claus.

But if the uninspired state of 1996’s new Christmas music drives you to drink, have we got the soundtrack for you. The ”lounge” craze has lingered long enough to bring on a sleighful of holiday-themed reissues and compilations geared toward the nouveau cocktail crowd, which is as good a reason as any to drag some of those superior Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin chestnuts out of mothballs.

And we can bemoan the mediocre offerings of Messrs. Bolton, Buffett, etc., till the reindeer come home, but there’s always reason to count your blessings. Because any year in which Neil Diamond doesn’t get around to releasing The Christmas AlbumVolume 3 is a year in which it really is a wonderful life.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Thurston Moore

In the postmodern musical landscape, even late December is a deadly time. O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock 4 Choice opens with no less severe a Scrooge than Henry Rollins doing a straight recitation of ”’Twas the Night Before Christmas” over an ominous sound bed of gunfire, bombs, and assorted urban warfare. (Over-obvious irony takes no holiday.) The season’s other big alt-rock roundup, Just Say Noel, has the Roots pulling up a terrifically moody remake of De La Soul’s ”Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” wherein an incestuous, red-suited-and-white-bearded dad gets plugged right in the middle of Macy’s. It’s a very Brady Bill Christmas!

Regardless of whether you think honoring the birth of history’s most beloved figure with a benefit for abortion rights (”the most spiritual of gifts,” says the liner notes) might be in questionable taste, the Rock 4 Choice album sports too many tracks that should’ve been, well, terminated. Among Choice‘s most feckless throwaways are the Presidents of the United States of America’s mercifully brief ”Christmas Piglet”; the aforementioned Bush tomfoolery; and the Cranes’ aggravatingly wispy ”Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which might have John Lennon not just rolling over but turning hawk in his grave. The album’s only keepers: Juliana Hatfield’s tender, marginally Christmassy ”Make It Home” and the Dance Hall Crashers’ ”I Did It for the Toys,” a bouncy but rueful reflection on what not to do with Saint Nick at night.

Just Say Noël, though limited to one label’s roster (Geffen), produces a slightly better success ratio. Beck’s delightful ”The Little Drum Machine Boy” (a.k.a. ”Hanukkah Pimp”) offers variations on a bottom end so low and thick you could hear it from poles North or South, with our hero’s usual laconic braggadocio (managing to rhyme ”menorah” with ”funk so illegal I think I might need a lawyer”). Bass also provides the raison d’etre for Elastica’s cool riff-rock take on ”Gloria.” More lyrically, real-life couple Aimee Mann and Michael Penn conjure the lonely spirit of holiday singleness (”looking for a savior, underneath the mistletoe”) in a duet of Penn’s bittersweet ”Christmastime.” And Sonic Youth’s no-wave noise update of Martin Mull’s ’70s staple ”Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” will cheer anyone on first listen and drive ’em to drugs by the second. Rock 4 Choice: C Just Say Noel: B-

Just Say Noel
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