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Bah, Humbug!

The glut of holiday CDs kills the Christmas spirit

Racket is in no mood for holiday cheer. 'Tis the season to be jolly and all that, but it's hard to be merry in the face of the onslaught of abysmal Christmas music coming at the end of a pretty crappy year. After all, 2001 saw Houston drowned in June's deluge. Then the nation was visited by unprecedented sorrow in September. Enron collapsed just weeks ago. And now Dynegy, Compaq and Continental stocks are all on the slide. On a lighter (but still depressing) note, the Rockets are in their worst stretch since Jelly Bean Bryant was their go-to guy, the Astros choked in the playoffs again, and Drayton McLane is playing slow-and-tight with the purse strings as usual.

And then, as predictable as the outcry that greeted the new 55-mph freeway speed limit, each washed-up artist and every no-talent flavor of the month wants to share the holiday spirit with us by reheating a platter of yuletide drivel. Even straight-up legends get in on the act, dashing off Christmas albums that were it not for the charity granted them by the season, would forever blemish their résumés. What is it about the Christmas season that spawns such dreck?

To the curmudgeons among us, it comes down to one word: money. Many of the hoarier Christmas chestnuts have passed into the public domain, so singers don't have to give songwriters a cut. And Christmas CDs, as those of a horticultural bent would say, are "hardy perennials." Wax one of these discs, and what doesn't sell this year can be reshipped the next. In fact, this year's top-selling holiday disc at Cactus Music and Video is actually the several-years-old and immensely disappointing Christmas Is a Special Day by Fats Domino. (This legend-who-should-know-better lolls through a few Christmas classics accompanied by what sounds like a very early model, quite possibly a prototype, Casio keyboard and a tinny drum machine.) While it's the rare holiday CD that goes gold, much less platinum, sales of 10,000 or 20,000 per year are not uncommon, even for acts that should be past their sell-by date.

Cactus general manager Quinn Bishop takes a somewhat rosier view. While even he admits that the CDs discussed in this column make up "a roll call of shame," he argues that for many artists a holiday album is something to aspire to. "You stick around long enough, you make a Christmas record," he says. "There issomething special about Christmas."

Something especially crappy, if you ask Racket. The current trend in Christmas tripe seems to be classic rock and '80s acts. While the world eagerly awaits such releases as O Holy Night Rangerand I'm Dreaming of a Whitesnake Christmas, there remain plenty of vintage artists actually attempting holiday-fueled comebacks. Take Heart's A Lovemonger's Christmas, for example. Maybe it's me, but if I want to hear the definitive version of "Ave Maria," Ann Wilson's distinctly suboperatic version is not the ticket. Still, on Heart's message board, several "Lovemongers" (as Heart devotees style themselves) share their heart-rending tales of woe: A Lovemonger's Christmas is so hard to find! A Netizen from San Antonio, however, says that every record store in hertown has plenty of copies (not surprising, given that San Antonio is infamous in music business circles as the only town on the planet in which Foghat and Deep Purple are still considered hot properties).

While it's true that everybody wants to be a millionaire and everybody wants to rule the world, who wants to spend Christmas with .38 Special? Apparently, some do. Said band is banking that enough are desirous of their seasonal company to make a moneymaker out of this year's A Wild Eyed Christmas Night,which to Racket conjures images of Cops episodes filmed in some of the more desperate of our Southern white ghettos. You know, the policeman's Mag light shines in on Daddy (he of the eponymous methamphetamine-n-Fighting Cock 101 proof-induced "wild eyes"), who's hiding nekkid under the festively decorated trailer vigorously denying he bit Mama even though he's got bloody swatches of her hair tangled up in his few remaining teeth. As always, .38 Special remains in the creative wake of their onetime Jacksonville running buddies Lynyrd Skynyrd, who released Christmas Time Again last year. No yuletide whiskey-fueled domestic dispute should go without this double shot of longhaired rebel rock, and here's hoping for future releases like Here We Go A-Wassailing with Wet Willie and O Little Town of Black Oak, Arkansas.

But neither L.A. nor New York (nor the Deep South) can match Nashville's horrid holiday output, which Bishop of Cactus sees as the "tonnage" approach to Christmas music, throwing a ton of crap against the wall of pop culture to see what sticks. "Let's make money," Bishop says, taking the role of a Nashville mogul. "While we're still ringing up Billy Gilman's last record, let's put a Christmas record in front of them too." Wanna spend Christmas with Lonestar? Shedaisy? Billy freakin' Gilman?? Me neither. Garth Brooks and the Magic of Christmas is the winner of the worst cover art sweepstakes. Only God and Garth can know why the country king is pictured clutching a crystal ball and looking as if he were plotting the immensely excruciating death of your entire extended family. Country music has a long history of giving garbage for Christmas. The late John Denver, lumped here with the Nashville artists for the sake of convenience, gave us "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)," quite possibly the worst 1970s-era dollop of after-school-special-infused maudlin treacle ever to disgrace the holiday. "You came home a quarter past 11," Denver croons, sensitively taking the child's view. "Fell down underneath our Christmas tree." C'mon kid, get used to it. It's Christmas. Whaddaya doing up so late anyway? And this coming from a guy who racked up not one but two DWIs…

Then there's the Kenny G-spawned smooth jazz Christmas movement. (Incidentally, G is a leading member of the Jewish Christmas artist club. G, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond have between them waxed six Christmas albums. What's next, Amy Grant's Hillbilly Hanukkah?) G's 1994 Miracles: The Holiday Album has become the Christmas record champion of all time, in both sales and lameness. "It was a phenomenon," recalls Bishop in disbelief. "We just couldn't buy enough of that thing."

G's yuletide imitators are legion. This year, Dave Koz's Smooth Jazz Christmasand a compilation by the same name featuring Jeff Lorber and Doc Powell join this litany of infamy. "It reminds me of when Peter Frampton did that double live album that was really a studio album," Bishop says. "Then everybody else had to do one. After Kenny, all the smooth jazz cats had to do a Christmas album. You can't tell me that people who are listening to that crap have an aptitude for music."

Well said.

Now, if you want your house to sound like a Van Nuys porno set during the Christmas season, that's fine. Far be it from Racket to stop you from regaling your loved ones with the marginally talented, perpetually out-of-tune Mr. G's seasonal squawkings. If any one or all of John Tesh's half-dozen Christmas CDs is what puts the nog in your egg, well, go for it. If your holly just ain't jolly without a little of that Mannheim Steamroller, be my guest. But if you're a friend of Racket's, don't invite him over, and if you're in his family, you might be disowned.

As for Racket, he'll be rocking around the old Christmas tree with Slayer's new one. It's called God Hates Us All.And for Mrs. Racket, who is English, he'll slap on the 1981 British punk compilation Bollocks to Christmas.And a Merry Christmas to you, too.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Evidently someone out there is feeling the same sort of holiday cheer as Racket, if the following anonymous letter sent to him along with everybody in his office and several nonexistent people is any indication: "Mr. John," the poorly spelled and punctuated letter reads. "Your agreed to the amount upon, to consult my wife on her project, plus reviewing it in your paper. Instead, your'e now sleeping with her, you've caused enough trauma in our family, if you do not leave us alone will take action in you & your paper. Merry Xmax/New Year, Dick Head." I don't know who you are, or who your wife is, or what we agreed on, but Merry Xmax to you too…Xmax came early for the Pacifica dissidents, as the national board dissolved itself on December 12. The new board will be composed of five members from the current regime, five from the dissident's faction and one from each of the five stations' local advisory boards, thus ending (for now) over two years of litigation, slander, arrests, slap-fighting and generalized aggro. "There's been a lot of damage done, a loss of listeners, a loss of money," New York board member and dissident plaintiff Leslie Cagan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is not a victory, this is a settlement." Typical. The bastards go and settle the day Racket's story hits the streets, thus rendering it utterly obsolete… Those who, like Racket, would just as soon spend Xmax at a bar with loud music face limited options this holiday season. But Fitzgerald's will be open, with 30footFALL and Groceriesgracing the stage…In one of the very few bright spots of this dismal season, musicians and would-be music biz types can network, hear good music and support a good cause Friday, December 21. Houston musicians Jerry Richard Jr. and Charles Rene have come together under the name Muse-net to organize the event. Schmoozing begins at 6 p.m. in the St. Germain Lofts' Blue Room, with a talent showcase to follow downstairs at the Flying Saucer. On the bill are Arthur Yoria, the Pander Band, Tru Soland others. Admission is free, though donations to the Houston Musicians Benevolent Society will be accepted gratefully.

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