The Best Christmas Album of 2008 is... Metal?
Perhaps Willie Nelson said it best: "This looks like a December day." Or Merle Haggard: "If we make it through December..." The icy wind whips through the trees, retail checkout lines resemble a stock pit on one of those massive Wall Street sell-off days and Noise is already so burdened with holiday stress he's ready to strangle Frosty the Snowman on sight.
Like his muse Chrissie Hynde said on 1982's "2000 Miles," it must be Christmastime.
Noise hasn't done any actual research or anything, but it seems likely to him that a major reason people go out of their gourds this time of year is morning till night, in the car, at work or at the mall, they're bombarded by a glut of holiday music that, for lack of a better word (or not), is absolute shite — songs as crass and commercial as the stores jockeying to separate shoppers from their money.
Mind you, Noise is no holiday-music hater. One of the best performances he's ever seen, of anything, was Luciano Pavarotti, Vanessa Williams and a full choir doing "O Come All Ye Faithful" on Saturday Night Live. Other longtime favorites include Galveston native Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby," Elvis's Lieber/Stoller gem "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" and the Pogues' immortal "Fairytale in New York." Just the other day he heard a great new one, Billy Bob Thornton & the Boxmasters' "Christmas in Prison" — basically Bad Santa set to music.
So, with the ever-optimistic attitude of a kid setting out milk and cookies for Santa, Noise set out to find a few 2008 holiday albums that don't suck, and — praise the Lord — he actually found a few.
Kemper Crabb, Downe in Yon Forrest: Christmas from the Middle Ages: Christmas was a lot different 700 years ago. No malls, Jesus was known as "Divinum Mysterium of the Father Love Begotten" to his MySpace pals, and both Christmas and Christmas music had a ways to go yet to shed their pagan origins. That means if you know what a diembe, dumber or bowed psaltery is without consulting a dictionary, or really dug the music in Gladiator — sitar, dulcimer, bouzouki, the works — this is the holiday album for you.
Forrest should also appeal to anyone who loves Led Zeppelin III; try "Es Kommt Ein Schiff (The Song of the Ship)" or the chilling "Down in Ye Forest." Even cooler, Forrest issues not from Bethlehem or Coventry but from Katy's Church of the Holy Apostles, where Crabb — a Houstonian and former member of A-list Christian rockers Caedmon's Call — and his ensemble recorded these songs live.
About half of these tunes survived those dark times — the tripped-out, tabla-heavy "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" chief among them. However, it's the ones that didn't that make Forrest one of the most fascinating Christmas albums (and one that actually, you know, worships Jesus to boot) to come from anywhere, let alone Houston, in, well, ages.
Gentleman Auction House, Christmas in Love EP (Emergency Umbrella): Within about 20 seconds of "A Banner Year," the opener of Gentleman Auction House's new Christmas in Love EP, the St. Louis indie-pop hydra has managed to recall Belle & Sebastian, Arcade Fire and another dozen or so boy-girl bands that are equally earnest and invigorating. In words, the seven-piece's (though only two play on this song) Velvet Underground/Yo La Tengo fuzz-candy is pretty damn addictive.
In declaring themselves too cool to celebrate Christmas, people under 30 — musicians mostly, but also those who enable them — have deprived an entire generation of contemporary Christmas carols. "Home for the Holidays," which furthers both David Byrne's Brazilian and Elvis Costello's Jamaican studies, sums up American Apparel Nation's general Yuletide attitude in one line: "Our holidays were just fine when you were away."
Christmas in Love goes a long way to mitigate this unfortunate state of affairs, and does so in only six songs, leaving room for blogworthy romantic sentiment among the boilerplate twentysomething angst. "On the Rooftop," over a snappy accordion lick, some dude tries to keep Santa from stealing his girlfriend by telling her "He said he won't be late, be late, be late, so you better kiss your man now." (Take note, though: If you love "Here Comes Santa Claus" but can't stand the Faint, this may not be the Christmas record for you.)
Christmas in Love is probably the only recording to declare, "I don't want love at Christmas" this year, in a while and maybe ever. Love is the last thing anyone should want at Christmas, unless it's family. Just one more person to shop for.
Don't miss the his-and-hers tombstones on the back cover or the electrocized title track, which begins "the trees are barren..." On disc, it sounds even more Ultravox austere than that.
Various Artists, We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year (Armoury): Oh, where to begin? Satan takes a holiday? The devil got run over by a reindeer? Or just a really fun album that reminds us metal is still the purest extension of Elvis-style rock and roll? We'll go with the latter, although is Noise the only person who noticed Santa and Satan are only one letter apart?
Anyway, closing with Styx's Tommy Shaw leading an almost-acoustic session of John Lennon's "Merry Xmas (War Is Over)" signals Metal Xmas has gone on a bit too long, but overall, it's a hoot. A who's who of all-star metal maniacs — Alice Cooper, Lemmy, Ronnie James Dio, Dave Grohl, Tony Iommi and about a dozen others — acquit themselves quite nicely on a broad range of postwar Christmas pop, "Silver Bells" to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"
Not to be missed are Testament's Chuck Billy and Anthrax's Scott Ian totally Panteraizing "Silent Night"; Dio, Iommi and friends turning "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into the blackest of Sabbaths; Ratt's Stephen Pearcy and L.A. Guns' Tracii Guns' sleazoid Sunset Strip hit-and-run "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"; and the one-of-a-kind threesome of Lemmy, Grohl and ZZ Top's Billy F. Gibbons's sleigh-bells boogie "Run Rudolph Run."
Alice Cooper comes close, in full Million Dollar Babies mode on a sinister "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but stealing the show here is Houston's own dUg Pinnick. Assisted by Dokken shredder George Lynch, the King's X front man (see Playbill) steps up and flat nails "The Little Drummer Boy" — away in a manger, the little Lord Jesus is rocking his face off. Pa rum pa pum pum.
Various Artists, Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents Christmas a Go-Go (Wicked Cool): One thing about Christmas songs, every single artist ever to pick up a guitar or drumstick seems to have recorded at least one, a company that apparently includes Joe Pesci, Soupy Sales (kids, ask your grandparents) and garage gods the Electric Prunes. Guaranteed, Christmas a Go-Go is the only place you'll hear Bob Seger and his pre-Silver Bullet band the Last Heard do a kick-ass James Brown on the Mitch Ryder-worthy "Sock It to Me Santa."
It's a Little Steven production all right. No Springsteen, but Keith Richards kicks things off with his appropriately ragged rendition of mentor Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," followed quickly by the Ramones' leather-jacket Yuletide classic "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" and Darlene Love's thrilling tower of Spectorian song "All Alone on Christmas."
Steven throws in a couple of ribald R&B numbers for pointers on what to do when the children are nestled all snug in their beds. Alabama soulman Clarence Carter advises, "I ain't like old St. Nick, he only come once a year" on "Back Door Santa," while Memphis's Rufus Thomas, amid waist-deep bass and "Ball of Confusion" horns, warns, "What I got for you mama, it ain't just a toy" on "I'll Be Your Santa."
The Fab Four deserves a tip of the stocking cap for its seamless adaptation of "Silent Night" to the tune of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," as do the Chesterfield Kings for spinning "Adeste Fideles" and "Pretty in Pink" into a tasty power-punk candy cane. The Cocktail Slippers' neo-Go-Go's "Santa's Coming Home" begins "Snow is falling from the sky..." — and it really was snowing when the song came on! — and ends in a gloriously Lush-like chorus. (Think "Ladykiller.")
Steven digs up the Kinks' teddy-boy carol "Father Christmas" — "Give us some money / We've got no time for your silly toys — and then there's Pesci's "If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas": "Which one of you little creeps stole the candy canes?" Marone. Even so, to borrow a bit from the Underground Garage radio program, Christmas a Go-Go is definitely the coolest album in the world this week, and the very rare holiday album worth spinning all year long.
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