Christmas CD Reviews (2011 Edition, Part 1)

So many Christmas albums have crossed my desk (real or virtual) this year that I'm splitting my reviews up into 2 parts -- one for kids music artists or albums targeted at kids (this one) and one for the rest of the musical world. That distinction is a little fuzzy, because Christmas music, generally, is pretty family-friendly as it is. In any case, there are one or two albums here that could have been in the next installment, and there are a handful of artists in that next installment whose names are familiar to the kids music world.

Because what people are looking for in Christmas music differs dramatically, these reviews are ordered in rough order of most to least "goofy." "Goofy" is merely a descriptive term, not a pejorative term -- it just helps those different people who want different things from their holiday music figure out where on the spectrum they should be reading.

MamaSaidNogYouOut.JPGIt is not terribly surprising that I would lead off this list -- the "most goofy" -- with an album from The Jimmies. Ashley Albert and crew have expanded their holiday EP from last year into a full-length Mama Said Nog You Out. (The title alone should clue you in on their attitude.) It's not that they're disrespectful to the season, just that they're more interested in its absurdities. The chant-y original "Nogturne in C Minor," turning "Sleigh Ride" into lite-funk, and making the-already-not-too-reverential "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" into a Marcia Ball-style blues strut -- these are not the songs of someone who's going to somberly celebrate. (And with several songs celebrating non-Christmas holidays, it's appropriate for wiseacre families of every creed.) Available exclusively at Barnes and Noble, or get a free download if you order their latest album Practically Ridiculous from the Jimmies at their website.
DearSantaClaus.jpgBilly Kelly is next up with Dear Santa Claus, a 5-song EP featuring the typical Billy Kelly-ian stew of wordplay and earnestness mixed with a little bit of Bart Simpson. The classic song here is "Glebells Jing!," which Kelly first featured a couple years ago and has somehow managed to rope an entire chorus to sing its mind-bending alteration of "Jingle Bells." (I think the cheer at the end of the song is one of relief.) The other tracks do a better job of celebrating the (secular) season, but none will stick in your head like "Glebells Jing!" Purchase the album at Amazon or iTunes. All proceeds will benefit Camp Victory, a Pennsylvania camp designed for kids with chronic health illness or disabilities.

MerryFishesToAll.jpgTrout Fishing in America released their Christmas album Merry Fishes to All way back in 2004, but I'm just now getting around to listening to it. In typical TFA style, it features a number of silly songs, giving voice to the inner kid ("Chocolate Christmas," "Santa Brought Me Clothes," "I Got a Cheese Log"), mixed in with some more tender moments -- "Snow is Falling" and "Snow Day," for example. And then there are the just-plain oddball tracks - "The Eleven Cats of Christmas," for example, a re-work of sorts of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," and the classic "Bob and Bob," about identical snowflakes. Trout Fishing fans certainly already have this, but others may also find the jazzy and folk-y blend of humor and empathy a nice addition to their slightly more traditional rotation.

JumpinChristmas.jpgMiss Gail and the Jumpin' Jam Band, out of Atlanta, released A Jumpin' Christmas, a 5-song EP. This was probably my least-favorite disk out of the ones reviewed here, but there were a couple tracks I think are worth checking out. I liked the leadoff track "Winter," which uses a swaying 6/8 meter to paint a picture of snow falling and the play that ensues. And "Hark" is an uptempo pop-rock rework of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" ("oh-woah-oh-oh-oh / we're gonna go-go-go") that's pretty good if you like that sort of thing (I'm OK with it, though I'm generally a carol traditionalist). I personally do not like AutoTune, and so will not be listening to this version of "Jingle Bells" ever again. You can pick up the EP in various places, including iTunes.

SantaSongs.jpgSan Diego's Hullabaloo turns in a low-key collection of 11 secular Christmas carols and one original song on Santa Songs. These are fairly faithful renditions of the carols with comparatively minimal musical arrangement (though a few songs like "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" bring in some additonal instruments like fiddle and mandolin). Given the familiarity and simplicity of the tunes, my favorite track on the album is the one original song, "All of the Above," a gentle duet between lead Hullabaloo-ster Steve Denyes and Beth Crocker celebrating the peace and love of the season. (I also like their album-closing rendition of "Auld Lange Syne." Buy the album here and listen to 3 songs from the album here.

HappyElf.jpgHarry Connick Jr. has turned his song "The Happy Elf" into a kids' TV special, stage musical, children's book, app, and, yes, a soundtrack. If you stripped the album of its cover art and first track (featuring Connick Jr. reading his book), you (or your kids) wouldn't really know that it's a Christmas album. The Harry Connick Jr. Trio evokes another famous Christmastime trio (no, not the three wise men -- the Vince Guaraldi Trio, silly) and the whole thing has a bit of a Charlie Brown Christmas feel. It also has a bit of a When Harry Met Sally feeling, harkening back to that soundtrack a couple decades old, which leads to the issue here -- strip the CD of the track which features Connick Jr. reading the text of the titular book, and there's not much to make you think it's a Christmas CD. The title track sounds like a happy elf, I suppose, and "Christmas Day" has a peaceful, relaxed vibe, but nothing is particularly Christmas-y (or kids-music-y, for that matter). It's good jazz, and would fit unobtrusively into a more festive playlist. But unless you (and your family) are familiar with the story and its other incarnations, you would be disappointed in getting this specifically for its holiday mood-setting. (Available at Amazon and elsewhere.)

DZChristmasinConcordCoverArt.jpgFinally (and best of all if you're looking for a Christmas album that most closely matches the spirit of the season), Dan Zanes has released a new iTunes exclusive album called Christmas in Concord. It's got a simple, rootsy vibe that very much feels like the DZ&F crew packed into Zanes' living room and, with a little banjo and slide guitar, sang all the big Christmas carols. My favorite is "Angels We Have Heard on High," but they're all good -- it's the Christmas album here I'm most likely to be spinning for Christmas 2021.

[I received copies of all albums discussed here for possible review.]