The holiday music scene is almost as crowded as Southgate Mall on a weekend afternoon. Contemporary artists continually struggle to find footing in this congested genre, on the theory that the classics never fade from popular favor, and yet every year anyone who’s anyone records “The Christmas Song” with an orchestra just to try to squeeze out a little extra coin. We’re stuffed fuller than Santa’s sleigh and decided it’s time to suck out the trash. By pitting roughly similar artists against each other—call it a battle of the bands in the name of Baby Jesus or a tinsel-clad celebrity deathmatch—we’re trimming our playlist and letting you check it twice.
Christina Aguilera’s My Kind of Christmas vs. Jessica Simpson’s Rejoyce
Ugh, we totally don’t want to pick a winner here, skanks you very much. But when pressed—much like the recently pudgy Simpson into her Daisy Dukes—we’re siding with Aguilera. The fidgety techno “Xtina’s Xmas” and her remix of “The Christmas Song” (hey, clubs need something to play this time of year, too) are strangely refreshing compared to Simpson’s über-breathy take on “The Little Drummer Boy” (a duet with sister Ashlee, no less) and “O Holy Night;” the former Mrs. Lachey comes off sounding asthmatic. But what puts Aguilera over the top, like anything with this pair, is aesthetics—her black-and-white album cover exposes a bare midriff but says “Xalt in the season” better than Simpson’s slightly confused-looking headshot.
Merry Christmas from The Chipmunks vs. Christmas with the Rat Pack
Granted, it’s hard to resist the appeal of Alvin, Simon and Theodore’s one-hit-wonder “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”—who doesn’t sing along when Theodore croons, “Me, I want a hoola-hoop”?—but by the fourth song on this helium-fueled 24-track marathon listeners may want to take an ax to the little critters. The Rat Pack’s 21-track effort, however, gets better the longer it’s played. Dean Martin’s classy “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” doesn’t need the exclamation points to emphasize his smooth delivery. Old Blue Eyes’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” simply melts through the speakers. And Sammy Davis Jr., who converted to Judaism in the mid-1950s, offers up spirited renditions of “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time All Over the World.” The Rat Pack should stick in your collection like glue paper under the kitchen sink.
Elton John’s Christmas Party vs. Clay Aiken’s Merry Christmas with Love
In the ultimate catfight, Elton bitch-slaps Clay hard. Christmas Party includes 21 tracks: John bookends the compilation with his own originals, then lines up a divine collection of tunes from the likes of Rufus Wainwright, the Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush and Jimmy Buffett. Most of these tracks have been previously released, but we don’t care—Elton’s liner notes on why he likes each song show he really cares. With Clay, there’s no such Love. His Johnny-Come-Lately routine is straightforward and polished, but he adds absolutely no flair to the holiday genre with pedestrian versions of “Winter Wonderland” and the like. Clay ends up looking like pinstripes compared to Elton’s sequins.
Adam Sandler’s What the Hell Happened to Me? vs. Barenaked Ladies’ Barenaked for Hanukkah
Everybody wins because, face it, there’s such a dearth of Hanukkah tunes to choose from there’s no point in schvitzing. So, when Sandler offers up his hilarious “The Chanukah Song” (which is bigger than “Hava Nagila” at this point) and BNL do their version of “I Have a Little Dreidel” it’s cause for mazel tov. I only wish someone would decide how to spell the darn holiday.
John Floridis’ December’s Quiet Joy vs. Kenny G’s The Greatest Holiday Classics
In the instrumental category, our local guitar maestro’s newest release is a welcome holiday addition. Floridis’ fret work is outstanding, and his song selection here shows off that skill. Case in point: Floridis’ version of Bruce Cockburn’s “Joy Will Find a Way” rivals the original. To be honest, Kenny G never had a chance, even if the soprano saxophonist does pull off a medley that goes from “Deck The Halls” to “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” and back into “Deck The Halls.” Kenny G represents everything that’s wrong with the holiday music genre—Greatest Holiday Classics is just one of four smooth-jazz holiday albums he’s released.
Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas vs. Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories
Straight rock doesn’t always work with holiday music. For my money, the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” is the best of the angst-ridden best (“Father Christmas, give us some money/Don’t mess around with those silly toys/We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over/We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”), and probably because its not-quite-warm-and-fuzzy vibe hasn’t been played to death (see “Springsteen, Bruce”). But this year A Twisted Christmas emerged, and any time an ’80s hair band tries a cheap marketing ploy, we’re willing to give it a shot. It’s schlocky—a heavy metal rewrite of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” for example—but ultimately forgettable beyond the initial punch line. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, on the other hand, takes a completely schlocky idea—a holiday prog-rock opera?!—and makes a cottage industry out of it. Their “Carol of the Bells” section of “Christmas Eve (12/24)” is like the Rocky theme music of the holiday season—no matter how clichéd, it still gets us amped up and in the mood.
Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow vs. Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas
Depression is a very real problem during the holiday season, so it’s a little puzzling that the ever-melancholy Mann would venture into this peppy realm with anything approaching uplift or spirit. And this is one Christmas album that isn’t—not really, at least, in any traditional sense. One More Drifter in the Snow is the runaway winner for best new holiday release because it’s appropriately sophisticated and thoughtful, understated without being sad, where others seem to simply follow a pattern. Mann’s unassuming appeal is something Stevens may want to learn from. The so-called indie wunderkind, who is certainly capable of pleasant surprises, is in dire need of a governor before his career careens off a cliff. In his latest example of genius-flexing, Stevens has released a five-disc, 42-song boxed set of pure holiday overkill. Are three versions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” really necessary? Absolutely not. What should have been a fantastic 12-song effort becomes instead just another pile of grist in the increasingly overburdened holiday music mill.