Dec 012010

In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “was it really as bad as all that?”

In the world of rock & roll, few two-word phrases signal a stagnant career quite like “Christmas album.” Everyone from Twisted Sister to Bob Dylan has claimed a piece of the holiday record pie (check out our massive list of this year’s releases), much to the chagrin of music lovers everywhere. Critics almost universally loathe these seasonal releases; Jim DeRogatis decried Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart as “holiday torture,” while’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine harshly dubbed Sting’s recent festive effort If On a Winter’s Night… “a holiday album for people who have never wanted to hear a holiday album, let alone own one.” But have these musicians really sinned so badly?

Certainly holiday albums are a vanity project; no one really needed Dee Snider to show the world the amazing similarities between “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” But that fact in itself does not make holiday albums automatically worthless. To prove otherwise, let’s perform a thought experiment.

Posit, for a moment, someone who just does not enjoy most “traditional” Christmas music. After overexposure via grade school sing-alongs and countless hours of holiday television, he or she takes little joy in hearing some nameless vocal group perform “Jingle Bells” for the one thousand and thirtieth time. This person, however, does not wish to eschew Christmas music altogether; the spirit of the season’s songs still holds an attraction for him or her, that attraction has just been blunted by years of monotony.

Well, folks, you can stop imagining because — spoiler alert — that person is me. The only standard Christmas song I enjoy is Frank Sinatra‘s reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” for whatever reason, I just find the emotion in that song continues to ring true every time I hear it. Play me some public domain rendition of “Deck the Halls,” though, and I’m liable to go crazy. So, yes, from time to time I inspect the occasional major recording artist Christmas album on the slim chance that an artist I like might be able to save a couple holiday classics for me. I realize these records can be completely horrible, but sometimes they’re an awful lot of fun, and they can even be pretty interesting.

For instance, I’m a big fan of hair metal. So, unlike probably every other sane human being on the planet, I was pretty excited when I found out about Monster Ballad Xmas. Although most of this album’s tunes won’t be winning awards for quality any time soon, I take a kind of strange pleasure in things like hearing Cinderella’s Tom Kiefer howl his way through “Blue Christmas.” This album’s got a couple genuinely great tracks too — a song like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” really works in the hands of FireHouse, for instance. The standout on the disc, though, has got to be Dokken’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” Honestly, Dokken almost touches brilliance with that cover. By setting the lyrics against a minor-key riff akin to that of their Nightmare on Elm Street hit “Dream Warriors,” the band keys in to the fact that at its core this song– about a fat guy who watches your every move and breaks into your house once a year– is super freaking creepy. Indeed, in Dokken’s hands “you better not cry” sounds like a threat of great harm, not a promise of good tidings to come. Bruce Springsteen‘s interpretation of “Santa Claus” takes the top spot in my heart by default, but Dokken’s version nips at its heels.

Dokken – Santa Clause Is Coming to Town

Even Dylan’s much-maligned Christmas album has its value. Critics have correctly pointed out its corny and bizarre nature, but in my opinion, that album truly radiates joy; Bob sounds like he’s having a blast with the material, and I find that enthusiasm cannot help but infect his listeners… at least this one. For instance, in the opening  “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Bob’s vocal delivery makes it apparent that he can hardly contain his excitement about meeting the big man in red, and that just makes me happy. Christmas in the Heart may not even exist in the same musical universe as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but on its own merits the album really channels the holiday spirit.

I think a lot of music pundits just get exhausted by the onslaught of new Christmas music every year. Typically critics like to praise endeavors that try something new or different, and most of the time holiday records cut precisely the opposite path. Before they get too flummoxed, though, our cultural analyst friends ought to consider the historical precedent — namely, that even if we aren’t conscious of it, Christmas music is unoriginal by definition. Almost any religious holiday tune was written centuries ago, and many have no discernible original performer. Even more secular pieces often undergo many artists’ interpretations before entering the cultural cannon. For example, the aforementioned Springsteen version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” often finds itself included in classic Christmas collections, but how many bemoan Bruce’s lack of integrity and cry for the original Tom Stacks vocal from 1934? I think we just have the impression that the songs we grew up with constitute the “classic” holiday cannon, but if we take a step back for a moment, we might wonder how Sinatra performing holiday songs in the ’50s is much different from Jewel performing them today.

At their worst, holiday albums from pop/rock acts can be ignored. At their best, they might offer up a few new interpretations of season tunes that really hit home with some listeners. I don’t know if anyone records a Christmas album thinking it’ll be the next Abbey Road, and that’s fine. Let the critics nay-say. I know I’ll enjoy kicking back with Bob Dylan come winter break.

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