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March 24, 2006

Which Christmas records suck this year?

This is the season that never ends (it goes on and on, my friend)Christmas never ends, even for those for whom it never begins. Although the monsoon of pointless gift offerings only saturates every inch of the Western world for two long, dreary months, in this essay I will focus my adorable rage on a handful of compact discs that you really shouldn’t buy, consider buying or … actually, don’t even read this. I get paid either way.So much is asked of your attention these days, I ask — nay, beg — as a citizen of this great nation, as a seeker of truth and justice who loves our freedoms and salutes all those who have given of themselves so that you may fight over Beanie Babies or whatever else your kid will have forgotten about two months from now, I beg of you, please stop reading this now and go spread peace and love to your family, friends and pizza delivery guy. (The latter only applies if you’re a stoner, porn actor or both.)The history of Christmas music is very long, and even longer if one focuses on all the misguided attempts to cash in on the American public’s shockingly consistent habit of buying annoying, phoned-in records that sound no better than the others already bought over the years.Out of all of the embarrassments brought on by Christmas music, there are at least two types that are at the top of the bottom of the barrel: Jewish entertainers (Neil, Barbra, Barry, et al.) chasing after the same holiday dollars while celebrating a different holiday, all the while downplaying their own culture and beliefs and doing nothing (worse than nothing, actually) to educate and entertain people with their own catchy-but-tired anthems.Then there’s the good, the talented, the inspired music makers who can do better — who only do better — slumming, either for what they perceive as a quick buck, or to announce that they are so established that they pretty much have to make a lame, pointless Christmas record that adds absolutely nothing new to the genre. What’s your favorite James Brown record? Ernest Tubb? Low? I didn’t think so.Let’s get to some of what makes each of this year’s crop suck, individually:The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Dig That Crazy Christmas CD/“Christmas Extravaganza” DVD (Surfdog)If there’s one musician who makes me earn my pay, it’s Brian Setzer. Though I might say you couldn’t pay me to listen to his so very incredibly annoying shtick, I like getting a chance to remind potentially thousands of readers about just how unenjoyable his existence on this planet is. What Jim Belushi has contributed to comedy, Setzer has given to music. As a guitarist, he has a distinctive tone and his playing has improved over the years (how could it not?), but his Johnny Rockets/“Happy Days” retro show apologizes for every lazy, mediocre, safe aspect of modern life. Only Rupert Murdoch might be able to enjoy something so soulless.Diana Krall: Christmas Songs (Verve)Goodness, some targets are just so easy to hit it’s hardly worth it. Diana Krall’s main albums are already, basically, the literal embodiment of what’s wrong with Christmas records: tasteful, predictable, soothing to the point of numbness. Even the name of her Christmas songs album is uninspired. She’s been blessed with a deep, smoky voice (the voice that Joni Mitchell had to smoke for 40 years to earn), and has solid taste in collaborators (here she’s backed by the ever-solid Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra). While there isn’t much bad about Krall’s music, there isn’t anything great about it, and that’s terrible.Marah: A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Rock)This generic bar band is best known for sounding so much like a band that sounds like a mid-1990s Bruce Springsteen record performed with late-’80s Springsteen energy, or alternately as a favorite of middle-aged pop critics who lost touch many years ago. This falls into the category of bands announcing their arrival, but it’s a premature announcement. Smartly, the band has made one of the shorter Christmas records around. I was even starting to get used to how much time I was wasting listening to it when it ended. While a handful of songs benefit from a melding of Polka beats and Celtic-punk rhythms — and isn’t that what you’re looking for this holiday season? — the rest is about as interesting as watching golf on TV on a pretty day.New Grange: A Christmas Heritage (Compass)Joining Diana Krall in the Starbucks-ready pile is this collection of talents for whom traditional bluegrass is too intense, but who lack enough imagination to improve upon it (including Darol Anger, Alison Brown, Tim O’Brien and more). It’s all very polite and competent, but fades into the background within seconds.Umixit: U-Sing-It Christmas (Webster Hall NYC)Finally, one disc that offers something: Load this into your computer, and use it as a karaoke disc! Now that’s fun for your whole talentless family!Various: Taste of Christmas (War Content)You know how teens can be really grating? Dumb, loud, completely self-absorbed? Not the cool ones, the ones with brains and potential — no, I just mean most of them. Imagine the most moronic of the lot trying out Christmas songs — Funeral for a Friend, Skindred, The Used, etc. This is just inexcusable.Finally, I’m here to remind you that there’s only one Christmas record worth buying and worth listening to. Bing Crosby? If you must. Nat King Cole? Possibly. No, I’m talking about Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas. If you know someone who doesn’t have one yet (deaf? foreigner? deaf foreigner?), be a friend, indeed. Spread peace and joy this holiday by giving them the only CD they’ll need to get through this, the most obnoxious time of year. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com