The challenge with Christmas music is to catch the right mood. The holiday almost inherently sentimental, and it requires artists making Christmas music to accept that. Perhaps because of Pam Tillis’ relationship to Nashville—which is often showily sentimental—and Americana—which is more warily so—she strikes exactly the right tone on <em>Just in Time for Christmas</em>, revisiting the Christmas standards with a hint of swing and twang.
Dionne Warwick covers the standards as well on <em>My Favorite Time of Year</em>, but the only personality in the tracks comes from her voice. The generic soft jazz arrangements do nothing but frame the vocal, but I can’t help wondering if 15 to 20 years from now, these arrangements will seem as charmingly odd as the faceless vocalists in the Ray Conniff Singers or the ghostly choir that windily intones the melody of the carols on the Jackie Gleason Christmas album.
Darlene Love is best known for her contributions to <em>A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector</em>, and <em>It’s Christmas, Of Course</em> confirms that, like many Spector singers, Love was more of a pop than a soul singer. Here she suggests an alternative Christmas music canon, one that includes James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” She sounds overmatched taking on the Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?” but is charming on NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish,” a song that really should join the Christmas songbook. Her “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is touching and sad as she omits the phrase “War is Over,” because, well, it isn’t, and wishing doesn’t seem to make it so.
Record labels often use Christmas compilations to expose their artists, and Rounder’s <em>Home for Christmas</em> does that beautifully. Riders in the Sky, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Deana Carter, the Persuasions, Rhonda Vincent and Irma Thomas all turn in winning tracks that have personality and vulnerability, Thomas singing a beautiful “O, Holy Night.” Yep Roc’s <em>Oh Santa!</em> suffers the usual problem that rock ’n’ roll Christmas songs face. They seem unable to take the holiday seriously, and find the Christmas music tradition even tougher to deal with. There are some good tracks—the Minus 5’s “Your Christmas Whiskey,” the Moaners’ “Something Funny in Santa’s Lap, Jake Brennan and the Confidence Men’s “Santa Gave to You What You Gave to Me”—but none of them get around the fundamental sappiness of the season and embrace the holiday. Instead, they lampoon an easy target. Download Los Straightjackets’ “Holiday Twist,” a song not on their excellent surf Christmas album, <em>Tis the Season for Los Straightjackets</em>.