Christmas albums by pop stars used to crop up about as often as presidential elections. Then, last year, Garth Brooks, Amy Grant, and Neil Diamond all landed in the top 10—Diamond for the first time in a decade—with yuletide collections. Now it seems as if anyone who ever signed a record contract is jumping aboard that snow-encrusted bandwagon. But just because everyone is doesn’t mean everyone can.
Take Kathie Lee Gifford. In a clear, vanilla voice that would sound fine during the prebuffet show at a Days Inn lounge, she warbles a bunch of standards on It’s Christmastime (Warner Bros.). But only fans will enjoy her grating duet with TV costar Regis Philbin on ”Silver Bells” and a cameo by her son Cody. Speaking of kids, Carnie and Wendy Wilson close Hey Santa! (SBK/ERG) with a chirpy 1976 recording of the preteen sisters singing ”I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” accompanied by dad Brian Wilson and his fellow Beach Boys. It’s a charming moment on an album that otherwise features obnoxiously perky renditions of everything from ”Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to ”The Little Drummer Boy” in the sugary style of their in-limbo group, Wilson Phillips.
Give Gloria Estefan credit for using Christmas Through Your Eyes (Epic) as a way to spice up over-recorded holiday standards with Latin-pop flavoring. Unfortunately, Estefan’s usual energy flags; she sings nearly every song as if inhabited by the ghost of Karen Carpenter (whom Estefan sounds eerily like on ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”). And someone should have told producer Phil Ramone that making a Christmas album sound cold should refer to the time of year, not to colorless synthesizers and drum machines.
Boyz II Men take a few chances themselves—but sound much warmer—as they lusciously harmonize on Christmas Interpretations (Motown). With the exception of ”Silent Night,” the album consists entirely of new songs, most with mournful seasonal themes. It’s a pretty gutsy move, but hampered by the fact that none of the originals are as memorable as, say, ”Silent Night.”
Boyz II Men at least have the right idea. The most enduring Christmas collections—Phil Spector’s heartbreaking A Christmas Gift for You and folk guitarist John Fahey’s beautifully spare The New Possibility and Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (the latter two are newly reissued on one CD by Rhino)—combine seasonal bounce with that particular brand of sorrow that comes with the end of another year and more lost opportunities. Vince Gill seems to understand that quality: His Let There Be Peace on Earth (MCA) must be the least upbeat Christmas album ever made, right down to its ending with a Gill original about the death of his brother this year. It would be compelling stuff if not for Gill’s blandness and the repeated use of backing choirs that would embarrass Mantovani. For a funkier Nashville yuletide, opt for Alan Jackson’s Honky Tonk Christmas (Arista). You have to love any seasonal album with a song called ”Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas).” Even his duet with the Chipmunks is fun.
Tammy Wynette gives a shot of country to producer David Foster’s The Christmas Album (Interscope) by warbling ”Away in a Manger” over his typically vacuous movie-theme arrangements. The rest of the all-semi-star album finds the bland leading the bland—Celine Dion, Natalie Cole, and Vanessa Williams, among others, sleepwalking through standards. You know you’re in trouble when even Tom Jones sounds as if he’d taken No Doz (on ”Mary’s Boy Child”).
Aaron Neville would have fit perfectly into the above lineup, but instead he has his own holiday album, Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas (A&M). Neville truly does sing like an angel, and his lip-quivering vibrato lends this set of standards and originals just the right heavenly feel. But except for the zippy zydeco number, ”Louisiana Christmas Day,” the album is so syrupy that Santa himself might slip on the front porch.
Which brings us to this year’s three best holiday records, each from an unlikely source. Most various-artists holiday albums, like Foster’s, are a jumble, but not a LaFace Family Christmas (LaFace/Arista, out Nov. 23). In the funky spirit of the Phil Spector collection, producers L.A. Reid and Babyface oversee a new-jack holiday. Among the treats: diva Toni Braxton’s sultry, piano-bar rendition of ”The Christmas Song” and TLC’s funky, Janet Jackson- style rearrangement of ”Sleigh Ride,” which could be a killer Top 40 single. Much more austere, but equally rewarding, is Canadian singer- songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas (Columbia); its mix of jaunty guitar instrumentals, starkly arranged standards, and Cockburn’s own born-again yuletide ballads has the woodsy glow of a Christmas Eve fireplace.
Lastly, Harry Connick Jr. may be an overconfident faux Voice, but those same qualities lend just the right amount of kicky charm to When My Heart Finds Christmas (Columbia). Thanks to Connick’s carefree, hat-cocked delivery and big-band arrangements, this is one holiday collection that swings. He also adds a modest boogie feel to one of his four originals, ”(It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus.” It’s the best Christmas album Frank Sinatra Jr. never made. It’s Christmastime: D Hey Santa!: B- Christmas Through Your Eyes: B- Interpretations: B Peace on Earth: C- Honky Tonk Christmas: B+ Christmas Album: D+ Soulful Christmas: B LaFace: A Christmas: A- My Heart Finds Christmas: A-