Music Review

Music Review: Christmas Hits and Misses

Star Over Bel Air: A look at holiday offerings from Michael Bolton, Vanessa Williams, and Jimmy Buffet

Do the neotraditionalists fare any better than the bratty postmodernists this winter? Hardly.

It's becoming increasingly apparent that there must be both a good Jimmy Buffett and an evil Jimmy Buffett. While the good Buffett is currently writing a Broadway musical with Herman Wouk, his evil twin completes an alarming slide into self-parody with Christmas Island. Now, no Christmas album that makes such liberal use of steel drums can be all that bad, and the title track and ''Mele Kalikimaka'' afford decent nostalgia. But when Buffett blows through more updated oldies or tropics-themed originals like ''A Sailor's Christmas,'' you might find yourself wishing you were marooned on an island. Worst here is a surf-rock ''Up on the Housetop'' — not a half-bad idea, except for how Buffett enters comic wipeout mode by yelling ''Tubular, dude!'' and otherwise offering constant stoned beachcomber lingo.

Conversely, Vanessa Williams gets plenty of bonus points for good taste, starting with the actual cover of Star Bright, which finds her striking a Julie Londonesque pose in a slinky evening dress that isn't even red or green. The quiet orchestrations and modest interpretations she favors may be too careful — a slightly funky rhythmic take on ''Angels We Have Heard on High'' is as close as she comes to R&B — but compared with the overreachings of certain parties to be named shortly, a little subtlety goes a long way.

Michael Bolton won't ever be accused of not singing each piece of material like he means it. When that material is ''Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,'' though, it might be time to call the men in the white suits. Bolton rips off the early-'60s Phil Spector arrangement of the chorus (as has almost every pop singer who's done the song since) and adds his own scary gospel intensity, like an elf who's being tortured to reveal Der Kringle's whereabouts. The rest of This Is the Time — The Christmas Album doesn't veer quite so over the top, though Bolton predictably finds opportunities for melisma just about any time a monosyllabic approach would suffice. Duets with Wynonna and Placido Domingo fail to trash or class up the affair. But on the plus side, think of it this way: Any day Bolton devotes to Christmas standards is another day the R&B canon is safe. Christmas Island: C- Star Bright: B- This Is the Time: D

Originally posted Dec 06, 1996 Published in issue #356 Dec 06, 1996 Order article reprints