Holiday Music: A Few Joyful Noises
Koger, David, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Thanksgiving is well behind us, and it's time to start buying gifts, unpacking decorations, making travel plans. Perhaps most important for those determined to get through the holiday season with a smile on their faces - it's time to select some appropriate, uplifting Christmas music.
But picking good holiday music is not what it used to be. In today's market, lurking out there behind attractive, brightly adorned covers are Christmas collections that will ruin a mood faster than St. Nick can shimmy up a chimney. The trick in choosing Christmas music lies in separating the wheat from the chaff. And there is a great deal of chaff out there this year. The albums reviewed below represent some of the best and worst recently released for 1996.
"GIFTS," THE NASHVILLE MANDOLIN ENSEMBLE ON COLUMBIA RECORDS
This charming album is a rare collection of traditional songs best savored during a quiet moment of reflection, sitting by a fire or gazing at a Christmas tree. Despite the name Nashville Mandolin, this is not a bluegrass or country music album. The mandolin arrangements on "Gifts" bring life to aged tunes such as "Carol of the Bells," "The First Noel" and the moving "O Holy Night" by stripping them of the orchestral arrangements found on some other recordings. Those who are looking for Christmas music in the New Age or Celtic vein should consider "Gifts."
"STAR OF WONDER: A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS COLLECTION," VARIOUS ARTISTS ON ARISTA-NASHVILLE RECORDS
For true country music fans, this collection of seasonal tunes probably is worth buying if for no other reason than Steve Wariner's faithful rendition of "Silent Night" and Alan Jackson's jaunty version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." Disappointingly, taken as a whole, "Star of Wonder" fails to rise above its holiday competitors. In addition to Mr. Wariner and Mr. Jackson, this production features only Arista-Nashville recording artists, such as Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, Blackhawk, Lee Roy Parnell, Brooks and Dunn, and Michelle Wright.
The brightest ornament on this musical tree is the warm and folksy "Cabin in the Valley," written and performed by Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn.
"THE GIFT," KENNY ROGERS ON MAGNATONE RECORDS
This album, Kenny Rogers' first release for Magnatone Records, features a duet with fellow country star Wynonna Judd on "Mary Did You Know," a song that asks the mother of Jesus whether she knows what impact her baby will have on the world. This tightly woven work has a gentle holiday sound that makes it a must-have item for fans of Mr. Rogers and a good choice for those looking for a refreshing, unpretentious Christmas music collection.
"CHRISTMAS ISLAND," JIMMY BUFFETT ON MCA RECORDS
Die-hard "Parrot heads" are going to love Jimmy Buffett's first attempt at a Christmas album. Others, who remember Mr. Buffett best for his "(Wastin' Away Again in) Margaritaville," may ask, "Why?" upon hearing this album. The answer lies in what Mr. Buffett believes is the strange coincidence of his being born on Christmas Day 1946, the same day W.C. Fields died.
"Christmas Island" is a muddled holiday brew that includes a grating reggae arrangement of "Jingle Bells," a barely recognizable orchestration of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and a baffling rendition of "Up on the House Top," which sounds like something recorded for a "Beavis and Butthead" Christmas special. The last cut, "Merry Christmas Alabama," almost salvages the album, which proves that Mr. Buffett can write a good song with a Christmas theme if necessary. The remaining original work falls short of what is expected from this talented songwriter.
"ALABAMA CHRISTMAS, VOLUME II," ALABAMA ON RCA RECORDS
Sincerity is an important element of any quality recording. Discerning fans can spot a purely commercial product over an honest effort to produce quality music every time. …