Like ugly sweaters and stale fruitcake (and stale jokes about fruitcake), a glut of holiday-themed albums surfaces every Christmas. Some, like the reissue of Bright Eyes' 2002 release, A Christmas Album, are wonderful. Others, like Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped in Red, are much less so. This year, Boise Weekly rummaged through the lumps of coal to bring its readers the finest in atrocious Christmas albums. Here are four holiday releases of years past by artists who should've known better--and one that only looks bad at first. Adjust the alcohol in your eggnog as needed.
Christmas on Death Row (1996)
A Christmas album from the label that released Dr. Dre's The Chronic? Is Snoop Dogg going to rap about his homeboys giving him weed and Hennessy as presents? Actually, yes--on the opening track, "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto," Snoop does exactly that. Buoyed by a bumptious bassline and decked with Nate Dogg's silken baritone, the song is gloriously ridiculous.
If Christmas on Death Row stayed at that level, it would be great fun. Sadly, the rest of the album is dominated by oily, synthetic-soul covers of chestnuts like "Silver Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman." The nadir is 6 Feet Deep, B.g.o.t.i. and Guess's overwrought "Silent Night." "Slee-e-ep in heavenly peace"? Not with all that melismatic overkill.
Christmas on Death Row has some bright spots, though. In addition to the irresistible Snoop Dogg track, the album features Gary Barner and O.F.T.B.'s tough but warm "Christmas in the Ghetto": "Your family's the only Santa Claus you ever know / It ain't no chimneys or stockings in the projects, / And if you get a gift, it came out of pocket."
Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart (2009)
From going electric at the Newport Folk Festival to appearing in a Victoria's Secret commercial, Bob Dylan's career has had more than its share of peculiar moments. And when the final tally is made, his foray into Christmas music should rank as one of its strangest.
The problem with 2009's Christmas in the Heart isn't its selection of time-worn holiday standards. Starting with 2001's Love and Theft, Dylan's 21st-century albums reflect his affection for pre-rock-and-roll pop—reaching back to 1967's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" with its "moon/spoon" rhyme. The problem isn't necessarily Dylan's withered husk of a voice either, although his croaking and wheezing get pretty cringe-inducing at times.Instead, the problem stems from the blandly tasteful production. The trumpets, the strings and the angelic backup singers render Dylan's vocals even more grotesque; the album sounds like your laryngitic grandpa singing along to his Bing Crosby records. Still, Christmas in the Heart isn't as bad as the stuff from Dylan's Neil Diamond-influenced period—check out 1979's Bob Dylan at Budokan, if you dare.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Christmas Time Again (2000)
Yankee hipsters may not believe this, but Lynyrd Skynyrd really was a great band. Skynyrd's musicianship was never as impressive as that of, say, The Allman Brothers Band, but its three-guitar lineup came up with some solid riffs, and Artimus Pyle was one fierce drummer. Also, Ronnie Van Zant was no ignorant redneck. He wrote enough good songs about not fighting, not getting wasted and not using guns to almost sound like some co-op-shopping, Prius-driving yoga fanatic. (He and Neil Young got along pretty well, too.)
Unfortunately, the Skynyrd worth hearing ended with the tragic 1977 plane crash that killed Van Zant, guitarist-songwriter Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines. Led by little brother Johnny Van Zant, the Skynyrd of today makes travesties like this Christmas album from 2000.
Between its undistinguished boogie-rock, its greeting-card lyrics and its sickeningly glossy production, Christmas Time Again is the Southern Rock equivalent of a Thomas Kincade painting. Sentimentalists may warm to "Mama's Song," a tribute to a dearly departed mother, but even that rings hollow next to 1973's "Simple Man."
Conway Twitty, A Twismas Story with Twitty Bird and Their Little Friends (1983)
Almost any self-respecting country artist will crank out at least one Christmas album. At best, it's Merle Haggard's 1973 hit "If We Make It Through December."
Conway Twitty's 1983 album A Twismas Story is not great. The album follows the singer, his friend Twitty Bird--who, on the album cover, looks suspiciously like a certain Warner Bros. character--and a couple other bird friends (also WB doppelgangers) as they journey through Toyland Town and Santa's Winter Wonderland, suffused with so much smarmy gee-whiz awe that it's almost unbearable.
Granted, Twitty (the man, not the bird) sounds in good voice on such staples as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," and it's sweet that his granddaughter Christi Prater provided the voice of Twitty Bird. What's not so sweet is the album ripping off a beloved cartoon character to milk a few dollars out of country fans—the birds sing suspiciously like Alvin, Simon and Theodore. Still, NPR's Stephen Thompson called the album "[a]n instant cult classic." Listen at your own risk.
James Brown, A Soulful Christmas (1968)
James Brown's 1968 album A Soulful Christmas may look like some kind of cynical cash-in or self-righteous put-down; after all, what kind of Christmas album includes "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud"? For that matter, what kind of Christmas album has a track titled "Believers Shall Enjoy (Non Believers Shall Suffer)"? Happily, A Soulful Christmas showcases Brown at his most musically confident and emotionally generous.
Brown's band lays down sinuous, propulsive grooves, while his lyrics balance depictions of ghetto welfare lines with calls for unity and kids playing games on Christmas Day. In this context, even "Say It Loud" fits thematically.
Also highly recommended is the 1970 track "Hey America," on which Brown calls again for world peace at Christmastime over a hard-driving beat. To hammer home the point, he gives his Muslim listeners an "As-Salaam-Alaikum" and his Jewish listeners a "Hava Nagila" on the song's outro.