"Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" by Various Artists (Sony/BMG, 1999)
South Park's Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, is your host for an evening of x-rated, politically incorrect carols that manage to mock every race, religion and creed. Adolf Hitler does a teary rendition of "O Tannenbaum," Satan celebrates "Christmas in Hell," and the South Park regulars butcher and twist the lyrics to even the most cherished Christmas carols. If you are religious, easily offended, under 18 or over 40, you may want to stay away from this album, which is why it has an "explicit content" label on the cover. If not, you may find it to be a hilarious and refreshing send-up of all that is absurd and hypocritical about the holiday season.
"Blue" by Joni Mitchell (Warner Bros., 1971)
The holidays can be hardest on people who are single or separated from friends and family. In her early folk days, Joni Mitchell struck a nerve with "Blue," a reflective, bittersweet album with songs about love and loss. The production is sparse, featuring just Joni's voice, acoustic guitar, piano and dulcimer, similar to that of other confessional singer-songwriters in the early '70s. One of the most touching tracks is "River" where Joni sings: "It's coming on Christmas / They're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace / I wish I had a river I could skate away on." Most of us have had holidays where things just don't feel right, when the smiles are forced, and the holiday party is the last place in the world you want to be. Joni sums up that vibe on this record.
"Christ Illusion" by Slayer (Sony, 2006)
What better way to wallow in holiday misery than with Slayer, the hardest, darkest death-metal band of all time? On "Christ Illusion," the original 80's lineup takes on organized religion with a vengeance, blaming it for everything wrong in the world, specifically war. These guys are so angry and raw, they make Metallica sound like Perry Como. Songs like "Flesh Storm" and "Jihad" remind you that the cradle of the three major world religions remains a hellish cauldron of violence and despair where it's not just chestnuts roasting, and there is no silent night.
"Oi To The World!" by The Vandals (Kung Fu, 1996)
Believe it or not, there are punk-rock Christmas albums, and "Oi To The World!" is one of the best. The Orange County veterans run the gamut from loud and fast to melodramatic and orchestral. Tongue-in-cheek juvenile humor is evident on tracks like "Christmas Time for my P****," and "My First Christmas (as a Woman)." The tightly-wound music is similar to that of bands like Green Day and the Offspring, but with funnier lyrics like Tenacious D. However, the Vandals venture away from the punk blueprint on the ballad "Hang Myself From The Tree," and even tackle classical music with a rendition of The Nutcracker's "Overture." This album deals with some dark subject matter, but never takes itself too seriously.
"A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" by Various Artists (Abkco, 1963)
"A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" has some great songs on it by Darlene Love, The Ronettes, and the Crystals, featuring Spector's Wagnerian "wall of sound" production. Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was obviously the impetus for the U2 cover in 1986, included on the first "A Very Special Christmas" compilation. But the album didn't sell well initially, apparently due to the fact that it was released on November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy's assassination. Even more creepy is the realization that a Christmas gift from Phil Spector these days is likely a loaded gun pointed at you, followed by the phrase "I think I killed somebody." The album ends with a much kinder monologue by Spector, spoken over the syrupy strings of "Silent Night."
"Songs for Christmas" by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)
If you're turned off by the slick, overplayed holiday music cranked out at the mega-mall, this is a real treat. Multi-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens mixes traditional Christmas songs with originals, giving them a stripped-down, intimate texture using multi-tracked banjo, guitar, piano and singalong vocals. Layers of orthodoxy seem to magically peel away from old hymns such as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "What Child Is This," and "Holy, Holy, Holy," reminding one of the warm, communal spirit that may have surrounded the manger on that special night long ago. Stevens' humor comes out in originals like "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)" "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and "Get Behind Me, Santa!" The package as a whole will make even the most jaded listener believe in angels and flying reindeer again.
"A Motown Christmas" by Various Artists (Motown, 1999)
There's no better way to melt a Scrooge's heart than with the infectious R&B grooves from Hitsville U.S.A., aka Motown Records. The Jackson 5, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross & The Supremes add some much-needed soul to holiday standards like "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells." A very young Michael Jackson belts out "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" with the enthusiasm of a kid who still believes in St. Nick, and Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas" can bring you to tears. When Jackson shouts "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," it's as if he actually witnessed it. The album is infused with so much optimism and innocence, you can't help but smile and sing along.
"Boogie Woogie Christmas" by The Brian Setzer Orchestra (Surfdog, 2002)
Brian Setzer, former leader and guitarist of the Stray Cats, moved from rockabilly to big band swing when he formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra at the turn of the millennium. The BSO has released two Christmas-themed albums and a live DVD documenting their annual "Christmas Extravaganza Tour," currently on its sixth run. "Boogie Woogie Christmas" is full of positive energy, excellent reverb-drenched fretwork by Setzer and over-the-top brass grooves. Like most Christmas albums, there are a lot of covers, but Setzer has fun with a note-perfect rendition of "The Nutcracker Suite." He's a dead ringer for Elvis on "Blue Christmas," and he duets playfully with elder sex kitten Ann Margaret on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," one of the most suggestive Christmas songs ever.
"A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 1-5" by Various Artists (A&M, 1987-2001)
"A Very Special Acoustic Christmas" by Various Artists (Lost Highway, 2003)
"A Very Special Christmas" has raised more than $55 million for the Special Olympics since the first compilation album was released in 1987. The quality of the artists and songs varies, so it probably makes more sense to make your own version via iTunes, culling your favorites from each volume rather than buying the individual CDs. Highlights range from U2's cover of the Motown classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," the hilarious "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-D.M.C., and Sinead O'Connor's cover of Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You." However, contributions by Extreme, Debbie Gibson and Cindi Lauper don't hold up so well. The most recent incarnation is a set featuring mostly country artists called "A Very Special Acoustic Christmas."
"Christmas with the Rat Pack" by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. (Capitol, 2002)
Ol' Blue Eyes, Dino and Sammy serve up martini-ready numbers like "Mistletoe and Holly," "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "Jingle Bells," backed by top-notch jazz orchestras. Most of these tracks were recorded between 1955 and 1965, when the Rat Pack were on top of the world, and you can hear the confidence in their vocals. This is great music for a holiday party or a romantic evening with that special someone. The lyrics and delivery are often corny, but that's part of the fun. One can imagine the Rat Pack having a swingin' Christmas party at the Sands in Las Vegas, belting out these numbers all night long.