As far as I'm concerned, Christmas can't come fast enough. Seriously. We need it now. Sure, the bills will be brutal, Target will be a death march and Aunt Gladys will hog all your hooch. But let's be honest: It's been a bad year. And for all the mayhem the holidays will unload on us, we can always count on that wink of yuletide magic, a brief glimmer of hope, when we need it most.
You know, magic: eggnog-fueled confirmation of a long-standing office crush . . . a moment of blessed peace between you and your psychotic neighbor . . . a sudden reminiscence of youth gleaned in the tapioca-scented aisles of Toys "R" Us.
This unique holiday magic is always accompanied by music, too: Vince Guaraldi's bubbly Linus and Lucy, Dean Martin's besotted Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charles Brown's aching Please Come Home for Christmas. The music makes it, right?
This year, I started receiving new holiday CDs in September. And you know what? I loved it! Bring on fresh product from Sting and Neil Diamond, I say. Heck, I'm even ready for a little David Archuleta. So as you read the following rundown of 10 new Santa season albums, don't holler or harrumph. Don't say it's too early. We need a little Christmas, folks. We need a little music. We need a little of that magic.
A Christmas Story: Music From the Motion Picture (Rhino)
Twenty-six years after Ralphie plinged his eye out with that Red Ryder beauty, the score from A Christmas Story is finally available for cultist geeks like me. Composers Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza don't exactly whip up a John Williams frenzy; instead, the music — which you know better than you think — mimics the action with a cartoonish lope. Instead of humming along, you'll be inserting well-known lines in all the right places. "You used up all the glue . . . on purpose!"
If on a Winter's Night . . . (Deutsche Grammophon)
As rock fans well know, there are two kinds of Sting. There's sexy, swaggering Police Sting. Then there's lute-hugging Renaissance Festival Sting. If you're wondering which Sting shows up on this 15-tracker, let it be known that one song, The Burning Babe, is a poem by a 16th century English Jesuit martyr. Yikes, somebody hide the plastic party forks! This is bleak stuff, performed via harps and harmoniums and presumably recorded in a Gothic stone fortress of sadness. And yet Sting's definition of Christmas — "a period of intense loneliness and alienation" — makes these delicate shanties and carols mesmerizing and fresh. In a strange way, it might help you survive the holidays.
Christmas From the Heart (19/Jive)
Quick, somebody punch me in the face! I must be going soft, because there's something about the American Idol Muppet's Christmas album that . . . I really like. Archuleta comes off as some sort of Disneyfied castrato, a cherubic eunuch. Over robust synths, the kid absolutely nails such churchly standards as Joy to the World and Angels We Have Heard on High. It's quite lovely, actually. That said, the ridiculous album art features Archie sporting one of his classic who-me smirks, as if he's just peeked at his first Playboy. (Hey, I liked the disc. It's a start.)
Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic)
I find Tori Amos to be terrifying, mainly because she's smart, talented and obviously in possession of great witchcraft. I was expecting the firebrand's foray into holiday music to be unnerving and piano-pounded, full of twisted laments a la I Saw Mommy Gutting Santa Claus. But Tori makes for fine fruitcake company, and Midwinter Graces is romantic, sweet and resolutely positive. But she still scares me.
Suckin' It for the Holidays (Music With a Twist)
Extending the gag of her hit memoir, Official Book Club Selection, a cheeky grab at Oprah approval, the comedian packages this album of yuks to seduce the holiday market. But except for the naughty cover art (ho, ho . . . oh god no) and a mention of Kwanzaa, this disc has absolutely zip to do with the holidays. Instead, it's a live comedy set about her Mom, jerk celebrities and all that D-list blather. But hey, I could use a few cheap laughs. And so could you.
Gold and Green (Mercury Nashville)
You know why country acts make decent holiday albums? Because most Christmas standards are basically Nashville numbers already. Think about it: the loping beat, the rural imagery, the folksy arrangements, the plethora of reindeer to shoot and kill. Winter Wonderland, Holly Jolly Christmas, Nuttin' for Christmas — those are right in the wangy, twangy wheelhouse of popular duo Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. It also helps that Nettles is one heck of a vocalist; her reading of original cut City of Silver Dreams is a keeper.
This Christmas (Razor & Tie)
Out of all the new offerings this year, MM's blue-eyed soul gives you the best shot at hot mistletoe action. The former Doobie Brother doesn't dole out anything too hearth-shattering — it's basically his Motown treatment sprinkled in tinsel — but man, does this guy still have a husky, hunky voice. Plus as someone who's unable to generate facial hair, I'm pretty sure Mike's beard has magical powers. He should marry Tori Amos. They could rule the world!
Christmas in the Heart (Columbia)
This already infamous holiday entry is so utterly grotesque — like a candy cane made out of paving tar — it's actually kind of nice. The gravel-damned Voice of His Generation (who always wanted to be Bing Crosby in the first place) is totally earnest about this down-home endeavour — even though the high notes of Do You Hear What I Hear? make him sound like a melodious garbage disposal. It's hard to recommend an album that made my ears and throat hurt, but after a few songs (and especially when Andrews Sisters-esque singers add retro counterpoint to the croaky old man) you get used to the horror of it all . . . and actually start to like it.
Not So Silent Night (CMG)
It's impossible for me to hear REO Speedwagon and not think of unsuccessfully hitting on Krissy Pergakis at a junior high party all those years ago. Thus it's impossible for me to hear REO Speedwagon's '80s-stuck new Christmas album — singer Kevin Cronin is still an engaging, tireless frontman — and not think of how, after three decades in hiding, Krissy Pergakis is now a Facebook friend who claims zero recall of that mortifying "incident" in the pool. God rest ye middle-aged men!
A Cherry Cherry Christmas (Columbia)
We adore the William Shatner of rock as much as the next 61-year-old divorcee. But this compilation of music old and new is neither corny nor swoony; it's just dull and lazy, the generic musicianship neither over-the-top nor spare. His vocal is strained and tired and phony. And the title track? Read closely so as not to miss the subtle lyrical touches: "Wish you a very merry cherry cherry Christmas / And a holly holy holiday too / Underneath your tree may there always be / Sounds of harmony not a song sung blue."