There was quite a flap this year over what to call the tree in the state Capitol, but when it comes to music, there's not much difference between a Christmas album and a holiday album. Amid the sleigh bells and the snowmen, you're bound to bump into Jesus somewhere along the way.
It's the triad of the secular, the sacred and the silly that makes holiday music what it is. For musicians, it can also be the gift that keeps on giving. Many's the top artist who has bellied up to the manger and cashed in on seasonal recordings.
My list of Christmas music favorites grows each year. If any of these discs catch your fancy, remember to look for them at Madison independent record stores before heading online. Going straight to the Internet would be naughty.
Barenaked for the Holidays, by knucklehead popsters Barenaked Ladies, is one of the records I always dig out despite the fact that it only has one great track. But it's worth the price of the CD. Their hipster version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is a reverse-beat arrangement that conceals the song at first, then opens it up the way only jazz allows.
You won't hear a flake of jazz on 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, only surf guitar treatments of classics like "Frosty the Snowman" that will make the bulbs on your tree explode. Santa does a samba during "Christmas in Las Vegas." Turn this one up loud and dance around in your wool socks with a loved one.
Much aloha awaits on The Don Ho Christmas Album. Ho, a slightly more sober, Hawaiian version of Dean Martin, ladles on the schmaltz, but what's Christmas without it? His soused version of "Silver Bells," is drenched in overmodulated orchestra and boozy backup vocals. You get woozy just listening to it. It's surprising that the "Mele Kalikimaka" arrangement is sans ukulele, but Ho's over-the-top, slowed down, Fat Elvis version will have you crying in the dark.
Before the Avett Brothers, North Carolina gave us the Squirrel Nut Zippers, named after the mountain slang term for moonshine. The Chapel Hill band was formed by James Mathus, whose previous group was Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves - as good of credentials for a decent Christmas album as I can think of. Christmas Caravan is tattooed with punk swing that puts the freak into songs you'll never, ever hear on the radio, songs like the ode to re-gifting, "Indian Giver." Katharine Whalen's super-sexy vocal on "A Johnny Ace Christmas" will have you throwing your Lady Antebellum albums into the fireplace.
My dad was a bourbon man all year 'round, but I can still see him aglow in the Christmas lights, placing his clinking highball glass down in order to load the stereo console with Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass' Christmas Album. Herb Albert was the soundtrack to my parents' monthly bridge games, too, affairs that often ended with the grownups pushing back the card tables and then dancing all sassy brassy in the living room. The trombones will run you over on "Jingle Bells." You'll push your own card tables out of the way in order to get after the finger-snapping "My Favorite Things."
With its warm snap, crackle and pop, vinyl was made for the holidays. Get your hands on Ernest Tubb's Blue Christmas LP. People associate "Blue Christmas" with Elvis, but Tubb was the first to have a hit with it in 1948. This 1964 collection is a reminder of why Tubb is credited as the original honky-tonker. And you not only get "Blue Christmas" on this record, but "White Christmas," too.
Speaking of country, and with an eye on buying local, you get three bands in one with the just-released CD Season's Greetings from Madison, WI. Bethlehem goes bluegrass with traditional tracks by SpareTime Bluegrass Band, Off the Porch and the Oak Street Ramblers. SpareTime will feature selections live at a special holiday party at the Frequency on Dec. 15 (6 p.m.).
The talented Madison meatheads in Cribshitter gave birth to the season's most suspect and fun Christmas(-like) album. Methlehem, released this week, includes getaway guitar chases on hymns like "Come with Me Lord."