Friday, December 21, 2007

NOW That's What I Call Christmas! Volumes 1-3
CD Reviews by Sombrero Grande

It can be tough to define "good" Christmas music. Oh sure, the bad stuff is easy to pinpoint, but how does one actually go about proclaiming something as subjective as an individual Christmas song "good"? Everyone has different tastes, and, musically, Christmas is very different for each individual who celebrates the holiday. After all, everyone's got a different idea of the ideal Christmas soundtrack dancing like visions of sugarplums in their heads. For me, Christmas isn't Christmas without Bing Crosby's White Christmas album. For my wife, it's got to be Manheim Steamroller's Christmas. But maybe you're into something different. The question is: how diverse are your tastes?

The folks behind the "NOW" CDs have put together three two-disc compilations, all titled "NOW That's What I Call Christmas!" From the track listings (each two-disc set contains 36 "classic songs from Christmases past and present"), it would appear to the casual observer that these discs contain the biggest and most popular Christmas songs in the public consciousness, but are they really the treasure troves of "good" Christmas music they appear to be?

Here's a listing of what each CD set offers:

NOW That’s What I Call Christmas!
Disc 1
1. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) - Nat King Cole
2. White Christmas - Bing Crosby
3. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
4. Have Yourself A Merry Little Xmas - Frank Sinatra
5. Winter Wonderland - Tony Bennett
6. Sleigh Ride - Ella Fitzgerald
7. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! - Dean Martin
8. (There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays - Perry Como
9. The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year - Johnny Mathis
10. A Holly Jolly Christmas - Burl Ives
11. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - Gene Autry
12. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer - Elmo & Patsy
13. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree - Brenda Lee
14. Jingle Bell Rock - Bobby Helms
15. Little Saint Nick -  The Beach Boys
16. Merry Christmas Darling - Carpenters
17. Christmas Collage - Kathy Mattea
18. Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth - David Bowie & Bing Crosby

Disc 2
1. Happy Christmas (War Is Over) - John & Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band
2. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town - Bruce Springsteen
3. Do They Know It's Christmas? - Band Aid
4. Wonderful Christmastime - Paul McCartney
5. Our Love Is Like A Holiday - Michael Bolton
6. (It Must Have Been Ol') Santa Claus - Harry Connick, Jr.
7. Jingle Bells - Diana Krall
8. Away In A Manger - Mannheim Steamroller
9. Deck The Halls - Ottmar Liebert
10. Love On Layaway - Gloria Estefan
11. Don't Save It All For Christmas Day - Celine Dion
12. This Christmas - Joe
13. Special Gift - The Isley Brothers
14. All We Need Is Love (Christmas In The Yard) - The Big Yard Family
15. My Only Wish (This Year) - Britney Spears
16. You Don't Have To Be Alone (On Christmas) - *NSYNC
17. O Come All Ye Faithful - Luther Vandross
18. Silent Night - Boyz II Men
NOW That’s What I Call Christmas! 2
Disc 1
1. Opera of the Bells - Destiny's Child
2. O Come, All Ye Faithful - Stacie Orrico
3. I Don't Wanna Spend One More Christmas Without You - *NSYNC
4. Santa Baby - Kylie Minogue
5. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town - B2K
6. Step into Christmas - Elton John
7. Jingle Bells - Jimmy Buffett
8. All I Want for Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
9. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Vince Gill
10. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear - Aaron Neville
11. Last Christmas - Wham!
12. Christmas Through Your Eyes - Gloria Estefan
13. Christmas Wrapping - Waitresses
14. A Christmas to Remember - Amy Grant
15. Silent Night - Charlotte Church
16. Please Come Home for Christmas - Luther Vandross
17. O Holy Night - Celine Dion
18. Peace - Norah Jones
Disc 2
1. Winter Wonderland - Louis Armstrong
2. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Barbara Streisand
3. Silver Bells - Johnny Mathis
4. The Little Drummer Boy - Lou Rawls
5. Happy Holiday - Peggy Lee
6. The Christmas Blues - Dean Martin
7. Run, Rudolph Run - Chuck Berry
8. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Tom Jones
9. Feliz Navidad (Live) - José Feliciano
10. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Burl Ives
11. The First Noel - Andy Williams
12. I Know What I Want for Christmas - George Strait
13. O Little Town of Bethlehem - Yolanda Adams
14. Kentucky Homemade Christmas - Kenny Rogers
15. Go Tell It on the Mountain - Andy Griffith
16. Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) - Luciano Pavarotti
17. (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays - Barry Manilow
18. Auld Lang Syne - Guy Lombardo
NOW That’s What I Call Christmas! 3
Disc 1
1. O Come All Ye Faithful - Nat King Cole
2. Jingle Bells - Frank Sinatra
3. Baby, It's Cold Outside - Dean Martin
4. My Favorite Things - Tony Bennett
5. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year - Andy Williams
6. Silver Bells - Bing Crosby
7. It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas - Johnny Mathis
8. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) - Elvis Presley
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - Judy Garland
10. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - Ella Fitzgerald
11. Frosty The Snowman - Gene Autry
12. The Little Drummer Boy - Peggy Lee
13. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town - Burl Ives
14. Winter Wonderland - Louis Armstrong
15. Blue Christmas - Johnny Cash
16. Jingle Bell Rock - Brenda Lee
17. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) - The Chipmunks
Disc 2
1. You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft
2. Little Saint Nick - The Beach Boys
3. Noel - Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
4. Up On The Housetop - The Jackson 5
5. O Holy Night - Al Green
6. Christmas Time Is Here - Dianne Reeves
7. Christmas Is My Favorite Time Of Year - Kenny Rogers
8. Shimmy Down The Chimney (Fill Up My Stocking) - Alison Krauss
9. Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree - Cyndi Lauper
10. Feliz Navidad - Celine Dion
11. I'll Be Home For Christmas - Gloria Estefan
12. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Jessica Simpson
13. Merry Christmas, Baby - Christina Aguilera
14. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Gloria (In Excelsis Deo) - Mariah Carey
15. Santa Baby - Pussycat Dolls
16. Home - Ne-Yo
17. It Just Don't Feel Like Xmas (Without You) - Rihanna
18. Christmas Wish - Stacie Orrico
19. 12 Days Of Christmas - Relient K

Did you spot some of your holiday favorites in there? I'm sure you did. And I'm sure you also ran into an awful lot of songs/covers you've either never heard of before or ones you instantly rolled your eyes at.

Ultimately, that last bit is the main problem with these discs. Like every CD in the "NOW" line, the mix of artists, music genres and styles is so eclectic that while it ensures that every disc will feature: A) a few songs that you, the unique listener, will really like, B) a few songs you may tolerate and C) many more you will probably hate and skip over every time. When you've got a CD set that features tracks from Luciano Pavarotti, *NSYNC, Chuck Berry, Amy Grant, Dean Martin, B2K, Barry Manilow and Wham! all on the same release, you're bound to wind up without any listener possessing the same level of interest in every song in the collection.

To gauge the value of each disc individually, I put them to the ultimate yuletide test: I played each disc, back-to-back, while my wife and I decorated our Christmas tree and filled out Christmas cards this year. So which discs provided the best, uninterrupted Christmas ambiance? And which discs had me feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge, constantly reaching for the "skip" button on the stereo remote?

Well, I can honestly say that the remote laid untouched for most of the first disc of Volume 1 (right up until "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," to be exact). After that, though, that "skip" button saw even more use than the pen I was using to write "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" on each of our Christmas cards.

Volume 2 labels its discs "Now and Forever" (meaning "newer" songs) and "Then and Always" ("older," more "classic" tunes). The distinction holds true for the other two volumes for the most part, though it's not spelled out as such. Call me old fashioned but I found many more enjoyable songs on the "Then and Always" discs than the "Now and Forever" ones. Seriously, do they expect us to really consider Britney Spears' "My Only Wish (This Year)" or *NSYNC's "You Don't Have to Be Alone (On Christmas)" to be for "now and forever?" They're already horribly dated-sounding and it's been only a few years since their release.

Volume 1 contains in its liner notes a brief few sentences essentially explaining why each track was chosen to be included in the two-disc mix. It's a nice way to get a few nuggets of information about each song and serves to justify each tunes' presence on the album. Volume 2 also has some text associated with each song title in the liner notes, however these blurbs are of a very different nature. Instead of interesting and sometimes educational factoids, these blurbs are little bits of fluffy marketing drivel. Consider the text accompanying The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" (remembering, of course, that this is written on the inside of the CD's insert: "Don't miss this one this year. Chris Butler's ode to a bad Christmas with a very happy ending at an all night grocery." What? Why are they trying to "sell" me on listening to this song? I already got the damn album. And the second sentence that attempts to serve as a "Cliff's Notes" version of the song isn't even a complete sentence!

As I listened through each successive disc, I came to realize that the volumes of NOW That's What I Call Christmas! get worse with each successive release, showing less and less thought and effort being put into each set. Volume 1 clearly has the biggest "good" to "bad" Christmas music ratio, and is the only volume I would consider recommending. With Volume 2, prepare to be hitting the "skip" button more times than not, and the useful and interesting text associated with each song gives way to inane marketing tripe. Volume 3 is barely even worth dissecting, as there's absolutely no extra text in the liner notes at all, the breakdown of songs doesn't fully embrace the whole "Now" and "Then" distinctions as the songs appear to be arranged haphazardly across both discs, and the mix of music itself offers up only a handful of decent tracks while the rest sounds like bottom-of-the-barrel, D-grade Christmas songs. Apparently they didn't even bother to double-check which songs they'd already included in other volumes, as The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" appears in both Volume 1 and 3.

Now, like I stated earlier, everyone's got different taste in Christmas music, so I can understand that some folks may enjoy tracks like Jimmy Buffet's take on "Jingle Bells" or Relient K's "12 Days of Christmas," while, personally, listening to them made me want to vomit in my stocking and cram a fistful of tinsel in each ear. But what I can't comprehend is how anyone could be so musically eclectic in their tastes as to be able to enjoy all or even most of what these NOW mixes offer up. It seems to me it would have made more sense to break up each "Now" and "Then" discs into separate releases, as they'll better serve different crowds. The idea of, "let's dump something from every genre onto one release; that way we're sure to get more people to buy our CDs!" just doesn't cut it with me. It reminds me of a great Bill Cosby quote: "the key to failure is to try to please everyone."

Is putting such a wide range of Christmas music into one, then two, then three very eclectic CD collections an interesting idea? Sure it is. Is it a good idea? Probably not.

Should you buy any of the NOW That's What I Call Christmas! CDs? Well, that depends. Are you the type of person who buys a whole CD just to get one or two songs off of it? If so, here's a good way to get, say, Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You", Elton John's "Step Into Christmas" and Burl Ives' rendition of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" all in one simple package. Back in 2001 when Volume 1 of NOW That's What I Call Christmas! was released, that probably would have made sense, but now, when it's so easy (and so much cheaper) to buy individual songs from online stores like iTunes, it really isn't your best option to buy a two-disc set just for a handful of tracks.

If, however, you are looking for a kind of "Christmas music sampler," then these NOW discs are ideal, providing a far broader mix of all Christmas music flavors than one might initially expect. But are you prepared for the jarring range of genres represented in these mixes, and are you going to find enough songs to justify a purchase of the entire albums? Personally, I think you'd be better off buying your favorite tracks individually and making your own, personal Christmas mix instead of just buying someone else's, especially when that mix seems to be trying to satisfy all tastes in music at once. But, hey, like I said, everyone's got a different preference for Christmas music, and maybe yours is "toss-everything-into-one-pile, random-assed."


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