"Just Say Noël" is a good example of the kind of Christmas-holiday-rock compilation CD that used to show up in record stores during the 1990's, right around the time that Thanksgiving Day brought with it the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Released in 1996, it provides a good insight into what was going on musically during those times. While some of the artists included on this collection seem to be trying a bit too hard to approach the holiday theme with a hip, irreverent, post-modern attitude (in accordance with the cultural norms of those alternative/indie-rock times), a surprising number of these songs hold up well, despite the passage of time, and might make for a good addition to your holiday rituals.
Beck starts off the album with "The Little Drum Machine Boy." Beck was quite popular back in the early 1990's; I can recall how his "drive-by body-pierce" hit song "Loser" -- "Soy un perdidor/I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me" -- was playing on 98 Rock in Baltimore ALL THE TIME in 1993-94, back in the good old days of Kirk, Mark & Lopez. I hope my jaded attitude toward Beck's overplayed, tragically hip 1990's hit does not unduly influence my attitude toward Beck's contribution to this album. Beck brings phase-shifted vocals and a hip-hop quality to the traditional "Little Drummer Boy" tune. There's a nice "Jingle Bells" break in the middle, and the Hanukkah references are appreciated; but at 7 minutes, this song goes on much too long.
"Christmastime" by Aimee Mann with Michael Penn offers a nice duet quality -- smooth, emotional vocals, well-supported by organ and electric guitar. I appreciate the "less is more" quality of this song, with its wistful, melancholy quality and the way the Mellotron comes in at the end. But then comes a rapid change of pace with Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope." Sonic Youth's punk aesthetic is on abundant display here, as the song's chatty, sardonic beginning features the band singing out of tune (deliberately, I hope). The song's melody is vaguely reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday." Its purported anti-drug message seems sarcastic, particularly considering that the members of the band sound as high as kites while they're singing it. The band's shout-out of "Merry Christmas, David Geffen" is a fun touch, as many rock fans of the time harbored a healthy suspicion that albums like this one were nothing more than a holiday-themed way to separate record buyers from more of their money. This song didn't work for me, but if you're a fan of Sonic Youth and their cynical approach, maybe it'll work for you.
The Posies' "Christmas" is a pensive, guitar-based song with fine harmonies, and its lyrics explore well the angst that many people feel around the holidays, when the media-generated pressure to be joyful and triumphant can become quite severe. With "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa," the Roots provide fine hip-hop vocal delivery, with a complex beat and phase-shifted voices. The gun-related subject matter did not appeal to me, but then I *am* writing this review less than a month after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Maybe I'm just not in the mood to hear anything about guns right now. I was more partial to Southern Culture on the Skids' version of "Merry Christmas Baby." The post-modern rockabilly trio from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, provide a fun, creative reworking of the Charles Brown classic, in which bluesy slide guitar combines well with fine, low-timbre vocals and harmonies.
Remy Zero's "Christmas" has a somewhat uncertain beginning, but then these alt-rockers from Birmingham, Alabama, offer an effective combination of piano and guitar, with eerie synthesized sounds lurking in the background. As with the Posies' song "Christmas," mentioned above, holiday angst is a major theme here, as when the band sings about "Snow/In ways you'll never know." With the British post-punk group Elastica's "Gloria," a bass-guitar intro is followed by a characteristic example of this band's highly melodic power pop -- energetic and guitar-based, strongly reminiscent of their 1994 hit "Connection." Justine Frischmann's vocals have that Chrissie-Hynde-style quality of New Wave energy, and the song incorporates clever references to Van Morrison's original 1964 hit "Gloria." And, as with "Connection," Elastica has the good sense to keep this song short. Once again, less is more.
Their name notwithstanding, the band Wild Colonials are American, not Irish or Australian. But their song "Christmas Is Quiet" has a definite Celtic feel to it, starting with tin whistle and acoustic guitar. The vocals are fine and clear; the verses are quiet, while the chorus builds in energy and intensity. The violin on the song's instrumental break adds a nice touch, and the song conveys an unmistakable quality of loss. From there, it's back to the past, with XTC's "Thanks for Christmas." I first found this song as a 45-rpm single at a record store in Rockville, Maryland, back in 1983; in a clever bit of holiday tomfoolery, the sleeve declared that the song was by "The Three Wise Men," and the songwriting was even credited to Balthazar, Kaspar, and Melchior. (The record store owner had helpfully placed copies of the single in a bin with a sign above it saying "This song is really by XTC.") Then as now, "Thanks for Christmas" features the sharp, distinctive sound that XTC set forth on their classic 1982 album "English Settlement," with their guitars supported here by Christmas bells. And, like many of the more recently composed songs on the "Just Say Noël" album, XTC's "Thanks for Christmas" conveys a quality of angst, of uncertainty, as when the song's middle 8 declares that "It's such a shame it's only one day of the year/Three hundred and sixty-four days filled with doubts and fear."
If you've never heard of "The Musical Cast of Toys," the next act credited on the album, there's a reason for that: they and their song "The Closing of the Year" were created for Barry Levinson's 1992 film "Toys." While the film had a first-rate director and a fine cast (Robin Williams, Joan Cusack, Robin Wright, LL Cool J, Jamie Foxx), it was a critical and commercial failure (4.8/10 on the Internet Movie Database, 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), so no doubt everyone associated with the project is glad that 20 years later, it has largely been forgotten. But the film is the reason why this album contains the song "The Closing of the Year." Featuring Wendy & Lisa, who sang with the Revolution back in Prince's heyday, this is a suitable holiday song with mellow vocals and fine harmonies; it captures well the drama of year's end, the time when we look back to the past year and ahead to the next. The song changes partway through and becomes more anthemic, switching from a female vocalist to a male vocalist who sounds remarkably like Peter Gabriel. And the album concludes strongly, with Ted Hawkins's rendition of "Amazing Grace." It is simple and effective, with acoustic guitar supporting Hawkins's sincere vocal delivery. The ragged quality of Hawkins's voice emphasizes the difficult life he led (Hawkins had already died, at the age of 58, before this album was released), and gives this version of "Amazing Grace" a level of depth and emotion that I have rarely heard. It is a very powerful way to end the album.
Like many of these Christmas holiday compilations, "Just Say Noël" is a bit uneven, but I found that I really enjoyed 9 out of the 12 songs on the album. If you collect Christmas rock albums, and/or are an aficionado of the often pessimistic popular culture of the 1990's, then "Just Say Noël" may be for you.