Around this most wonderful time of 1992, I was ready to pull out my mushroom cut upon hearing the Cocteau Twins' stupid version of "Frosty the Snowman" for the first time. Don't get me wrong, I was way into Christmas, way into the Cocteaus — but the meeting of the two struck me as not right, almost animatronic. I should have known better. It eventually occurred to me that most if not all of the Christmas music I listened to, I did so in the service of some ulterior message. I used Vince Guaraldi to overcompensate for my disdain for my parents' Mannheim Steamroller discs. I wrung endless ironic belly laughs from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra years before they were the de facto soundtrack to the world's premier Christmas-light displays. And this year, I'll tell my aunt that the Sarah Brightman Winter Symphony (Manhattan) promo I'm giving her is totally awesome.
Over time, I've developed some serious carol anxiety. Like a mother bird, once someone has handled the classics of the holiday and gotten them all dirty, I want nothing to do with them anymore. Unfortunately, my occupation is such that I have no choice but to be made aware of every seasonal atrocity destined for store shelves, stockings, and, ultimately, the darkest chimneys of your subconscious. I've done something I thought couldn't be done and listened to a bunch of them, and I was pleased to find that among heaps of releases that give me a profound understanding of why silent nights are so highly valued this time of year, there are a few treats under the tree — and they aren't bits of Blitzen poop.
Case in point: the new Boxmasters collection, Christmas Cheer (Vanguard). A solid half-hour of jangle-belled countrified carolage with an inbuilt goofball element, so there's not a whole lot of integrity at stake, even when they misstep (like their Uncle-Billy-at-Countryoke take on "Silver Bells"). The miracle here isn't just that Billy Bob Thornton's band have created something worthwhile, it's that someone who looks as if he'd been beaten with a sled has a better chance of delivering Yuletide joy this year than Elvis. Yes, Christmas Duets (Sony/Legacy) finds the disembodied King traipsing through intensely gaudy arrangements with the almost-as-corpsy vocals of Underwood, McBride, and (gasp!) Newton-John. Reanimated talent is creepy, true, but it's also been done enough that it's forgivable. But the remedial glock solo from "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is not. I mean, why even get the glock out if it's gone be like that?
As someone who thinks Jack Johnson might make a great projectile, I was surprised to like This Warm December Vol. 1, a Christmas compilation issued by his Brushfire Records and featuring Money Mark, Rogue Wave, Neil Halstead, and (gasp again!) G. Love dealing out a sackful of substantial originals and charming standards — though Mason Jennings's drab take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" sounds as if it were about a dead golden retriever. Elsewhere in comp land, there's All Wrapped Up (Hollywood), with tracks by Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Jordan Pruitt. Warning: it may have you envying the Duraflame's slow immolation in the hearth.
For indie-rockers out there tempted by the alluring concept of The Singing Saw at Christmastime (Merge), which offers musical-saw hero Julian Koster (of the Music Tapes), a caveat: this has no accompaniment. It's just an isolated saw track. Over and over. Sometimes with rattling. It may be an impressive recital of slowly acquired mastery, but it's also the fast track to a Yuletide breakdown. For my precious holiday dollar, I recommend Bah Humbug (Rowdy Farrago) by Destructors 666. Sloppy, often upsetting British beer punk boasting an A+ cover of "Good King Wenceslas" and a heartwarming future classic in "Merry Christmas and Fuck Off." Aww!