Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas (review)

Various Artists – Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas (Universal/EMI/Sony) review

The Now series has done a fine job of collecting holiday music, releasing four double-CD sets, each with one disc focusing on Christmas classics, and the other on the more recent material.  Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas marks the first time they’ve paired things down to a single disc, only concentrating on songs by recent artists.

The problem is, Christmas music isn’t easy.  It’s the only time of the year when we dig back to songs, some of which were written hundreds of years ago. Many, like “White Christmas,” were penned by some of the greatest songwriters of all-time (in that song’s case, it was Irving Berlin).  In other words, there’s a lot to live up to.

In performing holiday music, you can go one of two ways – compose a memorable new Christmas song or breathe some new life into a standard from the past.  Unfortunately, the songs featured on this collection do neither.

The newest track leads off the disc – youtube sensation Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Mittens.”  But, this song lacks any of the buoyancy that made her breakout hit “Call Me Maybe” so irresistible.  Instead, she tries too hard to sound heartbroken in the verses, her voice bordering on cracking, when that really wasn’t necessary.  At least the next track, Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” has some melody – but I want to smack him every time he uses the word “shorty” – dude, you’re from Canada – just cut it out.

Train’s “Shake Up Christmas” was co-written by the hugely underrated Butch Walker, yet singer Pat Monahan fails to include some of the tongue-in-cheek charm that is in all of Walker’s best work.  And, damn is this track distorted.  The songs from Onerepublic and Coldplay are both heartfelt, but they just don’t seem that memorable.  Both Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey turn in pop-flavored holiday fare, but they both lack any nuance or sincerity, key pieces to a great Christmas tune.  Finally, pianist Sara Bareilles does it right, injecting some much-needed tenderness into her song “Love is Christmas.”  This track truly stands out as one of the best.

The rest of the disc is comprised of new takes on holiday standards.  Lady Gaga should be locked behind bars for her bludgeoning of “White Christmas.”  She’s a capable singer, and could’ve done it nicely (she’s accompanied by a jazz band on the song).  Instead, she’s chosen to make it her own, sending the track straight to the dumpster.  And the second verse, which she wrote herself, is laughably awful – neither funny nor appropriate, making it instantly forgettable.  Norah Jones and Gavin Degraw tackle “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “The Christmas Song,” respectively, but their readings are only passable – they just don’t have anything new to say, and their voices aren’t unique enough to make these versions special (see our review of Christmas With the Rat Pack for this done the right way).

After wading through most of this, “Winter Wonderland” from Selena Gomez & the Scene sounds downright glorious.  This version rocks, and at least she’s sounding like she’s having fun.  Demi Lovato’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” has a great arrangement, taking the cheesy, synth-driven original, and morphing it into a full-blown pop song.  Too bad she over-sings it – “the spirit’s up-PAH.”  Rascal Flatts adds a surprise Western swing arrangement to “Jingle Bell Rock,” which also features a searing guitar solo.  Grace Potter & the Nocturnals turn in a surprisingly soulful rendition of the Charles Brown/Eagles classic “Please Come Home For Christmas,” except the drummer sounds like he’s playing on cardboard boxes.  The mandolin is a nice touch on Sugarland’s “Silent Night,” but singer Jennifer Nettles could’ve eased up on the throttle and added some gentleness to the track.

The set closes with the oldest track, and the finest original of the bunch, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” from hard rock expatriates Trans Siberian Orchestra.  Their clever use of classical elements, and the recurring theme of “Carol of the Bells” mixed in with heavy metal, turned these guys into a holiday juggernaut.  They’re now a fixture on the concert circuit every December.  The fact that a track from 1996 outshines everything else on this disc doesn’t say much about “today’s holiday music.”

What made the previous Now holiday collections palatable was the inclusion of classic material.  With only recent songs to draw on, Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas doesn’t live up to those other discs and lacks any stellar tracks.  There are better recent songs they could’ve included – Alison Krauss’ sexually-charged “Shimmy Down the Chimney” from 2004 is one example that would’ve improved things.  But, in this case, do yourself a favor and stick to the classics.  –Tony Peters