Music » Music Stories

Deck the Halls with Christmas Albums

B-Sides reviews the year's crop of holiday cheer and talks to Dweezil Zappa about his dad's legacy.

by and

Yule Jukebox

It used to be that only country and adult contemporary artists released Christmas albums. These days the field is wide-open, as indie heartthrobs and garage-band bruisers break out the sleigh bells and welcome the season. Christmas music can be a bleak, overplayed wasteland, but these eight albums and compilations are worth a listen (and none of them contain the interminable "The Twelve Days of Christmas" — it's a Christmas miracle).

Aimee Mann
One More Drifter in the Snow

(Super Ego)
Even though her last few records have dealt almost exclusively with drug addiction and destructive relationships, Mann's Yuletide carols are low-lit, reverb-heavy affairs that recall the classic production of Nat "King" Cole's holiday standards. Her sole original, "Calling on Mary," is a call for hope and peace amid disillusionment and is a great addition to her estimable songbook.

Various Artists
Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album

(Kill Rock Stars)
The venerable indie label Kill Rock Stars has collected some of its best and brightest for this non-denominational, digital-only comp. True to the label's genre-spanning catalogue, all styles are present: Octis' instru-metal "Chrissthym" is a carol medley geared for fans of Pelican, while Slumber Party gives some shambolic girl-group love to little baby Jesus on "J.C. Is Born." The album is available for download from your legit favorite MP3 purveyors and is included free with purchases over $50 from

Rachael Ray
How Cool Is That Christmas

Because Christmas is all about extending lifestyle brands, Rachael Ray curates (but thankfully does not sing on) this compilation, which contorts her catchphrase into the syntax-busting title. The 30 Minute Meals host brings you a half-hour's worth of holiday mirth from the likes of Elvis Presley ("Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)") and Buster Poindexter, who nearly ruptures himself trying to out-rasp Louis Armstrong on his remake of "Zat You, Santa Claus?"

Sarah McLachlan

As is her custom, McLachlan has recorded an album of sober, somber meditations on the Christmas season. The program is a mix of more modern Christmas songs (John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and Joni Mitchell's near-ubiquitous "River") and updates of religious carols. McLachlan turns "The First Noel/Mary Mary" into a swirling, Eastern-tinged jam that will no doubt have Sting weeping with envy.

Sufjan Stevens
Songs for Christmas

(Asthmatic Kitty)
This year's Christmas Spirit Award goes to state-history enthusiast Sufjan for his five-disc box set, which collects five years' worth of EPs of Christmas standards and originals. Originally intended for family and friends, these 41 songs highlight his reverence for the season's religious underpinnings (a stirring "O Come, O Come Emmanuel") as well as its more secular celebration of joy and anticipation (the White Stripes-baiting "Get Behind Me, Santa!"). Stylistically this set shows Stevens' progress from banjo-playing folkie to kitchen-sink conductor.

Bootsy Collins
Christmas Is 4 Ever

(Shout! Factory)
Parliament/Funkadelic bassist Collins offers this year's most unexpected and most fun Christmas album, full of soulful funk and modern R&B vocal harmonies. Many members of the P-Funk All-Stars drop by for a visit, as does Snoop Dogg for "Holidaze." If nothing else, Christmas is 4 Ever is a good excuse to hear Bootsy slink through updates of holiday standards with his lilting, rubber-band voice.

Anita Rosamond
This Is Christmas

Local jazz vocalist Rosamond offers a varied program of holiday warmth, jumping from a horn-heavy romp through "Let It Snow" to a smooth jazz duet with Brian Owens on "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Christmas features some of St. Louis' jazz all-stars, including bassist Tom Kennedy and saxophonist Lew Winer III, and Rosamond proves herself a versatile vocalist amid the genres. This Is Christmas is available at many local record stores and at

Various Artists
Seasonal Favorites Volume One

(Double Crown)
Originally released in 2000, this comp collects some of the best surf and garage bands from the world over playing mostly instrumental versions of holiday standards. Montreal's Los Mel-tones offer a twanging, echo-laden "Silent Night," and the Boss Martians sing of Yuletide loneliness on "It's Christmas Time." This reissue adds three new tracks and will fit nicely next to holiday albums from the Ventures and Los Straitjackets. Available from
— Christian Schaeffer


Eclectic, prolific, eccentric, acerbic, enigmatic, virtuosic — Frank Zappa is a true American legend. And much of his music was legendarily intricate and more than a little deranged, which is why it took his son Dweezil, 37, two full years to learn just a small segment of his late father's extensive, oft-bewildering catalog for the current Zappa Plays Zappa tour. Backed by a six-piece band and abetted by guest appearances from three of his dad's old sidemen — Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock — Dweezil has spent much of this year celebrating Frank's legacy with three-hour multimedia performances. We caught up with him over the phone from his Los Angeles home.

B-Sides: With more than 70 albums' worth of material to choose from, how did you decide what Frank songs to put in the set?

Dweezil Zappa: I just really want to select songs that I feel speak for themselves in terms of showing what made Frank different than everybody else as a composer, as a bandleader, as an overall musician. It's his work, done with every detail possible. We go through this stuff with a fine-toothed comb, down to trying to re-create the exact same sounds from the instruments from the era that we're pulling the songs from.

Were there notes and transcriptions to help you out?

Some of these songs that are from records like Apostrophe (') or Over-Nite Sensation — things that have musical interludes that are sophisticated and complex — those usually have some sort of transcription to them. But there are some songs that weren't played that frequently, so they don't. Take "Cheepnis," from Roxy & Elsewhere, with those crazy little bits that are like monster music. There was nothing on paper anywhere for those things, so that meant a long time of figuring it out and making sure that it sounds like it's supposed to.

In a way it seems like you were destined to do a tour like this sooner or later...

Well, I thought about doing this a long time ago, but it required really having the knowledge necessary to approach it the right way — and I mean, I really had to immerse myself in the music. I had to change my whole style of guitar playing. It's one of those things where when you start it's such a Sisyphean task, you know, you're pushing that rock up the hill thinking, "Uhhhh, I dunno if I can ever get there!" But in the back of my mind I always knew it was possible.

This is obviously a very personal undertaking. Does focusing on all the technical stuff help keep your mind off the more emotional aspect of playing your dad's music?

Well, when you get onstage and start seeing people's reactions to stuff, and then certain melodies hit you like a ton of bricks...there's certain songs I have a hard time playing without getting emotionally overwhelmed. Like "Sofa," for example. Frank used it as a show-closer, and the melody of it is such a beautiful melody, there's plenty of times when the whole band is in tears . — Michael Alan Goldberg

8 p.m. Thursday, December 14. Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $40. 314-726-6161.

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