my judgment of A
Very Special Christmas is undoubtedly colored further by the fact that what
was once a mere Christmas album has become a veritable franchise, with the returns
diminishing considerably with each installment. A
Very Special Christmas 2 arrived five years later bearing one bona fide classic
(Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again"), a fun follow-up from Run-D.M.C.
("Christmas Is"), and a host of respectable cuts from big-name stars
- including Sinead O'Connor's iridescent cover of Bob Dylan's "I Believe
In You." But, we're also subjected to several genuine stinkers. Michael
Bolton? Debbie Gibson? More Bon Jovi? Please, Jimmy, make it stop!
Sadly, the Very
Special Christmas series dragged on and on, each volume struggling to differentiate
itself by applying a new color scheme to Keith Haring's iconic, graffitti-inspired
original artwork. (Haring died in 1990,
so he wasn't, um, available to create new covers. See more on his website and at Artsy.) A
Very Special Christmas 3 (1997) was even spottier than the sophomore release,
with Sheryl Crow's sultry "Blue Christmas" and No Doubt's slamming cover of the Vandals' "Oi
To The World" standing out amidst the dross. A
Very Special Christmas 4 (1999) - and much of the subsequent volume - consisted
of unremarkable live performances from concerts at the White House, though A
Very Special Christmas 5 (2001) was redeemed slightly by some bracing alternative
rock from SR-71, Powder, and Eve 6. The entertainment industry seems to believe
that more of a good thing is always better; like most endless series of sequels,
Very Special Christmas just got less special each time out of the box.
of boxes, the first five volumes of the series were packaged together in 2003 as A
Very Special Christmas Collection (now deleted and very scarce), appearing
to signal that Very
Special Christmas was winding down (such was not the case, we were soon to learn). And, it's worth
noting that at least two other discs were compiled as adjuncts to this rock-oriented
series - Jazz
To The World (1995) and World
Christmas (1996). Finally, let's not forgot that all these discs serve a very good
cause - despite my reservations I purchased them all, and I encourage you to
do the same.
Thankfully, the next installment of the Very
Special Christmas series breathed a bit of life into the wheezing
construct. Comprised entirely of folk, bluegrass, and country music (genres ignored
in previous volumes), A
Very Special Acoustic Christmas (2003) even featured new artwork - surely
a sign that a new leaf was being overturned! Personally, I took little comfort
from this new direction, being no fan of modern acoustic music. I find it, more
often than not, to be polite, respectful, or introspective where it should be
hungry, passionate, and rowdy. A
Very Special Acoustic Christmas suffered from these maladies, though it admittedly compiled
a pleasant hour of pickin'. What this new volume said about the
future of the Very
Special Christmas series is debatable, but sometimes a change is as good
as a rest....
Very Special Acoustic Christmas, young bucks (Pat Green) and contemporary
heavyweights (Wynonna Judd) coexist peacefully with old-timers like Earl Scruggs
and Ralph Stanley. Alison Krauss gets point for trying something different (a
soulful original song, "Only You Can Bring Me Cheer"), but she sounds
uncomfortable outside her usual down-home setting. Norah Jones (who seems out
of place, regardless), contributes a fine reading of Horace Silver's "Peace," a
Christmas song that never names the holiday. And, Alan Jackson - never a favorite
of mine - delivers an affecting rendition of "Just Put A Ribbon In Your
Hair" (first recorded by Doug Stone in 1992).
The problem is, very few of the other performances are truly memorable.
Reba McEntire, for instance, turns in a perfectly lovely - but boring - reading
of "Silent Night," and the same can be said for tracks by Ricky Skaggs
and Patty Loveless. Others, such as Rhonda Vincent's "Christmas Time At Home," fall
victim to the theory that dressing clichés in acoustic instrumentation and
Appalachian harmonies somehow makes them meaningful.
In the end, I appreciated most the songs that stayed truest to their country roots
- that is, tracks that worked up a healthy head of steam while holding fast to tradition.
In this light, cuts like Marty Stuart's simmering original "Even Santa Claus
Gets The Blues" shine brightest. But, A
Very Special Acoustic Christmas will be enjoyed best by either fans of contemporary
country or folks who listen to the nebulous "adult alternative" genre
- and I am neither.
In 2008, a curiously arbitrary compilation appeared. Playlist Plus packaged three previously discs together: Very Special Christmas 2, Very Special Christmas 3, and Very Special Acoustic Christmas. A "best of" compilation would have been welcome - something to separate the notable wheat from the abundant chaff. Playlist Plus, however, feels like Universal is just clearing off the shelves. Which they probably are. Whatever. Don't buy it.
The same conclusion, sadly, can drawn concerning A Very Special Christmas 7 (2009). Maybe it's my advancing age versus the tween-oriented roster (Miley Cyrus, Colbie Caillat), or maybe it's my perpetual overload of Christmas music - but this is a horrible, irredeemable record. Save yourself the frustration and donate your money directly to the Special Olympics.
In 2012, on the 25th anniversary of the original album (am I that old?), we got two more installments: the pop/rock package 25 Years Bringing Joy To The World and the religious collection Today's Top Christian Artists Bringing Peace On Earth. Both of them raised the bar from Very Special Christmas 7, but they still didn't inspire me to rush to the shops and plunk down my dollars. As for the former, it contains plenty of star power (Jason Mraz, Christina Aguilera, Rascal Flatts, Dave Matthews), but I was drawn mainly to the "new" Cheap Trick song "I Want You For Christmas," which the veteran power poppers fashioned from their greatest hit, "I Want You To Want Me." Concerning the latter, I will remain gracious by paraphrasing Jackson Browne: I am a heathen and a pagan, but I remain on the side of Jesus - philosophically, if not musically. [top of page]