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A Very Special ChristmasIn their book Merry Christmas Baby: Christmas Music From Bing To Sting, Dave Marsh and Steve Propes praise this record - the brainchild of producer Jimmy Iovine - as the virtual reincarnation of Phil Spector's Christmas Gift For You. While I think A Very Special Christmas (1987) is just fine, I also think that Marsh and Propes overstate the case by a North Pole mile. Certainly, the album was an labor of love (proceeds benefit the Special Olympics), and it contains some wonderful performances. Generally, though, it is slick and overproduced, and it suffers from the inclusion of several substandard tracks (foremost being Bon Jovi's unbelievably bombastic cover of Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa"). On the other hand, A Very Special Christmas single-handedly launched a Christmas music frenzy that continues to this day (making my job all but impossible, by the way). A milestone? Sure. A classic? Not really.

All the same, at least one classic new track emerged from A Very Special Christmas: Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas In Hollis," a sort-of East Coast rap reinterpretation of the time-honored theme of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Beyond that, the best cuts are modern versions of hoary holiday favorites - especially John Mellencamp's high-spirited hoedown, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and Bruce Springsteen's take on Otis Redding's arrangement of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" (recorded live and previously released as the b-side of Springsteen's 1986 single, "War"). (Read about the making of this historic album in Frank Giacomo's 2014 article in Billboard.)

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A Very Special Christmas 2But, 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, though, A Very Special Christmas just got less special each time out of the box.

A Very Special ChristmasSpeaking 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....

A Very Special ChristmasThroughout A 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.

A Very Special Christmas 7In 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]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • - A Very Special Christmas (1987)
  • Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (U2)
  • Christmas In Hollis (Run-D.M.C.)
  • The Coventry Carol (Alison Moyet)
  • Gabriel's Message (Sting)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Pretenders)
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (John Mellencamp)
  • Little Drummer Boy (Bob Seger)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Bruce Springsteen)
  • Run Rudolph Run (Bryan Adams)
  • Santa Baby (Madonna)
  • Silent Night (Stevie Nicks)
  • Winter Wonderland (Eurythmics)
  • - A Very Special Christmas 2 (1992)
  • Blue Christmas (Ann & Nancy Wilson)
  • Christmas All Over Again (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
  • Christmas Is (Run-D.M.C.)
  • I Believe in You (Sinead O'Connor)
  • O Christmas Tree (Aretha Franklin)
  • Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree (Ronnie Spector & Darlene Love)
  • Merry Christmas, Baby (Bonnie Raitt with Charles Brown)
  • What Child Is This (Vanessa Williams)
  • What Christmas Means To Me (Paul Young)
  • - A Very Special Christmas 3 (1997)
  • Ave Maria (Chris Cornell & Eleven)
  • Blue Christmas (Sheryl Crow)
  • Christmas On The City (Mary J. Blige)
  • Christmastime (Smashing Pumpkins)
  • O Holy Night (Tracy Chapman)
  • Oi To The World (No Doubt)
  • Santa Baby (Rev Run & The Christmas All Stars)
  • We Three Kings (Patti Smith)
  • - A Very Special Christmas 5 (2001)
  • Christmas Day (Christmas Don't Be Late (The Chipmunk Song) (Powder)
  • Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You (SR-71)
  • Christmas Day (Dido)
  • Little Red Rooster (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
  • Noel! Noel! (Eve 6)
  • This Christmas (Macy Gray)
  • - A Very Special Acoustic Christmas (2003)
  • Christmas Is Near (Ralph Stanley)
  • Even Santa Claus Gets The Blues (Marty Stuart)
  • Frosty The Snowman (Dan Tyminski)
  • I'll Be Home For Christmas (Tift Merritt)
  • Jingle Bells (Earl Scruggs)
  • Just Put A Ribbon In Your Hair (Alan Jackson)
  • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sam Bush)
  • Peace (Norah Jones)
  • Please Come Home For Christmas (Willie Nelson)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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