Take a look at this picture. Old chums from the Grease days, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John have made a Christmas album together and this is the cover art. Christmas tree behind them, presents in front, hands clutching festive cups of hot chocolate, they grin down the barrel of the camera like the pop ghouls of Christmas Past.
John, in particular, is not looking flash, with a Botox-frozen forehead and so much hair dye it looks as if someone has merely brushed a haircut on to his head with black shoe polish.
Believe it or not, the music is even worse than the cover. With underwhelming guest appearances from Cliff Richard and Kenny G and arrangements so sugary you need a syringe of insulin at the ready, it's the kind of resolutely soulless music you imagine the Stepford Wives might play on the hi-fi while passing around the yuletide eggnog.
Indeed, their version of Baby it's Cold Outside, where Travolta sings the "No, I couldn't possibly stay" part that's usually performed by a woman, leaves Olivia crooning pervily as the "C'mon into the bedroom" male. It's like some sort of lite-jazz cougar anthem.
I am only telling you this because I'm seeking a little sympathy. Every year around this time, we music reviewers are bombarded with terrible Christmas CDs, all featuring similarly cliche-heavy cover art and crammed with dreary covers of tired old carols, often backed by orchestral arrangements as sickly sweet as your nana's trifle.
These pungent objects arrive in such bulk in my letterbox, removing them reminds me of mucking out a stable, and sadly, this year's crop seems even worse than last year's.
With a cover on which digital snowflakes cascade towards a festive red couch, a CD called Christmas Lounge promises a "hip, relaxing and unique instrumental holiday chillout mix reminiscent of music you might hear in the lobbies of chic boutique hotels around the world". In reality, it sounds like music they might play in the lobby if you were unlucky enough to check into hell in December.
Some dated trip-hop beats tick away politely under a gloop of synthesisers, piano, and sleigh bells. There's a mildly dubby take on Deck the Halls. Silent Night aims for Massive Attack but gets off the bus at Moloko. There's even a little apologetic cocktail bar drum and bass. No, no - a thousand times no.
On this Winter's Night by Nashville trio Lady Antebellum also pongs like reindeer dung in the hot sun. With its inane lyrics and pathologically chirpy harmonies, opening track A Holly Jolly Christmas left me decidedly queasy, like a man who'd wolfed down too much cold turkey on top of a Boxing Day hangover, and the album just got steadily worse from there.
Female vocal quartet Celtic Woman, meanwhile, seem to exist purely to whack out grim Christmas LPs. Strapped together by Irish musical svengali David Downes, the evil genius behind Riverdance, the band's new Home for Christmas CD follows previous Chrimbo cash-ins A Christmas Celebration, A Celtic Family Christmas and Silent Night. An unstintingly appalling melange of new age, Irish folk and what the Americans call "adult contemporary pop", it's neither use nor ornament to any sane citizen, unless said citizen has always wondered what it might sound like if Enya tackled Hark the Herald Angels Sing inside a damp fog of harps and fiddles.
At least on Merry Christmas, Baby, Rod Stewart's syrupy rasp adds a little character to the usual shop-soiled carols, albeit over backing tracks that suggest a swing orchestra on valium. Amazingly, this is the first time Stewart has produced a Christmas record in his 50-year career, but his seemingly endless Great American Songbook series has no doubt convinced him people will buy any old tackle so long as it's mildly jazzy and full of familiar songs tucked up inside a thick feather-bed of strings.
Seeking a little street cred, Stewart croaks out We Three Kings alongside Mary J Blige and attempts a Memphis soul version of the title track with Cee-Lo Green.
There's even a ghoulish posthumous duet with the late Ella Fitzgerald in which Rodney impertinently inquires What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?. One assumes her answer would be: "Not much, actually. I died in 1996."
On the plus side, Stewart croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas like the closet jazz-man he is, and the stripped-back folkie version of Auld Lang Syne recalls his early pre-cheeseball solo LPs. It pains me to admit it but Merry Christmas, Baby is the best of a very bad bunch, in that you could conceivably listen to it all the way through without wanting to impale yourself on the sharp end of a Christmas tree.
- © Fairfax NZ News