Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Great Christmas Albums: "We Three Kings," The Roches

If everyone in the world was put here for a reason, then The Roches were placed on the Earth to sing Christmas Carols. Tomorrow, they'll be doing just that, at the Battery Park Christmas tree lighting ceremony in New York City. For most of the month of December, they'll be doing it across the country, unfortunately not coming anywhere close to California.

Three singing sisters (Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy) who got their start in the 1970s singing in Greenwich Village folk clubs, The Roches made a splash in 1979 when their debut album (produced by Robert Fripp) landed in the Top 10 of the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Robert Christgau loved them; Greil Marcus hated them; and most of the record buying public couldn't have cared less. For the nearly thirty years since that initial blast of success, the group has defined the term "cult success." Some of their work I like a lot, but much of it I find cloying and inconsistent, and musically repetitive.

There's no question that their best album is "We Three Kings," originally released in 1990 and widely available today. It's one of the handful of great pop Christmas albums ever released, one that has stood the test of time remarkably well. With 24 tracks, the album dives into various holiday genres: songs with religious themes ("Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light," "Angels We Have Heard On High," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Little Town of Bethlehem;" the classic staples of the season ("Deck the Halls," "Frosty the Snowman," "Jingle Bells," Sleigh Ride," "Silver Bells") and a couple of classic originals ("Christmas Passing Through," "Star of Wonder"). The only track that comes close to being a stinker is "Winter Wonderland," sung in Joisey accents and unfortunately a joke that just doesn't work very well.

With many Christmas albums, you get the feeling that the artists involved made them simply because that is something that successful artists do. Reeking with insincerity, those albums usually land in the remainder bins within one season of their release. With "We Three Kings," The Roches produced an album that demonstrates without any doubt their love of the season and the songs that come with it. Singing Christmas carols has been a part of their lives for many, many years - according to legend they sang them on street corners in the seventies to augment their income; I also remember their annual appearance on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope" on Christmas Eve (yeah, OK, I watched "Ryan's Hope"). They honored that heritage with one of the very few Christmas albums that deserves the label "masterpiece."

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