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A Christmas RecordThough best known as the birthplace of the Waitresses' libidinous, evergreen classic, "Christmas Wrapping," Ze Records' A Christmas Record (1981) is - best I can figure - the first-ever alternative Christmas album. Plenty of alternative Christmas singles had been released by 1981, but this album was the first complete, coherent, full-length record to arrive from "left of the dial" (to employ Paul Westerberg's phrase). At the time, actually, we might have called the music on A Christmas Record "new wave," though "no wave" - a noisy, New York-based funk/punk hybrid - would have been more accurate. Regardless of such labels, A Christmas Record is a fascinating listen, ranging from evocative, ambient meditations to bleating free jazz to tasteful, tuneful pop.

Among the rarified crowd that has actually heard A Christmas Record, most comment on James White's "Christmas With Satan." White was the provocateur behind such "no wave" icons as the Contortions, but his droll, blasphemous, nearly tuneless piece of skronk belies the LP's true intention. A Christmas Record, rather, was designed to pay tribute to such classic Christmas albums by Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, and a song like Davitt Sigerson's sweet, folky "It's A Big Country" is more representative of the spirit of proceedings - if not the prevailing sound.

Most Ze Records were, by their own admission, mutant disco - twisted or tortured perhaps, but celebratory and kinetic at their core. Hence, A Christmas Record sounds like a party, albeit the strangest one ever thrown in honor of Old St. Nick. While resident Ze diva Christina and Detroit weirdos Was (Not Was) work up a propulsive head of steam, they develop a severe case holiday blues. Kid Creole & The Coconuts' leader August Darnell, however, sounds positively gleeful celebrating "Christmas On Riverside Drive," and the dense funk of Material (vocals courtesy Nona Hendryx) leaves no doubt that "It's A Holiday." Even Alan Vega (half of doleful, proto-industrial duo Suicide) manages to sound (almost) cheerful, proclaiming "No More Christmas Blues."

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A Christmas RecordA few of the Christmas Record alumni went on to some renown, most notably über-producer Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and Material's hyper-prolific mastermind Bill Laswell. But, most Ze artists were considered avant garde in 1981, celebrated mainly by rock critics and Big Apple hipsters, and soon nearly the entire Christmas Record roster was uniformly obscure. By the dawn of the CD era, Ze Records was moribund and their catalog out-of-print. Only the Waitresses' cut was ever widely reissued on CD (see Edge Of Christmas, among others).

Thus, for years adventurous collectors were forced to hunt down A Christmas Record on vinyl. Intriguingly, two intersecting versions exist - some of which were pressed on white vinyl! A year after its initial release, a "special edition" of A Christmas Record was issued, with songs by Charlélie Couture and Alan Vega replaced with new tracks by James White and the Three Courgettes. Vinyl junkies, take heed....

Happily, 2004 brought news that A Christmas Record had finally been digitally reissued, albeit in a strangely reconfigured format. Ze Records, resurrected in France, unleashed the awkwardly-titled Ze Xmas Record Reloaded 2004, comprising nearly every track from both editions of their original LP, plus three newer (largely pointless) cuts. The revised running order is a bit jarring, and one track (the Courgettes' lovely "Christmas Is Coming") was omitted without explanation - presumably because the trio were signed to Ze's distributor, Island Records, not Ze itself. But the package - featuring a booklet with the original cover art and an essay by label honcho Michel Esteban - is very nice. Mostly, though, it's thrilling to hear these songs again (without the pops and clicks) and know that younger listeners can hear them, too.

Finally, in 2008 the company reissued the whole thing as an MP3 download - 13 songs including every track from all editions (unless you count the original, longer version of Material's It's A Holiday") - with the original artwork. Would that every company regarded their legacy so highly... [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Christmas Fever (Charlélie Couture, 1981)
  • Christmas Is Coming (Three Courgettes, 1982)
  • Christmas On Riverside Drive (August Darnell, 1981)
  • Christmas Time In The Motor City (Was Not Was, 1981)
  • Christmas Wrapping (Waitresses, 1981) star Top 100 Song [close]
    By the early 80's, it was OK to be a nerd (thank you, David Byrne). The Waitresses made something of a career out of exploring the lives of nerds, first with the theme to Square Pegs, a short lived sitcom, then with "I Know What Boys Like," a sneering portrayal of the ultimate nerd (a horny male) as told by a woman (or prick tease, depending on one's perspective). "Christmas Wrapping" fits this theory as well, only this time the insecure party is female and the story turns out well. Employing a charming pseudo-rap style (think Blondie-meets-Tom Tom Club), singer Patty Donahue begins with a resounding "Bah humbug!" After a year of missed romantic opportunities, though, she runs into "that guy I've been chasing all year" while doing some last minute shopping. "That Christmas magic's brought this tale to a very happy ending," she effuses, not unlike those Revenge Of The Nerds movies two decades ago. "Christmas Wrapping" was the most popular song from Ze Record's A Christmas Record, a neat LP that's only been reissued on CD overseas. However, the song often shows up on compilations (Edge Of Christmas) and is included on Best Of The Waitresses.
  • Christmas With Satan (James White, 1982)
  • Hey Lord (Suicide, 1981)
  • It's A Big Country (Davitt Sigerson, 1981)
  • It's A Holiday (Material with Nona Hendryx, 1981)
  • No More Christmas Blues (Alan Vega, 1981)
  • Things Fall Apart (Christina, 1981)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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