After earning four gold or platinum albums, singer-songwriter-guitarist Chris Isaak put down his surfboard, turned up the air conditioner and laid down Chris Isaak Christmas, featuring 11 traditional songs (including "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" with Stevie Nicks) and five originals — the lonely-at-Christmas "Washington Square," "Hey Santa!" and "Christmas On TV," the spiritual "Brightest Star" and the maybe-next-year "Gotta Be Good." Chris Isaak Christmas is this season's holiday surprise — a Christmas album that's actually cool.
There are those who will argue that Chris Isaak's Christmas is worth the sticker price for its rendition of "Blue Christmas" alone, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a pack of listeners to debate them. Isaak has always seemed the second coming of Elvis in surfer shorts, and on that track he so handily conjures the King it's both beautiful and creepy. But to pin this disc's merits on that chestnut alone is to sell it way, way short. There's the duet with Stevie Nicks on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" to consider (she curtails her diva impulses and lets him steer, and though it's challenging to imagine, their voices weave well); plus the skill with which he incorporates his hula, rockabilly and country leanings (most obviously on "Mele Kalikimaka," but also in instrumentation throughout); plus the five originals he assembled for this disc. So few original carols find an audience and keep them that to pen that many for a 16-track CD seems like yuletide suicide, but those who embrace Isaak's essential quirkiness can be counted on to resuscitate them for years to come. Standouts among the five include "Washington Square" which, as a lament for a faraway loved one, picks up where "Blue Christmas" leaves off, and "Hey Santa," which subs for "Jingle Bell Rock" as this record's reason to rock the night away. --Tammy La Gorce
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