Of my many musical guilty pleasures, Christmas music is probably my guiltiest. I have a fascination that borders on the morbid for those silly, disposable albums of festive music popular artists tend to release between the months of September and November, to be listened to (if at all) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And while I certainly appreciate the classics–Bing, Elvis, Ella, Phil Spector, the Jackson 5–I almost prefer the also-rans: the goofy ones; the seasonal records few bother listening to and even fewer bother remembering.
The following is a review I wrote ten years ago (!) of one of those records: Christmas is 4 Ever by funk bass legend and real-life cartoon character Bootsy Collins. As you’ll see, I liked it a lot at the time. My opinion on it has fluctuated in the years since; these days, it’s pretty much a crapshoot whether I’ll think it’s a goofy good time or an infernal racket. But that’s the risk of pop Christmas music: depending on your mood, it can be as warm and nostalgic as a mug of hot cocoa or as obnoxious as a string of LED lights on the strobe setting. Sometimes, it can even be both at the same time. I haven’t given Christmas is 4 Ever my annual listen yet, but i think I will this week. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally like it as much as I did 10 years ago:
If anything about Christmas is 4 Ever is an unqualified success, it’s that the album is a blast from beginning to end–something that could probably be ascertained from a mere glance at its ludicrous snowglobe cover art and whimsically spelled track listing, with titles like “Jingle Belz,” “Chestnutz,” and “WinterFunkyLand.” Of course, as anyone who’s bothered to investigate his solo career can attest, Bootsy is nothing if not fun; and when it comes to the campy, cartoonish, but oh-so-heavy fun(k) that is his stock in trade, this Christmas effort does not disappoint. Just try to keep a grin off your face when “Boot-a-Claus” turns in a loose, effortlessly funky rendition of “Jingle Bells,” or when the man once dubbed “Player of the Year” (always the sexiest star in the P-Funk constellation) injects some lascivious eyebrow-wiggling into Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” crooning that he’s “about ready to come down your chimney.”
But Bootsy’s addition to the Christmas canon has more going for it than just kitsch appeal. For one thing, like all the best holiday R&B music, his arrangements boast an intuitive, yet unclichéd grasp on the Christmas mood. Boots’ version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” (here rechristened as “Dis-Christmiss”) manages to conjure up images of snow-frosted windows and toasty firesides while retaining its essential throb and groove; “Silent Night,” while hardly guilty of taking its name literally (how could the Baby Jesus possibly have gotten any sleep with Bootsy slapping his Space Bass all over the other side of the manger?), adds the requisite dose of holiday sentimentality without ever laying it on too thick.
And even when Boots and company aren’t quite capturing the spirit of the season–it’s difficult to imagine the manic jam “Happy Holidaze,” complete with guest appearance by Snoop Dogg, getting much rotation in front of even the funkiest of Christmas trees–Christmas is 4 Ever succeeds in being the best straight-up album Collins has released in years. Not only is the material more consistent than 2002’s B-star studded Play with Bootsy, it just sounds like vintage Bootsy. It has that woozy, anarchic P-Funk clutter of horns, bass, guitars and synths: no doubt due at least in part to the presence of ex-Parliament keyboard legend Bernie Worrell, who rounds out a truly impressive guest list including former J.B.’s leader/trombone player Fred Wesley, ex-Zapp keyboardist Terry “Zapp” Troutman, former Rubber Band members Joel Johnson and Frankie “Kash” Waddy, ex-Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton, and soul institution Bobby Womack, as well as Bootsy’s own brother (and funk heavyweight in his own right) Catfish Collins. And if all that wasn’t enough, the songs themselves are littered with self-referential quips: a move typical of latter-day Bootsy, which could have been cloying if it wasn’t so goddamn fun to hear “Bootzilla”‘s indelible “wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind me up!” in its umpteenth incarnation.
Indeed, it may be Christmas is 4 Ever’s firm grounding in Bootsy’s past that makes it such an enjoyable listen, particularly for those who don’t happen to share my perverse love for holiday music. Listen to “Be-With-You” without paying attention to the lyrics and it sounds like exactly what it is: a pitch-perfect remake of the 1976 Rubber Band hit “I’d Rather Be with You,” amped up with Zapp-style Vocodered vocals and just maybe sounding better than ever. But place such autobiographical touches within the context of yuletide nostalgia, and what you have is an album which reflects on holidays past and present even while it serves as a summation of the now 65-year-old (!) Bootsy’s lofty position in popular music history.
Case in point: the legendary funkateer opens “WinterFunkyLand” with “thank you”s to his former mentors James Brown and George Clinton; elsewhere, he dedicates “Chestnutz” (a.k.a. “The Christmas Song”) to the man who made it famous, Nat “King” Cole (also, probably not coincidentally, the first Black man to find a place in mainstream America’s holiday songbook). And that’s where Christmas is 4 Ever really triumphs, both as a Christmas record and as a watermark release for Bootsy himself. With its warmth and sentimentality, the album feels like a stack of season’s greetings addressed to loved ones from years past, inviting us to bask in the glow of friends and family that seems to burn brightest late in the month of December. Granted, that sentiment might come off as a little goopy for some potential listeners–or, you know, pretty much anyone who might be reading this. But if Christmas is about anything, it’s goopiness, and Bootsy has done well to recognize as much.
Besides, what other Christmas album can you name that features a holiday message from reformed pimp/Snoop Dogg “spiritual advisor” Bishop Don “Magic” Juan? I’ll tell you one thing: it sure as hell ain’t Christmas with Perry Como. And that, my friends, is as good a recommendation as any.
Check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for more of my thoughts on recent and vintage Christmas music, including the holiday albums of James Brown and, um, R. Kelly. Happy holidays!