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Xmas Marks the Spot

A guide to new holiday discs, from surprise presents to Tannen-bombs

The Happy Holiday Hearth, a DVD put out by Rhino Records, is a slightly subtler joke. The disc features 23 Christmas favorites as performed by an anonymous ensemble that's visually accompanied by a static shot of a crackling blaze intended to make the average TV set resemble a fireplace. Viewers/listeners can switch the crackling sounds on or off, but that's about it. An unsophisticated "continuous play" function doesn't allow skipping to specific selections -- although it is possible to jump backward to an especially nice FBI warning. My wife wondered if, in a tribute to Andy Warhol, another log might get tossed onto the fire an hour or so into the program, but after about ten minutes, I decided I didn't care. So much for my membership in the avant-garde.

Smooth Sleighing

In 2001, jazz artists weighed in with three of the year's standout titles: the compilations Jazzy Christmas and Justin Time for Christmas Three, as well as Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, by the Classical Jazz Quartet. But to the question "Will this year's jazz discs be just as strong?" I must answer with one word and a letter: Kenny G. Wishes: A Holiday Album (Arista), the G-man's most recent affront to humanity, isn't outwardly offensive. With the exception of "Auld Lang Syne (Freedom Mix)," which is introduced by a ham-handed sample of George W. Bush, the album is like invisible, unscented nerve gas that immobilizes its victims before they can defend themselves. Hope Saddam Hussein doesn't get ahold of this thing…

Two other mostly instrumental albums on this year's list are essentially jazz-free and could be described as "easy listening" if listening to them weren't so difficult. After I gave a spin to pianist Jim Wilson's My First Christmas with You (Hillsboro), the CD's title seemed more like a threat than a pledge. Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Bishop and Marilyn Martin (in a duet with Wilson) make cameos, but the disc is dominated by lachrymose, elevator-ready instrumentals such as a "Little Drummer Boy" medley sans drums. Clearly, Wilson doesn't have the beat -- and neither do the participants in A Peaceful Christmas, a Time-Life Music collection of sleepytime specialists. John Tesh, Liz Story, Kitaro: The greats of insomnia relief are all here, ready to usher anyone within the range of their sound directly to the Land of Nod.

Trumpeter Chris Botti's December (Columbia) isn't quite as snoozy. Botti is a competent player who doesn't do much swinging, but he can sway when the need arises, as it does on a Brazilian arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Most of the cuts, though, are tasteful to the point of somnambulance, and Botti's vocals on "Perfect Day" (co-written by the scary Richard Marx) represent bad Chet Baker impressions. In contrast, Houstonian Steve Tyrell, whose Columbia Records release is called This Time of the Year, imitates Dr. John. Given Tyrell's feel for the New Orleans idiom, exemplified by a jaunty "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," that's not such a bad thing. Better a clone of something decent than a Kenny G gas attack.

Cross Country

As C&W mega-sellers go, Alan Jackson is relatively old-school; he has more in common with George Jones than he does with Tim McGraw. Too bad Let It Be Christmas (Arista) is such an archetypal phone-in job, with the most predictable song choices imaginable and musical settings that are wholly generic. Jackson's natural twang still works, especially on a warm, string-laden "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But to put it mildly, he didn't break a sweat while adding this to his portfolio. Brooks & Dunn put more effort into It Won't Be Christmas Without You (Arista), infusing "Winter Wonderland" and more with their clunky brand of populist honky-tonk. The result is cheesy in the extreme, and those who've wondered how the hell these guys have had such a successful career will still be scratching their heads when the disc is done. But folks who want music to get drunk to this Christmas could do worse.

No intoxicants are required to enjoy Rounder's O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays. The label's top talent contributes to the CD, achieving a nice balance between sentiment and foot stompers. Rhonda Vincent and the Shankman Twins perform admirably, but the highlights are a wonderfully nasal "Christmas Is Near" by Open Road, and "Precious Child," which, thanks to Tony Trischka and Dudley Connell, is fit to be treasured. Ditto for Patty Loveless's Bluegrass & White Snow (Epic), in which a talented singer is given the chance to show off her pipes. Too many seasonal albums use overproduction to shield their lack of ideas, but Emory Gordy Jr., the man behind the boards here, keeps things spare and simple, clearing space for Loveless to croon, harmonize and belt to her heart's content. "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" does justice to its central image, and even a throwaway like "Santa Train" builds up a head of steam. That's the way to make tracks.

Compiling On

Not only are pop music compilations a Christmas staple, but they're also a fine way to discover inspired holiday one-shots. The concept is crucial, though, as demonstrated by School's Out! Christmas (Hip-O). The CD's subtitle, 20 Tracks by Today's Hottest Young Stars!, promises more than it can deliver, given that the performers heard on this succession of interchangeable numbers include "Taylor Momsen -- Cindy Lou Who in The Grinch" and "Arvie Lowe Jr. -- Mr. Dig on Lizzie McGuire." Seven-year-old girls will melt at the sound of "Kissless Christmas" by -- ooooh, he's so cute! -- Dream Street's Chris Trousdale. For the rest of you, it'll be the musical equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver.

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