Xmas Marks the Spot

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

Ho Ho Ho Spice, on Volunteer Records, has more to recommend it, even though this double-CD package, whose proceeds benefit the Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Millburn, New Jersey, is nothing if not scattershot. Selections spotlight indie figures from the past, such as the dB's and NRBQ. But Spice also finds room for contemporary modern rockers like Better Than Ezra and Denton's neo-polka kings Brave Combo, not to mention flat-out obscurities such as the Chinkees, the Butties and Empire State Human. There's one killer disc's worth of material here, but you'll have to find it yourself.

Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk), meanwhile, goes the adult-album-rock route to good effect. The CD mixes lighter-side stuff like Ben Folds's "Bizarre Christmas Incident" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," as covered by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, with torchier turns by Coldplay, Ron Sexsmith and Bright Eyes, whose "Blue Christmas" is a woozy bummer to remember. Also memorable is Christmas Greetings from Studio One (Heartbeat), a slew of cheerful reggae brought to life at Studio One, a landmark Jamaican recording facility. Vintage songs by Toots and the Maytals ("Christmas Feeling Ska") and Bob Marley and the Wailers ("White Christmas") are joined by newer merchandise, like the Silvertones' charming "Bling Bling Christmas."

'Cause it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling.

Back in the Day

Nostalgia is the lure of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town/ Frosty the Snowman on Turner Records/Rhino. The disc delivers the complete audio tracks of two animated TV specials from the medium's more innocent past: Santa, starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn, and Frosty, "told and sung" by Jimmy Durante. The liner notes are full of interesting facts, but they leave one out: Seeing and hearing the shows is more fun than just hearing them.

The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, a Time-Life Music product, doesn't bear an "As Seen on TV" sticker, but it might as well. This two-CD set gathers plenty of songs by the likes of Nat "King" Cole and Bing Crosby that have been sold for ages via late-night commercials. Christmas music aficionados doubtless own most of what's here, but novices will be glad to find it all in one place. That's also the draw of Christmas with the Rat Pack (Capitol), a generous sampling of holiday fare by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Snappy studio toss-offs make up the majority of the disc, but it's capped by a couple of live cuts from TV shows. Frank and Dino's "A Marshmallow World" is an appropriately sodden display, with inexplicable audience laughter left in, whereas the duo's "Auld Lang Syne" ends with Dean delivering a moral. "Put your troubles away until tomorrow," he slurs. "If you're lucky, someone will break into your house tonight and steal 'em."

Make mine a double, barkeep.

And the Rest…

Not all seasonal songs can be found on seasonal albums. For instance, country singer Steve Wariner recently released "This Christmas Prayer" as a single intended to build interest in Steal Another Day, a non-holiday CD not due until February. But the tune, an industrial-strength tearjerker about deprived children the world over who need to know that "God's shining star always leads you to someone who cares," had the opposite effect on me.

Still, a couple of other new CDs feature Christmas songs that are as unexpected as they are unique. On the moody, gorgeous album called And Their Surrounding Mountains (Merge), for instance, Radar Brothers dole out "This Xmas Eve," a tale filled with looming malevolence: Vocalist Jim Putnam promises to "keep the demons away as everyone sleeps." And on The Pawnbroker's Wife, a wonderfully lurid disc on the Catamount label, singer-songwriter Johnny Dowd unleashes the weirdest version of "Jingle Bells" imaginable.

Listeners will either love it or hate it -- just like all the best Christmas music.

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