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Xmas Marks the Spot

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

Most Americans have a love-hate relationship with yuletide music. They can't imagine the season without it, but they sometimes wish they could.

Such conflicting emotions are easy to understand after plowing through the more than 30 holiday platters that made their way to our door this year. As usual, the batch included some gifts that kept on giving from beginning to end. But they were countered by efforts capable of making even dedicated Christmas lovers feel they've been Scrooged.

What follows is a roundup of December's latest, greatest and most overrated, complete with recommendations as warranted and warnings when necessary. Feel free to ignore the latter -- but if you're too nauseated to finish your candy cane, don't blame us.

Starry, Starry Night

Celebrities have long viewed Christmas CDs as a nice way to fatten their wallets without having to do much more than spend an afternoon or two caroling. But because so many big-name acts cashed in during 2001 (Barbra Streisand, Toni Braxton and Destiny's Child among them), this year's star power is notably dimmer. Instead, the roster is dominated by fading headliners hanging on to fame by the tips of their mistletoes.

An exception is Plus One, a contemporary Christian variation on the Backstreet Boys that is retaining its wholesome audience even as teen pop goes through its awkward phase. Christmas (Atlantic) brims with the sort of freshly scrubbed sensitivity that spells romance for preadolescent girls but makes anyone outside the Clearasil demographic shudder. "Our Christmas Prayer" may be sincere, but it's also drippier than the average nose during cold-and-flu season. Wipe thoroughly after use.

Then again, veterans can be sugary, too. Crooner Johnny Mathis, who has issued more than half a dozen holiday long-players since 1958, has always specialized in melodrama, and The Christmas Album (Columbia) is no exception. His heavily orchestrated versions of "A Christmas Love Song" and others are about as up-to-date as the disc's back photo, which is either two decades old or proof that airbrushing can work miracles. Of course, Mathis's old-fashioned approach is probably preferable to forced modernism, but we won't know for sure until Johnny's Electronica Christmascomes out. Barry Manilow's A Christmas Gift of Love(Columbia) won't do much for mixology fans either, but consumers with a soft spot for "Mandy" should be satisfied. The production emphasizes corny touches -- like the Mitch Miller-esque background vocals on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" -- and Barry sells each tune as hard as he can, even roughening up his voice at the beginning of "Happy Holiday/White Christmas." Laugh with him, not at him.

A few lighthearted moments crop up on America's Holiday Harmony (Rhino), but not nearly enough. American hits like "Sister Golden Hair" helped make the '70s dreckier, and Harmony attempts to do the same to this millennium; among other sins, the duo of Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell weld an arrangement borrowed from "Tin Man" onto Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." If Berlin were still alive, he definitely wouldn't be singing another of his songs: "God Bless America." Carly Simon's Christmas Is Almost Here (WSM) is a more effective resurrection job, mainly because Simon and a crew of prominent collaborators, including Don Was, take the project seriously. The disc's title cut -- penned by Livingston Taylor, Simon's former brother-in-law -- is moody and evocative, and if the singer can't quite pull off the gospel shadings of "Twelve Gates to the City," she deserves credit for at least trying.

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Boogie Woogie Christmas, a recording on the Surfdog imprint by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, comes complete with a testimonial -- "This is the coolest Christmas record you will ever hear!" -- attributed to one "S. Claus." Even if this fellow's first name is "Sidney," his opinion doesn't completely lack credibility. Setzer is a mimic, but an enthusiastic one, and he and his fellows cut loose during exuberant interpretations of "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" and more. As a bonus, the disc includes "Baby It's Cold Outside," a Setzer duet with Ann-Margret, who still sounds kittenish even if she's been a full-grown cat for eight lives or so.

Just as groovy is 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets!(Yep Roc), by Los Straitjackets, an instrumental combo whose members hide their identities behind Mexican wrestling masks. These 13 charmers range from a driving, four-on-the-floor "Jingle Bell Rock" and a "Pipeline"-style reinvention of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" performed as a finger-snapping samba and a careening "Sleigh Ride." Traditional it ain't, but I'll betcha it'd make even S. Claus want to strip down to his baggies and hang ten.

Yule Yuks

No Christmas season is complete without the arrival of a couple of discs intended as gag gifts -- items meant less for listening than for making the recipient chuckle before he puts them in a drawer and forgets about them forever. Half of this year's quota is filled by Bob Rivers's White Trash Christmas (Atlantic), which offers up such timeless classics as "Aquaclaus" (a Santa-centric rewrite of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung"), "What If Eminem Did Jingle Bells?" (all the profanities are bleeped, damn it), "Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and nine more examples of attempted wit. Most of these ditties are stupid in their entirety, while a few manage an amusing three or four seconds before progressing to stupidity. If your family and friends suspect you're a loser, put this on at a holiday party and they'll be convinced.

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.

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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