The signs of Christmas are all around us: The air has turned chilly, Starbucks has resumed serving gingerbread lattes in seasonal red cups and countless recording artists have released holiday albums. This year's crop contains some diverse offerings and unexpected gems from Hall of Famers (Bob Dylan), faerie goddesses (Tori Amos) and heavy-metal icons (Rob Halford). These discs might not replace your well-loved LPs by Nat "King" Cole or Mitch Miller & the Gang, but they will add a little variety and idiosyncrasy to your Christmas playlist.
A Fine Frenzy
Oh Blue Christmas (Virgin)
Alison Sudol makes records as A Fine Frenzy, and her piano-based, mid-tempo style is perfectly pitched for this snow-drifted holiday EP. Bookended by an appropriately bluesy "Blue Christmas" and a swaying version of "Christmastime Is Here," Sudol adds a few of her own songs to the collection. "Winter White" sets a broken-heart tale in the coldest month of the year, and "Wish You Well" addresses an estranged relative during a season that's normally marked by togetherness and unity. Only available at Target stores and through iTunes.
Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic)
To say that Tori Amos has a complicated relationship with Christianity is to put it lightly. Whether positing that Jesus was a woman (on Boys for Pele's "Muhammad My Friend") or labeling herself a "recovering Christian," Amos's back catalog, rife with religious questions and dogma-shaking confrontations, makes Midwinter Graces a pleasant surprise. In addition to several original songs, Amos rearranges some well-loved carols in a way that leaves her indelible stamp without stripping the songs of their essences. She keeps a reverent tone on the "Greensleeves"-based "What Child, Nowell" and strips "Silent Night" to a piano-and-vocal prayer.
A Cherry Cherry Christmas (Columbia)
Those who thought Diamond's recent work with famed career-restoration expert Rick Rubin had erased the crooner's love of schmaltz need not worry: Just one listen to A Cherry Cherry Christmas is enough to remind you why Neil is everyone's favorite cheeseball. In the tongue-in-cheek title song, Diamond references many of his biggest hits — "Holly Holy," "Song Sung Blue" and (of course) "Cherry Cherry" — as he wishes his listeners a merry Christmas. Nine out of the other 13 songs have been previously released, but among the new ones, Diamond stays true to his Jewish roots by closing with Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song."
Christmas in the Heart (Columbia)
Bob Dylan has used the moniker "Jack Frost" for his producer credits on his last few albums, and here the name change finally makes sense. We'd prefer Dylan exist away from such snares as a potentially cred-killing Christmas album, so we sure as hell don't expect him to sound so damned reverent singing "The Little Drummer Boy." But maybe it's this twist that makes his disc such a treat. With light pedal steel, twinkly piano, tasteful choir accompaniment reminiscent of those old Ray Conniff Christmas records and a voice still ragged as ever, Dylan treats these 15 sacred and secular songs with equal parts grace and good humor.
Have a Crazy Cool Christmas(Basin Street Records)
As a founding member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, singer and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins has done more than most to maintain the musical tradition of his native New Orleans. For his first Christmas record, that means swinging jazz, bold brass-band excursions and plenty of Louis Armstrong-inspired crooning. Ruffins mainly sticks to the classics, but the original "A Saints Christmas" has an easy second-line shuffle as Ruffins implores Santa for a Super Bowl win from the Saints (which, for once, is a real possibility). There's not a dud on this album, a genuinely joyful offering from the Big Easy's ambassador of goodwill.
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra
A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats from Santa's Bag (Ubiquity Records)
Composer Shawn Lee has amassed a catalog of instrumental records that mine the rich terrain of '70s funk, with a special ear toward the lush, orchestral sounds of Philly soul. On A Very Ping Pong Christmas, the melodies remain sacred, but all the other arrangements are up for grabs. Lee uses dusty breakbeats, vintage keys and blaxploitation horn charts to lend no small amount of funk to well-worn songs. His intricately arranged oddball funk goes a long way to invigorate these Christmas chestnuts.
If on a Winter's Night... (Deutsche Grammophon)
The two versions of Sting — the bass-playing Police singer and the lute-slinging New Age folk star — never seem to intersect, and his latest album is firmly in the folk tradition. Sting has assembled a crew of English folk artists, symphony-caliber string players and jazz sidemen to create a hushed, sometimes ponderous album that mixes medieval melodies with his increasingly husky voice. It's more a meditation on the season itself than a true Christmas album, with the only overt references to the Christian holiday coming through centuries-old English carols such as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and "Cherry Tree Carol."
Winter Songs (Metal God)
Rob Halford, the Judas Priest singer best known for his four-octave range and for being metal's most famous gay icon, returns to his solo project with this collection of holiday gems, all decked out with meedly-meedly-mee riffage. In addition to the four original songs, Halford picks carols with an appropriately mysterious, sacred bent — the minor-key march of "We Three Kings" is ramped up with double-time drums, and "Oh Come O Come Emmanuel" even quotes the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Two original songs, "Christmas for Everyone" and "I Don't Care," shake and boogie like a T. Rex update, injecting some metal-edged glam-rock into the holidays.
The Sounds of Christmas 2009 (www.SOCMusic.net)
The particulars of this Christmas comp are as good as (and maybe even better than) the music itself: Not only does William Shatner close out the disc with a typically tortured spoken-word version of "Good King Wenceslas," but the proceeds go to benefit the over-actor's Hollywood Charity Horse Show (which is apparently a real event). The big names here — Huey Lewis & the News, Richard Marx, ex-Styx front man Dennis DeYoung — were last heard on your local soft-rock radio station. Still, Hayseed Dixie takes the fruitcake with its bluegrass mashup of "Winter Wonderland" and Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop."
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