Christmas Seasoning

Hark! The Herald Angels are practically the only group without a holiday CD this year.

When it came time to categorize the more than thirty holiday releases I've received this year for our annual seasonal-CD roundup, I made an odd discovery: The discs fell into more different brackets than ever before. In general, this proved to be a good thing. But as usual, many of the details proved agonizing. Find below a guide to the fanciest presents, as well as those gifts you wouldn't give to your worst enemies.

LOUNGING AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE As trends go, the neo-lounge movement has pretty much run its course: You haven't seen many articles about it in Newsweek lately, have you? But the craze still has enough juice in it to have justified a pair of flashbacks to the first martini revolution. AEsquivel!: Merry Xmas From the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Bar/None) is a salute to Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the great discoveries of today's loungers-come-lately. It begins and ends with newly recorded tracks featuring the man himself delivering charmingly unctuous Christmas wishes to you and yours, but the dialogue is too self-consciously daffy: Its nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality produces cringes, not chuckles. The other material (mainly recorded between 1959 and 1962) earns its laughs more honestly. Vocal tracks along the lines of "Here Comes Santa Claus" (featuring the Skip Jacks, a singing group that included future actress Stella Stevens) are likably odd, but the zippiest tracks here are instrumentals such as "Snowfall," in which Esquivel's arrangements pop and fizz from beginning to end. With a Christmas Vibe, by Arthur Lyman (Rykodisc), represents another brand of camp: Songs such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Mele Kalikimaka" and "The Little Drummer Boy" exude a fabulously phony Christmas-in-the-South-Pacific feel that marks so much of the most distinctive exotica. As on the Esquivel long-player, the folks who put together the project erred by making it so clear that they're in on the joke: In this case, the liner notes are filled with Hawaiian recipes. Still, numbers such as "We Three Kings" (introduced by a gong straight out of Gunga Din) help make Vibe a felicitous journey indeed.

THE OLDE DAYS
It's doubtful that people interested in hearing how folks from centuries past commemorated Christ's birth constitute a very large consumer market. Nonetheless, this group is being serviced this year by a pair of CDs. The most accessible of these is The Ancient Music of Christmas, by Ethan James (Hannibal), in which James uses the hurdy-gurdy, the harmonium and a variety of early instruments in the performance of hymns, folk songs and other historical ephemera. Unfortunately, the liner notes contain precious little information about the ditties themselves--how old they are, where they were written and what part they once played in winter festivities. But the tracks (which sport titles such as "From church to church/A virgin most pure/When Christ was born of Mary free") are so rich, deep and intriguing that you'll likely find yourself eager to hear them long after the decorations are packed away for another year. Listeners are less likely to feel the same way about Christmas Chants, by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos (Milan). The Monks, whose big-selling Chant recording stunned industry observers a couple of years back, offer up bottomless renditions of musical pieces associated with Christmas celebrations in the Roman Catholic Church. The results are gorgeous but one-dimensional: Although the platter includes over 54 minutes of music, it lacks any and all variety. Furthermore, the various hymns and canticles produced within this particular lapsed Catholic an overwhelming sense of guilt for being a lapsed Catholic in the first place. And I need more guilt like Michael Jordan needs a few more commercial endorsements.

CHRISTIAN VALUES
Christian acts long ago realized that Christmas is a time of year when even secular artists feel comfortable displaying a touch of religion. Predictably, the following full-lengths show off considerably more than that. Emmanuel: A Musical Celebration of the Life of Christ (Sparrow) isn't a Christmas CD per se; rather, it's an all-star tribute to the man with the thorns in his hat by crossover stars Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, supplemented by Christian stars like Susan Ashton and Twila Paris. But songs such as "Emmanuel Theme" and "Behold, A King Shall Reign" are presented in such an overblown, lachrymose manner that all but the least judgmental among you will flee in terror. The First Noel (Sparrow), by Steve Green, represents easier sledding, but the recording as a whole is as much adult contemporary as Christian contemporary. "All My Heart Rejoices," in which the soupy-voiced Green is joined by a choir of children, is pretty much the only tune on the album that implies that Christmastime can be fun; the rest (including the title track, "Good News" and "Away in a Manger Medley") adhere to draggy tempos and predictable arrangements. Much the same can be said for the Sandi Patty offering O Holy Night! (Word/Epic). Patty's stilted pipes are turned loose on a slew of familiar compositions, and while she displays a lighter touch than you might expect on "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays/I'll Be Home for Christmas," it's not enough to make up for by-the-numbers readings of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Star of Bethlehem." Special bonus: The project includes a "note from Sandi" that reads in part, "Many of you know that for years I've struggled with my weight. A recent decision to call Jenny Craig has changed all that...I sincerely encourage you to visit a local centre and get more information." Want another helping of ham, Uncle Bob?

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