Christmas Seasoning

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

Each year brings us at least a handful of seasonal CDs by famous people whose name recognition guarantees healthy sales. Atop this list for 1996 is the undeniably evil Michael Bolton, whose This Is the Time: The Christmas Album (Columbia) will test the patience of virtually anyone with a functioning auditory system. It's all here, folks: A lugubrious "Silent Night," a somnambulant "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a goopy "This Is the Time" (in which Bolton duets with Wynonna Judd), and a version of "Joy to the World" that the Balding One tries to transform into a power ballad. Eeesh. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" blatantly rips off Bruce Springsteen, but at least it's upbeat--something that can't be said of "Ave Maria," in which Bolton matches pipes with Placido Domingo. Guess who loses. Domingo also pops up in A Celebration of Christmas (Elektra), in which he shares top billing with Jose Carreras and Natalie Cole. To say that the package, recorded live in Vienna in late 1995, is schizophrenic is to denigrate schizophrenia. "Panis angelicus" (voiced by Carreras) is a classical offering, pure and simple; "O Joyful Children" (a Domingo number) is an unholy mating of opera and pop; and "The Christmas Song" (which Cole croons solo) sounds like an outtake from Cole's previous holiday platter, 1994's fairly enjoyable Holly and Ivy. But those cuts in which Cole sings alongside opera-meisters Carreras and Domingo are the most awkward: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Stille Nacht" virtually define incompatability: Natalie won't be singing at the Met anytime soon. This Christmas (MCA), by Patti LaBelle, also contains a noteworthy incongruity: "Country Christmas," in which Patti tries to prove how down-home she is. The rest of the disc is more consistent: The various producers on the project maintain a smooth soul sound that links tracks like "'Twas Love," "Nothing Could Be Better" and "If Everyday Could Be Like Christmas." But even though LaBelle really belts out "O Holy Night," the full-length as a whole is still fairly dull. Sorry, Patti. Jimmy Buffett's Christmas Island (Margaritaville/ MCA) is much saucier; in fact, "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rhum" is positively soaked in the stuff. This last number is dumb but bouncy, making it preferable to the other two Buffett originals here--"A Sailor's Christmas" (a rehash of themes he's hashed far too many times already) and the sticky "Merry Christmas, Alabama (Never Far From Home)" (although locals will no doubt enjoy the verse that includes a John Denver-esque valentine to Colorado). In the main, the disc is a blatant bid for a few extra bucks--as if you needed me to tell you that. But Parrotheads will no doubt slurp it up. What a surprise.

The title of the various artists' collection World Christmas (Metro Blue) is an accurate one: Performers from a slew of far-flung locations contribute tracks. Even so, the disc hangs together quite well. Papa Wemba and Mino Cinelu give "Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High)" a bubbly Afro-beat feel; Angelique Kidjo does likewise throughout "Zan Vevede (O Holy Night)"; John Scofield and New Orleans' own Wild Magnolias find a rousing middle ground during "Go Tell It on the Mountain"; Deep Forest and Lokua Kanza effectively reimagine "Ave Maria"; and Yomo Toro and the Boricua All Stars, featuring Ruben Blades, put a Central American jolt into "Cascabel (Jingle Bells)." Not everything here's a masterwork--"Michaux Velliat/Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," by the Caribbean Jazz Project, is on the sleepy side--but taken as a whole, World Christmas, a CD whose sales benefit the Special Olympics, is among 1996's finest seasonal recordings. A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas (Celtic Heartbeat/ Atlantic) can't match this peak, in part because it's more monochromatic, but it's far from a complete loss. Selections like "The Snowy Birch Trees," by Thomas Loefke, are so new-agey that they all but vanish on their way to your ear, but "A Dream in the Night," by Clannad (an act whose appeal had previously escaped me), is suitably mysterious, and Ashley MacIsaac's "The Night Before Christmas (The Devil in the Kitchen)" reels like a drunken poet. Which, in case you're curious, is intended as a compliment.

A Classic Cartoon Christmas, released on the Nick at Nite Records/550 Music Imprint, seems like a first-rate idea: What baby boomer wouldn't love to own a disc jammed with tunes culled from holiday TV specials of yore? But speaking as a guy who was recently subjected to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a lot of this stuff is appalling dreck. "We're a Couple of Misfits," a Rudolph outtake credited to Billie Richards and Paul Soles, is a prime example: You'd have to be pretty damn attached to your inner child to get through it unnauseated. But I was glad to hear the two tracks snipped from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, three Vince Guraldi Trio efforts originally cut for inclusion in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Jimmy Durante's "Frosty the Snowman." Makes you misty just thinking about it, eh? Virgin Records' The Best Christmas Ever aims for the nostalgia button, too, and it does so adroitly, blending efforts by Dean Martin ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") and Eartha Kitt ("Santa Baby"), with blues by B.B. King and Lowell Fulsom, jazz courtesy of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and soul from Solomon Burke. Some of you may already have these ditties on previous compilations; if not, Best may be just your speed. And then there's the soundtrack to the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Jingle All the Way (TVT). I was recently subjected to this cinematic abomination, and I'm only exaggerating a little bit when I say that I would rather have the inside of my kneecap scraped with a putty knife than be forced to sit through it again. However, the CD companion is quite enjoyable: It features a jumpin' version of "Jingle Bells" by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Chuck Berry's classic "Run Rudolph Run," Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa" and other good stuff. Of course, purchasing it means you'll own a disc with Sinbad on its cover. Clearly, life is full of tradeoffs.

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