Christmas Packages

The best holiday discs, as well as others that will make you pity the yule.

The key to A Jazz Christmas is its subtitle--A Windham Hill Collection. The music may not fall into the new-age bracket, as does so much of the Windham Hill label's inventory, but for the most part, it's jazz in name only. The Topcats' "Celebrate, It's Christmas Time" is smoother than baby shampoo, Paul Horn's "O Little Town of Bethlehem" couldn't be more lachrymose, and "Silent Night" had me fantasizing about dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, the band that performed it. Fortunately, my pacifist side prevailed--and I've got Shirley Caesar to thank for it. On Christmas With Shirley Caesar (Word/Epic), the gospel luminary rides more than her share of warhorses; the stable holds "Ave Maria," "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and the like. But this sister's got pipes, and she opens them wide on a celestial "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," an unexpectedly groovy "Little Drummer Boy" and "What Are You Gonna Name Your Baby?" a first-rate composition by the singer that inspires her to rattle the rafters. I come to praise Caesar, not to bury her.

Of this year's batch of holiday music from beyond these shores, Noëls Celtiques: Celtic Christmas Music From Brittany (Green Linnet) is the most tony. Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, directed by Christian Desbordes, doesn't so much sing these songs as wrap them in a blanket of aural majesty. "Misteriou Joaius/ Joyful Mysteries" is an appropriate choice to kick off the proceedings; similarly, "Nedeleg/ Christmas," "An Elez a Gane/The Angels Sang" and the rest are exalted attempts to re-create heaven on earth. If you close your eyes while listening, you might be able to convince yourself that they've succeeded. Delusions are swell, aren't they?

Natty and Nice: A Reggae Christmas (Rhino) is a more mixed bag: It ranges from the heartfelt and hip to the corny and cringeworthy. Bolivar's "Rudolf the Reggae Reindeer" and "Wish You a Merry Christmas" by Jacob Miller--who says the word "irie" about 500 times during a 3:51-minute span--are condescending sops to the wannabe crowd, and N.T. Washington's "Happiness" and Washington & Clarke's "Happy Christmas" are minor variations on the same tepid cut. But Toots & the Maytals' "Happy Christmas," the Kingstonians' "Merry Christmas" and the Ethiopians' "Ding Dong Bell" are comely, and "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (The Crossover/Radio Mix)," by Lee Perry, with assistance from vocalist Sandra Robinson, is sinuous and seductive. To put it another way, a fine EP is hiding inside this long-player. Too bad the same can't be said of Yellowman's A Very, Very Yellow Christmas (RAS). This veteran reggaemon can be an amusing presence, but here he lazily performs familiar ditties rewritten to accommodate repeated references to himself: "Yellowman Is Coming to Town," "Children Saw Mommy Kissing Yellowman" and "Yellow Christmas" are typical. "African Christmas" and "Santa Claus Never Comes to the Ghetto" are passable, but by the time I reached the ultra-dippy "Yellowman Rock," sung to the melody of "Jingle Bell Rock," I was seeing red.

They may be dead, but they haven't been forgotten. Witness The Voice of Christmas: The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA), in which Bing Crosby gets the A-list treatment. These two discs, accompanied by well-annotated liner notes, find Der Bingle lending his dulcet tones to the usual assortment of Christmas classics, including four interpretations of both "White Christmas" and "Silent Night." But the presence of several oddball offerings helps compensate for such redundancies. Crosby climbs to the bottom of his croon during "O Fir Tree Dark," sounds happily sozzled on "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter," accompanies the Andrews Sisters on the goofy "Poppa Santa Claus," seems about as Hawaiian as James Earl Jones on "Mele Kalikimaka," and oozes so much charm while warbling "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" alongside Peggy Lee that it's almost impossible to imagine him beating the hell out of his son Gary. Unless you try, that is.

The three Wilson lads (whose padre slapped them around, too) are at the center of the Beach Boys' Ultimate Christmas (Capitol), another archivist's special. The average Joe and Jane may not be all that thrilled by the inclusion of three run-throughs of "Little Saint Nick," but collectors will be over the moon to discover seven previously unreleased tracks intended for a Christmas album that was shelved in 1977. There are no genuine treasures among these rarities, and "Morning Christmas," with lead vocals by drummer Dennis, is practically unlistenable. But "Winter Symphony," by Brian, the sole surviving Wilson brother, is an intriguingly arranged curio, and "Frosty the Snowman," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Auld Lang Syne" and other volumes from the Beach Boys' holiday library haven't aged a single second in more than thirty years.

Dean Martin's Making Spirits Bright (Capitol) is just as diverting, and his insincerity is the reason. Dino obviously regarded performing such material as a silly necessity of his fame, and the raised-eyebrow readings and shrugged-off intonations that resulted make the tunes feel more cool than corny. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" could be a love song to a brandy snifter the way he sings it; "Baby, It's Cold Outside" epitomizes the winky-winky way that the Fifties-era media dealt with sex; "The Christmas Blues" makes it clear he doesn't suffer from the malady; and "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" is Rat Pack-ready: Martin slips into a mock-German accent at one point and later refers to "Rudy, the red-beaked reindeer." Keep 'em coming, bartender.

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