Christmas Packages

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

CHRISTMAS STAR POWER
For artists in the prime of their careers, a holiday disc can be a way of staying in the public eye while making more than a few bucks in the process. Ask Celine Dion, whose CD These Are Special Times (550 Music/Epic) debuted in the top five on the Billboard album-sales chart. As can be expected from a piece primarily supervised by David Foster, who evidently believes that there's no production like over-production, the music on the platter not only embraces cliches, but hammers at them with the intensity of Mike Tyson when he's got the scent of blood in his nostrils. By the end of "O Holy Night," the first song here, Dion's wailing is almost metaphysically histrionic (I was afraid the books on my shelves would start toppling onto my head before it was over), and "Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)" allows her to out-shout a choir roughly the size of Beijing. Her duets are just as fevered. During "I'm Your Angel," she and R. Kelly battle it out to determine which of them is more domineering (she wins in a walk), and "The Prayer," with opera belter Andrea Bocelli, is genuinely frightening; it's a miracle that there were no casualties while it was being recorded. Dion takes a quieter (for her) approach to the other selections, which means that they're not very interesting. If she's not killing someone loudly with her songs, what good is she?

On the opposite side of the volume scale is Babyface's Christmas With Babyface (Epic), which tries to leave listeners stirred but not shaken. The super-producer performs just one of his own compositions (the so-gentle-it-almost-ceases-to-exist "You Were There"), and he doesn't knock himself out searching for fresh tunes or new ways to play them. (His one curveball--"The Little Drummer Boy" is done reggae style--misses the strike zone.) But if his by-the-numbers delivery of "Winter Wonderland," "Sleigh Ride" and the rest inoculates the album against surprises, it makes it thoroughly listenable. And in this genre, that's saying something. Even safer is Vince Gill's Breath of Heaven (MCA). Gill may be marketed as a country singer, but his music frequently has about as much to do with C&W tradition as something by Motsrhead, and that's certainly the case here. The background music for tracks such as "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" is provided not by a down-home combo but by Patrick Williams and his Orchestra, which tends to overwhelm Gill's somewhat nondescript tenor. Next time, Vince, hire somebody to play pedal steel.

On Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Columbia), singer Shawn Colvin doesn't kick up her heels, either: This is a collection concerned with sober-sided reflection, not slurping eggnog and luring your beloved beneath the mistletoe. These constraints make for a rather melancholy album--the first song is "In the Bleak Mid-Winter"--but Colvin's gorgeous voice and good taste guarantee a handful of lovely moments. I was particularly taken with the simple, radiant "Rocking," the stark "All Through the Night" and "Seal Lullaby," derived from a passage in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I was nodding by the end of the CD, but I suppose that's the point.

By contrast, the goal of 'N Sync's Home for Christmas (RCA) is to dampen the drawers of seventeen-and-under girls. I was hoping for some of the exploitative panache displayed by Snowed In, a 1997 Christmas entry by Hanson, but only "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" and the actively ludicrous "Kiss Me at Midnight" met me halfway. Elsewhere, the Syncers emote lamely, singing six allegedly tantalizing notes where one would have been plenty. An example: During the intro to "In Love on Christmas," four of these dreamboats harmonize to a modified "Jingle Bells" while the fifth groans, "Ungh-UUUUNGH! Ungh-UUUUNGH!" I was groaning, too, but for different reasons.

VIVA VARIETY
Ultimate Christmas (Arista) is a sampler that tries to be all things to all people, tossing together everyone from Nat King Cole ("The Christmas Song") and Ella Fitzgerald ("Frosty the Snowman") to Sarah McLachlan ("Song for a Winter's Night") and Boyz II Men ("Silent Night"). Predictably, it lacks consistency, placing good songs such as Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" alongside skin-crawlers like Kenny G's "Silver Bells" and a truly laughable "Sleigh Ride" by Johnny Mathis. The "ultimate" tag applies to around a third of the material, with the rest falling somewhere between "okay" and "unendurable." The quality percentage is even lower for The Colors of Christmas (Windham Hill), due mainly to the bland nature of the participating artists. Maybe it's a personal failing, but I couldn't get all that worked up about listening to two songs by Melissa Manchester and "The Lord's Prayer" by Sheena Easton, who's a long way from "Sugar Walls." Philip Bailey's castrato "Silent Night" stands out, as do Peabo Bryson's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and Jeffrey Osborne's "This Christmas," but that's probably because of the company they're keeping.

Fanciers of corporate metal will be cheered by Merry Axemas, Volume 2: More Guitars for Christmas (Epic), in which cock-rockers of yore fret for the holidays. Since I'm the type of Scrooge who's thrilled that Toto and Journey are no longer ruling radio, I was underwhelmed in a big way by the contributions of those bands' respective ax-slingers, Steve Lukather and Neal Schon, and I thought Billy Idol associate Steve Stevens's "Do You Hear What I Hear" and Robin Trower's "O Little Town of Bethlehem" were stultifying as well. So thank heavens for Ted Nugent, who gets "Deck the Halls" in his sites and starts firing. Scores a bull's-eye, too. Jermaine Dupri Presents 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas (So So Def/Columbia) doesn't make as much of an impact, because producers Dupri, Michael Mauldin and Samuel J. Sapp III are reluctant to pull the trigger. In the cover photo, Dupri looks like a hip-hop Santa Claus just itching to kick your ass, but instead of loading the CD with rap, he's assembled R&B acts on the mellow end of the spectrum. K-Ci & JoJo light a small fire under "In Love at Christmas," and Alicia Keys offers a "Little Drummer Girl" slinky enough to invite comparisons to Erykah Badu, but Kenny Lattimore, Xscape, Brian McKnight and Gerald Levert maintain a ballad-like pace, and even Chaka Khan reins herself in on "Christmas Only Once a Year." The songs may be about Christmas, but the music is about doing the nasty. Too bad a lot of it is flaccid.

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