Holidaze

Unwrapping our annual roundup of musical season's greetings -- and beatings.

How many versions of "Jingle Bells" does the average person need?

Plenty, apparently. Each year, the recording industry unleashes a torrent of seasonal discs, most of them dominated by a humdrum repertoire of tunes -- and each year a percentage of them sells well enough to justify a similar deluge twelve months later. What follows are reviews of 35 such offerings, ranging from gifts that keep on giving to the aural equivalent of ugly ties or argyle socks that most folks will appreciate only if they can be returned for cash. So dive in -- but keep those receipts handy.

STAR TIME

Never accuse flirty trollop Christina Aguilera of not striking while the iron, or the booty, is hot: Already this year, she's issued a CD larded with Spanish-language versions of her modest array of hits, and now here's My Kind of Christmas (RCA), a disc that was rushed into stores before any of her prepubescent fans could outgrow her. Things start promisingly, or at least humorously, with "Christmas Time," which spotlights all of the Christina staples (register-stretching wails, coy whispers, a faux-Renaissance-era break, even a mini-rap), and "This Year," a slab of out-of-place horniness that finds our heroine teasingly cooing about "the music on my tongue when I say 'fa-la-la'" as if she's just discovered that candy canes can be used as sexual aids. But aside from "Xtina's Xmas," an unintentionally hilarious dance mix replete with sampled Aguilera yowls, the rest of the album consists mainly of unimaginative treatments of unsurprising tunes (like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") that aren't enlivened by our heroine's Mariah Carey impressions. But at least she duets with Dr. John on the stunningly garish "Merry Christmas Baby." The ol' guy could use the royalty checks.

The C&W dreamboats in Lonestar take considerably fewer left turns on This Christmas Time (BNA), countrifying (sort of) the Bruce Springsteen arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," putting a dash of soul (but not nearly enough) into "Please Come Home for Christmas," and deploying stereotypical vocal throbs on "Reason for the Season." The disc is listenable in a singularly dull way, but as commerce, it pulls no punches: Its liner includes a jumbo advertisement for Lonestar's previous disc, Lonely Grill, deemed "a great holiday gift!" Such blatant salesmanship casts Dexter Freebish's Happy Holidays From Dexter Freebish (Capitol) in a better light. A CD single that also includes an acoustic version of "Leaving Town," Holidays is anchored by "Last Christmas," a single that shows in just over three minutes how and why modern rock has become so tedious of late -- but if computer users click over to hollywoodandvine.com, they can download it for free and save themselves a few bucks. Merry Christmas, everyone!

FADING STAR TIME

When an act is way past prime time, there's no better way to keep product in the racks than to crank out a Christmas CD; that's a sacred music-biz rule. Even so, it's still something of a shock to see Christmas Time Again (CMC International) by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern-rock army that once fired off "Saturday Night Special." I'm guessing that if original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant hadn't croaked in that late-'70s plane crash, these guys never would have wound up playing "Greensleeves." But no one in the Charlie Daniels Band or .38 Special died, and they've got songs on this disc as well, so who knows? Suffice it to say that when Again rawks, as it does on Skynyrd's amusingly dunderheaded "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," it's worth a chuckle, and when it doesn't, as on "Mama's Song" and "Classical Christmas," it's kinda sad. All these fellas want for Christmas is to be noticed again.

Of course, Linda Ronstadt is in pretty much the same leaky canoe as Skynyrd, but A Merry Little Christmas (Elektra) doesn't seem so out of character for her; the only surprise is that she took so long to get around to it. The album itself is precisely what you might expect from an aging chanteuse -- lots of thick, creamy arrangements and an unmistakable sense of importance on "I Wonder as I Wander" and elsewhere that banishes fun to the margins. It's been many years since "You're No Good," and that's too bad. Christmas With Yolanda Adams (Elektra) displays a lighter touch. Adams, a onetime rising R&B star who never rose as high as many observers anticipated, doesn't go anywhere that's especially unforeseen, but her handling of "Born This Day," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and so on is mature without being stodgy and allows the occasional hint of soul to sneak in here and there. And in this case, every little bit helps.

Michael Ball's Christmas (Hip-O) takes a much weightier tack. This heartthrob of the British stage, who's trying to establish himself stateside with the Andrew Lloyd Webber crowd, attempts to revitalize theatrical cliches by using them as enthusiastically as possible; his "Ave Maria" is positively flooded with crescendos, and "Happy New Year" ends in a whisper of the title that's every bit as sincere as Al Gore is when he says the election fight isn't about him, but about justice. Michael Crawford, you've got some company. As for pianist Lorie Line, she's made holiday music her sonic signature: The Silver Album (Time Line) is her fourth such collection in nine years -- and, as she implies in the liner notes, her last. Would that we were so lucky. Silver is built upon solo piano versions of tunes she somehow has missed recording until now, with only a vocal by young Kendall Line (a relative, perhaps?) on "Away in a Manger" to break up the monotony. Line began her career playing in department stores, and her lachrymose keyboarding made me feel as if I were trapped at Foley's. Would someone call the rescue squad?

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