Holidaze

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

MIX AND MATCH

Aside from Christina Aguilera's salvo, the biggest teen dream of the 2000 holidays is Platinum Christmas (Arista/RCA/Jive), a holiday summit of kiddie-pop sensations, with token oldsters such as Dave Matthews and Santana thrown in for good measure. But the largest names disappoint. Instead of something provocative -- say, "Hit Me, Santa, One More Time" -- Britney Spears delivers "My Only Wish (This Year)," an unobjectionable but generic retro bounce-fest; 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are at their most cloying on, respectively, the drippy "I Don't Wanna Spend One More Christmas Without You" and the tepid "Christmas Time"; and Aguilera's "Silent Night/Noche de Paz" is, um, way too virginal. There's not much life elsewhere, either. TLC's "Sleigh Ride" shakes and shimmies engagingly, and at least R. Kelly's "World Christmas" has a clap track -- but unless you've been dying to hear Dido ape Joni Mitchell, as she does on "Christmas Day," that's about the size of it. Sorry, boys and girls.

There's also lotsa celebrity shine on Another Rosie Christmas (Columbia), but it mostly takes a backseat to the jumbo ego of talk-show queen Rosie O'Donnell, who feels compelled to thrust herself forward as often as possible. I've had a lot of nightmares in my life, but nothing quite like "Nuttin' for Christmas," in which Rosie trades rhymes with Smash Mouth, and her "comic" Spanish cameo in Ricky Martin's "Ay, Ay, Ay, It's Christmas" and endless hayseed camping in "Merry Christmas From the Family," a swell Robert Earl Keen composition covered here by the Dixie Chicks, is every bit as agonizing. Kudos, then, to Destiny's Child, Marc Anthony and Donna Summer, who somehow managed to prevent O'Donnell from contributing to their songs at all.

All-Star Christmas (Epic) and A Country Superstar Christmas III (Hip-O) are more conventional compilations, with the former tossing together everyone from Celine Dion and Charlotte Church to Wham! and Elmo & Patsy (yep, it's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" again), and the latter trotting out Martina McBride, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and more C&W regulars. They each have their moments: All-Star earns a few plaudits for Al Green's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Jeff Beck's "Amazing Grace," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Billy Gilman with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel; and Alan Jackson ("A Holly Jolly Christmas") and George Strait ("Christmas Cookies") acquit themselves well on Country Superstar. But neither album is steadily gratifying -- unless, that is, they're being compared to Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas (Epic/550 Music). Songstress Vonda Shepard, whose career was inexplicably boosted by her McBeal exposure, is bad enough most of the time ("The Man With the Bag" is tolerable, "Silver Bells" isn't), but she's Maria Callas compared to actresses Jane Krakowski ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") and Calista Flockhart ("Santa Baby"). And that's not to mention addiction poster child Robert Downey Jr., who checks in, appropriately enough, with "River." Which he'll be going up again real soon.

INSTRUMENTALLY SPEAKING

Guitarist John Fahey is obsessed with the great beyond: He's probably penned or performed more songs with "death" in the title than any other artist. But while this predilection would seem to render him unqualified to produce a seasonal CD fit for anyone other than those who feel suicidal each December, he's actually a fine interpreter of such material. On The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album/Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (Takoma), a reissued compilation of offerings canned in 1968 and 1975, Fahey digs into "The Bells of St. Mary's," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Carol of the Bells" (in which he duets with Richard Ruskin) and other familiar airs with reverence and rigorousness. The result is pretty enough for those weaned on new-age wallpaper, but with a depth and heft that seem beyond most of the Windham Hill crowd. Perky it ain't, but neither is it likely to inspire depressives to start using the cutlery to carve wrists instead of turkey.

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut's last holiday disc, 1996's Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols, was just as austere as Fahey's long-player, offering solo renditions of standards and obscurities that worked simultaneously as appropriate seasonal fare and great, albeit often challenging, jazz. This time around, though, he's come up with a considerably more accessible present. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic), credited to Cyrus Chestnut & Friends, tackles ditties associated with or inspired by Peanuts TV specials from days gone by using a cast that includes jazz heavyweights (saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Wallace Roney) and genre-hopping pop types. That sounds like a watered-down recipe, and it is to some degree; Chestnut clearly reins himself in on occasion. But "Christmas Time Is Here," starring Vanessa Williams and the Boys Choir of Harlem, isn't nearly as lugubrious as it might have been, and "The Christmas Song," as crooned by Brian McKnight, and "What Child Is This?," sporting harmonies by the Manhattan Transfer, maintain a low-key sophistication that melds well with Chestnut-composed efforts such as "Me and Charlie Brown" that are straight down Joe Cool's alley.

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