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


Nationally known musicians aren't the only ones who understand the unique promotional opportunities afforded by the holidays, as demonstrated by this trio of Colorado-based releases. Darren Curtis Skanson, an area instrumentalist and marketing wizard, has assembled The Christmas Story (Colorado Creative Music), a disc that combines ultra-gentle, guitar-dominated run-throughs of the usual suspects -- "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night" -- interspersed with readings from the gospels of Luke and Matthew by Wayne Pederson. Because Pederson's narration is accompanied by silence, not music, the album is hardly a seamless listening experience, stopping and starting so often that it only occasionally achieves the soothing effect for which Skanson seems to be shooting. Your ninety-year-old auntie will like it, but that doesn't mean she'll stay awake to the end.

A Rocky Mountain Christmas Collection, Vol. 1, which pledges part of its proceeds to assist abused and neglected children, showcases artists mainly associated with Fort Collins's Hapi Skratch Records, and as is the case with all of the label's products, its sound quality is first-rate. If only the performances were more inspired. Fourth Estate's brawny, electrified refashioning of Bach's "Joy," cut in 1992, is effective in a showy, guitar-school way, and Dave Beegle's "A Simple Prayer" serves as a platform for his meticulous picking, but the brassy "Santa's Dog House Blues," by Chris Daniels, isn't nearly as rollicking as it wants to be, Taylor Mesplé's "To the Sky" fails to take off, and Trace's "O' Holy Night" is so oversung that it hurts. A better Hapi Skratch bet is Christmas Time Is Here, by the veteran Denver quartet called Perpetual Motion. Following a tasteful version of "Joy to the World" that also appears on Rocky Mountain Christmas, the combo enlivens "Northern Lights," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and the wittily titled "The Little Drummer Boy (From Ipanema)" via stylish arrangements and the refined violin playing of Josie Quick. No, it doesn't rock -- but not everything has to, ya know?


Most Christmases offer up a musical goof or two, but this year there's a bumper crop. Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas (Hip-O) is undoubtedly the dumbest, providing a forum for naughty novelties such as the venerable Red Peters's "You Ain't Getting Shit for Christmas" and the Little Stinkers' "I Farted on Santa's Lap (Now Christmas Is Gonna Stink for Me)." But also in the package are more eccentric efforts, Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy" and Spinal Tap's awesome "Christmas With the Devil" foremost among them. It's practically impossible to listen to from start to finish, but that's why your CD player has a programming button.

The Looney Tunes Kwazy Christmas (Kid Rhino) won't wear nearly as well for anyone over the age of nine, and it's not only because the folks imitating Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Tweety and the rest won't sound quite right to anyone more accustomed to Mel Blanc. To put it simply, grownups will almost certainly agree that the idea of Sylvester singing a Las Vegasy "Frosty the Snowman" is funnier conceptually than it is in execution. But the first-graders will understand.

By contrast, Mark Mothersbaugh's Joyeux Mutato (Rhino) provides fun for the whole clan. Mothersbaugh, who founded Devo back when his wave was new, has gone on to a career providing scene-setting music for children's TV, and the best of these skewed miniatures -- "Jingles, Jingles, Jingles," "Happy Woodchopper," "Enough Xmas for All" and "I Don't Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night)," presented in a "low-tolerance edit" -- recall his work on the eternal Pee-wee's Playhouse. Weird in a family-friendly way.

And then there's the soundtrack to Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Interscope), which intersperses dialogue from the ultra-frantic film with portions of the James Horner score and stand-alone songs that veer wildly from saccharine sincerity -- Faith Hill's "Where Are You Christmas?" and "You Don't Have to Be Alone" by the ubiquitous 'N Sync -- to flat-out silliness. The Eels' "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs" barks persuasively, but even the elderly Beethoven would have had a tough time listening to "Grinch 2000" by Jim Carrey and (no, I'm not joking) Busta Rhymes. As for me, I'll take the fifth.


Holiday vocalists don't get much bigger than Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras -- in any number of ways. The Three Tenors Christmas (Sony Classical) is similarly overstuffed, piling up a whopping 21 tracks by the boys or various combinations thereof. Subtle it ain't: When they're trying to be gentle, they're like battering rams, and when they're trying to be like battering rams, they're like thermonuclear war from one inch away. Moreover, their ventures into pop territory, as on an egregious evisceration of John Lennon's "Happy Christmas/War Is Over," are apt to frighten children and kill small animals. But when they stick to the classics, as they do on "Cantique de Noël," "Dormi O Bambino" and "Wiegenlied," they're hard to top -- or out-shout.

The sound of A Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas (Telarc Digital) is just as jumbo. The entire state of Utah seems to be on hand for "Joy to the World," "Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance?" and the elaborate "Fantasy on 'What Child Is This?'," going toe to toe and lung to symphony with the Orchestra at Temple Square, conducted by Craig Jessop. Anyone in search of Christmas music at its most traditional should belly up to this bar -- in a manner of speaking.

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