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


Them Irish sure like their holidays: How else to explain the proliferation of Celtic Christmas discs? Joining the emerald parade this year is A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh (Green Linnet), a compilation by contemporary Celts who mainly stick with what's worked for centuries: Phil Cunningham's "Ceilidh Funk" is about as modern as things get, which isn't very. But there's plenty of loveliness to go around, including Liz Carroll's "Sevens/Michael Kennedy's/The Cup of Tea" and the ardent "Reconciliation" by Niamh Parsons & the Loose Connections. In contrast, the Irish Rovers' Songs of Christmas (Hip-O) presents less restful, more rousing fare. The Rovers belt out "Bells Over Belfast," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Miss Fogarty's Christmas Cake" and more as if they were recorded live at a Dublin pub with their fists full of one-hundred-proof grog. Hoist another one, mateys!

On Christmas -- Santa Fe (Epic), guitarist Ottmar Liebert applies his neutered brand of flamenco to an array of conventional seasonal pieces, using the same middling tempo on virtually all of them, so that "Winter Wonderland" moves at just about the same rate as "Silent Night." If this were spun alongside other background music, it would still fade into the background. But enough people like this stuff to explain Lara & Reyes's Navidad (Higher Octave Music), which pretty much replows the same field: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas" are jauntier than anything on Liebert's disc, but only slightly. Good for settling down to a long winter's nap.

For the most part, A Putamayo World Christmas (Putamayo) doesn't rattle the rafters, either, but it does have the advantage of variety, drawing from numerous musical cultures and traditions rather than hewing to just one. Brazilian Ivan Lins's "Noite Para Festejar" is agreeably slinky, Colombia's Los Embajadores Vallenatos put a few tongues of fire into "Diciembre," and Ini Kimoze's "All I Want for Christmas" skanks in a pop-reggae mode that seems positively smokin' in this context. Hold it in as long as you can.


Even trends down to their last gasp usually can huff out a holiday CD or two, and that's the case with Sleigh Me (Atomic Goodies), a collection of "retro holiday classics" -- i.e., neo-swing -- sponsored by Atomic magazine. But while some of this stuff is too prefab to hold up, quite a few of these acts still have some juice left in them. Lavay Smith's "Winter Wonderland" is nice 'n' sassy, the Jive Aces' "Santa Is Back in Town" pays homage to Elvis Presley's definitive version, and "We Three Kings" by Michael Andrew and Swingerhead does the Harry Connick Jr. thing more effectively than poor Harry has in a while. As an added bonus, the disc also incorporates a Ventures-esque treatment of "Sleigh Ride" by Los Straitjackets, a surf-rock outfit that really has no business being here but sounds mighty swell nonetheless.

Mambo Santa Mambo: Christmas From the Latin Lounge (Rhino) does, too, largely because the cuts here are by vintage acts, not new ones trying to sound like them. Hearing the likes of Billy May, best known as an arranger for Frank Sinatra, trying to cash in on the original mambo craze with "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- Mambo," is a kick, as is the really stupid "How Can Santa Come to Puerto Rico?" by youthful crooner Ricky Vera and newly dead TV personality Steve Allen. But there's also a load of material that doesn't have to be served with a side order of irony to entertain, like the Enchanters' "Mambo Santa Mambo" and the truly weird "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" by the Skip-Jacks, with Esquivel & His Orchestra. The lounge fad may have gone the way of the dodo, but strangeness like this lasts forever.


Bing Crosby is the Jimi Hendrix of holiday music: He waxed so many Christmas songs during his lifetime that his record company will probably be able to keep putting out a steady stream of new compilations until the next millennium. On A Merry Christmas With Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters (MCA), Der Bingle and the Andrews gals aren't always heard together; indeed, they're teamed on just six of twenty tracks, with individual showcases accounting for the difference. But nostalgists won't care a whit when Crosby is buh-buh-buh-ing on "You're All I Want for Christmas" and the Sisters are gallavanting through sprightly baubles like "Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling."

Strictly speaking, Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Legacy) is fresher: The show was recorded in August 2000, not the fall of 1933, when New York's Radio City first began putting on its annual holiday gala. But there's really nothing new here: "Santa's Gonna Rock and Roll," which may be the most recent composition, sounds like something from Guys and Dolls. Sure, it's corny, but there's something quaint and even charming about the creaky conventions contained herein -- and that's not to mention the photo of grinning, makeup-spackled Rockettes wearing derbies festooned with simulated reindeer antlers. There's no business like show business.

Lifetime Music Presents Intimate Portrait: Christmas Belles (Rhino) proves that maxim many times over. An intelligently chosen compendium, the CD shines thanks to the inclusion of songs by Ella Fitzgerald ("Sleigh Ride"), Julie London ("Warm December"), Peggy Lee ("Christmas Carousel"), Lena Horne ("Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!") and many others. It's a pleasure from start to finish -- and although it isn't quite as consistent, Martha Stewart Living: Home For the Holidays (Rhino) comes close. The disc stumbles at times -- my first choice to sing "White Christmas" definitely would not have been Melissa Manchester -- but it succeeds overall by juxtaposing old reliables like Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" with less-played-out selections by Emmylou Harris ("The First Noel"), the Pretenders ("2000 Miles") and the Roches ("Silver Bells"), plus newer items by Loreena McKennitt ("Good King Wenceslas") and Jane Siberry ("Are You Burning Bright, Little Candle?").

Oh, yeah: I still regard Martha Stewart to be a demon from the fieriest village in hell -- but I liked the CD enough to keep it anyway. This truly is the season of miracles.

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