The Latest Noels

'Tis the season to rate another avalanche of holiday discs.

This year, in particular, many of us can use the sort of reassurance that traditional music offers, which is why seasonal CDs will likely appeal to more people than ever. But all Christmas platters aren't created equal. Several of the newest albums deserve a spot under practically anyone's tree, whereas plenty of others would be more valuable under the rear tires of cars unable to get traction on snowy days.

In the following look at 33 recent Christmas packages, you shouldn't have difficulty telling the good from the bad -- or the ugly. We listened to them all, so you don't have to.

THE STARS COME OUT

Making Christmas CDs is a way for celebrity performers to keep their bank accounts brimming with good cheer well after the holidays are over -- and no one understands that better than Barbra Streisand, whose 1967 long-player, A Christmas Album, is among the genre's most popular entries. Unfortunately, Christmas Memories (Columbia) isn't bound for landmark status, at least from a quality standpoint. Babs is in fine voice, but the production, by a bevy of heavyweights including genius-of-shlock David Foster, is so soupy that listeners should keep a ladle close by. By the middle of the lachrymose "One God," I was praying to the title deity to have mercy on me. It didn't work, though -- maybe because Streisand was singing about herself.

Jane Olivor's Songs of the Season (Varèse Sarabande) finds the veteran cabaret singer giving Barbra a run for her money. The album delivers full-on melodrama via such bravura turns as an entirely unaccompanied "Little Drummer Boy" and a medley dubbed "Christmas Potpourri" whose theatrical conclusion is all the more impressive for its spareness. Sometimes instrumentation gets in the way -- although you couldn't prove that by Mannheim Steamroller, whose sodden, synthesized brand of holiday hokum has been racking up big numbers for what seems like a lifetime. The combo's latest, Christmas Extraordinaire (American Gramaphone), goes where previous Steamroller discs have gone many times before, opening with a blaring "Hallelujah" and following up with dopey run-throughs of "Winter Wonderland," "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and so on. "O Tannenbaum," featuring the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club and a lead vocal by Johnny Mathis, breaks up the monotony somewhat, but "Faeries," from The Nutcracker, sports an arrangement that recalls the pre-programmed keys on Grandma's Wurlitzer. Enya has better luck with machines: "Oíche Chiún (Silent Night)," featured on her new maxi-single of "Only Time" (Reprise), floats along on synthesized washes that are blessedly understated.

Predictably, Our Favorite Things (Sony Classical), featuring Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Plácido Domingo and Vanessa Williams, is more of a mixed bag. Bennett brings an understated, swingy charm to "The Christmas Song," and Church places prettiness before power on "Silent Night." But Domingo insists on rattling the rafters even on the Bennett duet "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- not everything's an aria, pal -- and Williams's "Through the Eyes of a Child" is thoroughly pedestrian. Likewise, B.B. King walks through A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA), his first full-length foray into the seasonal realm. Although King's rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" is jaunty and spirited, "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" are well played but ordinary. Worse, he fails to bring the requisite dirtiness to "Back Door Santa"; when Clarence Carter sang it, he took a lot more delight in noting that Santa "doesn't come but once a year."

That wouldn't be nearly often enough for tarty Toni Braxton. Most seductresses lower the temperature when they're singing about the holidays, but on Snowflakes (Arista), the least-dressed woman at most award shows keeps the heat on. "Christmas in Jamaica" is a real pant-a-thon, with lines like "'Cause we both grown/And we can do whatever, see?" and suggestive grunts from guest star Shaggy, while "Snowflakes of Love" -- there's a messy image -- finds Braxton cooing about "winter bliss when we kiss." Most amusing of all is "Santa Please...," a flat-out seducer featuring the couplet "Santa, please, please help me/'Cause I'm all alone and I need, I neeeeed." I guess that's why St. Nick's cheeks are so rosy.

Considerably more wholesome is 8 Days of Christmas (Columbia), by Destiny's Child: On the wacky title cut, Beyoncé Knowles gets "quality T-I-M-E" from her lover, not sweaty monkey love. The album as a whole seems like a classic cash-in, loaded as it is with predictable versions of the usual carols -- "White Christmas," "Little Drummer Boy," etc. But it does establish the business acumen of Ms. Knowles, who goes so far as to claim songwriting credit on "Silent Night." Whoever wrote it is dead, so he won't mind, right?

OFF THE TRACK

A good Christmas movie is rarer than a Jackson family member who couldn't benefit from psychiatric treatment -- but on occasion, a lame flick can spawn a good seasonal disc. Take the soundtrack to Jingle All the Way, which is roughly a thousand times more enjoyable than the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sinbad abomination of the same name.

If the inverse is true, Prancer Returns, a USA Network TV movie, must be better than Miracle on 34th Street. After all, its soundtrack, on MCA, is a combination of predictability (Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"), filler (two forgettable excerpts from The Nutcracker) and severe punishment (Alecia Elliott's "If You Believe," which makes my teeth ache just thinking about it). Now that you're back, Prancer, please go away. Stranger still was the decision by A&M Records to reissue the soundtrack to 1988's Scrooged, a not-very-good Bill Murray project. The album has a couple decent non-holiday songs, like the Annie Lennox/Al Green-voiced "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," plus forgettable Christmas forays by Natalie Cole ("The Christmas Song") and Robbie Robertson ("Christmas Must Be Tonight"). But it's most notable for the presence of "We Three Kings of Orient Are," which brings together deceased trumpet divinity Miles Davis and Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer -- a meeting that didn't go down in jazz history for more reasons than can fit onto any top-ten list.

HORNS OF PLENTY

Jazz holiday discs sound like a good idea on the surface, but all too often, they degenerate into seasonal Muzak of the sort Stein Mart stores play at obnoxious volume while you shop. That's certainly the case with A Smooth Jazz Christmas, a Capitol disc credited to Dave Koz & Friends. Among the "friends" are (con) the frightening Kenny Loggins and (pro) Brenda Russell, who helps make "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" downright lively. But the other tunes should be loaded into a somnambulance and rushed to the jazz hospital.

Kirk Whalum's The Christmas Message (Warner Bros.) suffers from the same malady: too much smooth, too little jazz. The handle of "The Little (Ghetto) Drummer Boy" hints at some grittiness, but the tune itself, with a barely syncopated rhythm and background bah-bah-bahs, sure ain't straight outta Compton. While "Blott En Dag," a Scandinavian hymn sung in Swedish by Cyndee Peters, makes an impact, the remainder of the songs will likely inspire visions of better CDs to start dancing in your head.

Justin Time for Christmas Three (Justin Time) definitely qualifies. This compilation blends fairly standard post-bop, like "The Christmas Song" by Dave Young, Cedar Walton and Barry Elmes, with more adventurous stuff. Fort Collins-based Hugh Ragin excels on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," which is turned into a vehicle for four trumpeters; the World Saxophone Quartet checks in with a not so "Silent Night"; and David Murray & Gwo Ka Masters convert "Noël" into an Afro-jazz freakout.

Just as impressive are a pair of discs on the Vertical Jazz imprint. Jazzy Christmas starts off with a pair of tunes featuring pianist David Benoit, who has a less severe case of the Koz/Whalum disease, but it picks up steam thanks to a clever "We Three Kings," with fine bass playing by Stanley Clarke; an eight-minute-plus "White Christmas" by a quintet led by saxophonist Pete Christlieb; and a finger-poppin' "Let It Snow" that showcases guitarist Federico Ramos. Even better is Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker by the Classical Jazz Quartet, made up of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Kenny Barron and bass master Ron Carter. The arrangements, by Bob Belden, of numbers such as "Overture Miniature" (retitled "The Swingin' Nut") and "Arabian Dance" (here dubbed "Bedouin Dreams") are consistently smart, and the playing by Carter, in particular, is extraordinarily skillful. The result is one of those rare Christmas CDs that deserve to be heard well after the holidays have faded away.

SADDLE THEM REINDEER

Christmas Cookies (MCA) isn't uncut C&W -- not unless the late Burl Ives, who checks in with "A Holly Jolly Christmas," seems like a secret cowpoke to you. However, it's dominated by contemporary country practitioners who only occasionally transcend the material. George Strait's rendition of the title cut is tasty enough, especially when he's paying tribute to "those little sprinkly things" (no, he's not talking about crack); the Mavericks rip through "Santa Claus is Back in Town"; and George Jones wrings every last drop of pathos out of "Silent Night." But the reappearance of Alecia Elliott, of Prancer Returns ignominy, not to mention Rhett Akins's "No Room," for which room shouldn't have been left, stretched my good will to the snapping point. A Country Superstar Christmas 4 (Hip-O) makes for even rougher sledding. With only a few minor exceptions, like Sammy Kershaw's sprightly but staid "Up on the Housetop," the material here moves at one of two speeds -- slow and slower. Strait and Dwight Yoakam, who checks in with "Come On Christmas," are practically the only pair who make it out of the bog with their chaps unmuddied.

Fortunately, Deana Carter's Father Christmas (Rounder) shows it's possible to make countrified holiday music that's sweet without being saccharine. On the disc, Carter is accompanied solely by her father, guitarist Fred Carter, and the simplicity with which they render "Merry Christmas Darling," "Johnny's Snowman" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is downright gorgeous. As a bonus, the CD includes an interview Carter did with her dad when she was in elementary school -- a funny, modest little tribute to love and family. Which I've been told have something to do with the holidays.

CHRISTMAS COMEBACKS

Every year, artists who haven't crossed the minds of anyone outside their immediate family for ages pop up with a Christmas disc. But this time around, more than usual have emerged from the woodwork, with a high percentage of them inspiring terror by the mere mention of their names. Like, for instance...the Lettermen!

Sorry to do that to you, especially since With Love at Christmas (Alpha Omega) isn't all that scary. Instead, it's just boring, with every song delivered as if by a barbershop quartet that recently lost a member to a tragic electric-trimmer accident. Listeners age eighty and above will be charmed by it, guaranteed. Rockapella's Christmas (J-Bird Records) might strike a chord with a younger audience because of a somewhat peppier take on vocal harmony: The members of 'N Sync ape the shtick when they're trying to sound "classy." But a little of this stuff goes a long, long way, and by the time I reached the compulsively cutesy-poo version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," I was in desperate need of an insulin injection. Too bad there's never a hypodermic around when you need one.

A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night, a CMC International release by second-tier Southern rockers .38 Special, promises a higher weirdness quotient, but it doesn't deliver. The title cut cranks along fairly well, despite its lyrical lifelessness, but those triple-guitar duels I was hoping would enliven "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" never materialize, and "Hallelujah! It's Christmas" is introduced by jingle bells, for Christ's sake. Send these guys a couple cases of Jack Daniel's, stat. Heart Presents a Lovemongers' Christmas, a Beyond Music CD by Lovemongers, the moniker assumed by ex-Heart siblings Ann and Nancy Wilson, is even tamer -- nothing but pristine translations of "Ave Maria" and "Oh Holy Night!" Where the hell's the rock, sisters? Like, say, "Santa Is a Magic Man"? Or "Reindeer & Butterfly"? And how about "All I Want for Christmas Is a Barracuda"?

In other flashback news, Leon Russell's Hymns of Christmas (Navarre), a reissue of a disc first put out in 1995, is apt to underwhelm even the handful of fans who still remember who Leon Russell is. The ten obvious selections on hand (like "Away in a Manger") are entirely vocals-free; it's just Russell keeping company with a bank of keyboards. Wake me when it's over. A lot more effort went into former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald's In the Spirit: A Christmas Album (MCA), and some of the toil pays off: "Children Go Where I Send Thee," complete with funky horns and a gospel choir, can actually be described as righteous. But McDonald's voice has gotten so smoky that the disc should come with a gas mask, and there are far too many samey-sounding ballads. Typical is "Christmas Morning," which was co-written by the ubiquitous Kenny Loggins, who also rears his thickly maned head during Olivia Newton-John's The Christmas Collection, on Hip-O. (Shouldn't somebody lock that guy in the House on Pooh Corner once and for all?) Loggins contributes to not one, not two, but three songs lifted from a 1999 TNN Christmas special, adding salt to a wound opened by Olivia's treacly interpretations of "What Child Is This?" and other numbers performed with the backing of the London Symphony Orchestra. By the time the CD had run its course, I'd chewed my tongue to a bloody pulp -- but then again, I have never been mellow.

After sitting through something like that, a little humor is an absolute necessity, and that's precisely what Leon Redbone's Christmas Island (Blue Thumb) delivers -- emphasis on "little." This novelty performer has portrayed a slightly seedy 1920s-style vaudevillian for a quarter of a century, so it's no surprise that he remains in character throughout this album, originally released in 1989. "Toyland," "Christmas Island" and the rest are likable but adamantly low-key. When it comes to laughs, then, the only place to turn is to Holidayland (Restless), from They Might Be Giants, an EP that assembles a quintet of curios from co-conspirators John Linnell and John Flansburgh. The cuts range from an accordion-laden "O Tannenbaum" to "Santa Claus," a cover of a garage workout by the Sonics, and the disc as a whole clocks in at just over eleven minutes. Brevity is the soul of wit.

ROUND 'EM UP

The biggest pre-holiday marketing sensation is Now That's What I Call Christmas! (Universal), a compilation whose name recognition has helped push it into Billboard's top five -- an astonishing performance for a recording that's got just three new songs on it: Kathy Mattea's passable "Christmas Collage," Michael Bolton's egregious "Our Love Is Like a Holiday," and "All We Need Is Love (Christmas in the Yard)," by the Big Yard Family, featuring that new king of Christmas, Shaggy. But these two discs also contain most of the contemporary Christmas classics, from der Bingle's oft-heard chestnut to Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," and it's a decent way for someone who owns little or no Christmas music to catch up all at once. Season's Greetings: 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection (Hip-O) employs the same all-inclusive approach, moving from Mr. Crosby (again!) to Dru Hill over the course of three CDs. The set encompasses more Motown than Christmas!, trotting out the Temptations, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, but it generally spreads around the styles in the hopes of appealing to the sort of consumers who might pick up a holiday album once a decade. If folks who fit this description buy both of these collections, they won't have to repeat the procedure until 2021.

For buyers who aren't wondering when this pop life is gonna fade out, MTV: TRL Christmas (Lava/Atlantic) is just the ticket -- a time-capsule-ready document of this moment in musical time. Willa Ford's "Santa Baby (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme)" isn't a tribute to Eartha Kitt, but rather the ultra-dumb wish list of a greedy hoochie mama set to a percolating beat; P.O.D.'s "Rock the Party (RTP Remix)" is watered-down punk funk as filtered through the oeuvre of Gary Numan; and LFO's "Red Letter Day" sounds like every other song on Radio Disney. Weezer's "The Christmas Song" holds up better, and "Snowball," by Jimmy Fallon, of Saturday Night Live fame, rocks harder than the Bif Naked song it follows. Is that a pig I see flying?

Other discs leap forward into the past. Swingin' Christmas (Rhino) is an up-tempo bell-ringer loaded with smile-inducing ditties such as Louis Prima's "Shake Hands With Santa Claus," Bob Francis's "That Swingin' Manger" and Tex Beneke's "A Root'n Toot'n Santa Claus." Christmas at Rao's (Columbia/Legacy) isn't quite as consistently entertaining, but it does include some oddball highlights, like the Italian-American faves "Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas to You)," by the Four Coins, and Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey," who helps Santa because "the reindeer cannot climb-a the hills of It-a-lee -- hey!" Finally, there's VH1: The Big 80's -- Christmas (Rhino), an unexpectedly droll batch of oddities from the big-hair era. Billy Squier's "Christmas Is the Time to Say 'I Love You'" is a drunken bacchanal, Squeeze's "Christmas Day" delivers plenty of wit, and the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)" would be better only if it mentioned glue sniffing.

That's one way to make it through the holidays.

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