Xmas Marks the Spot

A guide to new holiday discs, from surprise presents to Tannen-bombs.

As C&W mega-sellers go, Alan Jackson is relatively old-school; he has more in common with George Jones than he does with Tim McGraw. Too bad Let It Be Christmas (Arista) is such an archetypal phone-in job, with the most predictable song choices imaginable and musical settings that are wholly generic. Jackson's natural twang still works, especially on a warm, string-laden "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But to put it mildly, he didn't break a sweat while adding this to his portfolio. Brooks & Dunn put more effort into It Won't Be Christmas Without You (Arista), infusing "Winter Wonderland" and more with their clunky brand of populist honky-tonk. The result is cheesy in the extreme, and those who've wondered how the hell these guys have had such a successful career will still be scratching their heads when the disc is done. But folks who want music to get drunk to this Christmas could do worse.

No intoxicants are required to enjoy Rounder's O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays. The label's top talent contributes to the CD, achieving a nice balance between sentiment and foot stompers. Rhonda Vincent and the Shankman Twins perform admirably, but the highlights are a wonderfully nasal "Christmas Is Near" by Colorado's Open Road, and "Precious Child," which, thanks to Tony Trischka and Dudley Connell, is fit to be treasured. Ditto for Patty Loveless's Bluegrass & White Snow (Epic), in which a talented singer is given the chance to show off her pipes. Too many seasonal albums use overproduction to shield their lack of ideas, but Emory Gordy Jr., the man behind the boards here, keeps things spare and simple, clearing space for Loveless to croon, harmonize and belt to her heart's content. "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" does justice to its central image, and even a throwaway like "Santa Train" builds up a head of steam. That's the way to make tracks.

Not only are pop-music compilations a Christmas staple, but they're also a fine way to discover inspired holiday one-shots. The concept is crucial, though, as demonstrated by School's Out! Christmas (Hip-O). The CD's subtitle -- 20 Tracks by Today's Hottest Young Stars! -- promises more than it can deliver, given that the performers heard on this succession of interchangeable numbers include "Taylor Momsen -- Cindy Lou Who in The Grinch" and "Arvie Lowe Jr. -- Mr. Dig on Lizzie McGuire." Seven-year-old girls will melt at the sound of "Kissless Christmas" by -- ooooh, he's so cute! -- Dream Street's Chris Trousdale. For the rest of you, it'll be the musical equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver.

Ho Ho Ho Spice, on Volunteer Records, has more to recommend it, even though this double-CD package, whose proceeds benefit the Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Millburn, New Jersey, is nothing if not scattershot. Selections spotlight indie figures from the past, such as the dB's and NRBQ. But Spice also finds room for contemporary modern rockers like Better Than Ezra and Denver's Five Iron Frenzy, not to mention flat-out obscurities such as the Chinkees, the Butties and Empire State Human. There's one killer disc's worth of material here, but you'll have to find it yourself.

Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk), meanwhile, goes the adult-album-rock route to good effect. The CD mixes lighter-side stuff like Ben Folds's "Bizarre Christmas Incident" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," as covered by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, with torchier turns by Coldplay, Ron Sexsmith and Bright Eyes, whose "Blue Christmas" is a woozy bummer to remember. Also memorable is Christmas Greetings From Studio One (Heartbeat), a slew of cheerful reggae brought to life at Studio One, a landmark Jamaican recording facility. Vintage songs by Toots and the Maytals ("Christmas Feeling Ska") and Bob Marley and the Wailers ("White Christmas") are joined by newer merchandise, like the Silvertones' charming "Bling Bling Christmas."

'Cause it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling.

Nostalgia is the lure of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town/ Frosty the Snowman, on Turner Records/Rhino. The disc delivers the complete audio tracks of two animated TV specials from the medium's more innocent past: Santa, starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn, and Frosty, "told and sung" by Jimmy Durante. The liner notes are full of interesting facts, but they leave one out: Seeing and hearing the shows is more fun than just hearing them.

The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, a Time-Life Music product, doesn't bear an "As Seen on TV" sticker, but it might as well. This two-CD set gathers plenty of songs by the likes of Nat "King" Cole and Bing Crosby that have been sold for ages via late-night commercials. Christmas-music aficionados doubtless own most of what's here, but novices will be glad to find it all in one place. That's also the draw of Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol), a generous sampling of holiday fare by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Snappy studio toss-offs make up the majority of the disc, but it's capped by a couple of live cuts from TV shows. Frank and Dino's "A Marshmallow World" is an appropriately sodden display, with inexplicable audience laughter left in, whereas the duo's "Auld Lang Syne" ends with Dean delivering a moral. "Put your troubles away until tomorrow," he slurs. "If you're lucky, someone will break into your house tonight and steal 'em."

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