Yule's Tide

Searching for gems in the flood of seasonal discs.

Fox News's Bill O'Reilly has been yammering for months about a "war on Christmas" being waged by politically correct zealots who want to strip all mention of the holiday from the marketplace. Yet there's zero evidence that the music industry is participating in this alleged campaign. Only two of the whopping 35 new discs unwrapped below pay significant tribute to festivities other than Christmas. The rest were made for Christ's sake -- and profit's sake, too.

The least likely celebrity to enter this year's Christmas sweepstakes is Faith Evans, the former Mrs. Notorious B.I.G. A Faithful Christmas (Capitol) starts with "Happy Holidays," a strong original, and although she phones in much of the subsequent material, her voice is strong enough to make the call worth taking. The same is true of Brian Wilson's What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista), but only just. Wilson first tackled the likes of "The Man With All the Toys" decades ago, and while his new arrangements are enjoyable, they seldom depart radically from previous versions. However, anyone who doesn't own any Beach Boys compilations could certainly do worse -- which brings us to Michael McDonald's Through the Many Winters (Hallmark). With a handful of exceptions, the tunes here move like Tyra Banks in a fat suit. More slow-slow-slow than ho-ho-ho.

Then again, I'd rather hear the McDonald disc on a continuous loop for the next two weeks than be subjected again to Kenny G's The Greatest Holiday Classics (Arista), a disheartening blend of timeworn ditties and new brain-killers. G, I wish people would stop buying this swill. Even The Regis Philbin Christmas Album (Hollywood), by talk-show oddball Regis Philbin, is more tolerable. The disc generally feels like the setup for a joke that never comes, but there's one significant exception: a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" that finds guest egomaniac Donald Trump hiring Rudy and firing Blitzen. Betcha the men of Smash Mouth understand such downsizing. A few short years away from major-label hitmaker status, they're selling their Christmas CD, The Gift of Rock, on various online sites and their own Internet base, SmashMouth.com. On the short, lively disc, they turn "Don't Believe in Christmas" and others into effective bar-band blowouts.

Diana Krall's Christmas Songs (Verve) prefers sophistication over raucousness. In lieu of Elvis (Costello) sightings, Krall tenders sumptuously jazzy renderings of numbers such as "Christmas Time Is Here" with the assistance of the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Jane Monheit, a sometime Krall cohort, takes a similar approach on This Season (Epic), to lesser effect. "Sleighride" swings, but too many tracks slog. A lighter touch is demonstrated on Koch Records' re-release of guitarist Charlie Byrd's 1966 Christmas Carols for Solo Guitar. Under the supervision of ace producer Teo Macero, Byrd performs "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and more with beguiling gentleness. Nevertheless, the real jazz-reissue prize is Jimmy Smith's Christmas '64 (Verve). Smith's unparalleled Hammond B3 mastery transforms "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and additional chestnuts into soul-jazz bonanzas. Christmas has seldom been cooler.

In contrast, Kate and Anna McGarrigle's The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Nonesuch) feels like a rootsy family sing starring an uncommonly talented clan. Rufus and Martha Wainwright (Kate's kids) and Emmylou Harris are chorus members, and their energetic renderings of traditionals and left-field selections such as "Rebel Jesus" are supplemented by liner notes that tell a sentimental Christmas tale. A Skaggs Family Christmas (Skaggs Family Records), a Ricky Skaggs-led project, is a more by-the-numbers variation on this concept, yet "Love Come Gently," et al., give off a pleasant home-and-hearth glow.

Martin Sexton's Camp Holiday (Kitchen Table), a fundraiser for a camp serving terminally ill kids, is equally relaxed, if less memorable -- a just-for-fans affair. The plucky New Grange: A Christmas Heritage (Compass) has broader appeal, thanks to the teaming of acoustic pros such as Alison Brown and former Denverite Tim O'Brien, whereas Gonna Let It Shine (M.C. Records) proves that folk icon Odetta's bottomless voice and gospel fervor is just as striking as it was back when the young Bob Dylan first name-checked her. As for Robin & Linda Williams's The First Christmas Gift (Red House), it's a welcome package that intersperses well-chosen covers with folk-friendly new material epitomized by "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree." Fire when ready.

Il Divo, a pop-operatic quartet assembled by American Idol spoilsport Simon Cowell, would make an excellent target. The Christmas Collection (Columbia) waters down classical music to the point of drowning, which is made clear when the platter's compared to O Holy Night (Decca), an expanded edition of Luciano Pavarotti's holiday habit that remains ideal for rattling the rafters. Pavarotti also figures in A Christmas Nativity (Deutsche Grammophon); so do Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and other prominent warblers and ensembles. Nativity is perfectly listenable, as are Essential Carols: The Very Best of King's College Choir, Cambridge (Decca), a two-CD salvo, and The Baroque Christmas Album (Deutsche Grammophon), which doesn't need fixing. Even so, the season's classical classic is Original Masters -- Merry Christmas (Deutsche Grammophon), a double disc's worth of majestic fare dating from the '50s and '60s. The opening blast of Bach's "Magnificat" (stoked by conductor Karl Richter) is capable of frightening your own magnifi-cat right out of its fur.

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