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.

Martha Stewart is considerably scarier, yet The Holiday Collection (Epic/Legacy) ain't the bomb her iteration of The Apprentice was. This boxed set contains a staple-filled pop disc, a serviceable classical collection, a strong jazz compilation and a recipe for grilled lamb chops with garam masala, whatever the hell that is. The results easily surpass several other new comps, among them Holiday Heart (HoHoHo Spice.com), a spotty hospice benefit loaded with no-namers; The Essential Winter's Solstice and The Night Before Christmas, a pair of typically somnambulistic bores from Legacy/Windham Hill; and Coming Home for Christmas (RCA Victor/Legacy), where middle-of-the-road meets roadkill. The Home performer who tackles "White Christmas" is Michael Bolton. Need I say more? Besides how nauseous I am?

Elton John has better taste in pals. On Elton John's Christmas Party (Hear Music), he makes up for "Calling It Christmas," a goopy duet with Joss Stone, with the help of an eclectic, mostly satisfying cast ranging from the Ronettes and the Ventures to El Vez and Outkast, whose "Playa's Ball" suggests that Andre 3000 wants more than a cheek-peck under the mistletoe. Weirder still is Merry Mixmas: Christmas Classics Remixed (Capitol), an assemblage of work by easy-listening luminaries like Bing Crosby and Lena Horne as reimagined by contemporary dial-twisters. Even though the away/TEAM squad puts a fascinating chill into Nancy Wilson's "The Christmas Waltz," the CD as a whole vacillates between intriguing and ear-wrecking. So does Taste of Christmas (Warcon), a thoroughly bizarre gaggle of cuts in the alt/emo mode. Hilariously uneven, but only the irony-challenged could hate a holiday disc that includes Opiate for the Masses' "Christmas Evel." Die, Santa, die!

Marah, an indie band that's received the Nick Hornsby seal of approval, takes a saucier approach on A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc). Because the musicians sound swacked on more than eggnog, people amused by drunken relatives are more likely to dig the disc than finger-waggers will. A Christmas PastŠand Present, Koch's reissue of Paul Revere and the Raiders' 1967 artifact, was probably fueled by another intoxicant; the songs concocted by singer Mark Lindsay and producer Terry Melcher are dopey enough to give off a contact high nearly four decades later. Despite its moniker, SantaMental, a Favored Nations offering by Steve Lukather & Friends, isn't nearly as crazy, but it's not entirely disposable, either, thanks to a series of unexpectedly hot guitar duels with guests Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Slash that offset the dross. An intermittently agreeable CD by a guy (Lukather) who used to be in Toto? Talk about a Christmas miracle.

Brave Combo's Holidays! (Rounder) will probably be less to the liking of militant Christmas-boosters. After all, this boisterous lark of a disc spares only a single song for December 25 -- "Coals and Switches," in which Santa metes out the title punishment after viewing an incriminating surveillance tape. Worse, just as much space is given to other occasions: Groundhog Day, April Fools' Day, even (gasp!) Cinco de Mayo. And the LeeVees' clever/goofy Hanukkah Rocks (Reprise) dismisses Christmas in a single couplet: "Latke Clan" declares, "Santa's cool/But Hanukkah Harry's the man."

Sorry, Mr. O'Reilly, but Christmas isn't the only big event happening this month. Hope Jesus understands.

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