I Pity the Yule

Separating heavenly holiday music from Hell's noels.

Less tasty is Brian Culbertson's Soulful Christmas (GRP), a smooth-jazz opus whose occasional moments of liveliness make the drippy stuff seem even more low-cal. Christmas Break: Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays (Telarc) flirts with a similar diet, but it turns out to be more filling thanks to the participation of legit jazzers Dave Brubeck, Ray Brown and so on. As for Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, their music forms the foundation of David Berger's The Harlem Nutcracker (Such Sweet Thunder), a 1999 disc that's just been reissued. Berger took on a daunting task -- writing new material in the Ellington-Strayhorn style to flesh out a quintet of their compositions -- and he pulls it off pretty well. The piece is more satisfying than Christmastime Is Here (Telarc), another large-scale project. No matter how hard he tries, conductor Erich Kunzel can't make the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra swing. Instead, it lumbers in all the anticipated ways.

Several of this year's pop compilations are just as short on surprises. Proceeds from KOSI Christmas Volume 1 (Sony Music Special Products), which is available at local Guiry's outlets, benefit Brent's Place, which provides lodging for families of children with cancer. Too bad songs by Michael Bolton et al. aren't nearly as laudable. In comparison, How Cool Is That: Christmas (Epic) is easier on the ears. It's being marketed under the auspices of Rachael Ray, who apparently decided that having her face on a CD cover was a logical next step now that her mug is on every carton of Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers. But while songs by the likes of Billie Holiday are first-rate, they're on plenty of comps, some of which you probably own. That's less true of Santa Baby (Hear Music), from the overlords at Starbucks. Sprinkled among the usual chestnuts is fresher material, including samples from the aforementioned Sarah McLachlan, and Aimee Mann full-lengths. But in general, the disc feels a bit under-caffeinated.

Much quirkier is The Mistletoe Lounge (basicLUX), which aims to chill out holiday revelers. Some of the participating DJs and remixers belong on the naughty list. Still, there's a surplus of niceness on Kaskade's sumptuous "Peace on Earth" and Billy Paul Williams's "Ye Merry Gent," an amusing take on a familiar air -- albeit not as funny as Ho, by the Dan Band, led by actor Dan Finnerty. (He's the guy who murdered "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in Old School.) Available for download on iTunes, Ho (SideOneDummy Records) is highlighted by "I Wanna Rock You Hard This Christmas," which finds Finnerty declaring, "I wanna fill your stocking with my candy cane of joy" before wishing humanity a "merry, merry motherfucking Christmas."

Rock on, Jesus!

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