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I Pity the Yule

Separating heavenly holiday music from Hell's noels.

Holiday songs are a love-hate proposition. At their best, such tunes provide an evocative seasonal soundtrack. However, they're just as likely to be nausea-inducing, like that cheese log your aunt gave you last year -- the one you're still trying to digest. It's appropriate, then, that the thirty releases below run the gamut from sublime to sickening.

The year's most ambitious effort -- and the best -- is Sufjan Stevens's Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty). This boxed set assembles five (yes, five) discs of Christmas-themed ditties, with thoughtful covers juxtaposed with originals that explore the season's ups ("It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!") and downs ("That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!"). The lion's share of this bounty isn't simply good holiday fare; it's good music, period. Talk about a Christmas miracle.

The generosity of the Stevens box contrasts sharply with releases that take the concept of regifting to extremes. For instance, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy), by pianist Vince Guaraldi, features material that's been repackaged repeatedly, with the exception of four alternate takes that barely alter the originals. Linus would be disappointed. Likewise, James Taylor's latest, James Taylor at Christmas (Columbia), looks like something new but really isn't. Aside from one track, the album duplicates material issued in 2004 under another title for Hallmark -- a company whose current yuletide offering is George Strait's Fresh Cut Christmas. Some of the carols on Fresh suffer from sluggish pacing, but Strait's simple approach ultimately pays off. Just be careful not to buy it again two years from now.

Wynonna offers less country on A Classic Christmas (MCA). The production swaddles her in strings, particularly on a rendition of "Ave Maria" that's drippier than Niagara Falls. Fortunately, Rhonda Vincent's Beautiful Star: The Christmas Collection (Rounder) turns off the tap; she eschews orchestration in favor of down-home fiddling that twangs with authenticity. So, too, does Redneck Christmas (Time Life), a batch of C&W novelties that supplements hackneyed selections like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" with charmers by George Jones and more. These performers figuratively run over Grandma again -- and she deserves it.

The Manhattan Transfer warrants comparable treatment for An Acapella Christmas (Rhino). Although aficionados of barbershop quartets (if such people exist) may appreciate the close-harmony arrangements, others will probably find themselves crumpled in a corner, sobbing, by disc's end. Thank goodness Bette Midler isn't in tearjerker mode. Although Cool Yule (Columbia) slips with a dopey "Christmas version" of "From a Distance," other cuts show off her sassy/brassy side -- the kind Sarah McLachlan doesn't have. Wintersong (Arista), McLachlan's first Christmas platter, begins with a decent take of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," but the monotonous tempos that follow will inspire most listeners to take a long winter's nap. Aimee Mann's One More Drifter in the Snow (SuperEgo Records) has some dolorous moments as well, but the arrangements are smart and sporadically weird, as on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," during which guest star Grant Lee Phillips channels his inner cartoon. He's never sounded more animated.

If only the same could be said about A Looney Tunes Sing-A-Long Christmas (Immergent). The recording juxtaposes weak wisecracks from Bugs and the gang with staples sung by a children's choir, and Foghorn Leghorn gets it right when he declares, "Boy, you're startin' to get on mah nerves!" Even fewer laughs can be gleaned from "Santa Loves Sally," a super-lame single by John Michael Maddock that's available on CD Baby. Its one joke isn't nearly as diverting as the gimmick at the heart of the Klezmonauts' Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas (Satire). This reissue of a 1998 long-player re-creates Christmas faves in the manner of Eastern European Jewish folk music, and "Jingle Bells" actually sounds pretty good sung in Yiddish. Nevertheless, the Klezmatics stick to English throughout Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah (Jewish Music Group), and for good reason. The album is built around Hanukkah-centric lyrics penned by folk legend Guthrie in the '40s, and the Klezmatics give them an entertaining musical spin. The results are like a dreidel on disc.

Celtic Woman's A Christmas Celebration (Manhattan) also takes a linguistic detour; "That Night in Bethlehem" is warbled in Gaelic. But a handful of unfamiliar syllables can't liven up an album whose prettiness is utterly predictable. The same description can be applied to Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection (Windham Hill) -- its strums are a drag -- and harpist Andreas Vollenweider's Midnight Clear (Kinkou Music). Despite help from Carly Simon, the latter is dominated by tedious instrumentals of the sort Vollenweider's inflicted on the public for decades. It's the perfect present for someone who's always wondered what it would be like to have narcolepsy.

No snoozing through opera singer Carl Tanner's Hear the Angel Voices (Timeless Media Group). Tanner's got enormous pipes, and when he lets loose, they're capable of blowing listeners through the nearest wall. In his prime, the late Lou Rawls was just as adept at accomplishing this feat, and on Christmas (Time Life), his final recording, he sounds stronger than anticipated. His singing's a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn't slow him down during a finger-snapping "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway and other Rawls contemporaries acquit themselves equally well on Classic Soul Ballads: Christmas (Time Life). But the set's mainly worth checking out for its less familiar selections -- notably the hyper-horny "The Mistletoe and Me," by Isaac Hayes, who somehow resists the urge to ask his lady to suck on his chocolate salty balls.

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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