Sanity Claus

Separating holiday-music gifts from seasonal disorders.

The slump that's afflicting the music industry has apparently bypassed the holiday genre, since nearly forty new or reissued yuletide releases arrived at our door this year. We were happy to receive some of the discs reviewed below. The rest should have been returned to sender.

A slew of CDs come courtesy of notable names, with some cashing in on relatively recent popularity and others representing artists hoping against hope for some sales this Christmas. Falling into the former category is KT Tunstall, whose new EP, Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas (EMI) benefits from credible versions of strong songs such as the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," a duet with Ed Harcourt. Relient K's Let It Snow Baby...Let It Reindeer (Capitol) is more erratic, with the contemporary Christian pop-punkers vacillating between decent revamps of traditionals and often goopy/whiny originals. Extra credit, though, for the ludicrous rocker "Santa Claus Is Thumbing to Town," in which Rudolph pukes boughs of holly. Talk about your red-light specials.

The selections on Toby Keith's Classic Christmas (Show Dog) don't glow as brightly, but Keith's relatively jaunty takes on "Frosty the Snowman" and so on compensate for a severe lack of imagination. As for Barry Manilow's In the Swing of Christmas (Hallmark), its tolerability depends on the listener's sense of the absurd. The disc juxtaposes the usual snoozers with mega-dorky arrangements of "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" that transform these chestnuts into aural cheese logs. Hungry? Probably not after checking out Josh Groban's Noël (Reprise), which is heavier than a fruitcake the size of a Pontiac. Groban gets typically lugubrious on "Thankful," which I wasn't. Ditto for the deluxe edition of Celine Dion's These Are Special Times (Columbia/CMV/Legacy), a 1998 platter "upgraded" with a companion DVD culled from a television special. Among the drawbacks to the clip of Dion and Rosie O'Donnell delivering "Do You Hear What I Hear": Purchasers will be able to see and hear them simultaneously. A better DVD bonus is Tony Bennett's Snowfall (Columbia/Legacy), due to the pairing of an enjoyable 1968 album with sequences from the 1992 TV offering A Family Christmas, during which Bennett croons to a faux family in a living room equipped with a pianist and a drummer. Betcha keeping them dusted is a pain.

Patti LaBelle and the Isley Brothers survive the season with a little help from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The producers' admirable work on Miss Patti's Christmas and the Isleys' I'll Be Home for Christmas (both on Def Soul) suggests that they actually cared about the projects rather than viewing them as ordinary cash-ins of the sort churned out by several music-scene vets. Examples abound. Dionne Warwick's My Favorite Time of the Year (DMI/Rhino) is positively somnolent, Pam Tillis's Just in Time for Christmas (Stellar Cat) underwhelms, Daryl Hall and John Oates's Home For Christmas (DKE) keeps ladling on instrumentation until most of the songs sink, and Carnie Wilson's Christmas With Carnie (Big3) is like one long Karen Carpenter impression. Oops! I accidentally triggered my gag reflex.

The new Sister Hazel entry, Santa's Playlist (Rock Ridge Music), proves easier to swallow if only because the recording's swaddled in guitar riffs and assorted rock packaging. Nevertheless, it's hard to get excited about generic bar-band renditions of Christmas oldies. Fortunately, Joan Osborne's Christmas Means Love (Time Love) uses rock and soul rudiments in a more memorable way, particularly on "Christmas Must Be Tonight" and a saucy Osborne composition dubbed "What Do Bad Girls Get?" Be careful when sitting on Santa's lap — or on Keith Sweat's. The veteran seducer's A Christmas of Love (Rhino) flips the script on naughty and nice via "Point of Christmas," which seems pretty anatomical despite ostensibly being about Jesus, and a "Party Christmas" that ain't about bobbing for apples.

This year's younger-set stuff will make most adults want to chew on something else — like the barrel of a shotgun. The Kidz Bop Kids' The Coolest Kidz Bop Christmas Ever! (Razor & Tie) is flat-out terrifying, and the Yo Yo Yo Kids' Yo, It's Christmas!, on the same label, hits bottom with "North Pole Homies," which would sound like something from a Saturday Night Live skit if SNL hadn't stopped being funny years ago. Then again, this brand of idiocy is actually preferable to Paige Stroman's Christmas Lullabies: To Create Memories (Extreme Dreams), a platter sure to put parents to sleep long before Junior nods off, and Rockabye Baby!: Lullaby Renditions of Christmas Rock Classics (Baby Rock), which eviscerates actually good Christmas tunes by everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Blink-182. It's like jabbing a sharpened candy cane into your eye, only worse.

The latest holiday compilations are generally less agonizing. Take Classic Soft Rock Christmas (Time Life), which isn't as gruesome-sounding as its moniker — but with songs by Air Supply and Kenny Loggins undermining the decent ditties, it comes close enough. The well-selected Malt Shop Memories Christmas (Time Life), co-starring the Drifters, etc., improves on that track record, while Love's Holiday: A Gospel Christmas (Time Life) gets mileage from Alicia Keys and Mighty Clouds of Joy — and Stockings by the Fire (Starbucks Entertainment) does right by the coffee crowd, juxtaposing vets (Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald) with accomplished newbies (John Legend, A Fine Frenzy). Home for Christmas: Voices From the Heartland (Rounder) is a blend, too, mixing twangers like Rhonda Vincent with R&B mainstays headed by Sam Moore.

In contrast, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn Live (Rounder), available as a CD and separate DVD, keeps things monochromatic, capturing the whitest-ever performers warbling, fiddling and jigging for the whitest-ever audience. Just as Caucasian-centric, but considerably louder, is Monster Ballads: Xmas (Razor & Tie), a hair-band holiday spectacular that's stoopid in all the right ways. Twisted Sister and Lita Ford contribute an unintentionally hilarious "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and Faster Pussycat's "Silent Night" is anything but.

Turn that string of lights up to eleven — and then turn off The Green Days of Christmas: The Holiday Tribute to Green Day, ...And Christmas for All: The Holiday Tribute to Metallica, and Hell's Bells of Christmas: The Holiday Tribute to AC/DC, three new discs from Christmas Rock Records. Average listeners will be amused for a nanosecond by their Muzak-like synth arrangements overlaid with random sleigh bells — and then they'll get pissed off at the way their wallet took a season's beating. At least Arizona's Psychostick really brings the noise on The Flesh Eating Rollerskate Holiday Joyride (Rock Ridge Music). The EP provides one-stop shopping for the three or four people who crave a dose of novelty metal characterized by the willfully moronic "Jolly Old Sadist." The satire continues on Homeless for the Holidaze (Sound Vision NW), a gaggle of loungey aural jokes credited to "An Ensemble of Lonesome Fellas." A quarter of net proceeds are earmarked for homeless organizations in Seattle — but it'd be simpler to donate directly and eliminate the middlemen, who aren't as riotous as they think they are.

Vocalist Jacqui Naylor suffers from similar delusions of humor on Smashed for the Holidays (Ruby Star). Although she's a fine jazz vocalist, her collection of pop-song-and-holiday mash-ups — e.g., "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" merged with "Sweet Home Alabama" — wears thin mighty fast. The Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra takes a more conventional approach to jazz, and it pays off on Carol of the Bells (Owl Studios), built upon stylish adaptations and the bottomless vocals of Everett Green. Elsewhere, Trio West channels Vince Guaraldi throughout the spare, finger-popping Trio West Plays Holiday Songs (Yummyhouse). And on Memories of a Winter's Night (Capitol), saxophonist Dave Koz smooths out his material so thoroughly that it seems to have come straight from a Christmas goose. Music doesn't get much slicker.

A Very Special Christmas: The 20th Anniversary Music Video Collection (A&M), a Special Olympics fundraiser, contains some equally unpleasant moments. The answer to the question "Death, where is thy Sting?" is "Right here, killing 'Gabriel's Message.'" However, the DVD makes up for such shortfalls with Run-DMC's zany "Christmas in Hollis," No Doubt's vintage "Oi to the World" and "Merry Christmas Baby," a Stevie Wonder-Wyclef Jean collab that former President Bill Clinton gives his trademark lip-biting thumbs up. Still, the most moving holiday disc of the season is the oldest: The 25th Day of December (Riverside), a sterling reissue originally cut by the magnificent Staple Singers in 1962.

At last, a gift worth getting — and giving.

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