This year, we've wrapped our roundup of holiday albums a bit differently. Instead of delivering it to you in one big lump (like coal), we're parceling out the reviews online, with a blog each weekday through December 24 devoted to recordings in a different category. We start with "Noel Notables" -- new holiday releases by artists with famous (or once-famous) names making their initial venture into the holiday-album sweepstakes. Featured artists include Los Lonely Boys, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Neil Sedaka -- who's still alive, I understand.
Los Lonely Boys is a group I've always wanted to like more than I actually do, and I realized why upon sampling "I've Longed for Christmas," the first song on the album Christmas Spirit (Epic). The cut opens with some mildly funky guitar before introducing a vocal that reminded me of Michael freakin' McDonald. Still, the disc is worth a spin thanks to its cleverly bluesy treatment of "Carol of the Bells" and a version of "Jingle Bells" featuring an unbelievably embarrassing impression of Jimmy Durante. Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones' Jingle All the Way (Rounder) is considerably more eccentric, and thank goodness. The peculiarities get under way with a "Jingle Bells" that simultaneously pays tribute to bluegrass, indigenous throat singing and Looney Tunes. That's followed by a notably woozy "Sleigh Bells," a slyly jazzy take on "Linus and Lucy," a frenetic run-through of "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and, for good measure, a sinuous performance of "The Hanukkah Waltz" that could charm snakes. And anyone else, for that matter.
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There aren't nearly as many grins to be found in Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas (Rounder). Carpenter is known for being among the most austere and serious of country-folk warblers, and her deliberate, foggy-voiced renditions of tunes such as "Still, Still, Still" and "Christmas Time in the City" (which she co-wrote with John Jennings) hardly demand a reputation change. The album is well-crafted and features tremendous attention to detail, but it's not exactly a party-starter.
As for Neil Sedaka's first-ever seasonal offering, The Miracle of Christmas (Razor & Tie), it's both surprising and a bit unsettling. After all, the 69-year-old's voice is eerily unchanged from the days when he scraped ceilings, singing-wise, with the likes of "Calendar Girl" and "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" almost a half-century ago. This two-disc set is divided between enthusiastic renditions of the usual fare ("Silent Night," "What Child Is This?") and an entire CD of originals representing a stylistic crazy quilt. Only one track separates the novelty ditty "What a Lousy, Rotten Christmas" (in which a fat reindeer causes a roof to cave in) from the existential lament "Where Is God?" By the time that last one finished, I was wondering the same thing. -- Michael Roberts