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. This year's last installment unwraps "Surprise Packages" -- a slew of oddities that don't fit snugly in other categories. After the jump, check out albums by Jim Jones & Skull Gang; Straight No Chaser; various singing groups associated with Princeton University; Peas, featuring Rachel Leslie; and a pair of Chanukah/Hanukkah tie-ins with different ideas about how to spell the holiday in question. To the dictionary!
Straight No Chaser's Holiday Spirits (Atlantic) is the left-field hit of the holiday season: an a cappella offering from former members of an Indiana University singing group that wound up with a major-label deal after a version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" became a YouTube sensation. However, the fact that this tune cross-pollinates the holiday staple in its title with (oh, my God, no!) Toto's "Africa" should give anyone with an allergy to über-shlock pause. I'm sure that when these guys were little, they were No Chasers. Instead, they were the Chased.
A Princeton Christmas 2008, which can be obtained online at PrincetonChristmas.org, is a much more traditional choral effort, and a solid one. The disc features assorted Princeton area singing groups, ranging from the Princeton Day School Madrigal Singers ("Children, Go Where I Send Thee") to the Princeton University Tigerlillies ("On This Day, Earth Shall Sing"). It should appeal to the reverent members of your clan -- and as a bonus, all proceeds benefit the UN World Food Program. That way, purchasers will be helping people in Africa, not the group that sang "Africa."
"Reverence" isn't the word for Mama Doni's I Love Chanukah!, an EP aimed at children whose faith doesn't really make a big deal out of that whole Santa thing (find it at MamaDoni.com). Seven-year-olds will likely enjoy these novelty ditties, exemplified by a rap satire dubbed "The Funky Gold Menorah" and a modified samba with a Ricky Martin twist titled "La Vida Dreidel," while parents will want to keep their distance if they value their sanity. Oy vey.
Erran Baron Cohen Presents...Songs in the Key of Hanukkah (New Line Records) isn't your grandparents' Hanukkah (or Chanukah) album, either. But if the recording's use of modern musical techniques like computerized beats and even a touch of hip-hop is cheeky, it's also very listenable. I particularly enjoyed the wild "Dreidel" and the Rasta-friendly "Spin It Up," both featuring Jules Brookes, and the emotional "A la Luz de la Vela (In the Light of the Candle)," crooned by Yasmin Levy. This is the rare seasonal album that's worth playing during a different season.
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Modernization is also the selling point for A Christmas Chill, by Peas, featuring Rachel Leslie (Orange Table). The concept is holiday staples (like "Joy to the World" and "Auld Lang Syne") rendered in the style of club-friendly chill-out fare. Unfortunately, Leslie's vocals have nary a hint of diva to them, and the beats and grooves are burdened with bland production values that fail to capture the quietly ecstatic atmosphere exuded by the best music in this subgenre. I'd call it forgettable if I could remember anything about it.
In contrast, Jim Jones & Skull Gang's Koch Records release Jim Jones & Skull Gang Present a Tribute to Bad Santa Starring Mike Epps will stick in everyone's mind, for better or worse. How zany is this mix of quasi-sentimentality and hard-core rhyming? The intro follows the couplet "Seems chestnuts don't roast on an open fire/Just niggas that'll open fire" with a shotgun blast. Don't expect consistency: The unexpectedly affecting "Christmas in the Ghetto" follows comic Mike Epps's promise to steal your new sweater. Merry Christmas, bitch! -- Michael Roberts