Some of the nearly forty holiday discs critiqued below are naughty. Some are nice. And some are as toxic as Aunt Matilda's fruitcake.
As usual, plenty of celebrities are looking to pad their bank accounts via Christmas recordings, and few appear to have broken a sweat while making them. Jessica Simpson's Rejoyce: The Christmas Album (Columbia) features a duet with hubby Nick Lachey on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that's harder to swallow than sugar cookies made in 1959, and a version of "The Little Drummer Boy" co-starring her younger sister, Ashlee, constitutes child abuse. A fully grown LeAnn Rimes fares somewhat better on What a Wonderful World (Curb). "A Different Kind of Christmas" isn't different in a good way, unfortunately, but "All I Want For Christmas Is You" gets a bit horny -- and I'm not talking about the brass section.
Just as cheeky is the Barenaked Ladies' Barenaked for the Holidays (Desperation). The combo's version of "Jingle Bells" is a cheerful disaster, while "Elf's Lament" portrays the diminutive toymakers as "indentured servants." For its part, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is a slave to swing on Everything You Want for Christmas (Vanguard). The trend the players rode to prominence is over, but thanks to the likes of "Is Zat You, Santa Claus?," the retro style's return is welcome -- at least for the length of this album.
If the title of Vanessa Williams's Silver & Gold (Lava) refers to royalties, she's probably out of luck. "Joy to the World," featuring Brian McKnight, is one of the rare examples of liveliness on a largely somnambulant offering. Ditto that for Jesse Colin Young's Songs for Christmas (Artemis), a one-way trip to Slumberville, and James Taylor's A Christmas Album, which was issued on the Hallmark label -- a warning sign if ever there was one. "In the Bleak Midwinter" sums up what spinning it was like for me. At least My Christmas EP! (Word/Curb/Warner Bros.), by failed American Idol contestant George Huff, sports a few sprightly moments. His churchy version of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" partly compensates for a "Silent Night" that had me wishing for some real silence.
Quiet is in short supply on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's The Lost Christmas Eve (Lava), whose bombast is unintentionally humorous. Apparently, though, many people take this classic-rock pastiche seriously, since it's available as a single disc or as part of The Christmas Trilogy, which compiles three CDs and a DVD featuring Michael Crawford, Jewel, and Ossie Davis as "The Caretaker." Coming next year: Ossie vs. Ozzy in a Yuletide smackdown!
Of the more obscure acts shooting for some holiday cheer, the most surreal may be Play, a quartet of Swedish teens who, on Play Around the Christmas Tree (Sanctuary Urban), come across like life-sized Skipper dolls. Kiddie pop meets The Stepford Wives. Cherish the Ladies is a more experienced combo, and throughout On Christmas Night (Rounder), these five vets make Celtic music that's lively and pristine. As a bonus, the Ladies' CD is the only one here to feature a holiday song titled "The Distressed Soldier."
Of course, anyone would be distressed by Danny Wright's An Intimate Christmas (Atco), whose dozen piano instrumentals suggest music boxes that haven't been wound tightly enough. Christmas Lights, by Martha's Trouble (Aisling), moves at a deliberate pace, too, but Jen Slocumb, the vocal half of this Canadian duo, brings a fresh-faced folkie naiveté to the likes of "O Come All Ye Faithful." Such innocence is lacking from Judith Owen's Christmas in July (www.judithowen.net), but that's a good thing. The EP kicks off with its smartest idea, a coy lounge interpretation of Spínal Tap's "Christmas With the Devil," complete with a guest appearance by Harry Shearer, aka Tap bassist Derek Smalls. Silent night, violent night
Of the other jazzers on the holiday tip, the finest by far is Denver's Dianne Reeves, whose Christmas Time Is Here (Blue Note) gives chestnuts such as "Carol of the Bells" an infusion of moody sophistication. Her vocals are rich and complex -- a genuine gift. Will Downing's Christmas, Love and You (GRP) is safer and less distinctive, but not without its charms. At heart, he's a bedroom crooner whose reading of "The First Noel" makes the nativity seem positively erotic.
In contrast, Peace Round, by the Yellowjackets (Heads Up) is a turnoff. The act's smooth-jazz run-through of "Deck the Halls" is so slick that my boombox practically slid off the desk. If only it had pulled Watching the Snow (Sleeping Gypsy/Rhino), by Michael Franks, over the edge with it. Tunes like "Christmas in Kyoto" are simultaneously unctuous and condescending -- a grisly combination on par with Hiroshima's Spirit of the Season (Heads Up). Upon hearing the combo's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which juxtaposes corny instrumentation with koto plucking, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry -- so I puked instead.
After that, the soulfulness of R&B mainstay Candi Staton was a genuine blessing. The title cut of Christmas in My Heart (Beracah/ Lightyear) is one of many numbers that Staton infuses with stirring authenticity. This quality comes naturally to the Blind Boys of Alabama, who attract loads of name talent to Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World). The Alabamans are joined by Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and, believe it or not, George Clinton, who pairs with Robert Randolph on "Away in a Manger." Yet the men wearing the shades are the main attraction.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king -- which brings us to Sammy Davis Jr., whose contributions to Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol) make the disc one of the season's best compilations. Songs by Sammy, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra will make those holiday bells ring-a-ding-ding. The set shares several songs with Christmas With Dino (Capitol), but the opportunity to spend 42 exclusive minutes with an obviously well-oiled Martin shouldn't be missed. Sinatra's The Christmas Collection (Reprise) isn't quite as strong, since most of the songs were recorded after his '50s heyday. Nevertheless, there's a lot to be said for lugubrious performances like "I Wouldn't Trade Christmas," in which even his kids sound three sheets to the wind.
Unlike the Sinatras, Emmylou Harris takes a sober approach to Light of the Stable (Warner Bros./Rhino), a reissue of a lovely 1992 effort. The assistance of performers as diverse as Dolly Parton and Neil Young add variety to a disc that sparkles like the Christmas star. So do the harmonies captured on Christmas With the Beach Boys (EMI). The album matches the best of the Boys' holiday output with rarities like a 1964 interview that finds Brian Wilson sounding as baffled as he often does today. Maybe the acid didn't do that much damage after all.
Other illicit substances likely fueled Reggae Christmas 4: Christmas Songs (Sanctuary). There are few revelations here, but aficionados will catch a pleasant buzz from songs such as John Holt's "White Christmas." Those in need of further mellowing may enjoy Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations), but I found it to be a hit-and-miss affair. Guitarist Adrian Legg's "Jingle Bells" rewards active listening, while other efforts fade into the wallpaper. A more flavorful blend of artists in another rootsy genre -- country -- boosts Shimmy Down the Chimney: A Country Christmas (Capitol). Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Rosanne Cash play second fiddle to Del McCoury, who dials up the wonderful "Call Collect on Christmas." I'll accept the charges.
Christmas Classics (Capitol) is front-loaded with predictable favorites, but look a little closer and you'll discover less-familiar ditties such as the Kay Starr oldie "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man With the Bag." A programming button will also come in handy regarding the soundtrack to the Christmas-themed flick The Polar Express (Warner Sunset/Reprise). Staples from decades past are scattered among background filler and songs sung (sort of) by Tom Hanks. Oh, yeah: Putting a rocker by Steven Tyler next to sap from Josh Groban results in, yes, a train wreck.
Two pop-gospel efforts, All Star Gospel Hits Christmas, Volume 4 (Word/ Curb/Warner Bros.) and Walt Baby Love: Christmas Tracks (Right Stuff) flow more naturally, with artists ranging from Luther Vandross to Andraé Crouch raising the roof. Most of The Ultimate Soul Christmas (Right Stuff) does likewise, thanks to a well-chosen cast of helpers: Otis Redding, Al Green and so on. The Soulful Sounds of Christmas (Rhino) pushes the clock further forward by enlisting new-schoolers like TLC, Dru Hill and Usher, who checks in with "Comin' for X-mas?" Supply your own tissues.
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Surprisingly, you don't need a thang for Mischa Barton to dig Music From the OC, Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah! (Warner Sunset/Warner Bros.). The EP brings together entertaining holiday ventures by Jimmy Eat World, Rooney and the Raveonettes, whose OC-endorsed composition, "The Christmas Song," turns up on a less consistent but still worthy modern-rock roundup, Maybe This Christmas Tree (Nettwerk). Pedro the Lion and the Polyphonic Spree can't quite make up for Lisa Loeb and Jars of Clay, but they give it their best shot.
Still, nothing can compare to A John Waters Christmas (New Line), which is funnier and more gratifying than the last several films by the cult director who assembled it. Fat Daddy and Big Dee Irwin weigh in, as does Tiny Tim, but their genius pales next to the hilarious, strangely charming conclusion by AKIM & the Teddy Vann Production Company: "Santa Claus Is a Black Man."
In the liner notes to the disc, Waters writes, "Have a merry, rotten, scary, sexy, biracial, ludicrous, happy little Christmas." Words to live by.