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.
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.
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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