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. Part two features "Reissues and Retreads," which spotlights a re-release from (yippee) New Kids on the Block, as well as discs by Tony Bennett, Harry Connick Jr., Natalie Cole and Brian McKnight, all of whom have done this Christmas thang before. And they're coming back for more.
The first words of "This One's for Christmas," the initial cut on the 1989 New Kids on the Block album Merry, Merry Christmas (Legacy/Columbia), are "This is a very serious message -- so all of you, please listen." That's a very bad idea. The song itself is an egregious treacle-fest -- and the same description fits the vast majority of what follows. Exceptions include "Last Night I Saw Santa Claus," which unwisely attempts to rock, and "Funky, Funky Xmas," which isn't, isn't.
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Strangely, A Swingin' Christmas by Tony Bennett, featuring the Count Basie Big Band, sounds considerably less dated than the Kids' chestnut. That's what timelessness can do. The disc's cover is ridiculously artificial -- thank you, Photoshop -- but "My Favorite Things," "Winter Wonderland" and the rest feel as natural as can be, whether Bennett and the other musicians were in the studio together or not. It's been forty years since Snowfall, the last time Bennett got merry for an entire album, and he hasn't lost his touch.
Harry Connick Jr. explores similar territory on What a Night! A Christmas Album (Columbia), his third holiday release, and if brassy versions of favorites ranging from "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" to "Zat You Santa Claus" seem secondhand, they're fairly effective anyhow. As for the compositions Connick wrote for the project, "Christmas Day" is bland, "Song for the Hopeful" gets over thanks in part to contributions by guest vocalist Kim Burrell and a gospel choir, "Santarrific" wisely satirizes itself, and the title track features one jaw-droppingly dumb couplet after another. My favorite is "I'll bring the cocoa/And you'll bring the ho! ho! ho!" And by "favorite," I mean, "It's the one that made me laugh out loud."
Also racking up her third holiday platter is Natalie Cole, whose Christmas Caroling: Christmas With Natalie Cole (Elektra/Rhino) offers up utter predictability by way of lugubrious, overcooked arrangements of "O Tannenbaum" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (both co-starring the London Symphony Orchestra) and yet another duet with her late father, Nat "King" Cole, on "The Christmas Song." Let the poor man lie in peace!
Brian McKnight isn't quite as big a Christmas-album slut as Cole. He's only issued one previous holiday long-player, Bethlehem, and it came out a decade ago. Its successor, I'll Be Home for Christmas (Razor & Tie), puts a romantic spin on the season. The veteran crooner specializes in smooth soul sensuality, and that's precisely what "Silver Bells" and "Who Would Have Thought" deliver. The package is as safe as it is slick, and I can't say I swooned at Josh Groban's contribution to "Angels We Have Heard on High" -- which makes sense, since I haven't hit age eighty yet. Then again, use this CD judiciously and you might just get laid. -- Michael Roberts