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Season's Bleatings

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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.

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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