CHRISTMAS CDS are like tree ornaments. No matter how many you have, there's always the urge to add another one to the collection - to put another option on the table when it's time to decorate and celebrate. And this year, music makers are happily filling the bill with sonic treats fresh and familiar, jazzy and jamming, soul strutting and metal wielding.
SOUL SENSATIONS: "Miss Patti's Christmas" (Island/Def Jam, A) Here's the season's most perfect example of an artist bringing herself to the holiday party, not just phoning in an appearance. Philly's home girl Patti LaBelle pairs up with the Minneapolis-rooted producers/writers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for a set that emphasizes fresh R&B/pop tunes like "Christmas Jam" and "What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas" done up in vibrant LaBelle style (complete with female backing singers). Then for extra seasoning, Miss Patti turns in breathtakingly personal (and yes, theatrical) re-phrasings of the sanctified "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Away In the Manger," plus a gospel choir-enhanced "Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child" and hanging on every word "Every Year, Every Christmas."
"Slow Jams for Christmas" (Capitol, B+). Serious collectors of holiday albums have a lot of these tracks on the individual artists' own holiday sets, but it's nice to have the creme-de-la-creme in one place. Faith Evans really gets her sultry hooks into "Santa Baby," Bebe and CeCe Winans polish "Silver Bells" to a marvelous sheen, while voices of yore like Marvin Gaye ("I Want to Come Home For Christmas") and Luther Vandross ("Please Come Home For Christmas") evoke time's passages, lost talents and some near-forgotten holiday originals. Other participants include Philly-connected Boyz II Men (a dreamy "Let It Snow") and The O'Jays ("I Can Hardly Wait for Christmas") plus the likes of Al Green, Babyface, Dianne Reeves, Vanessa Williams and Nancy Wilson.
For a joyous dose of the gospel truth, re-visit The Staple Singers' "The 25th Day of December" (Riverside, A-), newly restored for CD. The set was first released in 1962 - when songs like "No Room at the Inn" and "Wasn't That A Mighty Day" rang with racial protest as well as spiritual overtones.
STORE SPECIALS: With some cultural "experts" dismissing the music industry as irrelevant these days, it's heartening to see major retail chains that still believe in the power of music to lure in people and fill them with glee. Three chain-exclusive holiday discs emphasize the point.
Barry Manilow is this year's star attraction at Hallmark card stores, serving up "In the Swing of Christmas" (Hallmark, B). Like others of the Jewish persuasion (Kenny G, Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, et al) who've gone this route, Barry hangs his ecumenical star on tidings of comfort and joy that all can relate to, from "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" to "Count Your Blessings." And he warms up even the stalest of chestnuts like "The Christmas Song" and "Carol of the Bells/Jingle Bells" with breezy, jumping, jazz-flecked vocal and piano-centric backing trio arrangements in the Tony Bennett bag.
Target, meanwhile, is keeping the price of musical ornaments low with two interesting EPs by fresh faced female talents, each boasting six tracks and an affordable $6.99 tag. Both leave you begging for more, and frankly, shouldn't every album do that? On "Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas" (Sound of the Season/EMI, B+) K.T. Tunstall applies her folk-rocking ways to the haunting "2000 Miles" (originally done by Chrissie Hynde with the Pretenders) and gets all drum and bassy on us with a rethink of "Sleigh Ride." She also turns in a most charming version of "Fairytale of New York" - a gem in the rough done originally by the late Kirsty MacColl with The Pogues.
Also on Target is "The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection" (Sounds of the Season/NBC-Universal, B). I've not been all that interested in this fiddle and pedal steel-favoring country lass in the past. But there's no mistaking the high gloss of the two original gifts she's bringing to the party - the lonely at the season "Christmases When You Were Mine" and get your values straight "Christmas Must Be Something More." And yes, Taylor sure looks purty on the cover in that shimmering green party dress.
MORE COUNTRY HEARD FROM: The ever tasteful Pam Tillis serves up a subtle, acoustic-instruments-flavored, countrypolitan set "Just in Time For Christmas"(Stellar Cat, B+) that fans of Norah Jones will find appealing. Tillis' new finds - the gorgeous "Beautiful Night" and fresh, but old-timey-sounding "Light of the World" - are especially to-die-for.
If you like a lavish helping of Nashville strings, brass and woodwinds topping your holiday music pudding, go for contemporary country belter Martina McBride's "White Christmas" (RCA/BMG, B). The production has a warm, lush and yes, expensive orchestral sound, also enhanced by those retro-style backing singers she's brought in for the likes of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Do You Hear What I Hear." This production is so old school TV special-like that Martina has brought back Dean Martin (yeah, from the great beyond) to sing with her on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Freaky, but it works.
ROCKING AND STRANGE: Like the Easter Bunny and the Great Pumpkin, Philly's post-modern pop weirdos Bah and the Humbugs only show their heads once a year - each time with a batch of droll new lunatic fringe Christmas originals that would do Dr. Demento proud. This year's novelty assortment "The 12 Symptoms of Christmas" (available at www.bahandthehumbugs.com, B+) toys with traditions left and right. Take "My Psychic Reindeer" - a new "legend" about Santa's most important helper - or the cornball country-parody "Christmas in April" and old-school-Santa-banning "No Smoking in the Chimney." Others to dig - Albert Einstein introduces his theory of festivity on "E Equals Merry Christmas Squared," stranded aliens reach for the stars in "All I Want for Christmas is A Brand New Starship" and the Humbugs attain true classic status with the show-capping singalong "All Twelve Days."
For more good rocking, Sister Hazel's rootsy "Santa's Playlist" (Rock Ridge, B) covers lots of ground well, from the horn-jamming "Merry Christmas Baby" to the reggae-flavored "White Christmas" and the bluegrass-tinged "Dreidel Song."
If you wish the Beatles and Beach Boys were still around, making sunny, harmonious rock for the holidays, you'll feel their spirit (and tunes) still beating strong in "Christmas with The Smithereens" (Koch, B+) from the New Jersey band of the same name.
At another extreme, all hell's breaking loose on "The Flesh Eating Rollerskate Holiday Joyride," (Rock Ridge Music, B-) as the cynical screamcore band Psychostick give their collective finger to what they view as the hypocrisy of this peace 'n' love espousing season in a world gone insane. By the time they get to the finale, these rad rockers are urging listeners to end it all. Yikes!
Do you instantly think "Christmas" when you hear the peeling of jingle bells and xylophones? That's the theory of three new "Holiday Tribute" albums that feature songs by Metallica, AC/DC and Green Day done in tamed-down, jingle-jangle-all-the-way instrumental form (Christmas Rock Records, each B-.) That's right, this year you can tinsel up the tree with the likes of "Master of Puppets," "You Shook Me All Night Long" and "Jesus of Suburbia," as done up by Santa Claws and the Naughty but Nice Orchestra. FYI - Christmas Rock Records is the sister label of Rockabye Baby!, which turns rock hits into artist-themed lullaby collections.
CLASSICAL TOUCH: Don't know if these recording sessions were filmed, but PBS could probably raise a whole lot of pledge bucks with a video version of Josh Groban's "Noel" album (Reprise, B+.) Talk about high toned! His lilting, opera-pure vocalizings on "Silent Night," "Little Drummer Boy" and "Ave Maria" feature no less than the London Symphony Orchestra, while "O Come All Ye Faithful" boasts backing by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Groban also achieves celestial orbit with Faith Hill on "The First Noel" and Brian McKnight on "Angels We Have Heard on High."
When all the holiday preparations and partying have taken their toll, slap on the aptly billed "Christmas Break - A Relaxing Holiday Mix" (Telarc, B). It's a mostly instrumental set of classically arranged, um, classics that really take the edge off.
JAZZING ALL THE WAY: Even a curmudgeon protesting my Thanksgiving day spinning of Christmas discs was taken by the cool treatments of tunes like "O, Tannenbaum" and "Christmastime Is Here" (yeah, the "Charlie Brown Christmas" song) done up by Indianapolis' 17-piece Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's "Carol of the Bells (OwlStudios.com, B+)
with guest vocalist Everette Greene. He's a real find - a burnished baritone in the Al Hibbler/Arthur Prysock tradition.
For smooth jazz fans, Dave Koz's "Memories of A Winters Night" (Capitol, B) and "Peter White Christmas" (Artizen Music Group, B-) fill the bill, though the latter may inflict you with candy cane-flavored cavities. *