The year's most ambitious effort and the best is Sufjan Stevens' Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty). This boxed set assembles five (yes, five) discs of Christmas-themed ditties, with thoughtful covers juxtaposed with originals that explore the season's ups ("It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!") and downs ("That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!"). The lion's share of this bounty isn't simply good holiday fare; it's good music, period. Talk about a Christmas miracle.
The generosity of the Stevens box contrasts sharply with releases that take the concept of regifting to extremes. For instance, A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy), by pianist Vince Guaraldi, features material that's been repackaged repeatedly, with the exception of four alternate takes barely distinguishable from the originals. Schroeder would be disappointed. Likewise, James Taylor's latest, James Taylor at Christmas (Columbia), looks like something new but really isn't. Aside from one track, the album duplicates material issued in 2004 under another title for Hallmark. That company's offering this yuletide is George Strait's Fresh Cut Christmas. Some of the carols on Fresh Cut suffer from sluggish pacing, but Strait's simple approach ultimately pays off. Just be careful not to buy it again two years from now.
Wynonna offers less country on A Classic Christmas (MCA). The production swaddles her in strings, particularly on a rendition of "Ave Maria" that's drippier than Niagara Falls. Fortunately, Rhonda Vincent's Beautiful Star: The Christmas Collection (Rounder) turns off the tap; she eschews orchestration in favor of down-home fiddling that twangs with authenticity. So, too, does Redneck Christmas (Time Life), a batch of C&W novelties that supplements hackneyed selections such as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" with charmers by George Jones and more.
The Manhattan Transfer ought to get run over by a reindeer for An Acapella Christmas (Rhino). Although aficionados of barbershop quartets (if such people exist) may appreciate the close-harmony arrangements, others will probably find themselves crumpled in a corner, sobbing, by disc's end. Thank goodness, Bette Midler isn't in tearjerker mode. Although Cool Yule (Columbia) slips with a dopey "Christmas version" of "From a Distance," other cuts show off her brassy side a side that Sarah McLachlan doesn't have. Wintersong (Arista), McLachlan's first Christmas platter, begins with a decent take of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," but the monotonous tempos that follow will inspire most listeners to take a long winter's nap. Aimee Mann's One More Drifter in the Snow (SuperEgo Records) has some soporific moments as well, but the arrangements are smart and sporadically weird, as on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," during which guest star Grant Lee Phillips channels his inner cartoon. He's never sounded more animated.
If only the same could be said about A Looney Tunes Sing-A-Long Christmas (Immergent), on which weak wisecracks from Bugs and the gang coexist with holiday staples sung by a children's choir. Foghorn Leghorn gets it right when he declares, "Boy, you're startin' to get on my nerves!" Its one joke isn't nearly as diverting as the gimmick at the heart of the Klezmonauts' Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas (Satire). This reissue of a 1998 long-player re-creates Christmas faves in the manner of Eastern European Jewish folk music. "Jingle Bells" actually sounds pretty good sung in Yiddish. Nevertheless, the Klezmatics stick to English throughout Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah (Jewish Music Group), and for good reason. The album is built around Hanukkah-centric lyrics penned by folk legend Guthrie in the '40s, and the Klezmatics give them an entertaining musical spin.
Celtic Woman's A Christmas Celebration (Manhattan) also takes a linguistic detour, with "That Night in Bethlehem" warbled in Gaelic. But a handful of unfamiliar syllables can't liven up an album mired in its own predictable prettiness. The same description can be applied to Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection (Windham Hill) its strums are a drag and harpist Andreas Vollenweider's Midnight Clear (Kinkou Music). Despite help from Carly Simon, the latter is dominated by tedious instrumentals of the sort that Vollenweider has inflicted on the public for decades. It's the perfect present for someone who's always wondered what it would be like to have narcolepsy.
No snoozing through opera singer Carl Tanner's Hear the Angel Voices (Timeless Media Group). Tanner has enormous pipes, and when he lets loose, he's capable of blowing listeners through the nearest wall. In his prime, the late Lou Rawls was just as adept at accomplishing this feat, and on Christmas (Time Life), his final recording, he sounds strong. His singing's a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn't slow him down during a finger-snapping "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway and other Rawls contemporaries acquit themselves equally well on Classic Soul Ballads: Christmas (Time Life), worth checking out mainly for its less familiar selections notably Isaac Hayes' horny "The Mistletoe and Me."
How Cool Is That: Christmas (Epic) is easier on the ears. It's being marketed under the auspices of Rachael Ray, who apparently decided that having her face on a CD cover was a logical next step now that her mug is on every carton of Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers. Songs by the likes of Billie Holiday are first-rate, but they're on plenty of other sets, some of which you probably own. That's less true of Santa Baby (Hear Music), from the overlords at Starbucks. Sprinkled among the usual chestnuts is fresher material, including samples from the aforementioned Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann full-lengths. But, in general, the disc feels a bit undercaffeinated.
Much quirkier is The Mistletoe Lounge (basicLUX), which aims to chill out holiday revelers. Some of the participating DJs and remixers belong on the naughty list. Still, there's a surplus of niceness on Kaskade's sumptuous "Peace on Earth" and Billy Paul Williams' "Ye Merry Gent," an amusing take on a familiar air albeit not as funny as Ho, by the Dan Band, led by actor Dan Finnerty. (He's the guy who murdered "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in Old School.) Available for download on iTunes, Ho (SideOneDummy Records) is highlighted by "I Wanna Rock You Hard This Christmas," which finds Finnerty declaring, I wanna fill your stocking with my candy cane of joy before wishing humanity a Merry, merry motherfucking Christmas.
Rock on, Jesus!