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CD Reviews:
The 12 Discs Of Christmas

Posted: Monday, December 22, 2008

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It’s not hard to fi nd holiday music at this time of year.

Go into any store, supermarket, mall or restaurant. Your gas station may even pump it over the outdoor speakers while you’re filling up. And you’ll find at least a couple of radio stations who have been blasting the Yuletide favorites all day, every day, since, oh ... Halloween.

It can be a lot of the same old, same old, too — if we only had a dollar for every time we’ve heard “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night,” eh? But within the music industry, holiday music is a cash cow. It’s an opportunity to make an album once, and then put it on sale year after year after year. So there’s a veritable glut of Christmas and, to a far smaller extent, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa titles that make their way out each year.

Sifting through that is almost as hard as finding the right gift for Aunt Edna or Uncle Earl. We’ve done that work for you, though, and here’s our choices for 2008’s 12 discs of Christmas that you’ve got to have ...

Tony Bennett, “A Swingin’ Christmas featuring the Count Basie Big Band” (RPM/ Columbia):

Bennett’s name alone is enough to sell his first holiday outing in four decades. But with the Basie bunch it becomes an Event, and Phil Ramone’s production insures that the sound measures up to the billing. Stocking stuffer: A John Coltranestyled rendition of “My Favorite Things.”

The Boxmasters,

“Christmas Cheer” (Vanguard): Actor Billy Bob Thornton has proven himself a pretty fair musician, and his Boxmasters have added a compelling new wrinkle to that part of his career. This rootsy collection includes stripped down takes of seasonal favorites and some originals such as “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas” and “Slower Than Christmas.” Stocking stuffer: The particularly rednecked-up treatment of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas” (Zoe/ Rounder):

Who says you have to do “Jingle Bells?” Singersongwriter Carpenter’s first holiday outing is a bold affair composed almost entirely of original material — four of which she wrote herself, two with longtime producer John Jennings — and digging deep into the traditional stack for obscurities such as “Still, Still, Still” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Stocking stuffer: “Christmas Time in the City.”

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, “Jingle All the Way” (Rounder):

Banjo virtuoso Fleck and his crew of musical elves stir together a blend of bluegrass and jazz, as well as traditional holiday favorites and offbeat choices such as Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a selection from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and a nod to Jewish brethren on “The Hanukkah Waltz. Stocking stuffer: “Jingle Bells with a chorus of Tuvan throat singers.”

Los Lonely Boys, “Christmas Spirit” (Or/ Epic): The Texas trio of brothers lends their Latinrock blend — and some sharp guitar solos by Henry Garza — to 10 holiday tunes, including the originals “I’ve Longed For Christmas” and “She’ll Be My Everything.” Stocking stuffer: “Cancion de la Campanas (Carol of the Bells).”

Straight No Chaser, “Holiday Spirits” (Atlantic): The Indiana University-formed a cappella troupe parlays its 15 — or five — minutes of YouTube fame into a recording contract and lets their voices do the work on this 14-song set that, appropriately, ends with “Auld Lang Syne.” Stocking stuffer: “Hark! The Hearald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard on High” (medley).

Various Artists, “All Wrapped Up” (Hollywood):

“Real” rockers and anybody older than the age of, say, 16 might blanch at this one, but you can bet the tweens and younger will flock to this Disneycentric EP that features the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Aly & AJ — along with Plain White T’s for some token “cred” — getting their Yule on. Stocking stuffer: “Joyful Kings,” a medley of “Joy to the World” and “We Three Kings” by the Jonas Brothers.

Various Artists, “Christmas A Go-Go” (Wicked Cool): Little Steve and his Underground Garage team assembled this 20-song revue of rock ‘n’ roll holiday classics, including tracks by the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Roy Wood’s Wizzard, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Kinks, Soupy Sales and Joe Pesci. Essential. Stocking stuffer: “Sock it to Me Santa,” Bob Seger & the Last Heard.

Various Artists, “The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs” (Hotel Cafe/Epic): A Sarah Bareilles-Ingrid

Michaelson duet on “Winter Song” sets the tone for this set of performances by bohemianstyled female singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple, KT Tunstall, Colbie Caillat and Katy Perry. Stocking stuffer: The album-closing “Auld Lang Syne (Charity Medley),” with 50 cents from each download going to the Susan G. Komen For the Cure breast cancer fund.

Various Artists, “Playlist Your Way: Motown Christmas” (Motown/ UMe): Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Diana Ross, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops are among the legends putting a Motown spin on the seasonal ouvre — and a holiday bridge into the Detroit-founded label’s 50th anniversary celebration, which commences in earnest in January. Stocking stuffer: “Winter Wonderland,” the Funk Brothers.

Various Artists, “This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1” (Brushfire):

Jack Johonson leads and contributes a pair of recordings to this gathering of artist from the label he do-owns, a roster that includes G. Love, Mason Jennings, Matt Costa and Money Mark. Mellow but still merry, and proceeds are being donated to children’s musical education programs.. Stocking stuffer: “Stuck at the Airport,” Money Mark.

Various Artists, “We Wish You a Merry Xmas and a Headbanging New Year” (Armoury): For those who find Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s pompy protometal a bit lite, a crew of heavyweight warriors comes to the rescue. The all-star cast that includes Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio and members of ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Foo Fighters and more. Put this on and grandma may prefer to get run over by a reindeer. Stocking stuffer: “Run Rudolph Run” performed by the power trio of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Motorhead’s Lemmy and Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl.

And then there’s Hanukkah...

“Evan Baron Cohen Presents Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” (New Line): Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother assembles an assortment of friends and guests for this year’s highest-profile Hanukkah release. From the hip-hop flavored “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah” to soaring Jules Brooks-sung versions of “Look to the Light” and “Rock of Ages,” it’s a contemporary and eclectic swirl with more than a bit of World Music flavors. Dreidel download: “Ocho Kandalikas” featuring Yasmin Levy.

Other holiday choices worth checking out: Anuna, “Christmas Memories” (Elevation Group); Sarah Brightman, “A Winter Symphony” (Manhattan); Natalie Cole, “Caroling, Caroling: Christmas with Natalie Cole” (Elektra/Rhino); Harry Connick, Jr., “What a Night! A Christmas Album” (Columbia); Sheryl Crow, “Home For Christmas” (Hallmark Gold Crown); Enya, “And Winter Came” (Reprise); The Fleshtones, “Stocking Stuffer” (Yep Roc); Aretha Franklin, “This Christmas” (DMI); Faith Hill, “Joy to the World” (Warner Bros.); Al Jarreau, “Al Jarreau Christmas” (Rhino); Martha’s Trouble, “This Christmas” (Aisling); Loreena McKennit, “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” (Quinlan Road); Brian McKnight, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (Razor & Tie); Rahsaan Patterson, “The Ultimate Gift” (Artistry Music); Neil Sedaka, “The Miracle of Christmas” (Razor & Tie); Sixpence None the Richer, “The Dawn of Grace” (Nettwerk); Spyro Gyra, “A Night Before Christmas” (Heads Up); George Strait, “Classic Christmas” (MCA Nashville); Various Artists, “A Jazz and Blues Christmas” (Putamayo); Various Artists, “Classic Rock Christmas” (Hip-O/UMe); Various Artists, “The Essential Now That’s What I Call Christmas” (UMG); Various Artists, “Ten Out of Tenn Christmas” (TOT); Various Artists, “Verve Remixed Christmas” (Verve); Elliott Yamin, “My Kind of Holiday” (TRP)

Digital Drops

A sample of holiday music available only online:

The Hives and Cyndi Lauper, “A Christmas Duel” at TheH ivesBroadcasting Service.com.

Michael Johns: “Another Christmas,” at iTunes. Proceeds go to charity.

Lady Antebellum: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” at iTunes.

George Michael: “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas),” Christmas day at georgemichael.com and digital retail sites.

The Raveonettes: “Wishing You a Rave Christmas,” at iTunes.

Snoop Dogg and Friends: “Snoop Dogg Presents Christmas in The Dogg House,” all digital retailers.

Weezer: Six songs from the iPhone application “Tap Tap Revenge Christmas With Weezer,” at iTunes and Amazon. com.

The Pretenders: Holiday EP featuring “2000 Miles,” “Blue Christmas” and more, at iTunes.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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