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The 12 Discs Of Christmas, 2009
Christmas sans music is like Halloween without candy — it’s just not right.
But it doesn’t all have to be the kind of Muzak carols you’ve been hearing at shopping malls for the past month or so.
Holiday music has become big business. For the artists and their record labels the titles are perennials, guaranteed to sell at one level or another every year. The gift that keeps on giving. That’s why you see dozens of new titles every year, and recycled versions of some artists’ Yuletide output.
Few are of the bona fide classic level of Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You,” but at least some of each year’s releases become welcome new additions to the seasonal canon. So in the spirit of the upcoming holidays, here are the 12 discs of Christmas most worthy of your attention ...
Tori Amos, “Midwinter Graces” (Universal Republic): The season’s most idiosyncratic release is also its best. A minister’s daughter, Amos has always approached God and religion with irreverent tones, but this time out she blends musicological scholarship and heartfelt celebration as she unearths ancient and obscure carols and applies her own sonic spin — turning “Harps of Gold” into a galloping pop song, for instance — and contributing five of her own compositions to the holiday canon.
The Beach Boys, “Christmas Harmonies” (Capitol): The Beach Boys’ holiday repertoire have been repackaged more times than Brian Wilson has had shrinks — but each configuration still sounds good. This 15-song set tosses in an alternate take of “Auld Lang Syne” as a stocking stuffer for collectors and completists.
Andrea Bocelli, “My Christmas/My Navidad” (Philips): You can’t go too wrong with a great voice singing great material, whether it’s “White Christmas” or “O Tannenbaum” or — yeah, it sounds a little whacky in a rich tenor — “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Bocelli delivers the goods here on his first-ever holiday recording.
Neil Diamond, “A Cherry Cherry Christmas” (Columbia): Diamond wrote a few new songs to be part of his third holiday collection, including a title track that references several of his past hits. A doo-wop flavored “White Christmas,” a jazzy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and an a capella “Deck the Halls/We Wish You a Merry Christmas” medley are highlights, and he tosses Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” in as a nod to his own religious roots.
Bob Dylan, “Christmas in the Heart” (Columbia): None of this year’s holiday entries has raised more eyebrows than Dylan’s first foray into the form. You certainly won’t mistake this as a solo album from one of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or anything, but the sheer, unexpected audacity of Dylan’s braying gives this set a drunk-uncle kind of charm, and the fact that he’s donating all the profits to Feeding America makes it an easy buy.
Halford, “Halford 3 — Winter Songs” (Metal God): The notion of Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford asking the musical question “What Child is This?” might make minions and metalheads alike cringe, but he actually pulls it off with surprising aplomb. The originals explore appropriate themes like getting too drunk on Christmas Eve, while his versions of traditional carols have an operatic bombast that would make Trans-Siberian Orchestra holly green with envy.
REO Speedwagon, “Not So Silent Night” (CMG): The prototypical Midwestern rockers are characteristically earnest on this 13 song set but still have some fun and toss a little G-l-o-r-i-a into “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Sting, “If On a Winter’s Night...” (Deutsche Grammophon): Another “winter” rather than Christmas album, and a solemn set that includes a pair of original compositions and some less familiar seasonal fare such as the 14th Century carol “Gabriel’s message.” For those who like their holiday nights a little closer to the silent side.
Various Artists, “A Very Special Christmas 7” (UMe): The latest interest in the popular series that raises millions for Special Olympics doesn’t have the same inventive verve of earlier editions populated by superstars such as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Run-DMC and others. But this time out a new generation — including Miley Cyrus (in Hannah Montana guise), Carrie Underwood, Colbie Caillat, Kellie Picker and more — brings youthful exuberance that’s festive at the very least.
Various Artists, “Christmas Classics By the Fire” (Capitol): A DVD that features 23 holiday songs — by Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Wayne Newton and more — accompanied by fireplace visuals, with three separate options to choose from. If only it could trim the tree, too...
Various Artists, “Songs to Celebrate 25 Days of Christmas” (Walt Disney/ABC Family): All 16 of these songs — from Jimmy Durante singing “Frosty the Snowman” to the Brian Setzer Orchestra rocking up “Jingle Bells” — are available elsewhere, but it still makes for a solid compilation with something for most every taste.
Various Artists, “The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” (Motown/UMe): The title says it all, and the music — two discs with 36 songs and 15 spoken season’s greetings from Motown stars such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops and others — lives up to it. Also of interest: the Jackson 5’s “Ultimate Christmas Collection” (Motown/UMe).
Other notable holiday releases: A Fine Frenzy, “Oh Blue Christmas” (Virgin); David Archuleta, “Christmas From the Heart” (19/Jive); Melissa Etheridge, “A New Thought For Christmas: Deluxe Edition” (Island Def Jam); Kathy Griffin, “Suckin’ It For the Holidays” (Music With a Twist); Vera Lynn, “Vera Lynn at Christmas” (EMI); Mantovani Orchestra, “Christmas Carols” (Collectors’ Choice); Barry Manilow, “In the Swing of Christmas” (Arista); Mary McBride, “Every Day is a Holiday” (Bogan); Michael McDonald, "This Christmas" (Razor & Tie); The Glenn Mohr Chorale, “A Star Still Shines” (Spencertown); Soundtrack, “A Christmas Story” (Rhino); Soundtrack, “Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas” (SLG); Hayley Westenra, “Winter Magic” (Decca)
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