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Team Pop's annual CD holiday spin

It was no Silent Night when we took these holiday CDs for a spin.

By GINA VIVINETTO
Published December 7, 2003

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Team Pop knows you're busy shopping for the holidays - and, we hope, shopping for us! - so we sat down once again at Team Pop headquarters and listened to a slew of holiday CDs. As usual, we found a bunch we loved, several that made for pleasant background music, and some that left us less than merry.

With Santa as our role model, Team Pop made a list.

Drum roll, please, for our favorite holiday CD

GENE AUTRY, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER AND OTHER CHRISTMAS CLASSICS (COLUMBIA/LEGACY): Leave it to Gene Autry to make us all swell with the holiday spirit. Hearing good-hearted Autry croon upbeat favorites Here Comes Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, as well as tunes with charming cowboy twists such as The Night Before Christmas (in Texas, That Is) and You Can See Old Santa Claus (When You Can Find Him in Your Heart) made us happy. We also liked the old-timey feel of the album. It lacked the slickness of the others and made us feel like we were gathered around the radio in yesteryear. Extra points for the punchy accordion on I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus.

These also knocked our stockings off

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (REAL WORLD): We were spellbound by the legendary, bluesy Blind Boys' mesmerizing vocal arrangements and by the contributions of guest artists Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde, Shelby Lynne, Mavis Staples, Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello, George Clinton, Les McCann, Michael Franti and Aaron Neville.

JOHN MICHAEL MONTGOMERY, MR. SNOWMAN (WARNER BROS.): We came into HQ with little knowledge of Montgomery, a minor country star, but Team Pop is here to tell you: This man knows how to make a Christmas album. Mr. Snowman is a delight from start to finish. The arrangements, featuring piano, horns and fiddle, are top-notch. Montgomery's voice has a robust, Crosby-esque quality that's perfect for the holidays. Many tunes have a Western swing flair that kicks the songs along, and Montgomery's zesty version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will have Bob Wills fans bootscooting in the sleigh right along with Santa.

Christmas classics

Our posse agreed, you can't go wrong with these timeless recordings:

JOHNNY MATHIS, MERRY CHRISTMAS (COLUMBIA/LEGACY): Silky-throated Mathis delivers sweet renditions of Winter Wonderland and The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).

JERRY VALE, HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (COLUMBIA/LEGACY): Vale performs sublime renditions of Silver Bells, O Come All Ye Faithful and Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

Compilations of carols

On the way to our holiday shindig, a Team Pop reveler stopped into a Starbucks and grabbed two holiday discs for the heck of it. We liked what we heard on Mistletoe and Merriment (Hear Music), which featured great classics by Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. You know the tunes. Throw a party and turn 'em up! Also wonderful was Lifted (Hear Music), a modern set of spiritual numbers by Norah Jones, Jim Lauderdale, Alison Krauss & The Cox Family, Rufus Wainwright and Mahalia Jackson.

High-falutin' holiday

We enjoyed Nana Mouskouri: The Christmas Album (Philips/Universal), a perky collection of holiday music by the Greek singing sensation who has mastered several languages. We were also impressed by Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony (Naxos), which collects Christmas-themed compositions by four modern composers. It's a lively holiday hodgepodge at a budget price.

Perenially cool

All the Team Pop members - including the one freakishly enthusiastic member who literally jumped off the sofa - agreed that the Chipmunks, Merry Christmas From the Chipmunks (Capitol), never goes out of style. Originally recorded in 1962, the Chipmunks, and human pal Dave, always bring merriment and memories to the holidays. We all happily sang along to the bouncy The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late).

Local yule cool

Local musicians delivered these goodies:

KIM STYLES, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (WWW.NEWSARTISTRECORDS.NET): Singer Styles, the niece of Las Vegas singer Lou Styles (Lou Syles and the Stylists), debuts her big, clear lounge room vocals on three Christmas tunes written by Alex P. Ceruzzi of Port St. Lucie.

DAVE EICHENBERGER'S CHRISTMAS PAST (WWW.HAZARDFACTOR.COM): The Hazard Factor guitar and electronica wizard toys around with an acoustic six-string and looping devices to create a sonic stew of holiday music. The disc is a multimedia affair; pop it in your PC for some MP3 and bio and promo materials.

THE ZACHARY JONES BAND'S A CHRISTMAS TALE (WWW.LONGVIEWRECORDS.COM): A holiday single tells the story of a girl and her dog who have a magical Christmas Eve during a snowstorm in the mountains. The charming song features lots of rootsy mandolin and mellotron.

Just right for a party

Mix the punch, light the tree and pop in Harry Connick Jr., Harry for the Holidays (Columbia), to get the festivities bouncing along. The disc is a punchy collection of singer-pianist Connick's tastefully old-fashioned spins on classics including Frosty the Snowman, I'll Be Home for Christmas and the elegant Silent Night. It's a predictable batch, save for some kicky originals (The Happy Elf, I Come With Love) and a duet with country giant George Jones on Nothin' New for New Year.

You mean they aren't parodies?

We all guffawed - sorry, it's true - listening to Chicago, Chicago Christmas: What's It Gonna Be, Santa (Rhino). Plain and simple, this "holiday" disc is for people who sleep with pictures of the band under their pillow. Rabid fans only. Every tune sounds like a Chicago tune, not any holiday tune we've ever heard before. That means there's plenty of Chicago-style horn blasts and organ riffs, but on Winter Wonderland and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, it's just weird. As one horrified Team Popper, exclaimed, "Burl Ives is rolling in his grave!"

Things got worse when we slipped in the Moody Blues, December (Universal), a collection of what (we snickered) sounded like lounge versions of holiday originals and a few favorites. We hated this album. No really, WE HATED IT. Imagine the most tepid, lukewarm version of John and Yoko's Happy Xmas (War is Over) and then water it down some more. That's what Justin Hayward and the Moody boys did to it. Why? Who knows. Free studio time? White Christmas was made to suffer a similar fate.

And then Jethro Tull, another 1970s heyday band, waltzes in to commit heinous, overextravagant studio ickiness on innocent holiday tunes. Jethro Tull, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (Fuel 2000), combines original material with seasonal favorites with mixed results. As you may have guessed, front dude Ian Anderson's piercing flute punctuates many tunes. Arrangements are punchy. Team Pop guesses it's mostly fans who want Tull versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and twists on tunes, such as Greensleeved and Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow.

Blue Christmas, indeed

We were saddened by the death this year of country legend Johnny Cash. We were more saddened by his morbid Johnny Cash, Christmas With Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy), which we deemed the most depressing holiday album we'd ever heard. (One Team Popper summed it up as, "Music for Christmas in a rooming house." Cash doesn't have the cheeriest baritone speaking voice, so his spoken word bits, about sad, poverty-stricken holidays when Ma prepared squirrel for Christmas dinner, are grim. (Actually, some of it was so over the top, we laughed.) Naturally, the Man In Black's Blue Christmas is really blue, and Cash can make songs like Away in a Manger plain scary. By the time he was singing Joy to the World, our spirits were scraping the floor.

For a desert-island holiday

Team Pop will banish you to a desert island if you play:

LEON REDBONE, CHRISTMAS ISLAND (AUGUST/ROUNDER): A yucky combination of island and holiday music, though some of us enjoyed the duet with Dr. John on Frosty the Snowman. Kitty Cat's Christmas featured an intro of "island children" singing, and though we think it was supposed to sound cheerful, it totally creeped us out.

KENNY CHESNEY, ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A REAL GOOD TAN (BNA): Another stinker. Country singer Chesney poses in a Santa hat and leans against a palm tree on the cover of his holiday disc, but we hated it even more for the music, in which Chesney unleashes what one among us called his "nasality." Another Team Pop member bristled that Chesney was "channeling Jimmy Buffett" on these holiday Calypso-y tunes. Hey, we don't mind the island motif, we mind that Jingle Bells with steel drums could be done a whole lot better. For instance, the steel drums would not be synthesized.

Need some kindling?

We hated Mary-Kate and Ashley, Cool Yule: A Christmas Party With Friends (Dualstar/Columbia), but chances are the Olsen twins hate it, too. Recorded in 1993, this reissue contains spunky holiday tunes Swingle Bells (Medley), a cover of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree and a syrupy Silent Night. The disc will appeal to kids who are, like, 6 years old, or adults who, like, think they are.

- Team Pop members John Fleming, Shannon McMahon, Wilma Norton, Charlotte Sutton and Wendy Wesley contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 5, 2003, 10:10:12]


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