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Here we come a' caroling

By Times staff writers
Published November 24, 2005


Click to hear music clips
Hit me, Rudolph, one more time
Christmas isn't easy. What with all the decking, the jingling, the wretched wassailing, we rely on our all-time favorite holiday albums to get us through the so-called "merriment" and the so-called "relatives from Ohio."

Another Christmas, another onslaught of new Christmas CDs. Strutting into Borders or Best Buy and seeing all those fresh entries in the yuletide canon can be daunting. This year, such noted carolers as SpongeBob SquarePants, Regis Philbin and Donald Trump get into the act.

Who to buy? Who to ignore? Don't sweat the Santa stuff. We've braved the towering mountain of new Christmas releases for you. Some are nice (Diana Krall), some are naughty (Nick Holiday) and some are, well, Regis.


Various Artists, Elton John's Christmas Party (Hear Music)

You never know what kind of naughty mayhem you'll find at a Christmas party thrown by Elton John. Drunken elves? Cross-dressing reindeer? Santa in a T-back? Rest assured, though, that Captain Fantastic will make sure your spiral into sin and debauchery sounds really good.

There are myriad pop-minded Christmas compilations out there, but Sir Elton's new 21-track mix CD has a campy, hipster edge that separates it from the pack. So though you get such seasonal pop standards as Bruce Springsteen's Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town and the Ronettes' Frosty the Snowman (from the exceptional A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector), there's also the bizarrely moving A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn't So) by oddball art-poppers the Flaming Lips and Rufus Wainwright's prickly Spotlight on Christmas.

As a bonus, Elton's slobbery, fawning liner notes are a hoot. Make sure you read them aloud as you besottedly spill well-spiked eggnog on someone's little black dress. GRADE: A

- SEAN DALY, Times pop music critic

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Dig That Crazy Christmas (Surfdog Records)

When the kids have reached that holiday frenzy induced by sugar and excitement, clear a space for dancing and reach for this CD. Let them boogie to Dig That Crazy Santa ("Drags his sack through a chimney stack, all the little hepcats jump for joy"); get Grandma to teach them how to do the twist to Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; make room for everybody to swing to the gloriously silly rave-up Hey Santa!

If that doesn't wear 'em out, nothing will.

Setzer made his rockabilly bones with the Stray Cats and keeps the light of swing burning with his eponymous orchestra. Those two irresistibly danceable musical forms keep this holiday disc rocking.

And he's not afraid to mix things up. Angels We Have Heard on High is a speedy mash-up of chiming bells and surf guitar, a female choir and power drumming. He has a blast with novelty tunes like You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch and Santa Drives a Hot Rod.

Setzer's own range of vocal styles is, well, not broad. On the first, traditional half of White Christmas, he sounds as uncomfortable as a teenager forced to wear a reindeer sweater that matches his dad's. But once the uptempo horns kick in and Setzer starts channeling the Rat Pack, he's a happy man. GRADE: B+

- COLETTE BANCROFT, Times staff writer

Brian Wilson, What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista)

Wilson is an old hand at holiday pop albums, going back to The Beach Boys' Christmas Album in 1964. A couple of tunes from that one are reprised on this new CD, but even better, it captures the quality that kept the Beach Boys surfing the top of the charts in the '60s: music that radiates joy.

Wilson is neither wrestling his demons nor trying to create a masterpiece here; he's just having fun. The songs, most of them traditional carols, get simple arrangements of piano, organ, guitar and rolling drums. There's a juicy sax solo here, a touch of strings there - and what sounds like kazoo on We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which starts out staid and explodes gleefully into surf guitar and a chorus of "ooooh bop-diddies."

Wilson's tenor isn't as sublime as it was back in the day, but he still hits the high notes on First Noel. And the angelic harmonies sound so much like the Beach Boys, right down to the nasal Southern California twang, it's a little eerie.

There's a special treat for boomers, too: new versions of Beach Boys classics The Man With All the Toys and the rockin' Little Saint Nick (a reworking of Little Deuce Coupe) that are true to the joyful spirit of the originals. GRADE: B+

- C.B.


Various Artists, Nick Holiday (Nick Records)

Naughty boys and girls get coal in their Christmas stockings. Naughty parents get a fresh copy of Nick Holiday.

The 14-track collection features the musical stylings of Nickelodeon television cartoon stars SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron, the Rugrats and others. Listening to this CD is like sitting at the kids table when you're 35, praying for some ancient great-aunt to pass on so you can finally move up to the adult table.

The kiddie cacophony grates on grown-up ears like a howling infant on a cross-country red eye. It's full of cutesy lisps, screechy toy demands, repetitive choruses, phlegm-stuffed noses and precious baby talk.

That's not to say it's all bad. There's a cool bluesy take on Jingle Bells by the Blue's Room crowd, a zydeco-inspired number called Snow Is Cold But I Am Cool by the Backyardigans, and some interesting holiday lyrics, such as "Last summer I was bitten by an eel," and "I got pudding, I got slacks, I got all my back hair waxed."

With a running time of 29:36, parents foolhardy enough to acquire this CD (or who have in-laws cruel enough to give it as a gift) can be assured children will replay these ditties over and over and over and over. Twelve days of that, and Labor Day will become your new favorite holiday.

There's no singing on Labor Day, right? Grade: Ack!

- CHASE SQUIRES, Times staff writer


Anita Baker, Christmas Fantasy (Blue Note Records)

Until I heard Anita Baker sing it, I had never thought of Frosty the Snowman as a series of double entendres. But after hearing her sassy, New Orleans-flavored Frosty's Rag, the lines "Ladies, let's go out and play/Before I melt away" will never sound quite the same.

Baker wraps her trademark vocal silk and seduction around this CD of both holiday classics and new songs, and it's as warming as a sip of cognac. She is most at home with relatively recent standards, like a bluesy Christmas Time Is Here. Her I'll Be Home for Christmas sounds like a sweetly intimate promise, not a melancholy wish.

Older traditional songs seem a bit out of place, though. Her take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is so sultry that, despite all those lyrics about the Savior, it sounds like a song about a guy who just poured a couple of cold martinis, not one who turned water into wine.

But mainly this CD, bookended by Frosty's Rag and a gorgeous display of Baker's jazz chops on My Favorite Things, is a winner. Save it for that stolen holiday hour you spend in front of the fire with the one you dig, baby. GRADE: B

- C.B.

Michael McDonald, Through the Many Winters: A Christmas Album (Hallmark)

Who doesn't like a Doobie for Christmas? The smooth-voiced McDonald could sing your electric bill and make it sound appealing. So when the blue-eyed soul softie gets ahold of Silent Night, crooning over some spare acoustic guitar plucks, he turns the standard into something that sounds newer, fresher. On the equally inventive Come, O Emanuel/What Month Was Jesus Born, he gives the good-word gospel some funky oomph.

As is so often the problem with McDonald, his voice is far superior to his questionable ear for musical accompaniment. This makes the 10 tracks an uneven affair. Deck the Halls/Jingle Bells sounds like the kind of vintage "blues" you might hear at a Ramada Inn cocktail lounge. And the self-penned Christmas on the Bayou is about as Cajun as a Popeyes chicken dinner. Note to Mike: Think a cappella, pal. GRADE: C

- S.D.

Faith Evans, A Faithful Christmas (Capitol)

The first lady of R&B and hip-hop brings a whole lotta 'tude to this 11-track disc of originals and new tunes - perhaps the most curious and enlightening of this year's Christmas entries. Interestingly enough, the tough and tattooed singer-songwriter sounds far more inspired on the throwback cool of Motown classic The Day That Love Began and juke-joint sexiness of Santa Baby than she does on the overproduced newness of Happy Holiday and, most regrettably, O Come All Ye Faithful.

You can tell that Evans was raised on the classics, no more so than on the album's great, grooving highlight: Soulful Christmas, which doesn't just sample the James Brown classic but channels the "good God, yeah!" spirit of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. If you're not ready to conquer the holidays now, just spin this killer remake a few times and you'll be ready to boogie straight on through 'til New Year's Eve. GRADE: B

- S.D.


Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Nonesuch)

The McGarrigle Christmas Hour feels like a cheery holiday gathering at the welcoming home of a particularly talented and brainy group of family and friends - in this case, the acclaimed Canadian folk-singing-songwriting sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle; Kate's children Rufus and Martha Waingfpwright (dad Loudon, Kate's ex, isn't around this time); and guest Emmylou Harris.

A slow-breathing O Little Town of Bethlehem, with Harris backed by three trombones and a choir, is among the familiar highlights. So, too, is Rufus' slinky version of What Are You Doing New Year's Eve; a big-chorus take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; and Blue Christmas, with Chaim Tannenbaum on vocals and mandolin backed by accordion (Anna), piano (Jane McGarrigle, sister to Kate and Anna), dobro and violin.

Gorgeous arrangements of yuletide pieces from various national traditions are also here, along with a shuffling take on Jackson Browne's Rebel Jesus, the offbeat spoken-word and music piece Counting Stars, Rufus's Spotlight On Christmas and the lovely McGarrigle originals Wise Men and Port Starboard Sox.

The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, something of a sequel to 1998's The McGarrigle Hour, is an exquisite twist on the holiday-music genre and a not-distant relative of Bruce Cockburn's underappreciated 1993 Christmas album. Grade: A

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent


Various Artists, Christmas Angels (Capitol Records)

Ten honky-tonk angels turn into Christmas angels for this compilation of mostly secular Christmas songs. It could be great background music for a holiday party.

The high point is Shimmy Down the Chimney from Alison Krauss, whose ethereal soprano is undoubtedly the most angelic voice in country music today. Other strong tracks include Suzy Bogguss' rendition of Two-Step 'Round the Christmas Tree and Tanya Tucker in a robust Winter Wonderland. The drawback of any compilation, of course, is that you get the good with the bad, specifically Bethany Dillon's annoyingly breathless rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Others featured on the album include Jamie O'Neal (O Holy Night) and Deana Carter (Boogie Woogie Santa). GRADE: B

- HELEN HUNTLEY, Times staff writer

Ricky Skaggs and Relatives, A Skaggs Family Christmas Vol. I (Skaggs Family Records)

A family Christmas sing-along inspired this album by the Skaggs and White families, including Ricky Skaggs, his Kentucky Thunder band, the Whites and the Skaggs' children. The album offers traditional Christmas music done in bluegrass style with bluegrass instruments, including mandolin, dulcimer, accordion, banjo and even a penny whistle.

My favorite cut is an instrumental version of Deck the Halls that features different instruments taking the lead. The song selection is a mixture of sacred and secular, from the moving Mary Did You Know to the bouncy Let It Snow. The songs are broken up by a lengthy Buck White recitation of a Grandpa Jones and Bill Walker story, The Christmas Guest. It's a touching story likely to inspire thoughtful reflection on first hearing - but it gets old pretty quickly after that. GRADE: B-

- H.H.

Martin Sexton, Camp Holiday (Kitchen Table Records)

Martin Sexton's Camp Holiday is a CD to consider taking along if roughing it in the great outdoors is part of your holiday plans. The instrumentation might inspire you to play along. In addition to acoustic guitar, Sexton and friends play bells, a cookie tin, a spaghetti strainer, finger cymbals and salt and pepper shakers. They also offer vocal imitations of drums and horns.

The songs are mostly traditional carols done in a jazzy folk style, so if you like straight-up traditional music, this CD is not for you. Sexton adds his own lyrics to Silent Night and includes one original piece, Welcome to the Camp, easily the best song on the CD. Sexton's voice has a nasal quality that I did not find appealing, but if you're already a fan, this CD is probably worth a listen. GRADE: C

- H.H.

O HOLY NIGHT, Steven Curtis Chapman, All I Really Want for Christmas (Sparrow)

The popular Christian singer offers old and new carols on All I Really Want for Christmas. Some of this is too capital-S sincere and over-produced (icky). The cuts with his adopted daughter singing and reading are too, too sweet (sticky). But there are other songs you'd stop for if you were scanning the dial and hit a Christian station, like Christmas Is All in the Heart. Note to Steven: Simpler is better. (Hard to fault a guy, though, who established a foundation to help families adopt children from overseas.) GRADE: C+

- JUDY STARK, Times staff writer

Aaron Neville, Christmas Prayer (EMI Gospel)

How could you not love Aaron Neville's Christmas Prayer? His White Christmas is the ultimate party song that will have everybody conga-lining around the room. You know what Neville sounds like, right? Well, he sounds that way here, on mostly classic Christmas carols, and there's terrific harmony (the Blind Boys of Alabama sing backup on Joy to the World) and a bonus track of Amazing Grace. Neville's falsetto is the star on the top of the tree. GRADE: A

- J.S.


Diana Krall featuring the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Christmas Songs (Verve)

Diana Krall is a woman of wealth and taste, and her first Christmas CD sounds that way. That's not a dis: Her singing is on time, in tune, affecting and occasionally sultry; her piano playing is sophisticated; the arrangements are clever and not cloying; and the blue-chip Los Angeles Orchestra, led by bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton, offers support that's smart and always swinging.

Jingle Bells, the opener, hints at Killer Joe, and Christmas Time Is Here features some absolutely lush chording by guitarist Russell Malone. Unexpected closer Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep, an Irving Berlin chestnut that's one of three tracks featuring a string orchestra arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel, amounts to one gorgeous lullaby. GRADE: A-

- P.B.

Kenny G, The Greatest Holiday Classics (Arista)

This is mostly a compilation of favorites from Kenny's previous holiday releases (Wishes, Miracles, Faith). If you like the G-man's plaintive sax, you'll like this; if not, you'll feel as if you're stuck in an elevator for the 12 Days of Christmas. GRADE: G, of course!

- J.S.

Jane Monheit, The Season (Epic)

Jane Monheit, the jazz world's young and glamorous It Girl of a few years ago, turns in a holiday disc that's darn pretty but a tad prefab. Her vocal chops remain impressive, although too mannered and overly controlled, as if she were simply attempting to nail a set of tunes attached to a Broadway show. Pick hits: Donny Hathaway's always welcome R&B treat This Christmas; an elegant, slow-crawling Moonlight in Vermont; a swinging Sleigh Ride; and a bluesy Santa Claus is Coming to Town. GRADE: B-

- P.B.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Christmas Album (Shout Factory)

This masterpiece of 1968 shag-rug smoothness is not technically "new," but it sure does sound like it. The 10-track classic has been remastered and repackaged to brilliant heights by those throwback hipsters at Shout Factory. I've been a sucker for Herb and the boys' bachelor-pad soundtrack ever since spending most of my youth staring at the cover of Whipped Cream & Other Delights. If you consider yourself to be a hip party-thrower, well, you're really not unless you have trumpeter Alpert blowing out some Latin-grooved Jingle Bells from your Bose iPod Soundock. GRADE: A

- S.D.

Regis Philbin, The Regis Philbin Christmas Album (Hollywood)

Something about the holidays knocks the humbug out of Regis Philbin. Maybe it's because Kelly Ripa isn't goading him, but Philbin's collection of timeless Christmas songs - and a tuneless cameo by Donald Trump - offers cheezin' for the season.

To be fair, Philbin's tenor is suitable background for wrapping gifts, on classics such as White Christmas, The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that only Bai Ling could ruin. A duet with his wife Joy on Baby, It's Cold Outside is fuddy-duddy fun. Nine of the dozen tracks here could make a road trip to Grandma's house pass just fine.

Three other songs that might make you pull into a rest stop to recuperate: The hokey opener, Where Do We Go for Christmas?, written by actor/restaurateur Frank Pelligrino, probably won't be covered by anyone. Marshmallow World, with its pseudo-jazz guitar riffs, is skippable.

But don't miss, at least once, Philbin going ring-a-ding-ding with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, while Trump hires Rudolph as his sleigh apprentice and fires Blitzen. The song bottoms out when Philbin feigns introducing Rudolph to Ripa, his producer Gelman and several New York celebrities including the starting lineup for the Yankees. At least he didn't invite his beloved Notre Dame football team. That's his holiday gift to us all. GRADE: B-

- STEVE PERSALL, Times staff writer

[Last modified November 23, 2005, 14:27:52]

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