10 new CDs for a cool yule

By Sean Daly, Times Pop Music Critic
Published November 29, 2007


When it comes to Christmas music, I like it weird. I have 100-plus yuletide albums at home, and I just don't need another ho-ho-hum attempt at Deck the Halls.

For me, Santa songs need to be different, inspired, genuine. Weird. Last year was especially good, as both funk pioneer Bootsy Collins and hair-metal heroes Twisted Sister entered the seasonal swing with gusto. No surprise: I liked 'em both.

My favorite Christmas album of '06 was the remastered soundtrack to 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas, a true work of art by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Not weird necessarily, but it was viscerally inventive, devastatingly cool and capable of time-warping me to my youth. So those qualities count, too.

More than 40 new Christmas CDs showed up in my work mailbox this year, 10 of which I singled out as worthy of my collection. Some are better than others. Raul Malo's is an absolute must, a few I chose for their good-natured vibe (KT Tunstall and Toby Keith's discs both sound born in saloons) and a few selections are so incredibly goofy, they might catch on as party gags (The Holiday Tribute to AC/DC).

I've also included the "You Better Watch Out . . ." list, reserved for albums to approach at your own risk. For instance, I'm fairly certain Miley Cyrus' rendition of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree will cause your cat to explode. You and Whiskers have been warned.

1. Raul Malo, Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites (New Door) - The best of the bunch, Malo's merry offering is a modern classic, right up there with Chris Isaak's Christmas and Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues. Recorded live in the studio, the former Mavericks golden throat swings just as hard as Dino and drips with Sinatra sass. Love that big bad brass section, too. The bawdy Santa Claus Is Back in Town should come with a burlesque dancer and a wad of singles. Grade: A

2. KT Tunstall, The KT Tunstall Holiday Collection (EMI) - Tunstall's Scottish is showing on this six-track charmer from the 30-something pop star. From a cover of the Pretenders' 2000 Miles to a downright loopy take on Mele Kalikimaka (Christmas in Hawaii), Tunstall sounds like she and her eager band holed up in their fave Edinburgh pub and had a blast. Glenfiddich on me! Grade: A-

3. Rufus Wainwright, Jack Johnson, Stockings by the Fire (Starbucks) - Say what you want about the Starbucks branding machine, but the coffee crew has swell taste in Christmas music. Mixing classic cool (Ray Charles & Betty Carter on Baby, It's Cold Outside) with new school (Jack Johnson's surfer-slacker Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer), this disc has a high hip quotient. The showstopper is Rufus Wainwright's What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? Grade: B+

4. Over the Rhine, Snow Angels (Red Eye) - The popular Ohio indie band, featuring the married couple of vocalist Karin Bergquist and pianist-composer Linford Detweiler, make a complex Christmas album filled with nostalgia, heartbreak - and a political reworking of O Little Town of Bethlehem. With the jazzy brush work, puckish piano and Bergquist's Blue Note vocal, it's also ideal for a hot makeout session. Grade: A

5. Keali'i Reichel, Maluhia (Punahele) - Call this guy the Josh Groban of Hawaii. With a sweet, soaring voice - and a physique reminiscent of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka - Reichel is an island phenomenon who excels at "music, chant and hula." More folksy than Polynesian, the singer uses an acoustic framework and plenty of background singers, all to produce a tropical breeze of holiday charm. Grade: B-

 6. Santa Claws and the Naughty but Nice Orchestra, Hell's Bells of Christmas: The Holiday Tribute to AC/DC (Christmas Rock) - A Lawrence Welkian ensemble suited for elevator output puts jingle-jangle spin on Back in Black, Thunderstruck and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Chimes, flutes and xylophones turn the Aussie icons into cheeky family fare. Fun for a few laughs . . . and a few shots of eggnog. Grade: B-

7. Toby Keith, Classic Christmas (Show Dog) - On two CDs and 20 tracks, Keith and producer Randy Scruggs trim the tree with twang. Volume One covers the secular songs; a Dobro-framed Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas kicks things off with a surprisingly wistful air. Volume Two features the Big Dog heading for church; Go Tell It on the Mountain turns into a convincing tent revival. This disc will do the trick in some sad, Bud-puddled honky-tonk . . . on Christmas Eve. Grade: B

8. Darlene Love, It's Christmas, Of Course (Shout Factory) - With all apologies to Bing Crosby, Darlene Love became the voice of Christmas in 1963, when her Phil Spector-produced Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) hit the radio. This album expands her catalog with covers of Tom Petty's Christmas All Over Again and Billy Squier's Christmas Is the Time to Say "I Love You." Now 66, her voice doesn't quite soar as in days of old, but it's still nice to have her for the holidays. Grade: C

9. Dokken, Queensryche, Monster Ballads Xmas (Razor & Tie) - This hirsute salute to the holidays is for metal burnouts only. If you don't know Jani Lane and his penchant for launching snot rockets, the Warrant singer's earnest version of Have Yourself a Merry Christmas just won't have the same warped appeal. Other notables include Queensryche's White Christmas, Danger Danger's Naughty Naughty Christmas and Skid Row's Jingle Bells. Wow, I can't believe I just typed that. Grade: C+

10. Josh Groban, Noel (143/Reprise) - Josh Groban is a global smash, mainly because of his earnestness, his "poperatic" style - and no doubt his dreamy 'do. Grandmas, moms and girls can't get enough of the hunky tenor. I'm routinely cynical about Groban's success, but his schmaltzy shtick works well on this Christmas album, which has already sold a million-plus. David Foster's production is glossy and big and built to hold our hero's over-the-top wail. Guests include Faith Hill and Brian McKnight. And I'll Be Home for Christmas, featuring "Love you, kids" greetings from soldiers in Iraq, is reason enough to buy stock in Kleenex. Grade: B+

You better watch out


-- Miley Cyrus, Corbin Bleu, Disney Channel Holiday (Walt Disney) - I repeat: exploding cat.

-- Carnie Wilson, Christmas With Carnie (Big 3) - No shortage of cheese at this holiday party.

-- Michael Bolton, A Swingin' Christmas (Concord) - Call me crazy, but I miss the mullet.

-- Keith Sweat, A Christmas of Love (Rhino) - There's a reason he looks miserable on the album cover.

-- Olivia Newton-John, Christmas Wish (Compass) - Let's get physically ill.


Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com"  or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.