Of course, there are some that dont measure up as well. Maybe theyre like the proverbial fruitcake that gets passed around each year, and there are really only a couple clinkers. Its Christmas time we can wish, right?
Various Artists: Ill Be Home For Christmas (Windham Hill)
Easily one of the best holiday discs of this or any other year. It covers a lot of ground stylistically, from light, swinging jazz (Phillipe Saisses Winter Wonderland and Sean Harkness covering the Charlie Brown classic Christmas Time Is Here by Vince Guaraldi) to more classically-oriented and new age pieces such as Tracy Silvermans O Holy Night. Not that all is sweetness and light: Piano favorite George Winston grabs his harmonica for a way-too honky-tonk version of Sussex Carol. But for the most part this is engaging music with the spirit of the holidays intact.
Various Artists: Ultimate Christmas 2 (BMG)
When I think of Christmas, I think of... Britney Spears. Oh, yeah, and NSYNC. Doesnt everyone? Here youve got Whitney Houston, Elvis, Santana, and, hey, its Kelly Clarkson, trotting out originals and Christmas classics. Do you really have to listen to know how this one turns out? Whitneys overwrought as usual, Didos trancey Christmas Day is about as un-Christmasy as you can get, at least until you get to Britneys My Only Wish (This Year) the word abominable comes to mind. Thats also applicable to Christina Aguileras overdone hip-hop version of Angels We Have Heard On High, complete with drum machines, acoustic guitars and cheesy organ. Or the total twang of Alan Jacksons Honky Tonk Christmas. When you see this on the shelf, run, dont walk, the other direction.
Will Downing: Christmas, Love and You (GRP)
Holiday music all dressed up and nowhere to go. Smooth, soulful new jack versions of The Christmas Song and White Christmas dont do much, and originals like All I Want For Christmas Is You with its party-down atmospherics fail to elevate the proceedings. Best to move on.
The Rugrats: Holiday Classics (Nick Records)
Nearly every year some cartoon group releases a holiday album, whether its the Chipmunks, Arthur and Friends, or this year, the (gulp) Rugrats. If you find the Rugrats antics amusing, you may enjoy this revised set of seasonal favorites. Kids will love to hear their favorite characters on these improved versions of Twelve Days of Rugrats, Jingle Babies or Toys for the Girls. Adults, however, will probably fail to see the novelty.
Various Artists: Classic Rockin Christmas (Koch Records)
The Pretenders, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, The Smithereens, Dave Edmunds, Bobby Helms, The Ventures talk about your wild lineups. That would be true whatever the season, but its particularly true for a set of holiday music. Theres more rockin than classics here, but it is also more hit than miss. High points include the opening Father Christmas by the Kinks, Christmas Song by Jethro Tull, Rock and Roll Christmas by Thorogood, and Michael McDonalds medley of White Christmas/Winter Wonderland. Less successful are Pat Benatar, the Pretenders and Billy Squier. As for the Ventures, well, listen for yourself to a surf guitar Sleigh Ride and see what you think.
James Taylor A Christmas Album (Hallmark)
Heres a twist: This collection of traditional tunes by Americas favorite troubadour is available only at Hallmark shops. No matter, as its yet another triumph for Sweet Baby James. Taylor only gets better as time passes, and this pairing of Taylor with Dave Grusin and a host of great musicians Chris Botti, John Pizzarelli, Michael Landau, Vinnie Colaiuta bears great fruit. The opening Winter Wonderland sets the tone for this heartfelt collection of classics, including Deck the Halls, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, and even a duet with Natalie Cole on Baby Its Cold Outside.
Hiroshima Spirit of the Season (Heads Up)
Hiroshima brings its exotic smooth jazz sound to bear on favorites like White Christmas and Little Drummer Boy as well as originals. Some feature vocals, such as the title track, which opens the set, while others are instrumentals, including an otherworldly Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with a zesty mix of koto and trombone leading the way.
Nelson Rangell All I Hope For Christmas (Koch)
Smooth jazz saxophonist Nelson Rangell turns in one of the most enjoyable and surprising records of the season. The surprises start right away, when he eschews his sax on the opening Let It Snow for the trills and thrills of flute and piccolo. He keeps things zesty with an uptempo Do You Hear What I Hear? this time with soprano and flute. Throughout, hes smooth but also soulful, and consistently inventive with his arrangements.
Tingstad & Rumbel Peace On Earth (Narada)
This is the 13th album from Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, and its a lucky number for listeners. Both performers play keyboards, with an occasional assist from David Lanz, Garey Shelton on bass, and drummer Ben Smith, but the focus is clearly on Tingstads gentle guitar and Rumbels exquisite work on oboe, English horn and ocarina. That they make beautiful music together is hardly news. Those who long for simpler times or who simply wish to gaze out on a snow-covered field in the starlight will find this a perfect soundtrack.
Various Artists Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations)
After the promising Greensleeves by Andy Timmons opens the disc, its all downhill. Johnny Hiland, Adrian Legg and others are just too twangy, including Mimi Foxs slowed-down-to-a-crawl version of Winter Wonderland. The albums rescued by the closing three cuts, all originals. Pierre Bensusans Fodere LAstronome is gentle, Pete Huttingers The 25th Day is melodic and Marty Friedmans Meditation From Thais ventures from acoustic to swinging surf guitar to metallic shrieks that truthfully have little to do with the season, but presents such an engaging contrast it merits plaudits.
Various Artists The Very Best of Celtic Christmas (Windham Hill)
This compilation includes over 75 minutes from the labels Celtic Christmas series, and its a winner. You wont find much in the Greensleeves or Rudolph category, as this is more in the line of traditional Celtic music. The Wexford Carol opens the disc on a high note, which the numerous artists continue throughout.
Dianne Reeves Christmas Time Is Here (Blue Note) The classy Reeves essays a variety of holiday tunes in a jazzy vein.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra The Lost Christmas Eve (Lava) A heady combination of rock, jazz, new age and Broadway styles.
Yellowjackets Peace Round (Heads Up) Previously available only through their website, the jazz fusion quartets standout holiday disc is now available through stores or websites like Amazon.
Chris Isaak Christmas (Wicked Games/Reprise Records) San Franciscos love balladeer releases his first Christmas album of 12 songs, including five originals. For a preview, catch Isaak on Soundstage, WCMU Public Television, Thursday, Dec. 9 at 10 p.m. performing the album live.