Friday, November 17, 2017
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A review of the good and bad — from country to corny to pop — CDs of Santa season

RECOMMENDED READING


At the risk of borrowing shtick from Donny and Marie, this year's songs of the Santa season boil down to two categories: a whole lot of country versus a whole bunch of pop. Not a ton of in-between, cowboys and girls.

Blake Shelton, Nashville's hottest hunk, makes like a chaps-wearing Dean Martin and hosts a boozy bash, while Voice buddy Cee Lo Green fires up his space Cadillac for a genre-jumping ride. Lady Antebellum and Rod Stewart try to out-schmaltz the other. Carrie Underwood and Justin Bieber share a stuffed compilation; strange bedfellows Vince Gill and Cheap Trick do, too.

While country and pop scrum for holiday supremacy (and your hard-earned cash), the weirdest record of the year — and, well, pretty much all other years, as well — is delivered by well-worn summer lovers Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.

And if all of this Christmas music madness is too much to handle, we provide you a simple 10-song playlist of the best new cuts that you can consult during your next iTunes shopping spree.

Ready? Set?

Away we go ho ho . . .

Cee Lo Cee Lo's Magic Moment (Elektra)

The Voice's smooth-pated butterball has recorded with rap crew Goodie Mob (Beautiful Skin), odd-pop duo Gnarls Barkley (Crazy) and as a solo star (Forget You). But the downright toasty Cee Lo's Magic Moment is the most natural outlet yet for his soul-kissed talents. Borrowing a '60s R&B vibe from all those chiming Motown and Phil Spector Christmas classics, the husky loverboy born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway is fully engaged for 14 tracks. Voice pal Christina Aguilera gets cozy on a showoff duet of Baby It's Cold Outside, and Rod Stewart and Trombone Shorty show up for a nice 'n' easy Merry Christmas, Baby. A spare reading of Joni Mitchell's River is a crusher, and it all ends with a yowza Silent Night. This being Mr. Lo, there are a few out-there twists: the Muppets busting into All I Need Is Love, a full-throated rendition of You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. But even the weirdo stuff works. This is more than just a great holiday record: It's also one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 5 snowballs (the highest)

Rod Stewart Merry Christmas, Baby (Verve)

Producer David Foster is a supreme schmaltzmeister, and I've pretty much zoned out during Rod the Bod's Great American Songbook wheezefest. But despite my pre-quease on this one, it's actually a rather pleasant listen, with the 67-year-old casually, but sincerely, delivering a handful of brush-stroked standards, good-enough new cuts (the downtown stroll of Red-Suited Super Man) and a lush reading of When You Wish Upon a Star. (Merry Christmas, Baby, a smooth duet with Cee Lo, appears on both artist's new albums.) I blame Foster for the cheeseball detours: The kids choir in Silent Night is riper than Roquefort, and Ella Fitzgerald's appearance on What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? plays crass. I had the pleasure of seeing Stewart perform a Christmas set at HSN recently, and the live versions were much warmer and artifice-free compared to the studio cuts. Nevertheless, this is a solid one to share with Mom and Aunt Shirley.

Rating: 3 snowballs

Blake Shelton Cheers It's Christmas (Warner Bros.)

There are plenty of party stars in music these days, but country king Shelton sets himself apart from the Buffetts and Ke$has by nodding to a highball past, especially Dean Martin and his ring-a-ding crew. Shelton is a charming beer man, as the besotted title of his holiday album suggests, and if he spills his drink a bit on a cheeky Blue Christmas — a duet with wife Miranda Lambert's side project Pistol Annies — all you can do is clink glasses and sing along. Sticking with the casual Dino vibe, Shelton invites Michael Bublé to the soiree for a reading of the neo-crooner's Home. Like a chummy celebrity roast, the guest stars keep on comin': Kelly Clarkson on the reverent There's a New Kid in Town, fellow Sooner State native Reba McEntire on Oklahoma Christmas. A few originals flounder, and a sleepy White Christmas sounds like it was recorded at a bleary 4 a.m. But the mood usually stays upbeat, as Shelton and Lambert invite you into their home for whiskey-spiked 'nog and some Jingle Bell Rock.

Rating: 4 snowballs

Lady Antebellum On This Winter's Night (Capitol Nashville)

When this trio first started out, there were soulful coals smoldering in the group's chugging country engine. But now, Lady A is almost entirely without edge. Seriously, they make Rascal Flatts sound like Black Sabbath. All we can do is wait for singer Charles Kelley, who's way too humble and accommodating, to ditch the other two and make a solo record. In the meantime, this one's a slog. The harmonies are saccharine: A Holly Jolly Christmas sounds ready for a Hallmark commercial, and there's zero passion to be found on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), which is a tough song to make dull. I used to think Kelley could sing the phone book, but he's inexplicably flat on Blue Christmas. Yikes, what a mess! This one's as fun as a slush ball down your trousers.

Rating: 2 snowballs

Scotty McCreery

Christmas With Scotty McCreery

(19 Recordings)

He looks like a cross between Clay Aiken and Alfred E. Neuman; he sounds like a blend of George Strait and Elvis Presley. No offense to Blake Shelton, but this American Idol champ has made the country-est Christmas LP of 2012, with his Tar Heel twang making sure the sound stays on the farm. He gets bonus points for a thoroughly Memphis take on the suggestive Santa Claus Is Back in Town, bawdy blues made famous by none other than the King of Rock and Roll.

Rating: 3 snowballs

Colbie Caillat

Christmas in the Sand

(Universal Republic)

Malibu's Caillat is typically labeled a roots-pop singer-songwriter (remember 2007's Bubbly?), but I'm putting her in the country category anyway. Why? Because Brad Paisley shows up for sexy opening track Merry Christmas, Baby (he also picks the heck out of his shiny geetar), plus the 27-year-old Caillat will be performing on the CMA Country Christmas special this December on ABC. First single Every Day Is Christmas could be a Lady Antebellum hit — that is, a good Lady A hit.

Rating: 3.5 snowballs

Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber

Now That's What I Call Today's Christmas (Capitol)

Call Me Maybe's Carly Rae Jepsen (her dumb song is called Mittens) and her boss Justin Bieber (Mistletoe) are the hot pop acts on this 18-track comp. Lady Gaga will raise eyebrows, too, with a torchy reading of White Christmas. But the grab-bag's best tracks are by country stars, including Sugarland's intricate Silent Night and Underwood's crystalline reading of The First Noel.

Rating: 3 snowballs

Ross Lynch, Zendaya

Disney Channel Holiday Playlist (Walt Disney)

Unless you want to torment a buddy by giving this cloying comp to his kids (I know just the pal to send it to . . .), there's not much to recommend here. The Mouse House's current crop of Disney Channel stars — whose contracts call for them to sing and act, even if they can't do either — are thrust before the mike for some incessant Auto-Tuned pap. Shake It Up's Zendaya has her name on the thudding Shake Santa Shake, and Austin & Ally's Ross Lynch "sings" Christmas Soul, the ultimate in false advertising.

Rating: 2 snowballs

Chicago Ultimate Christmas Collection

(Rhino)

I'm man enough to admit that my interest in Chicago waned tremendously after touchy-feely prince Peter "You're the Inspiration" Cetera ditched his mates. Hey, this group has tremendous history, but their latest incarnation is painfully milquetoast. On Wonderful Christmas Time, from this double-disc set collecting 34 songs from various holiday albums, Chicago even manages to bleach the life from guest Dolly Parton, which should be a felony.

Rating: 2 snowballs

Christina Aguilera, Cheap Trick, Vince Gill, Martina McBride

A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years

(Special Olympics)

Adorned with that iconic Keith Haring art, this benefit series hits 25 years old with style. The rockers fare better than a smattering of country acts, with Cheap Trick cheekily revamping a classic ("I wannnt youuu for Christmas / I neeed youuu for Christmas") and Christina Aguilera finally using her melismatic powers for good rather than raunchy (O Holy Night). Of course, nothing beats John Mellencamp's I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus on the 1987 original A Very Special Christmas.

Rating: 3 snowballs

WEIRDEST HOLIDAY ALBUM OF 2012!John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John This Christmas (Universal)

Welcome to the creepiest wingding of the season, hosted by melting wax statues of Sandy and Danny from Grease! Holy moly is this a freakfest, as ONJ and Travolta invite such pals as Barbra Streisand (what?), Tony Bennett (huh?!) and Kenny G (okay, that makes sense) for an altogether chummy bash that's as earnest as it is awesomely grotesque. This one is destined to become a must-have cult classic, especially for the throwaway asides between the two pals ("Ha! Ha! Oh gosh, Liv, I really do have to go!"). At 64, ONJ still has that sweet, wispy delivery; as for Travolta, the 58-year-old speak-sings in a too-cool way, like Summer Nights at the old folks' home. Oh, it's highly disturbing, but in its unknowingly campy way, it's also fun. Plus John Farrar, the man who wrote Grease hit You're the One That I Want, contributes a "sequel": I Think You Might Like It, a sorta-country, sorta-'70s sequel that has a certain dorky, square-dance-on-acid charm. Proceeds from This Christmas benefit the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Center and the Jett Travolta Foundation. Oh, just buy it. You'll be mocking for a good cause!

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