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Christmas music: some naughty, some nice and some not so good

Bing rules. Vince Guaraldi, too. It isn't the Santa season without Phil Spector's chiming girl-group glee perking up the living room. And Charles Brown's Merry Christmas Baby might be the most mistletoeful music of the whole yuletide stretch.

Every December you dust off the same ol' tinsel-tossing tunes — and that's just fine, isn't it? After all, spinning Crosby's White Christmas is as much a tradition as Uncle George spiking the nog. Mele Kalikimaka is the very soundtrack of your life! Why change anything, right?

And yet, at the end of each year, a sled's worth of new holiday music is loosed upon the masses. Most of it is quick-bake crud, but every now and then, a fresh classic arrives and you let a new one in. In 2007, Josh Groban's Noel went quintuple platinum; it wasn't just the biggest Christmas platter of that year, it was one of the biggest in any genre. The Grobster, lo and behold, became a tradition.

This year, new Christmas albums started showing up on my desk in September, and the avalanche hasn't stopped. But are there any decent ones? Do any have a snowball's chance of cracking your holiday music rotation? Maybe, just maybe. Here are 10 notable new offerings, plus a guess about whether you'll be listening to them next year . . . and the year after that.

ANNIE LENNOX,
A Christmas Cornucopia (Decca)

Born on Dec. 25, 1954, this Scottish Christmas baby is a slow-working perfectionist, taking years between albums until every high-holy note and blue-eyed soulful vocal is just right. So you know she didn't rush this 12-track stunner, which includes such offbeat offerings at Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant and The Holly and the Ivy. Much like Sting and last year's eerily baroque If On a Winter's Night . . . , the eccentric Lennox doesn't provide wacky tunes for the office party; instead, her otherworldly voice addresses the spiritual and bittersweet sides of the season. It's absolutely gorgeous, especially when the African Children's Choir shows up to add the grandeur.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Four out of five snowballs

JACKIE EVANCHO,
O Holy Night
The other day, my 6-year-old daughter sang a Taylor Swift song while using her younger sister's rump for percussion. And you know what? I was impressed! Then I played this CD/DVD from 10-year-old America's Got Talent singer Evancho, on which the wee blond Pittsburgh native opera-belts religious standards Pie Jesu and Panis Angelicus. And you know what? I was creeped out! Bum bongos, yes; supernaturally gifted preteens, no.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: One out of five snowballs

LADY GAGA,
Now That's What I Call Christmas 4 (EMI)

"The only place you'll want to be is underneath my Christmas tree." Uh-oh. Something tells me that Lady Gaga isn't talking about a blue spruce on Christmas Tree. The song is bawdy, spacey, weird, but like most Gaga stuff, it's also perversely enjoyable. There are 35 other songs on this two-disc comp, ranging from Rihanna's clunky A Child Is Born to Britney Spears' silly My Only Wish (This Year) to classics such as Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? If you're throwing a party and need a couple of hours of music for a wide-ranging audience, this is a smart pickup. Just make sure to cover the kiddies' ears when Gaga takes the top spot on Santa's naughty list.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Three out of five snowballs

MARIAH CAREY
Merry Christmas II You(Island)

I'm not loving this sequel to Mimi's 1994 multiplatinum Merry Christmas, but you can't fault the 40-year-old mom-to-be's genuine love of the season. Sure, it's all pretty slick and emotionless, with sterile, hip-hoppy production work from folks like American Idol's Randy Jackson. And a medley of Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown music is unnecessary. But cheers to Carey for wanting to connect to her youth and ours.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Two out of five snowballs

WILSON PHILLIPS,
Christmas in Harmony (Masterworks)

Glen Ballard produced Carnie, Wendy and Chynna's 5 million-selling 1990 debut (remember gooey smash Hold On?), and he returns to try and make magic with the girls again. But this one is a sticky puddle of sugarplums, the girls harmonizing their way into dentists' offices the world over. Root canal would be a relief.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: No snowballs (splat!)

ALVIN, SIMON & THEODORE,
Christmas With the Chipmunks (Capitol)

In 1958, after his hit Witch Doctor used the "vari-speed" squeaky-voice recording trick, Ross Bagdasarian created novelty rodents the Chipmunks. More than half a century later, furballs Alvin, Simon and Theodore remain multimedia stars, most recently scoring obscene amounts of dough with flimsy CGI flicks. A little of the 'Munks goes a long way, but at least this new glossy comp repackages their songs from the '60s and doesn't try anything current. Plus it doesn't take a kid to appreciate the goofy joy of The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late). All together now: "I still want a huuula hooop."

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Two out of five snowballs

FRANK SINATRA, DEAN MARTIN, SAMMY DAVIS JR.,
Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol)

Chances are you probably have more than enough of the Ring-a-Ding-Ding dudes in your Christmas collection. But that hasn't stopped Capitol from its annual reshuffling and releasing of Frank, Dean and Sammy besottedly bringing the holiday hits. With all apologies to Ol' Blue Eyes, Dino was better at the snowy stuff, especially his hilariously drunken take on a fellow red-nosed troublemaker: "Rudy the red-beaked reindeer, you'll go down in history."

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Four out of five snowballs

PHINEAS AND FERB,
Holiday Favorites (Walt Disney Records)

The not-so-secret thing about Disney's wickedly inventive stepbrothers is that parents enjoy Phineas and Ferb as much as, if not more than, kids. It's not that the 'toon is loaded with winking adult humor; it's that it's fiendishly clever and mutually respectful to old and young. The show's creators, Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh, jack up each show with loads of energy and catchy pop spoofs that range from swing to boy band to punk. I'm partial to the vocal chops of evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz, who cringes out I Really Don't Hate Christmas, but still can't resist a Rockettes-style kick line at song's end.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Three out of five snowballs

SUSAN BOYLE,
The Gift (Sony)

Full disclosure: I totally expected to hate, mock, belittle this offering from the frumpy reality-show star. But you know what? It's fantastic. Seriously. And I now fully understand why the Brit is a sales monster. The instrumentation is haunting and relatively spare, with Boyle's overtly bittersweet soprano summoning the weepies. The song selection is also inventive. Lou Reed's Perfect Day and Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over on a Christmas album? Yep, and they fit wonderfully. Some parts of the 10-track offering, including the closing O Come All Ye Faithful, are so incredibly chilling, the album becomes hard to listen to (especially alone). But I'll say it again: Boyle's Gift is unforgettable. Get ready for a new tradition.

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Five out of five snowballs

FINN, PUCK, KURT, MERCEDES,
Glee: The Music: The Christmas Edition (Sony)

If you're looking for clues to Glee's upcoming plot twists, I present Baby, It's Cold Outside, a romantic duet between Kurt (played by Chris Colfer) and his new guy-pal Blaine (Darren Criss). Their version is cheeky and warm, with all manner of piano tinkling and jazzy brush work. It's hit or miss after that. Songs range from clunky hip-hop group sings (Deck the Rooftop) to dynamic showstoppers from Amber Riley's Mercedes (Angels We Have Heard on High) and Lea Michele's Rachel (O Holy Night). There's also a winky duet between K.D. Lang and Matthew Morrison's Will on You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. Hmm, I wonder who that will be aimed at?

SNOWBALL'S CHANCE: Three out of five snowballs

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.

THE 2010 CHRiSTMAS PLAYLIST

Here are the top tracks from this year's holiday offerings. (Sorry, Wilson Phillips fans, you're on your own!)

1. Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol), Annie Lennox

2. Oh Santa!, Mariah Carey

3. Perfect Day, Susan Boyle

4. Christmas Tree, Lady Gaga

5. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late), the Chipmunks

6. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Dean Martin

7. I Really Don't Hate Christmas, Dr. Doofenshmirtz

8. My Only Wish (This Year), Britney Spears

9. Angels We Have Heard on High, Amber Riley (Glee's Mercedes)

10. Auld Lang Syne, Susan Boyle

Christmas music: some naughty, some nice and some not so good 11/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 3, 2010 11:03am]
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