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The best Christmas albums are wrapped in cool and creativity

Way back in September, when I chortled in the face of Christmas stress, the first holiday album of 2008 showed up in my mailbox: Mary Chapin Carpenter's solemn, seriously bummerific Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas.

Ho, ho, ohhh . . .

Four months later, I find myself freaked and flanked by three dozen new Santa-season albums, an onslaught of jingleosity that's left me reeling. I just opened my latest parcel, the Flaming Lips' Christmas on Mars CD/DVD, a collection of orchestral oddities and cinematic psych-outs from those oddball Okies. Don't play this for the kids . . . or while sober.

In between MCC and the Lips, I was deluged with the classy (Tony Bennett, Ray Charles) and the cool (Jack Johnson, Sheryl Crow), a creepy duets disc featuring a King, and a Disney EP with a princess. Eek. Somewhere, a dog is chewing his ear off.

I already have hundreds of holiday albums at home. I'm a Joy to the World junkie. So at this point, I'm looking for different, passionate, swinging, weird. I'm looking for music that delivers me from the charge-card horrors of December. Neil Sedaka, George Strait, Harry Connick Jr., Natalie Cole and Enya all released fresh Christmas platters this year. But we already know what we're getting with those pros; I'm going to let you discover those for yourself.

Instead, here are 10 new Christmas albums that caught my attention (way to go, Crow) and could soundtrack my next eggnog binge (meet ya under the mistletoe, Ms. Chenoweth).

Ho, ho, let's go . . .



Elvis Presley
Christmas Duets
(Sony BMG)

Elvis never recorded duets during his career, which makes this living-dead idea (see Sinatra's Duets, the Coles' Unforgettable) especially crass and slimy. That said, it's not without its fun. A sparkly lineup of country gals try to cozy up to the King. Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood offer sterile vocals that pale next to Presley's, but Gretchen Wilson and Wynonna Judd get good 'n' steamy with the snowbound seance. Go figure. He's been dead three decades, but E can still charm the ladies.

Download this: Santa Claus Is
Back in Town (with Judd)

Grade: C

Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Big Band
A Swingin' Christmas
(RPM/Columbia)

When I chatted with Bennett a few months ago ('cause T and I are tight, dont'cha know), he told me he wanted to make a fun Christmas album, one that fires up a party or a romance. People need a lift these days, said my old chum. Mission accomplished on this one, baby. Tony and hall of fame producer Phil Ramone keep things fast and brassy, a rich festive sound fueled by Count Basie's kinetic backing crew. This is how Christmas is supposed to sound. Love ya, T.

Download this: Winter Wonderland

Grade: A

Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Plain White T's
All Wrapped Up!
(Hollywood)

No sense trying to ignore this seven-track EP. My 5-year-old has already seen the album cover, which features such preteen lights as the JoBros, Camp Rock's Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus, whose shrill, snotty Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town comes off like a threat from the Lollipop Guild. But that's the biggest offense here. In fact, the Plain White T's Christmas Won't Be the Same Without You has real emo flair. It's pretty good — but ask me again after the 757th listen.

Download this: Joyful Kings,
Jonas Brothers

Grade: B-

Sheryl Crow
Home for Christmas
(Hallmark)

Here's the surprise of the season. Not that Crow isn't talented; I just couldn't get past that "Hallmark" sticker on the front. With great slatherings of heat, soul and Booker T. on the organ (O holy night indeed!), the down-home singer-songwriter delivers a slinky shindig. "I'm lit up like a Christmas tree," she purrs on Merry Christmas, Baby — and hoo boy, do you believe her.

Download this: Merry Christmas, Baby

Grade: A

The Flaming Lips
Christmas on Mars
(Warner Bros.)

FAIR WARNING: This quasi-Christmas flick and soundtrack involve "horrific hallucinations" and "marching genitalia." Have I said enough? It's all very sci-fi silly and deliberately clunky, an Ed Wood in-joke for the art-rock band and their coolio pals. But it's not without its charms. The music is ethereal and trancey and trippy, just like a Christmas song . . . that is, if you took out the bells and fa-la-las and inserted doom and computer beeps.

Download this: Once Beyond Hopelessness

Grade: B-


Jack Johnson, Matt Costa
This Warm December:
A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1
(Brushfire)

Jack Johnson, Hawaii's hang 10 troubadour, is the owner of Brushfire Records, a label that excels at chill, acoustic-based songs delivered by savvy young writers. Here, the chart-topper gathers his labelmates — including the sly Mason Jennings and the loopy Matt Costa — for hemp-enshrouded sing-alongs. Johnson's two offerings are lazy but sweet, especially a winky version of Rudolph in which the titular hero isn't quite as fast to forgive all that name-calling.

Download this: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Jack Johnson

Grade: A

Ray Charles, B.B. King, Charles Brown
A Jazz & Blues Christmas (Putumayo)

That Putumayo "world music" label can go either way. But this compilation turns out to be as comfy as a roadside juke joint, the horns and piano a lesson in laissez les bon temps roulez. Ray Charles and B.B. King stuff the dance floor with get-down goodness, but it's the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the Dukes of Dixieland who steal the show.

Download this: Here Comes Santa Claus, Ramsey Lewis Trio

Grade: A

Kristin Chenoweth
A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas
(Song BMG)

I was flat-out crushed when ABC pulled the plug on TV drama Pushing Daisies, which featured puckish pixie Kristin Chenoweth as a lonely heart pining away for a piemaker with eyes for another. The quirkfest often featured her pert, polished singing, which famously soared in the Broadway smash Wicked. She's not unlike Glinda the Good Witch on this pleasant affair, a flirty, charming salute to holiday romance and magic in the air.

Download this: I'll Be Home
for Christmas

Grade: B+

Faith Hill
Joy to the World
(Warner Bros.)

Country fans expecting Faith to kick up her boots and deck the y'alls are in for a serious letdown. Perhaps buoyed by the monster sales of Josh Groban's grandiose Noel, one of 2007's biggest sellers, Hill invites orchestras, boys choirs and swing bands to keep up with her operatic treatment of Joy to the World, What Child Is This? and more. The album has all the subtlety of a yule log wallop to the head. But it's so over-the-top, it almost works. Almost.

Download this: O Holy Night!

Grade: C+

Jackie Wilson
Christmas Eve With Jackie Wilson
(Brunswick)

Okay, this one didn't exactly come out in '08. But I saw it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while visiting Cleveland, and I flippin' looove Jackie Wilson, so I had to have it. The great Detroit golden throat recorded his Christmas album 45 years ago. And although it's not his best outing (too staid, too reverent for the sweat-drenched Mr. Wilson), it has moments that remind you of his awesome, high-flying gift.

Download this: Joy to the World

Grade: B

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

The best Christmas albums are wrapped in cool and creativity 12/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:17pm]
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