It's a given these days: at the first belch following Thanksgiving dinner, there's an almost irresistible yen to embrace songs about sleighs and snowmen. This year, a bonanza of new holiday albums cater to all tastes: there's booze-sodden rock, NPR-friendly folk, remixed bonbons, and sexy stuff that's exactly what you'd want on your iPod when trapped under the mistletoe. Let us help you tell the frankincense from the myrrh.
Diana Krall - Christmas Songs
Everything Krall applies herself to sounds a little bit sexy, so it shouldn't be surprising that a come-on such as "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" actually skips the sentiment and heads to the seduction. That breathy whisper, those understated horns -- it sounds like she and her beau will be celebrating December 31 in the boudoir. Even the groovy swing of "Let It Snow" hints at what kind of intimacy might go down in front of the fireplace. And what about that provocative cover photo?
Stocking Stuffer: The swagger of the band on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
Il Divo - The Christmas Collection
Like Josh Groban times four, these metrosexual tenors might lack character but they do have taste. The quartet acquits itself on the carols, and happily the hymns that overseer Simon Cowell gives them to sing only contain two misfires: some AOR tosh called "Rejoice" and a "Lord's Prayer" even God might think was overwrought.
Stocking Stuffer: "White Christmas." In Spanish and Italian.
Ricky Skaggs - A Skaggs Family Christmas
Nashville isn't the first place you think of during sleigh bell and blizzard season, but there's something believable about the bluegrass bandleader's romp through this standard holiday fare. The fiddles and mandolins create a Prairie Home Companion vibe, and "Let It Snow" even has a jazzy feel. Skaggs has never hidden his Christian side, so the pa-rump-a-pum-pum's in "Little Drummer Boy" have the sound of commitment. Sometimes that commitment gets a tad maudlin, but there's always a twangy track coming along to set you straight again.
Stocking Stuffer: The group harmonies "Do You Hear What I Hear?"
Various artists - Elton John's Christmas Party
The Rocket Man's mix-tape is only sold at Starbucks, but its program is refreshingly outside the mainstream. The sequined selector places goodies like Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" alongside obscurities from Pet Shop Boys, The Flaming Lips and even OutKast's "Playa's Ball."
Stocking stuffer: Kate Bush's "December Will Be Magic Again." You can almost feel the snowflakes on your face.
Brian Wilson - What I Really Want For Christmas
The Beach Boys boss is responsible for one of pop's most effervescent holiday discs ever, but this newly recorded title finds his choir-boy voice a bit strangled and the arrangements of his seasonal tunes a bit hokey. That said, there's always something oddly charming about Brian's approach to a classic melody. It would be easy to tease the clunky lyrics to "Christmasey," but more rewarding to swoon to the way he winds his way through the very elaborate tune.
Stocking Stuffer: The multi-tracked Brians, cooing away on "Joy to the World."
Anita Baker - Anita Baker's Christmas Fantasy
The Rapture chanteuse knows what her fans want beneath the tree -- an album that reeks of adult sophistication and under-the-duvet delight. They've got it, too. Backed by a band of jazz pros, Baker consolidates her comeback by with some smoky scat. Riunite on ice not included.
Stocking stuffer: Baker gets in touch with her inner Ella on a slinky "My Favorite Things."
Various Artists - To: Kate
Nashville's singer-songwriter community has rallied around a local toddler suffering from a rare genetic disorder, coming up with fund-raising CD that places twang at its center. BR549 turns "The Christmas Song" into a rockabilly bounce, Sex In the City's John Corbett leads a nice little sing-along, Jason & the Scorchers thrash their way through "Oh! Holy Night," and Jim Lauderdale does his best George Jones impersonation on "Holly & Her Mistletoe." But perhaps the most unique track is Joe Ely's conjunto reclamation of Bob Dylan's "Winterlude." Great gifts come in weird packages.
Stocking Stuffer: The female singer of an ad hoc group called the Big Happy lets us know right off that she'd like a "gift-wrapped boy" under the tree.
Marah -- A Christmas Kind of Town
The Philly bar band is most likely to spend the holiday wassailing in excelsis, so it's appropriate that amid the skits and gags that they rock out like The Pogues on stuff like "Auld Lang Syne" and display a drunkard's sentimental streak on the self-penned "New York is a Christmas Kind of Town."
Stocking stuffer: "Silver Bells" recast as a duet for Dion and Bruce Springsteen.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle - The McGarrigle Christmas Hour
Rufus's mom and aunt are two of the most valuable folk-pop musicians of any era, and their pointedly traditional stroll through overtly non-mainstream fare is blessed by baroque instrumentation and unerring vocals -- some of which are sung in the Canadian sisters' native French. The extended family includes Emmylou Harris, and the overall vibe is graceful. Someone put the cider on the stove.
Stocking Stuffer: The way the singers let nothing dismay them on their spin through "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen."
Faith Evans - Faithful Christmas
Evans caps her successful comeback year by cherry-picking R&B's past and tossing in a few breathy originals. The First Lady's pipes more than compensate for the gooey production, erotically cooing Donnie Hathaway's "This Christmas" and giving James Brown's "Soulful Christmas" the "good god, y'all" treatment.
Stocking Stuffer: The way the singer sneaks her sultry agenda into the tree-trimming action on "This Christmas." "Hang all the mistletoe/I'm gonna get to know/you better...this Christmas."
Smash Mouth - The Gift of Rock
With a set of songs first cut by The Kinks, The Ramones, Buck Owens, and The Raveonettes among others, there's no doubt who has this year's coolest record collection. The "Walking on the Sun" band tear into each number intending to blow off their reputation as novelty rockers, and damn near succeed. Merry as anything. Available on the band's Web site.
Stocking stuffer: The boys exhume the Royal Guardsmen's obscure, silly and cool "Snoopy's Christmas."
Odetta - Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays
The matriarch of '60s folk music still has a powerful voice, so her program of holiday spirituals comes packed with natural drama. The best part is that Odetta knows how to vary her vocal approach. Whether she's slyly whispering or getting stentorian, she's got a captivating charisma. This is a live show in which she's accompanied by a lone pianist and the harmonies of the Holmes Brothers. Between tracks she explains the genesis of the tunes, making a piece such as "Rise Up Shepard and Follow" resonate a bit more.
Stocking Stuffer: The jubilation in the air when Odetta rolls through "Mary Had a Baby."
Aaron Neville - Christmas Prayer
The most popular Neville Brother does his bit to put the Christ back into Christmas with a set of mostly sacred songs. But it's a truly iffy enterprise. You'll either think Aaron sounds like an angel or you're paddling a river of schmaltz. Even when the Blind Boys of Alabama put the halleluiah in "Joy to the World," things get pretty sticky.
Stocking stuffer: Neville adds a genuine touch of old New Orleans to Curtis Mayfield's "Amen."
Jane Monheit - The Season
The young singer's agile jazz maneuvers have a real bounce to them; it's probably been awhile since you've heard such an athletic spin through "Sleigh Ride." But Monheit keeps the action balanced. She heads right to heart-on-sleeve territory with the overly pious "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." And she reaches around corners for tunes, which works for and against her. "The Man With the Bag" is lively and loose. "My Grown Up Christmas List" will make you put coal in her stocking.
Stocking Stuffer: The nuanced glide through "Moonlight in Vermont"
Regis Philbin -- The Regis Philbin Christmas Album
To Reeg's credit, it sounds like a party at his house. There's the smarmy Bronx delivery, frequent nods to wife Joy (who duets on "Baby It's Cold Outside") and starry guest list -- with Donald Trump even downsizing Santa's team of reindeer. The Donald will no doubt think this is the best Xmas album ever made. It's not.
Stocking stuffer: Philbin's promise "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- complete with celestial choir.
Robin & Linda Williams -- The First Christmas Gift
The husband-and-wife folk duo avoids the obvious, mining traditional tunes that evoke the season and forgotten Santa-friendly fare like Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains." It's an alternative Xmas party, warm and rootsy, and one in which their original songs seem to be right at home.
Stocking stuffer: The hard luck bluegrass of "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree."
MercyMe -- The Christmas Sessions
The Christian chart stars know their gospel according to U2 as well as their Bible. If you've ever wanted to know what Bono and the guys would sound like playing carols, look no further. Except for a C&W take on "Silent Night," almost every tune resounds with Edge-like guitar and heart-on-sleeve pomp.
Stocking stuffer: The group turns "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" into "With or Without You."
Various artists - Christmas Remixed 2
It would be tempting to make the case for this album's utter pointlessness except that this is the second volume. The original cuts by Charlie Parker, Rosemary Clooney and others might be crate-diggers treasure -- they certainly loop drums and horns to an obsessive degree -- but they were better left alone.
Stocking stuffer: The Berlin Symphony Orchestra's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" gets the prog rock treatment.
Various artists -- 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Too many elves must have been involved in this tribute to the TV perennial. What should have been a fresh take on Vince Guaraldi's classic music instead comes larded with a brand new song, overwrought carols and the likes of Chaka Khan and Toni Braxton trying out their jazz chops. Seek out the original album.
Stocking stuffer: Saxophonist Dave Koz's slick overhaul of "Linus and Lucy."
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