Sunday, December 7, 2003

Tune up for the holidays with seasonal CDs

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The high-anxiety shopping season is in full sweat, and that includes deciding which holiday albums to buy for friends and family.

We can't help with the bows and the bills, but here's a guide to the best new Christmas music, as well a look back at top music of Christmases past and some local celebs' all-time favorite Yule tunes.

1. Go Tell It On the Mountain

Blind Boys of Alabama and guests (Real World; $16.98).

The year's best Christmas album has a Tall Stacks flashback, as the Blind Boys harmonize "Born in Bethlehem" with fellow headliner Mavis Staples. Other guests include Ohio's Chrissie Hynde, soulman Solomon Burke, Shelby Lynne, George Clinton, Aaron Neville and Tom Waits.

But nobody outshines Clarence Fountain and his Blind Boys, whose joyful noise brings home the true spirit of Christmas.

2. Harry for the Holidays

Harry Connick Jr. (Sony; $18.98)

It's a big band holiday, as Connick swings through a Latin-tinged "Frosty the Snowman," "Blue Christmas" in a Roscoe Gordon-styled lope, the calypso carol "Mary's Boy Child," and a jumping, New Orleans second-line take on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Toss in a few decent originals, a beautiful, bittersweet, string-laden arrangement of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and the unlikely but fitting choice of "Nature Boy" and it adds up to one cool Yule.

3. Maybe This Christmas Too?

Various (Nettwerk; $17.98)

Plenty of rock stars on this Christmas tree - Avril Lavigne, Dave Matthews, Barenaked Ladies, Rufus Wainwright - but not all are carol-worthy. The weakest moments are provided by the biggest names. Lavigne is the biggest loser here, her childish, atonal voice turning "O Holy Night" into a bad night at a junior high holiday show. Matthews isn't much better, his grumpy "Christmas Song" (not the Mel Torme/Nat King Cole tune) providing little cheer.

Fortunately, Wainwright, BNL, Guster and the folksy Be Good Tanyas save Christmas. Together with the cover art, it's the top rock holiday disc this year.

4. Happy Holidays

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison (Boar's Nest Records $8; www.brucerobison


The perfect gift for fans of alt-country and Texas singer/songwriters. This limited-edition seven-song EP by Austin mainstays Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison (writer of the Tim McGraw/Faith Hill hit "Angry All the Time") has a '50s jazz/pop spin thanks to Willis' torchy "Santa Baby," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the couple's duet on "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

There's contemporary folk on R.B. Morris' "A Winter's Tale"; Willis does the folk ballad "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Robison honky tonks on "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)."

5. Genuine Houserockin' Christmas

Various (Alligator; $16.98)

It's a deep-blue Christmas from Chicago's premier blues label (owned by ex-Cincinnatian Bruce Iglauer). Koko Taylor pitches a wang-dang Yule on the opener, "Have You Heard the News?" and the fun doesn't stop. Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials put the "X" in Xmas with "Christmas Time." There's also Shemekia Copeland's come-on, "Stay a Little Longer, Santa," and the Holmes Brothers' faithful take on Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa."

Add W.C. Clark's soulful "Christmas Party," some Louisiana sounds by Marcia Ball and C.J. Chenier, and Little Charlie & the Nightcats' all-too-true "It's Christmas Time Again (Spend Spend Spend)," and this gift lives up to its wrapping.

6. Christmas With Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash (Columbia Legacy; $9.98)

This is not the lion-in-winter Cash of "Hurt," it's a classic reissue of 10 songs and two recitations from the '60s, when the late icon was country's biggest crossover star.

There's the occasional schlocky chunk of coal (chirpy background vocals, syprupy string sections), but the songs are fine ("Away in a Manger," "Silent Night") and that monumental voice rings like the deepest of Christmas bells. "Blue Christmas" and his previously unreleased poem about his childhood, "Christmas As I Knew It" (from a Johnny Cash Show rehearsal), are the highlights.

7. Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn

Various (Rounder; $17.98)

Picked by Brian O'Donovan, of Boston's WGBH radio's A Celtic Sojourn, this warm, celebratory 17-song compilation includes folk stars like Maddy Prior, Boys of the Lough and Cherish the Ladies.

8. One Wish

Whitney Houston (Arista; $18.98)

No snow/cocaine jokes, please - this is the pre-tabloid Whitney, before her private dramas made her a front-page scandal queen. Here, it's all about that huge voice, set in the season's biggest tinsel extravaganza - choirs, a 23-piece string section and even at its simplest, a fully slicked-out R&B ensemble.

She pulls it off, her early gospel experience powering "Cantique De Noel (O Holy Night)," "O Come O Come Emanuel" and "Joy to the World." She scats on "The Christmas Song" and uses "I'll Be Home for Christmas" as a showcase for octave-leaping vocal acrobatics.

Keeping it in the family, "Little Drummer Boy" features her 10-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown (she's good). If you're dreaming of a pop/R&B/gospel extravaganza of a Christmas, you've got it.

9. All I Want for Christmas is a Real Good Tan

Kenny Chesney (BNA; $18.98)

Alan Jackson had that big country hit with Jimmy Buffett this year, but Kenny Chesney is Nashville's real Parrot Head. Look no further than the title song. And there's also a pina colada-scented, steel drum-inflected "Jingle Bells."

The rest is pretty good pop-country, including his original "Angel at the Top of My Tree" and duets with Alabama's Randy Owens' on "Christmas in Dixie," Willie Nelson on his "Pretty Paper" and most important, his mama Karen and aunt Sharon, the Grigsby Twins, on "Silent Night."

10. American Idol: The Great Holiday Classics

Various (RCA; $18.98)

Christmas is a time for cheese, and the folks at America's top talent show deliver for the holidays. If you're a fan of the big-voiced pop belting and schmaltzy orchestrations provided by the Idol franchise, then this CD, featuring all the usual Idols - Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Justin Guarini, Tamyra Gray, et al. (and including a bonus disc of two Kelly Clarkson songs) - is your cup of nog.

Ruben and Tamyra provide a soulful duet on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Gray does a lovely "Silent Night" (at least until the steadily burgeoning arrangement finally swathes her in wads of strings and choruses). The hyperactive arrangers couldn't even leave Kelly's show-stopping, a cappella "O Holy Night" bask in simple beauty, layering on a vocal chorus that leaves you wishing for a Let It Be-style stripping.

The singers sound fine; but the arrangers deserve the wrath of Simon.


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