Chris Willman rates new holiday music
Bing Crosby...Burl Ives... Sufjan Stevens? Something seems off in that carol-singing line of succession. But if anybody was born to do Christmas music, it's Stevens, whose rare combination of deep religiosity and dark whimsy makes Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty) the season's most thrilling holiday release. It's certainly the most epic, spread across a five-EP boxed set that ranges from pop docudrama (''That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!'') to massive amounts of banjo- and horn-laden hymnody (''Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming'').
You might expect Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann Xmas albums to be beautiful bummers. You'd be half right. Wintersong (Arista) fully indulges McLachlan's melancholia; you couldn't hope for a more gorgeously heartsick holiday. Mann has lonesome moments too, but in One More Drifter in the Snow (SuperEgo), Christmas mostly pushes her toward something strangely resembling good cheer. Compare their takes on ''I'll Be Home for Christmas'': McLachlan's is a movingly sad, empty promise, while Mann sounds like she'll really make it back.
No home or hearth should lack The DB's & Friends' Christmas Time Again (Collectors' Choice). Arguably the best modern-rock Xmas record when it started as a Chris Stamey EP in '86, it holds up as a 21-song expansion, now with pals like Marshall Crenshaw and Don Dixon. On the rootsier side, Brad Paisley's Brad Paisley Christmas (Arista Nashville) boasts big wit and bigger Telecasters, while Rhonda Vincent's Beautiful Star: A Christmas Collection (Rounder) runneth over with quieter bluegrass charms.
Some nights are best silent. In Happy Holidays (Unique), Billy Idol turns crooner, trying on Rod Stewart's career parachute for size. If offered Twisted Sister's A Twisted Christmas (Razor & Tie), just say: We're not gonna take it. Speaking of superfluous sister acts, Lohan Holiday (YMC) finds Ali Lohan with a voice so wafer-thin, she makes older sib Lindsay sound like Beverly Sills. But what would Christmas be without parents pushing their unprepared kids out for a song or two?
Stevens, The DB's: A McLachlan, Mann, Paisley, Vincent: B+ Idol, Twisted Sister: D+ Lohan: D