The good, the bad, and the ugly of holiday music
There's no need for a recount in at least one election: The most popular holiday tune by far these days is ''The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).'' Of the dozen major new Christmas albums surveyed on the following pages, a good two thirds include this particular chestnut; Christina Aguilera even recorded it twice, as a ballad and as a Mel-Torme-goes-techno house mix. The nearest runners-up, ''Winter Wonderland'' and ''Silent Night,'' each appear on half of the 12 albums, followed closely behind by five renditions of ''Little Drummer Boy'' and ''O Holy Night.'' When it comes to Christmas music, even celebrities all shop from the same catalog.
To help you determine what minor distinctions may exist amid all this seasonal sameness, EW is back to survey the year's top holiday releases, this time with handy symbols to provide quick shorthand for party appeal, grandpa appropriateness, wack factor, heavy hymnal content, and other distinguishing characteristics. And do have yourself a merry little Christmas even if that formerly dominant ditty only appears on a mere third of the following albums.
CHRISTINA AGUILERA My Kind of Christmas
It was originally reported that Aguilera would sing a duet of ''Merry Christmas, Baby'' on this album with Etta James, one of her heroines. The blues legend is mysteriously absent from the finished track, but Aguilera oversings so wildly that there wouldn't have been enough oxygen in the booth to sustain another life form. That premature confidence in her own soul-diva chops continues throughout My Kind of Christmas, its possessive title aptly hinting at the showboating therein. The talented youngster is out of control here, spoiling some nifty modern arrangements with her exhausting insistence on making every other syllable an octave-spanning tour de force. All I want for Christmas is for Christina to calm down. Rating: -1, Suitable for parties, Sex appeal
LINDA RONSTADT A Merry Little Christmas
Though Ronstadt is a declared atheist, her love for sacred music would trump most believers. She finally gets a chance to explore the hymnal on record in the latter two thirds of this album, which focuses on carols as far removed from the hit parade as ''Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming.'' But first, she sets out a few lush secular standards as bait. And if no one really needs a new version of ''White Christmas'' or ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,'' you can at least count on a songwriter respecter like Ronstadt to revive those tunes' original, rarely heard lyrics. Particularly lovely is how she segues the unexpectedly melancholy ending of ''Have Yourself...'' into Joni Mitchell's marginally Christmas-themed ''River.''
VARIOUS ARTISTS Christmas Songs
Sarah McLachlan makes two perfectly charming appearances on this collection compiled by her friends at Canada's Nettwerk label. The previously unreleased one is a collabo-ration with Barenaked Ladies on ''God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,'' a low-fi lark recorded on a whim backstage a few years ago, with the tape distortion to prove it. Believe it or not, it swings. Most of the rest of this femme-focused album isn't quite that good, though there'll be much interest in Dido's new ''Christmas Day,'' a romantic ballad with a rare-for-the-season downer ending. Speaking of finales, stick around after the singing for a spoken-word bonus: an amusing short story about misadventures in spiked eggnog, from Stewart McLean, a north-of-the-border Garrison Keillor.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Platinum Christmas
That same new Dido track makes a repeat appearance on Jive's compilation, which, as the title indicates, has somewhat loftier commercial ambitions than Nettwerk's post-Lilithian little hootenanny. Britney Spears starts things off with a halfhearted stab at affecting a classic girl-group style in ''My Only Wish (This Year).'' Teen kings and queens like Aguilera and 'N Sync also drop by to wait up for Santa and/or an easy paycheck, as do a few more grown-up members of the big, happy BMG family, like Carlos Santana and Dave Matthews. Only one track here, previously issued but little-heard, is really worth the price of admission TLC's nearly unrecognizable take on ''Sleigh Ride,'' perfect for bumping in any souped-up horsedrawn carriage.
ROSIE O'DONNELL Another Rosie Christmas
It'd be swell to hear the Dixie Chicks do their high-spirited version of Robert Earl Keen Jr.'s dysfunctional ''Merry Christmas from the Family'' if only O'Donnell weren't wedging her way into the clan too, adopting a patronizing hick accent. For the second straight year, O'Donnell has done the great service of rounding up acts who might never otherwise have cut Christmas tracks, then done them the disservice of making most of the songs duets. Actually, some are so bad like Sugar Ray's tune-less ''Silver Bells'' that there's nothing she can do to bring them down. A few proceed without her: Best is Destiny's Child's enjoyably fussy ''Spread a Little Love on Christmas Day,'' which has the trio dutifully name-checking their ubiquitous host without inviting her in for any figgy pudding.
YOLANDA ADAMS Christmas with Yolanda Adams
Adams is a gospel singer, but only in the lyrical sense; genre-wise, she's straight-up contemporary R&B-pop, meaning her Christmas will sound a whole lot more like a cocktail party at Natalie Cole's than church with Mahalia Jackson. Her album is classy, if not terribly remarkable, middle-of-the-road fare that has that heavenly multi-demographic appeal and some token Mel Torme tossed in amid the predominantly Nativity-focused numbers. The arrangement that goes most agreeably but curiously far afield is ''It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,'' reinvented as a funky slow jam, Paul Jackson Jr.'s wah-wah guitar helping to provide the kind of sexy sonic bed that almost makes you think Adams is about to invite you not to Bethlehem but into the boudoir.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD Christmas Time Again
Santa's the ultimate free bird, right? Besides, so few rock bands of any renown have ever recorded an entire Christmas album you can count 'em on one mitten that you may root for Skynyrd and wish this offhand holiday bluesfest were better than it is. The party gets underway with a cover of Eddie C. Campbell's Stevie Ray-esque ''Santa's Messin' With the Kid,'' which provides a reminder about the real reason for the season i.e., this whole gift-dispensing business being Kris Kringle's excuse to come into your home, steal your woman, and drink your liquor. But by the time they contribute a straightforward rendition of ''Greensleeves'' that could've been lifted off a Mannheim Steamroller album, it's clear these Alabamans have nothing too original up their own sleeves.
LONESTAR This Christmas Time
This quartet of upstart country hunks kicks things off promisingly enough with a reasonably swingin' ''Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.'' A little less than an hour later, you awake from your stupor to realize that that opener was the only uptempo tune on the whole dang album. The preponderance of ballads here is sometimes pretty enough, and their crossover Christian fan base may appreciate hearing the rather baldly trite ''Reason for the Season'' amid the standards. Even so, track upon track is so nap-inducingly, belt-looseningly bland that anyone outside the band's immediate family or fan club would be hard-pressed to identify the perpetrating artist in a blindfold test. Maybe the boys in Lonestar just need to ask Santa for a jump start this year.
SHEDAISY, Brand New Year
There are two babealicious female trios in country, and if the Dixie Chicks are going to limit their Christmas cheer to one song on the Rosie O'Donnell roundup, SHeDAISY will step up to the green-and-red plate in force. The bad news is that their quasi-hip-hop beats, power chords, and antiseptic harmonies are so determinedly citified, bordering on teen pop, they make Shania sound like Minnie Pearl. The good news is that SHeDAISY, alone among this year's platinum carolers, come bearing a songbook of mostly new and uptempo pop material, with even the standards heavily rearranged for maximum spunk. It's still cornpone as all get-out, but in a subgenre as musty as this, their Christmas chutzpah probably shouldn't be underestimated.
BILLY GILMAN Classic Christmas
Twelve-year-old Gilman has a real knack for phrasing and seems like he has the raw goods to go on to become a fine country star in his time. But right now let's be honest he sounds like a chick. That established, you'll either find an album spent soaring through these high registers charming (50 million charter Wayne Newton fans can't be wrong!) or slightly unnerving (A Very Castrato Christmas?). Though this feels like an attempt to squeeze product through the pipeline before he gets the gift that may not keep on giving a baritone it's harmlessly old-fashioned enough, and at least there are no age-inappropriate love songs. Gilman duets with fellow pip-squeak Charlotte Church, unmemorably, on ''Sleigh Ride.'' What, you were expecting ''Baby, It's Cold Outside''?
CHARLOTTE CHURCH Dream a Dream
Young master Gilman returns Church's favor and duets with the 14-year-old soprano on her record's quite haunting title song, which might even count as a considerable contemporary addition to the Christmas pop canon if it had anything to do with Christmas. No matter. From that uncharacteristic opener, it's on to a solid set of otherwise traditional, mostly sacred material, in which the massive orchestration is recorded at a tasteful distance, unlike so many seasonal albums that seem to want to stick violin bows down your throat. The only quibble here is with the necessity of having Church apply her glorious but very formal intonations to the likes of ''The Christmas Song,'' which is as unnecessary and inevitable as putting a turbo engine in a VW Beetle.
THE THREE TENORS The Three Tenors Christmas
Remember Mars Attacks!, in which a translation machine allowed the aliens to spout brief bits of conciliatory phonetic English right before obliterating every human in sight? That image comes to mind whenever Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras take a breather from romance-language holiday classicism and break into a pidgin-English ''White Christmas'' or ''Sleigh Ride.'' They probably don't mean to harm us, but you may feel the urge to duck. The two thirds of this collection that sticks to the likes of ''Adeste Fideles'' is actually grand stuff; we just wish no one had encouraged them to experiment with ebonics (''I be home for Christmas,'' one or two tenors promise). And the trio's take on John and Yoko's ''Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'' may have you running for three gin and tonics.