A look at music for the holiday season
There's no chestnut quite like ''The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),'' which seems to have finally supplanted ''White Christmas'' as the national anthem and hymn triumphant of holiday pop. Who'd dare issue a Christmas collection nowadays without it? Not Celine Dion, certainly, or 'N Sync. A look through this season's CD offerings finds at least two dozen other new versions of Mel Torme's prize tinsel tune. Brian McKnight doesn't cover ''The Christmas Song'' on his new collection, but not because he's above baiting traditionalists. Just a few tracks in, McKnight stops the proceedings cold in order to give a couple of random minutes of spoken-word time to...Mrs. Nat King Cole, widow of the song's popularizer. Which is kind of like a preacher forgetting to lead the Lord's Prayer but then bringing out, as a surprise guest, the Virgin Mary. Cheater.
Not that we're averse to any talented revivalists out there who can bring new life to Torme or handle Handel. To help sift the coal from the milk chocolate, and the King Cole wannabes from the mavericks, EW gifts you with our annual holiday music roundup. Buyer beware...and merry and bright!
Foster the Snowman
Among recent chart-toppers, Celine Dion is absolutely the high-C-climbing songbird you'd want to have tackling ''Ave Maria'' or ''O Holy Night'' and absolutely the last person you want to hear braving the period idiosyncracies of John and Yoko's ''Happy Xmas (War Is Over).'' The French-Canadian sensation sings the living daylights out of all of the above in These Are Special Times, a creditable right-of-center collection hampered by a few serious missteps. Dion's earnest take on Vietnam-era Lennon is howler No. 1. No. 2 is her duet with R. Kelly, ''I'm Your Angel,'' a slice of squishy-hearted pseudo gospel that might better be called ''Touched by a Marketing VP.'' But in the half-dozen tracks where coproducer David Foster leads her gently back toward the classics, be they ''Blue Christmas'' or ''Brahms' Lullaby,'' Dion makes a perfectly adequate successor to abdicated Christmas queen Streisand. B-
Vince Gill wants to be king of Christmas in a big way, so he's eliminated the twang from Breath of Heaven, his second holiday collection in five years. His bid to go after the broader audience and pick up the Sands-era slack left in Sinatra's wake involves borrowing big-band orchestrator Patrick Williams. Trouble is, we could really use a decent country Christmas album about now, and we already have roughly 5,000 holiday sides from the Chairman's catalog, thanks. The Amy Grant-penned title ballad, an evocation of motherly pre-Nativity angst, is the only remotely left-field choice in a swing-easy set that's finally more fiddlesticks than swizzle stick. C+
R&B Home for Christmas
At least Gill has the chops to chew on any standard he bites off. Not so R&B legend Kenneth ''Babyface'' Edmonds, who plays directly to his weaknesses in Christmas With Babyface. We should be expecting a whole new batch of potential perennials, since he's only the most prolific songwriter on earth, right? Nope: Only in the final track (a leftover theme from Simon Birch, at that) does the vaunted studio auteur nab himself a writing credit. Instead, 'Face fancies himself a vocal stylist who can find new interpretive nuance in ''Rudolph'' and ''Sleigh Ride.'' Neigh! (And where are all his superstar pals? Partying at Puffy's in the Hamptons?) Worst amid the thin MOR fare is a reggae-lite ''Little Drummer Boy,'' wherein the overextended host keeps exclaiming ''Woo!'' evidently not noticing that he's the only one dipping into the eggnog. C
No need to worry about Brian McKnight's ability to handle the standard demands of Bethlehem, an effective showcase for the balladeer's Mary-don't-you-weep-let-me approach to tremulous soul. In contrast to Babyface, he wrote quite a batch of (okay) new material, and has plenty of guests over for grog, too foremost among them Boyz II Men, who share lady-killing duties on ''Let It Snow '98'' (not the Sammy Cahn classic), a barely there but percussively slinky piece that gently puts the blizzard back in ''quiet storm.'' B-