Music Article

Hot And Coal

Holiday CDs worth stuffing in your stocking -- and a few that lack the right stuff.

EW evaluates the new holiday albums

It's Christmas — that spiritually transforming time of year when grown men set aside reason, re-embrace faith, and prayerfully beseech the man upstairs: Santa, bring my baby back to meeeeee. You can largely blame Elvis for the modern shift in thinking about St. Nick. No longer is he just a figure of childhood wish fulfillment; now Santa has to moonlight as a kind of cosmic bounty hunter, helping rock- and R&B-singing stalkers track down estranged lovers.

It's good to see Chris Isaak maintaining the Presley tradition of treating Santa as a celestial private eye. On Christmas (Reprise), Isaak revisits several King-size standards, including ''Santa Bring My Baby Back'' (although that particular track is exclusive to the expanded version sold at Target). A similar plea, ''Hey Santa!,'' pops up among Isaak's five nifty original compositions; this one actually ends with Claus delivering the elusive ex-girlfriend back to the forlorn singer. Whether she's returning under duress is unclear.

Jessica Simpson has no need to petition Santa for any such reunions in ReJoyce: The Christmas Album (Columbia), because, after all, what would the tabs think? Nick Lachey does his duty, dropping by for what may be the most rushed, chemistry-free ''Baby, It's Cold Outside'' on record. Later on in this quasi-family affair (named for grandma Joyce), Ashlee joins in on ''Little Drummer Boy,'' where ''We have no gift to bring'' never sounded so candid. All the bubbly gospel and romantic snow frolic notwithstanding, Simpson sounds about as passionately invested in ''I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus'' as anything. Hey, she didn't know about Chicken of the Sea, so do you suppose...?

''Santa's coming to town with sequins in his hair,'' the Raveonettes croon in their original ''Christmas Song.'' It's no political statement, just part of the mutual come-on in a '60s-flavored rock ballad celebrating colored lights, cool air, and the joy of a soon-to-be-consummated crush. Previously available only as an import single, the Raveonettes' tune is ubiquitous on several U.S. Xmas rock compilations this year. One of these is Music From The O.C.: Mix 3 — Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah (Warner Bros.), which also revives a great, little-heard, low-fi Low track, ''Just Like Christmas,'' and resurrects minor Eels and Ron Sexsmith gems.

That Raveonettes sparkler similarly lights up Maybe This Christmas Tree (Nettwerk), but this one is more liberally trimmed with questionable remakes. Having the Polyphonic Spree give their Coke-and-a-smile treatment to Lennon's already choral ''Happy Xmas'' is an obvious pick...an obviously bad one. Others select latently melancholy standards just to highlight the moroseness, like Death Cab for Cutie downsizing Phil Spector's gleefully desperate ''Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)'' into something just plain glum.

If you're really happy to be sad, stick it out to the bittersweet end of Frank Sinatra's The Christmas Collection (Reprise). This set mostly collects tracks from his uneven '60s and '70s Reprise recordings. But it climaxes with one astonishing ''new'' tune: an unissued ''Silent Night'' from 1991, one of Sinatra's last studio vocals, cut when he was under the weather. A sweeping new orchestral arrangement tries to — but can't — disguise how unbearably poignant the ailing Chairman's once powerful, now shaky instrument was in the December of his years.

Hunting for superior stylists who are still in the land of the living? Dianne Reeves' Christmas Time Is Here (Blue Note) is 2004's finest new holiday jazz set, straddling the line between traditionalism and fun arrangement risks. Not too many interpreters would've gone with a semitropical feel for ''Christmas Waltz,'' much less pulled it off, and Reeves even makes ''Carol of the Bells'' swing, which isn't easy (we've tried).

Eclectic as Reeves might get, she never does indulge in any greasy Cajun stomps. For that, you'll need Christmas Gumbo (Flambeau), a set of all-new, all-soulful material that a talented pair of Louisiana-bred singer-producers penned for the N'Awlins-linked likes of Irma Thomas, the Subdudes, Beausoleil, and a Neville brother or two.

But that determinedly fresh set gets narrowly beat out as the season's standout CD by a collection of relative antiquities. Where Will You Be Christmas Day? (Dust-to-Digital) mostly features 78 rpm gospel, blues, and hillbilly finds from the '20s and '30s: Lead Belly jumping out of his skin with excitement that ''Christmas Is A-Coming,'' Bessie Smith getting down ''At the Christmas Ball,'' and a pair of blues Bickersons named Butter-beans and Susie imparting the mysterious message that ''Papa Ain't No Santa Claus (and Mama Ain't No Christmas Tree).'' Dear St. Nick: Cancel the order for that wayward ex-girlfriend after all — this blast from the distant past should provide even the lonesomest dumped rocker sufficient winter warmth.

Isaak: B+
Simpson: D+
Music From The O.C.: B
Maybe This Christmas Tree: B-
Sinatra: B
Reeves: B+
Christmas Gumbo: B+
Where Will You Be Christmas Day?: A

Originally posted Dec 13, 2004 Published in issue #797 Dec 17, 2004 Order article reprints