Rock the Bells: Get in the spirit with the RFT's annual holiday-album rodeo

The signs of Christmas are all around us: The air has turned chilly, Starbucks has resumed serving gingerbread lattes in seasonal red cups, and countless recording artists have released holiday albums. This year's crop contains some diverse offerings and unexpected gems from Hall of Famers (Bob Dylan), faerie goddesses (Tori Amos) and heavy-metal icons (Rob Halford). These discs might not replace your well-loved LPs by Nat "King" Cole or Mitch Miller & the Gang, but they will add a little variety and idiosyncrasy to your Christmas playlist.

A Fine Frenzy
Oh Blue Christmas

Alison Sudol makes records as A Fine Frenzy, and her piano-based, mid-tempo style is perfectly pitched for this snow-drifted holiday EP. Bookended by an appropriately bluesy "Blue Christmas" and a swaying version of "Christmastime Is Here," Sudol adds a few of her own songs to the collection. "Winter White" sets a broken-heart tale in the coldest month of the year, and "Wish You Well" addresses an estranged relative during a season that's normally marked by togetherness and unity. Sudol's songs aren't exactly caroling material, but her additions make the disc a must-hear for fans of her strident piano pop. The EP is only available at Target stores and through iTunes.

Tori Amos
Midwinter Graces

(Universal Republic)
To say that Tori Amos has a complicated relationship with Christianity is to put it lightly. Whether positing that Jesus was a woman (on Boys for Pele's "Muhammad My Friend") or labeling herself a "recovering Christian," Amos' back catalog, rife with religious questions and dogma-shaking confrontations, makes Midwinter Graces a pleasant surprise. In addition to several original songs, Amos has taken some well-loved carols and rearranged them in a way that leaves her indelible stamp without stripping the songs of their essences. She keeps a reverent tone on the "Greensleeves"-based "What Child, Nowell" and strips "Silent Night" to a piano-and-vocal prayer. Midwinter can be hit-or-miss, but the album's few lighter moments, like the big-band glide of "Pink and Glitter," are enough to win back some old-time Amos fans who've lost the faith.

Mike Gorman

Neil Diamond
A Cherry Cherry Christmas

Those who thought that Neil Diamond's recent work with famed career-restoration expert Rick Rubin had erased the crooner's love of schmaltz need not worry: Just one listen to A Cherry Cherry Christmas is enough to remind you why Neil is everyone's favorite cheeseball. In the song, Diamond references many of his biggest hits — "Holly Holy," "Song Sung Blue" and of course "Cherry Cherry" — as he wishes his listeners a merry Christmas. The song is so hokey and tongue-in-cheek that it's almost unlistenable. Christmas is his third holiday offering, but it's more of a greatest-hits collection of these previous releases: Nine out of the fourteen songs have been previously released, including the treacly "You Make it Feel Like Christmas." Of the new songs, Diamond stays true to his Jewish roots by closing the disc with Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song."

Bob Dylan
Christmas in the Heart

Bob Dylan has used the moniker "Jack Frost" for his producer credits on his last few albums, and the name change finally makes sense on Christmas in the Heart. Actually there's not much that makes sense about a Bob Dylan Christmas album at first blush: We want him to exist outside of space and time, away from such snares as a potentially cred-killing Christmas album, and we sure as hell don't expect him to sound so damned reverent singing "Little Drummer Boy." So maybe it's this twist that makes his disc such a treat. The fifteen songs are arranged as genteel country classics, with light pedal steel, twinkly piano and tasteful choir accompaniment reminiscent of those old Ray Conniff Christmas records. Dylan's voice is still ragged as ever, but he treats these sacred and secular songs with equal parts grace and good humor.

Kermit Ruffins
Have A Crazy Cool Christmas

(Basin Street Records)
As a founding member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, singer and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins has done more than most to maintain the musical tradition of his native New Orleans. For his first Christmas record, that means swinging jazz, bold brass-band excursions and plenty of Louis Armstrong-inspired crooning. Ruffins mainly sticks to the classics: "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" has a low-lit elegance that gives way to some nice trumpet/trombone interplay, and "Silver Bells" adds a sweeping Hammond B3 organ behind his delightful rasp. The original "A Saints Christmas" has an easy second-line shuffle as Ruffins implores Santa for a Super Bowl win from the Saints (which, if the team continues on its tear, is a real possibility). There's not a dud on this album, and it's a genuinely joyful offering from the Big Easy's ambassador of goodwill.

Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra
A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats from Santa's Bag

(Ubiquity Records)
Composer Shawn Lee has amassed a catalog of instrumental records that mine the rich terrain of '70s funk, with a special ear toward the lush, orchestral sounds of Philly soul. On A Very Ping Pong Christmas the melodies remain sacred, but all the other arrangements are up for grabs. Lee uses dusty breakbeats, vintage keys and horn charts last heard on Blaxploitation film scores, lending no small amount of funk to well-worn songs. There are curveballs around every corner, from the sitar lead on "Little Drummer Boy" to the "House of the Rising Sun" take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Fans of Beck's Odelay would do well to pick up this disc — Lee's intricately arranged oddball funk goes a long way to invigorate these Christmas chestnuts.

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