Rockin' Around the Turntable

A cribsheet for the year's holiday-themed releases

holiday CD gifts

Music fans dread December. Few bands are on tour, all the of the year's good records have already been released, and the sounds of the season are inescapable. But fear not, for I bring unto you good tidings of great joy: your guide to this season's musical offerings. At least this year, the sugarplums outweigh the coal lumps. Either way, the albums below will offer a reprieve from that godforsaken "Jingle Bell Rock."

Brian Setzer Orchestra
Dig that Crazy Christmas


Remember when the Brian Setzer Orchestra gave the swing revival a dose of credibility and class? Setzer may be a caricature of his former self, but that won't stop him from spreading good cheer to the tattoos-and-pompadour set. The good thing about Brian Setzer's second (second!) Christmas album is that you know exactly how it sounds before you hear it: rockabilly guitar runs and big-band horn charts alongside hot-rodding Santas and martini-sipping vixens.

Various Artists
Taste of Christmas


Do mall-punks know it's Christmas after all? They soon will, now that their heroes in Plain White T's, The Used and Gatsby's American Dream have offered up soon-to-be-classics. Most bands stick with the spirit of the season (Funeral For a Friend's tender "Miracle of Christmas"), though a few of these songs are barely discernable as Christmas songs apart from the title (From First to Last's "Christmassacre," for instance — although they do throw some obligatory sleigh bells amid the double kick-drum).

A Christmas Kind of Town

(Yep Roc)

Marah wins top honors this year for its audio holiday pageant, a rousing Christmas party committed to tape. Arguably the only act on this list that's still at its creative peak, the Philly-based five-piece gets into the spirit with a handful of charming originals, a couple rounds of wassailing and an album-closing Christmas polka. The starry-eyed "New York is a Christmas Kind of Town" joins "Fairytale of New York" and "Christmas in Hollis" in the "Big Apple Christmas Song" triumvirate.

Reverend Horton Heat
We Three Kings

(Yep Roc)

We Three Kings is every bit the rockabilly rave-up you'd expect from the Rev. Swimming in reverb, Heat and Co. dash through some easy ones ("Run Run Rudolph" and "Frosty the Snowman" didn't need another reading, although the band makes it work.) Every so often, Heat straightens up his bolo tie and goes into crooner mode, like on a cover of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper."

Regis Philbin
The Regis Philbin Christmas Album


We'll make this quick: If the concept alone doesn't keep you away, note that Donald Trump guests on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Trump hires Rudolph and fires Blitzen, while Regis gives a baffling shout-out to the entire Yankees starting lineup. A "Battle of the Network Egos" ensues.

Various Artists
Elton John's Christmas Party
(HEAR Music)

What do you give the beknighted piano man that has everything? Apparently, you give him the chance to hock his own Christmas comp in every Starbucks across the land. Sir Elton kicks things off with his still-lovable chesnut "Step Into Christmas" and tosses in well-loved classics by The Ronettes and Chuck Berry with newer (and lesser) tunes by the Flaming Lips and Rufus Wainright. Still, Reg starts to lose the plot toward the end by including barely relevant holiday songs from John Mayer ("St. Patrick's Day") and U2 ("New Year's Day") — making his vision of Christmas music a disjointed listen.

Brian Wilson
What I Really Want for Christmas


Wilson is responsible for two modern holiday classics ("Little St. Nick" and "The Man with All the Toys") first heard on The Beach Boys' 1964 Christmas record. Wilson reclaims both of these songs and a host of other favorites, all recorded with the same sonic army that bolstered last year's Smile. The best part? Mike Love will be playing in a Harrah's Casino while you listen to this at home.

Jane Monheit
The Season


Brassier and glossier than fellow jazz songbird Diana Krall, Jane Monheit shifts genres throughout The Season. She gets soulful on Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and tries Streisand-like phrasing on "Merry Christmas Darling." Her take on "The Christmas Waltz" gives a nod to Peggy Lee's benchmark version while "The Man with the Bag" bops along big-band style. Monheit's bag contains a little bit of everything, and she shares generously.

Various Artists
A John Waters Christmas

(New Line)

This year Santa's beard has been trimmed back to a pencil-thin mustache, as the flamboyant filmmaker collects his holiday kitsch. Waters' legendary bad taste pops up here and there; Rudolph & Gang's curse-strewn "Here Comes Fatty Claus" is Jeff Foxworthy-worthy, and Tiny Tim's quavering "Rudolph" is worth approximately one listen. From there, hodge-podge rules the day; for starters, Chicago's belated avant-lounge all-stars Coctails nestle up against doo-wop and maudlin country.

The LeeVees
Hanukkah Rocks


The LeeVees are a duo (one guy from Guster and one guy from hockey-rockers The Zambonis), and their mission is clear: to reclaim Hanukkah songs from Adam Sandler. Most of these nine songs (one for each candle in the Menorah) deal with traditional Jewish food — latkes, kugel and matzoh balls all get a mention — but the album's pure pop and sharp hooks help this album stand up alongside the Gentiles.

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