X-mas Marks the Spot

A guide to new holiday discs, from surprise presents to Tannen-bombs

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Most Americans have a love-hate relationship with Yuletide music. They can't imagine the season without it, but they sometimes wish they could. Such conflicting emotions are easy to understand after plowing through the more than 30 holiday platters that made their way to our door this year. As usual, the batch included some gifts that kept on giving from beginning to end. But they were countered by efforts capable of making even dedicated Christmas-lovers feel they've been Scrooged.

What follows is a small selection of December's latest, greatest and most overrated, complete with recommendations as warranted and warnings when necessary.

Starry, starry night: Celebrities have long viewed Christmas CDs as a nice way to fatten their wallets without having to do much more than spend an afternoon or two caroling. But because so many big-name acts cashed in during 2001 (Barbra Streisand, Toni Braxton and Destiny's Child among them), this year's star power is notably dimmer. Instead, the roster is dominated by fading headliners hanging on to fame by the tips of their mistletoes.

An exception is Plus One, a contemporary-Christian variation on the Backstreet Boys that is retaining its wholesome audience even as teen pop goes through its awkward phase. Christmas (Atlantic) brims with the sort of freshly scrubbed sensitivity that spells romance for preadolescent girls but makes anyone outside the Clearasil demographic shudder. "Our Christmas Prayer" may be sincere, but it's also drippier than the average nose during cold-and-flu season. Wipe thoroughly after use.

Then again, veterans can be sugary, too. Crooner Johnny Mathis, who's issued more than half-a-dozen holiday long-players since 1958, has always specialized in melodrama, and The Christmas Album (Columbia) is no exception. His heavily orchestrated versions of "A Christmas Love Song" and others are about as up to date as the disc's back photo, which is either two decades old or proof that airbrushing can work miracles. Of course, Mathis' old-fashioned approach is probably preferable to forced modernism, but we won't know for sure until Johnny's Electronica Christmas comes out. Barry Manilow's A Christmas Gift of Love (Columbia) won't do much for mixology fans, either, but consumers with a soft spot for "Mandy" should be satisfied. The production emphasizes corny touches -- such as the Mitch Miller-esque background vocals on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" -- and Barry sells each tune as hard as he can, even roughening up his voice at the beginning of "Happy Holiday/White Christmas." Laugh with him, not at him.

Carly Simon's Christmas Is Almost Here (WSM) is a more effective resurrection job, mainly because Simon and a crew of prominent collaborators, including Don Was, take the project seriously. The disc's title cut -- penned by Livingston Taylor, Simon's former brother-in-law -- is moody and evocative, and if the singer can't quite pull off the gospel shadings of "Twelve Gates to the City," she deserves credit for trying.

As for Raffi's Christmas Album (Rounder), by children's-music icon Raffi, it's trying, too -- very trying. A reissue of a 1983 tot blockbuster, the album features loads of stock holiday airs and a few lesser-known offerings, such as "Petit Papa Noël." Unfortunately, they're all rendered in a self-consciously sweet, semipatronizing tone that even many kids find creepy. Lock the windows and put a grate over the chimney. Another reissue, José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad (RCA/BMG Heritage), is a mixed bag for other reasons. Culled from sessions that took place in 1970, the disc kicks off with the peppy title song, which has aged surprisingly well. But with the exception of a previously unreleased "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" that Feliciano transforms into a wild strum-along, the album is dominated by the most sedate sort of acoustic plucking. Is it possible to prevent this stuff from fading into the wallpaper? No way, José.

Rockin' around the Christmas tree: Boogie Woogie Christmas, a recording on the Surfdog imprint by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, comes complete with a testimonial -- "This is the coolest Christmas record you will ever hear!" -- attributed to one "S. Claus." Even if this fellow's first name is "Sidney," his opinion doesn't completely lack credibility. Setzer is a mimic, but an enthusiastic one, and he and his fellows cut loose during exuberant interpretations of "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" and more. As a bonus, the disc includes "Baby It's Cold Outside," a Setzer duet with Ann-Margret, who still sounds kittenish even if she's been a full-grown cat for eight lives or so.

Just as groovy is 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! (Yep Roc), by Los Straitjackets, an instrumental combo whose members hide their identities behind Mexican wrestling masks. These thirteen charmers range from a driving four-on-the-floor "Jingle Bell Rock" and a "Pipeline"-style reinvention of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" performed as a finger-snapping samba and a careening "Sleigh Ride." Traditional it ain't, but chances are it'd make even S. Claus want to strip down to his baggies and hang ten.

Yule yuks: No Christmas season is complete without the arrival of a couple of discs intended as gag gifts -- items meant less for listening than for making the recipient chuckle before he puts them in a drawer and forgets about them forever. Half of this year's quota is filled by Bob Rivers' White Trash Christmas (Atlantic), which offers up such timeless classics as "Aquaclaus" (a Santa-centric rewrite of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung"), "What If Eminem Did Jingle Bells?" (all the profanities are bleeped, damn it), "Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and nine more examples of attempted wit. Most of these ditties are stupid in their entirety, but a few manage an amusing three or four seconds before progressing to stupidity. If your family and friends suspect you're a loser, put this on at a holiday party and they'll be convinced.

The Happy Holiday Hearth, a DVD put out by Rhino Records, is a slightly more subtle joke. The disc features 23 Christmas favorites as performed by an anonymous ensemble that's visually accompanied by a static shot of a crackling blaze intended to make the average TV set resemble a fireplace. Viewers/listeners can switch the crackling sounds on or off, but that's about it. An unsophisticated "continuous play" function doesn't allow skipping to specific selections -- although it is possible to jump backward to an especially nice FBI warning.

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