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Christmas music is in season

Separating the prizes from the duds in a diverse lot of new albums.

By Randy Lewis

November 29, 2008

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The bounty of new holiday albums is impressive -- little else is selling, the thinking seems to be, so let's see if Santa and Rudolph can salvage the end of the year. This year's batch is suitably diverse, many hurriedly assembled as a seasonal bonus primarily for an artist's most ardent fans, a few exhibiting real thought and care about what the holiday season means.What follows is a look at some of the most interesting collections available right now.

Tony Bennett featuring the Count Basie Big Band, "A Swingin' Christmas" (RPM/Columbia): Does this swing? Is snow white? The pairing of Bennett with Basie's band, even a quarter-century after its namesake's death, is inspired and invigorating, in no small part thanks to razor-sharp arrangements by such swing vets as Bill Holman and Frank Foster. * * * 1/2

The Boxmasters, "Christmas Cheer" (Vanguard): There's the occasional whiff of novelty from this effort by Billy Bob Thornton's trad-country band. But more often than not good spirits abound -- check out their Johnny Cash-on-the-range take on "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and glorious downer honky-tonkin' originals such as "My Dreams of Christmas" and "I Won't Be Home for Christmas." Bonus points for covering John Prine's bittersweet "Christmas in Prison." * * 1/2

Sarah Brightman, "A Winter Symphony" (Manhattan): This is one for classically minded pop fans who find that Wagner was too reserved, and who think Mahler skimped with his "Symphony of a Thousand." The British singer's feathery soprano gets stretched past the point of endurance for all but the most committed fans. * *

Kristin Chenoweth, "A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas" (Sony Classical): The Broadway star's girlish soprano brings a light touch to her holiday offering, and her theatrical training serves the songs well, letting them come alive dramatically without becoming forced. Though she's got a full orchestra behind her, producer Robbie Buchanan never lets things get out of hand. * * *

Harry Connick Jr. "What a Night! A Christmas Album" (Columbia): The New Orleans singer-pianist is turning Christmas into a one-man cottage industry with his third holiday album. This one's less pop, more jazz, and he fleshes out (sometimes too) hip renditions of a dozen yuletide standards with four songs of his own. The originals inject more freshness of content than expression, "Song for the Hopeful" being the standout for its heartfelt simplicity. * * 1/2

Sheryl Crow, "Home for Christmas" (Hallmark): Retail-commissioned albums can feel tossed off, and this one's no exception. At least Crow sounds as if she enjoyed herself with R&B-leaning arrangements of holiday favorites. Her one original, the fetching prayer for peace "There Is a Star That Shines Tonight," will leave a lot of listeners wondering what else she might have to say about the season. * * 1/2

Enya, "And Winter Came . . . " (Reprise): Yes, the Irish chanteuse's Christmas collection is supremely ethereal and spiritually transcendent. We'd probably say the same of her album saluting Groundhog Day. This one-woman show -- except for lyrics from songwriting partner Roma Ryan and the cover of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," Enya composed, sang and played everything -- creates a heavenly musical space where spirit reins supreme. * * * 1/2

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, "Jingle All the Way" (Rounder): This one will make any inattentive holiday party guests sit up and take notice, starting with the Flecktones' far-flung interpretation of "Jingle Bells" with the Alash Ensemble of Tuvan throat singers. This collective of folk-rooted newgrass instrumentalists won't be limited in transforming songs as disparate as "The Hanukkah Waltz," a section of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and Joni Mitchell's "River." * * * 1/2

Aretha Franklin, "This Christmas" (DMI): The Queen of Soul is torpedoed on her first seasonal album by generic R&B arrangements of spiritual and secular holiday chestnuts. The saving grace on this Borders Books exclusive are two comparatively restrained and far more touching readings of "Ave Maria" and the straight gospel tune "One Night With the King." All she asks when she gets home, indeed. * 1/2

Faith Hill, "Joy to the World" (Warner Bros.): It's easy to imagine Hill and her co-producers Byron Gallimore and Dann Huff listening to the cast-of-thousands, cranked-to-11 recording of the title track, high-fiving and shouting "Take that, Mormon Tabernacle Choir!" Or, for that matter, Cecil B. DeMille. Such vocal beauty, such dearth of musical scale. Punchy big-band swing treatments of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" help offset the orchestral and choral overkill typical of the spiritual songs. * 1/2

Ledisi, "It's Christmas" (Verve): Ledisi shows she can handle R&B or jazz, and it's her jazz-minded performances that are more distinctive than the predictably shimmering and pulsing smooth-groove R&B arrangements. You wish she'd let her gospel side show more, especially on the curious Gladys Knight-ish version of "Children Go Where I Send Thee." * *

Loreena McKennitt, "A Midwinter Night's Dream" (Verve): McKennitt's outing is full of graceful traditional music on a grand scale, her bounty of Anglocentric traditional tunes spruced up with new music she's composed for some old texts. Strikingly beautiful. * * *

Gretchen Peters, "Northern Lights" (Scarlet Letter): Nashville songwriter par excellence Peters homes in on the melancholy side of the holidays with intimacy and insight in her savvy mix of standards ("Silent Night," Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson's "Christmas Time Is Here"), less-traveled seasonal songs (Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night," the traditional "I Wonder As I Wander") and fitting new songs of her own ("December Child," "Waitin' on Mary," the title tune). For those who won't trade musical acumen for holiday spirit. * * *

Elvis Presley & Guests, "Christmas Duets" (RCA): Sure, the matching of across-the-decades sonics is technologically impressive in these posthumous pairings of the King and living partners including Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, Wynonna Judd, Anne Murray and . . . Anne Murray? Is it too much to ask to let the poor man rest in peace? Stick with Presley's originals. *

Neil Sedaka, "The Miracle of Christmas" (Razor & Tie): Is there a musical name that says "Christmas" more than . . . Neil Sedaka? OK, so his isn't the first name that leaps to mind. But give the man credit: The first half of this two-disc set consists of a dozen holiday originals from one of the Brill Building songwriting masters. A couple deserve to find their way into wider circulation: the self-explanatory "A Lonely Christmas in New York" and the pop-gospel flavored "Love Is Spreading Over the World." * *

Various Artists, "Christmas A Go Go" (Wicked Cool Records): Underground Garage host Little Steven (Van Zandt) pulls together a raucous collection of holiday garage rock tracks celebrated (Keith Richards' take on Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," the Kinks' caustic "Father Christmas") and zanily obscure (Soupy Sales' "Santa Claus Is Surfin' to Town," Joe Pesci's "If It Doesn't Snow on Christmas"). * * *

Various Artists, "The Essential Now That's What I Call Christmas" (Universal/EMI/Sony BMG): The musical version of the theory of infinite regression: A compilation distilled from three previous compilations of previously released holiday recordings. These 25 tracks on one CD, spanning Gene Autry and Elvis to Carrie Underwood and Colbie Caillat, represent the most popular pop holiday songs. Anyone who doesn't already own most of them either hates Christmas music or is under the age of 5. * * *

Various Artists, "The Hotel Café Presents Winter Songs" (Epic): A fitting subtitle could be "Songs for a Dying Fire" for the introspective tone that typifies a nice balance of standards and originals from this bevy of 14 female singer-songwriters, among them KT Tunstall, Fiona Apple, Colbie Caillat and Katy Perry. Some proceeds will benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure. * * *

Various Artists "This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1" (Brushfire): Sandy-voiced guys strum acoustic guitars for the most part in this alt-folkie offering from Jack Johnson’s label. Naturally, Johnson appears with a couple of campfire Christmas tunes and is joined by G. Love (who funks things up a bit with "Christmas Baby"), Zach Gill, Matt Costa and a handful of others. Zee Avi provides a quick bit of gender relief in her endearing original "No Christmas for Me," and Rogue Wave trots out a sprightly version of Pete Townshend's underutilized "Christmas" from "Tommy." Part of the proceeds go to children's music education. * * *

Various Artists, "We Wish You a Metal Xmas And a Headbanging New Year" (Armoury): If the sounds of Motorhead's Lemmy croaking "Run Rudolph Run" or Ronnie James Dio lumbering through "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" don't bring an evil smile to your lips, you're probably Ned Flanders. Shred the halls with stacks of Marshalls! * * *

Lewis is a Times staff writer

randy.lewis@latimes.com