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Shoddy and Nice Holiday Releases

Reviews of stocking-ready releases by Christina Aguilera, Linda Ronstadt, Lynyrd Skynyrd and more

December 13, 2000 12:00 AM ET

Looking for the perfect stocking stuffer but can't choose from the glut of holiday-themed albums? Well, from Christina Aguilera's tarted-up carols to mambafied December ditties, here is our guide to the good, the bad . . . and the downright ridiculous yuletide release.

Christina Aguilera My Kind of Christmas (RCA)
I'd never want to visit Christina Aguilera's house for the holidays, if My Kind of Christmas is any indication of what she's got under the tree. Chilly, forced and overdone, just like the former Mousketeer's maquillage, this mixed bag of modern classics and tarted-up traditional carols -- and one self-penned tune (with four collaborators) -- doesn't conjure up a single warm and fuzzy image of chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Jack Frost nipping at your nose. It's just another forum to showcase Aguilera's formidable bag of vocal gymnastics and posturing without a shred of sincerity or warmth. Even when the tempestuous teen queen teams up Dr. John on "Merry Christmas, Baby," it comes across not as the coquettish exchange between a man and a woman, but as a vocal competition between the bluesmeister and the teen, with Aguilera trying to out grizzle him as they trade blues rifts. Aguilera is out of her depth and her vocal range, ending up sounding like a second-rate, watered down Susan Tedeschi. She's much more bearable on the Diane Warren-penned "These Are Special Times," that is, until she sends her voice inappropriately soaring over the rooftops like an unhinged Rudolph, which does nothing but overpower the song. The record reaches its lowest point when Aguilera recites the Lord's Prayer during an over-arching "O Holy Night," gasping and grunting through the timeless classic turning it into a tawdry cheap ornament. (JAAN UHELSZKI)

Various Artists A Very Ally Christmas (550/Epic)
Even if regular viewing of Ally McBeal is your favorite guilty pleasure, you can file this cast recording of Christmas classics under "totally unnecessary." That is, of course, unless you collect recordings by drug-addicted celebrity prisoners singing Joni Mitchell songs, in which case you'll need Robert Downey, Jr. and his moaning version of "River." Jane Krakowski (who plays secretary Elaine) dismembers "Run, Rudolph, Run"; it's arranged like a number from the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Lisa Nicole Carson (Rene) is not gifted with melody nor a decent song in "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney." And Calista Flockhart will be living down her child/woman reading of "Santa Baby" for a long time. The rest belongs to Vonda Shepard, the annoying singer at "the bar" on the show (strategically located downstairs from the "law firm"), who accompanies the Ally action week to week. Love the show, hate the music. Bygones? (DENISE SULLIVAN)

Mark Mothersbaugh Joyeux Mutato (Rhino)
'Tis the season to be cranky. But while this holiday collection from Devo madman Mark Mothersbaugh may be "for anyone who has ever been traumatized by the Christmas season," it hardly sounds like something that would help Scrooge get his groove on. Though the booklet includes such surly short stories as "Nativity Kidnap Scene" and "Santa, the Sausage Juggling Fool," the disc is actually composed of such festive instrumentals as "Happy Woodchopper," "Let There Be Snow" and "Blue Joy," which mix traditional holiday melodies, chimes and bells with the kind of loopy, cartoonish keyboards Mothersbaugh has used both with his band Devo and on the Rugrats soundtracks. "Jingle$, Jingle$, Jingle$" and "I Don't Have a Christmas Tree (Soylent Night) [Low Tolerance Edit]" even use hip-hoppy beats, making this the perfect album for an office Christmas party if you work somewhere really, really cool. (PAUL SEMEL)

Various Artists Platinum Christmas (Jive)
Not since Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet met on neutral ground for the recording of Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" has there been a more culturally significant holiday album. Platinum Christmas does the unthinkable. It places tracks by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera within spitting distance of each other. It declares an unofficial truce in the Backstreet and 'N Sync wars. It even ropes in rusty old hippie codger Santana -- gasp! -- without the succor of Rob Thomas or Wyclef Jean. Never mind that, give or take the odd Dave Matthews track ("Christmas Song"), the result is all blustery, over-emoted synthesizer-draped tinsel pop. But it's the thought that counts . . . (AIDIN VAZIRI)

Various Artists Another Rosie Christmas (Columbia)
Believe it or not, this sucker had potential. With the exception of pre-teen country singer Billy Gilman's treacly "I'm Gonna E-Mail Santa," Another Rosie Christmas is chock full of genuinely entertaining and festive star turns. It's a big nutty cheeselog of an album, but Ricky Martin, Jessica Simpson, Destiny's Child, the Dixie Chicks and Macy Gray (who does a faithful but still freaky "Winter Wonderland") all turn in spirited performances. The problem is Rosie herself, who stinks up the place like two-week-old eggnog every time she needlessly butts into a song, begging for attention. It's harmless enough when she hams through a throwaway "Silver Bells" with Sugar Ray, but when she fouls a match-made-in-heaven like the Dixie Chicks covering Texan Robert Earl Keen's modern-day classic "Merry Christmas From the Family" by adopting a fake hick accent and introducing it as "a song I wrote a few years back," it's damn near offensive. Ditto her Mexican schtick at the end of Ricky Martin's "Ay, Ay, Ay It's Christmas." Give her credit for throwing together a fun party, but a big sack o' coal for crashing it with her own bloated ego. (RICHARD SKANSE)

John Fahey The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album, Christmas with John Fahey Vol. II (Fantasy/Takoma)
You can keep your Grinches, your Rudolphs and your Frosties -- for me, nothing conjures up the magic of childhood Christmases like a spin of John Fahey's The New Possibility. Originally released in 1968, this instrumental collection of traditional carols was a holiday favorite with every hippie family in my neighborhood, and with good reason. Meditative, haunting, and starkly beautiful, the album remains the utter antithesis of the grotesque yuletide cash-ins that hit the shelves every year. One of the most inventive guitarists of the modern folk era, Fahey invests selections like "The First Noel" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" (the latter of which is joined in a gorgeous fingerstyle medley with "O Come All Ye Faithful") with a palpable sense of joy and cosmic wonder. The latest reissue of this Christmas classic includes six lovely tracks from 1975's Christmas with John Fahey Vol. II, along with insightful liner notes from longtime Fahey compadre Barry "Dr. Demento" Hansen. (DAN EPSTEIN)

Various Artists How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Interscope)
Only a masochist could stomach a duet between Busta Rhymes and Jim Carrey, perhaps the two most annoying men ever to stalk the earth. So how appropriate is it that the unholy duo's "Grinch 2000" sets the tone for this soundtrack, which is just as dismal as its accompanying motion picture in every detail. Whiny, wise-cracking alternative rockers dominate all corners, as Barenaked Ladies turn in the unhilarious "Green Christmas," Smash Mouth offers "Better Do It Right" and the Eels further morph into Beck on "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs." And how those weasels in 'N Sync weaseled their way into this collection will forever remain a mystery. The poorest excuse for a holiday album since Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics. (VAZIRI)

Lynyrd Skynyrd Christmas Time Again (CMC International)
Here is further proof that the Reese's peanut butter phenomenon is the exception, not the rule: two great tastes -- the proud, southern fried rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the artificially sweetened, consumer friendly pop of Christmas -- do not always go great together. While the band's bluesy romps on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa's Messin' With the Kid" might make nifty holiday encores, most of the music here seems as fresh as a regifted fruitcake (which may explain how guest star Charlie Daniels almost steals the show on his track). One of the band's additions to the Christmas oeuvre, "Christmas Time Again," requires five writers to string together a bunch of Santanic cliches, while the treacly keyboard instrumentalizing on "Greensleeves" is sugary enough to give George Winston a cavity. Tell Santa thanks, but can he take this lump of, um, coal back and bring you the one with "Freebird" on it. (ERIK PEDERSEN)

Various Artists Sleighed: Other Side of Christmas (Hip-O)
A smattering of alt-rock takes on holiday staples bookended by a pair of novelties, Sleighed is a nice diversion from the usual Christmas fare. Ska makes its presence felt early via Goldfinger's delightful read of "White Christmas," and Less Than Jake's punky rip through Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is a keeper, while Weezer-esque carols like Local H's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Home Grown's "Christmas Crush" are aimed directly at St. Nick's "loner" clique. Unfortunately, the big name acts here are big-time disappointments: Sonic Youth hacks up a mostly tuneless version of Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope" and Beck's well-intended techno funk exercise "The Little Drum Machine Boy" is -- at seven minutes -- long-winded. Still, Red Peters' humorous country ballad "You Ain't Getting Shit for Christmas" and Plankeye's blistering alternative pop attempt at "Away in a Manger" sustain Sleighed. (JOHN D. LUERSSEN)

SHeDAISY Brand New Year (Lyric Street)
There are two simple rules when it comes to making an enjoyable Christmas album. No. 1, go easy on the inevitable "originals" -- just throwing the word "Christmas" in a song doesn't make worthy of "Jingle Bells" real estate. No. 2 -- and this is the important one -- don't mess with the classics in an attempt to make them sound original. SHeDAISY, Utah's wannabe answer to the Dixie Chicks, manage to screw up on both accounts. Their histrionic, awkward takes on "Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride" -- deconstructed and rebuilt as scale exercises -- would be laughable in a Sweeney Sisters kind of way, if only they weren't just so flat-out unlistenable. The originals, meanwhile -- including the title track, co-written with Richard Marx -- are all uniform schlock. Sure, "Twist of the Magi" has a charming "We Are the World" kind of over-the-top earnestness about it, but odds are you'd find more restraint and better taste in a Celine Dion/Faith Hill duets album. (SKANSE)

Ottmar Liebert Christmas + Santa Fe. (Epic)
If I were a baby, I'd crawl away from this. It is not joyous music. Rather, guitarist Ottmar Liebert has crafted an album of adult Christmas music, if your notion of being an adult means being a mere step or two from putrefaction. The German-born, Santa Fe-abiding Liebert calls his instrumental style "Flamenco Nouveau," but it is a long, long remove from the days when flamenco was synonymous with passion. The formula at work here is to perform a verse or two of holiday classics such as "Deck the Halls" and "O Christmas Tree" in a stiff, rote manner before departing into vaguely Latin-rhythmed improvisations with no bearing on the host song. Some, such as his "Snow White," affixed here to "Silent Night," is pretty enough listening, but not at all evocative of Christmas, nor of anything else. With such a wealth of albums by artists who do justice to Christmas music while giving it their own twist -- Booker T and the MGs' In the Christmas Spirit and Dwight Yoakam's Come On Christmas are two handy examples -- you might want to give Mr. Liebert's lumpy eggnog a pass. (JIM WASHBURN)

Arthur & Friends Arthur's Perfect Christmas (Rounder Records)
This soundtrack to the PBS television special of the same name is a bona fide contender for entry into the kids' Christmas music pantheon (a roost currently ruled over by A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Chipmunk Christmas and the various Rudolph tunes). Arthur, the perfect little perky aardvark, and company here perform two dozen tunes both secular and religious -- but with their own, inimitable silly twist. What sets this collection apart, though, are the punky rock numbers ("Silent Night" and "Boogie Woogie Christmas"), anti-material notions such as "What's the Use of Presents?" and, most importantly, an appreciation for multi-culturalism (which is, indeed, an integral part of the show's charm). As evidenced on such cuts as "Chanukah Blessing," "It's Kwanzaa Time" and "Santa Lucia," Arthur's Perfect Christmas is an open-door holiday celebration (inclusive, even, of imaginary holidays such as the one explained in the playful song "Baxter's Day") and is automatically qualified above-and-beyond liteweight seasonal children's pabulum. Consistently silly, irreverent-yet-intelligent, and fun for all holidays -- even imaginary ones. (CHRIS HANDYSIDE)

Linda Ronstadt A Merry Little Christmas (Elektra)
Top-loaded with holiday classics all arranged in Forties big band-style, with Rosemary Clooney even sitting in, you'd think there was a theme at work on Linda Ronstadt's addition to the stacks of holiday music recorded by popular vocalists. However, when she throws down Joni Mitchell's anti-Christmas melody, "River," the mood changes entirely, a reminder that Ronstadt once had a career as one of the finest folk-rock vocalists of her generation. So she goes and follows that track with a set of solemn sacred songs, beautifully arranged for choir. OK, so she's a contemporary vocalist non-paralleled -- but next time, she might consider picking a topic and sticking to it. The mishmash of styles is jarring -- like listening to three albums at once. (SULLIVAN)

Cyrus Chestnut & Friends A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic)
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut grew up with Charlie Brown and his friends, all the while absorbing the ever-present music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Chestnut, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Steve Gadd, interprets the music that helped turned him on to the jazz that now flows from his own piano. Chestnut's collection recalls the late pianist's effortless style while staying true to Chestnut's gospel and blues base. "O Tannenbaum," sung with childlike perfection in the original, here gets a laid-back jazz reading, with McBride and Gadd supplying a steady foundation and saxophonist Gary Bartz adding a cool and edgy solo. Vocalists Brian McKnight ("The Christmas Song") and Vanessa Williams (joined by the Boys Choir of Harlem for "Christmas Time Is Here") bring a surprising and welcome pop airiness, providing perfect balance to the burbling rhythm of "Für Elise" (Schroeder's favorite play-piano masterpiece), "Skating" (Snoopy's signature tune), and "Linus and Lucy" (forever known as the Charlie Brown theme song). Chestnut rounds out this stellar collection with "Me and Charlie Brown," a thoroughly enjoyable and fitting tribute to cartoonist-animator Charles Schulz, his famously lovable alter ego -- and Vince Guaraldi's underrated but undeniably timeless tunes. (MARIE ELSIE ST. LÉGER)

Various Artists Hawaiian Slack Key Christmas (Dancing Cat Records)
The key liner note detail here isn't "today's top Hawaiian slack key guitarists" but "producer George Winston." Though the playing is impeccable, from the Led Kaapana-Bob Brozman guitars-as-dueling-banjos reading of "Jingle Bells" to the curvy Cyruil Pahinui-Bob Brozman slide-playing of "Auld Lang Syne," this is tasteful smooth jazz, leaning sleepily towards Seventies Muzak. These mostly instrumental versions of "Away in a Manger," "My Hawaiian Christmas," "The First Noel" and other conservative family favorites are for solemn tree-trimmers and eggnog-sippers who avoid Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" as "too edgy." But if background music is what you want, why not go all-out camp and dig up 101 Strings Orchestra or Neil "The Jewish Santa" Diamond holiday records? They're way more fun. (STEVE KNOPPER)

Various Artists A Putumayo Christmas (Putumayo)
On this CD we're made to understand that the typical covers of "Jingle Bells" or "Silent Night" don't only celebrate Christmas when some of these familiar standard melodies make a cultural transition. Whether it's a steel-band rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Barbados' Back Soundtech Steel Orchestra, or Michael Ducet's Cajun-seasoned instrumentation of "We Three Kings" dashing from a ballad-like pace into a faster frenzy of harmonica heaven, the holiday season of snow, Santa and mistletoe are very imaginary here. Each Latin American country shares a unique custom as well, and Brazil's Ivan Lins original composition "Noite Pura Festejar" (which translates to "A Night for Celebration") deviates into the lundu rhythm, an Afro-Brazilian predecessor of samba. From the Celtic instrumentation of Irish penny whistles to the "cuatro" and scraper sounds originated by the indigenous Taino Indians of Puerto Rico, this world music expressiveness awaits you. (MARLON REGIS)

Various Artists Mambo Santa Mambo (Rhino)
Over the years, plucky Rhino Records has released so many Christmas titles that it's almost unthinkable they'd overlooked a style or fad. New to their catalog this season, though, is the marvelously festive Mambo Santa Mambo. With today's regimented radio programming, it's easy to forget how pervasive new musical influences once were. When the Latin music craze hit in the Fifties, it went wide. Hence, this eighteen-song collection features not just first-line mambo kings and queens such as Joe Loco (doing a percolating "Jingle Bells") and a young Celia Cruz (with a more languid version of the same tune), but also Chicago doo-wop group the Enchanters doing the splendidly loopy title track, swing band leader and arranger Billy May, rediscovered "space age bachelor pad" genius Esquivel, rocker Little Bobby Rey and even the late Steve Allen getting in on the holiday mambo action. Some of the tracks are pure cheese log, such as child annoyance Jimmy Boyd trying to repeat the success of his "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with "I Saw Mommy Do the Mambo (With You Know Who)." Contemporary yuletide novelty masters the Flashcats do far better with "December Twenty 5," their send-up of Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" in which reindeer are substituted for the women's names. (WASHBURN)

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