The New York Daily News
Jingle belle time is a swell time

November 29, 2005

Robin and Linda Williams
The First Christmas Gift

Redhouse Records

Just a few months ago, on one of those roasting-hot days in July or August, several dozen of our favorite artists slipped into a recording studio somewhere, took a deep breath and started singing "Frosty the Snowman."

Recording albums of Christmas and holiday songs is one of the most familiar rituals of the music business ‹ and also one of its most reliable.

No matter what else happens in any given year, it's a safe bet that when Jack Frost starts nipping at their ¯noses, millions of people will feel an irresistible urge to hear "White Christmas" and "O Holy Night."

Today, then, we take a look at the new holiday CDs this year and sort out which ones deserve a special place ¯under the tree ‹ and which ones should go directly into Santa's landfill.

It might seem that it would be really easy for a famous artist, or a good artist, to make a best-selling record of holiday songs.

After all, you don't need a focus group to tell you that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will sell. You probably don't even have to learn the words, because you've heard them every year since you were 2. But there's a catch.

A recent report from Media Monitors, which tracked 50 major radio stations that played all-holiday music last year, noted that every one of the 10 most-played recordings was cut at least 30 years ago. The most recent was John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," recorded in 1971.

That is to say, holiday and Christmas ¯music is an area where traditional favorites are deeply entrenched and very hard to dislodge. Still, because it is the season of hope, new artists keep jumping in, and every year we get some keepers.

While there are no ultra-superstar releases this year, at least four new CDs would be welcome in any stocking. Not by coincidence, all four are by rock-¯solid ¯singers with impeccable taste who have been around a while.

Rating: 4 BELLS

  • Robin & Linda Williams ‹ "The First Christmas Gift" (Red House). The music of this Southern folk/country/bluegrass duo (no relation to the Oscar-winning actor) is irresistibly jingly anyhow, and here's a great collection of fresh material in that style, from Steve Earle's "Nothing but a Child" to the deceptively complex "Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree."

  • Odetta ‹ "Gonna Let It Shine" (MC). Jazz/blues/gospel maven Odetta weaves great songs like "This Little Light of Mine," "Down by the Riverside," "Somebody Talking 'Bout Jesus" and even "The Midnight Special" into a powerful Christmas narrative.

  • Aaron Neville ‹ "Christmas Prayer" (EMI Gospel). The ethereal Neville has sung Christmas songs before, but none better than these, which become more poignant after his family's devastating losses during Hurricane Katrina. Highlights include the title track and "Ave Maria."

    Rating: 3 BELLS

  • Brian Setzer ‹ "Dig That Crazy Christmas" (Surfdog). Imagine a rockabilly big band doing "Zat You, ¯Santa Claus." Setzer, the former Stray Cat who loves both styles, has synthesized them nicely.

  • Elton John ‹ "Christmas Party" (Universal). A worthy reissue collection in a year that's light on rock. Twenty-one tracks range from Springsteen to the Flaming Lips, John Mayer and the Ronettes.

  • Various artists ‹ "Nick Holiday" (Nick Records). Nickelodeon stars like Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob and the Backyardigans tackle famous ("Jingle Bells") and not famous ("Snow Is Cold but I Am Cool") holiday songs. Best for kids, pleasant enough for adults.

  • Various artists ‹ "Il Divo" (Columbia). Operatic in selection ("Panis Angelicus") and delivery. This quartet of classical singers gets the Three Tenors slot this year.

  • LeeVees ‹ "Hanukkah Rocks" (Reprise). The wise-guy act by this good-natured rock band isn't always executed perfectly, but humor is welcome at any holiday party. "Goyim Friends" talks about Jews eating Chinese food on Dec. 25 while some Christian friends are getting memberships to restricted golf clubs.

  • Various artists ‹ "To Kate" (Western Beat). One of the few country entries this year, which is surprising. Happily it's a fine one, with John Prine's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Rosie Flores' "Christmas Everyday" and tracks by such other good alt-country people as Ralo Malo, Steve Earle and Joe Ely.

  • Jane Monheit ‹ "The Season" (Epic). Cabaret-style renditions of familiar faves with a sprinkle of "Moonlight in Vermont" and "My Grown-up Christmas List."

  • Diana Krall ‹ "Christmas Songs" (Verve). Also at the top of this year's jazz/standards/cabaret crop, Krall sticks with lovely renditions of standards like "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland."

  • Anita Baker ‹ "Christmas Fantasy" (EMI). Baker puts a lot of jazz-style reworking into familiar tunes like "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and it pays off.

    Rating: 2 BELLS

  • "A John Waters Christmas" (New Line). Half-sentimental and half-twisted selections by the king of cinema bizarre, with soft instrumentals and vocal harmonies played off against "Santa Claus Is a Black Man."

  • Point of Grace ‹ "Winter Wonderland" (W). ¯Lovely four-part harmonies by this Christian vocal group, featuring less-heard tunes like "For Unto Us."

  • Martin Sexton ‹ "Camp Holiday" (Kitchen Table). Familiar songs by this British folk-rocker could stand to be livelier.

  • Smash Mouth ‹ "The Gift of Rock" (iTunes). Hard-growling vocals on some songs that can't hide their soft heart. Available only on the Internet, which is interesting in itself.

  • Brian Wilson ‹ "What I Really Want for Christmas" (Arista). Beach Boys faves and new ones in a fresh recording. Wilson sounds pretty happy, though his voice isn't what it used to be.

  • Jana ‹ "American Indian Christmas" (Standing Stone). Holiday standards in Native American tongues by this sweet-voiced singer. Strong from the first notes of "O Holy Night," which is sung in Navajo.

  • "A Skaggs Family Christmas" (Skaggs). Country and bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs delivers exactly what he promises: warm stuff done in bluegrass lite, all warm and fuzzy.

  • Steven Curtis Chapman ‹ "All I Really Want for Christmas" (EMI). Intense midtempo renditions of holiday faves by this Christian-music rock star.

    Tried-and-true best-selling ¯holiday music from Nat King Cole, Frank ¯Sinatra, John Denver, Kenny G and Herb Alpert has all returned in new packages ‹ even as Media ¯Monitors notes that the artist who had the most Christmas songs played on the radio last year was still Sinatra.

    The sleeper among reissues might be "Feels Like Christmas" by Al Green (Right Stuff), simply because more people may have missed it the first time around.

    Originally published on November 29, 2005