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Every Christmas, the record labels unleash a whole boatload of music designed to make your holidays (and theirs) a little brighter. Here's a sampling of this year's crop.
Among the biggest contenders for your Yuletide dollar is Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas (Columbia) in which the pop chanteuse strives mightily to squeeze as many notes into a syllable as possible. But when she skips the vocal acrobatics and concentrates on ripping off Phil Spector's Christmas productions, she nails numbers like "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" cold. Sure to a sell a zillion copies.
On Come Rejoice! A Judy Collins Christmas (Wildflowers/Mesa/Bluemoon), the blue-eyed folk songstress tenders an elegant, understated collection made up mostly of traditional hymns and carols. But the most affecting moment on the record is her own haunting "Song For Sarajevo," which sets the cold reality of war against a child's Christmas dream.
These days, Neil Diamond sings the waty William Shatner acts, which makes The Christmas Album, Volume II (Columbia) every bit as funny as Volume I. Warp speed, Rudolph.
Making hay from his newfound following among Generation X-mas elves is Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (Columbia). In spite of the fact that it's an old Bennett record re-packaged with one new tune ("I'll Be Home For Christmas,") recorded live on MTV, it's still one of the coolest holiday releases this year. Ditto The Sinatra Christmas Album (Reprise), a collection of recordings from the '60s and early '70s, never before released on CD, that find the Chairman of the Board in chillingly good voice. Included are a pair of songs with Bing Crosby, plus three cuts with Tina, Nancy and Frank, Jr.
Among this year's multi-artist packages are a few treats. The gospel-flavored Joyful Christmas (Columbia) taps performers from Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson to Oleta Adams and DC Talk. Tracks such as Wilson's silky "Shining Star (Emmanuel)" and Peabo Bryson's fervent "Silent Night" make this a soulful stocking stuffer. Same goes for Heart of Christmas (Sparrow), on which some of the best voices in Nashville celebrate the birth of their Savior. John Berry's version of "O Come; O Come, Emmanuel" is chock-full of goosebumps, as is Doug Stone's "The First Christmas." And if you like Emmylou Harris, her of "Silent Night" is enough to make an angel envious.
Things heat up nicely on A Tejano Country Christmas (Arista), featuring Tex-Max stalwarts such as Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiminez mixing English and Spanish lyrics with their jalepeno-hot playing. It's guaranteed to warm up the chilliest might, as is The Sweetest Gift (MCA), on which Trisha Yearwood wraps her warm voice around the spiritual and secular aspects of the holiday with equally delicious results. She prowels through a feral, blues "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," sanctifies Skip Ewing's wonderful "It Wasn't His Child" and has as much fun as you'd hope with "Let It Snow, Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"
Seven Gates (Reprise) may be the season's most interesting offering. Ben Keith of Crazy Horse pulls together a stellar cast of musicians that includes Johnny Cash and Neil Young for eleven songs, most of them instrumental, that range from a beatific "Ave Maria" to a slippery reworking of "Blue Christmas." Pianist Liz Story delivers the most serenely beaiitiful of the new Christmas recordings with The Gift (Windham Hill). Story mistakenly slows "Angels We Have Heard On High" to a comatose crawl, but it's the only flaw on an otherwise lovely album.
Bluegrass lovers will dig Pickin' On Christmas (CMH Records) by The Nashville Superpickers, while Chant Noel (Angel), by those nutty Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, will make the perfect prelude for Midnight Mass this year. And rounding things out is Rick Braun's Christmas Present (Mesa/Bluemoon). Instrumental whiz Braun plays just about every instrument in sight, as he and a handful of equally talented sidemen serve up an eclectic batch of traditional tunes and Braun originals. An intriguing record that belongs on everyone's holiday playlist.