Chestnuts and lumps of coal

Bennett, Buttholes, and John Tesh--these are a few of our favorite, and least favorite, things

--R.W.

Christmas Spirit
Donna Summer
Mercury Records

Overseen by producer and arranger Michael Ormartian, who cowrote some new songs with Summer, Christmas Spirit is intriguingly subdued and traditional. Summer's voice has never sounded fuller, and her selection of standards and deliberate choice of reverent tone might have something to do with this. Where many singers treat Christmas albums as novelties as best and cash cows at worst, Summer views hers as an artistic expression of her love for God and Jesus. She might toss in some fine renditions of secular reliables, but she's saving her best for the Lord. Accordingly, she starts some cuts with spoken excerpts from the New Testament, and turns in some of the most passionate and serious renditions of "O Come All Ye Faithful," "What Child Is This?" and "O Holy Night" ever recorded by a pop diva. If Bette Midler were possessed by the spirit of the three Wise Men, she might make an album like this.

--Matt Zoller Seitz

Cool Christmas Blues
Charles Brown
Bullseye Blues

Charles Brown's 1961 "Please Come Home for Christmas" ranks among the top-five-selling Christmas songs of all time (and as the Eagles' only Christmas hit). For Cool Christmas Blues, Brown has recut the track and his other holiday hit ("Merry Christmas, Baby," released in 1956) and surrounded them with nine others, from Billy Ward and the Dominoes' 1953 "Christmas in Heaven" to his own "Santa's Blues" to "Silent Night." And the result is one lonely Christmas record, music with which to spend the "Blue Holiday" alone: when Brown's baby comes home for Christmas, she ends up splitting after she gets all her presents, and he's left paying off the bills for the next six months. But the man's got faith enough in "mood and gratitude" and in the knowledge that the bluest blues can be thawed out by one man's soulful fire. --R.W.

A Family Christmas
John Tesh
GTS Records

As Tesh music goes, this CD isn't awful, unlike his previous album, the pseudo-jazz travesty Sax By the Fire; devoid of any synthesizers or chintzed-up jazz and pop instruments (except for Tesh himself, who takes pains to point out in the liner notes that his keyboard is a "Yamaha concert grand piano"), it's an instrumental collection of seasonal standards arranged just smartly enough to hold your ear. But when all is said and done, it's a touch bland and flat; even when the string section shudders and dips and soars on "The Little Drummer Boy," and Paul Viapiano's classical guitar tweedles and thrums on "Joy to the World," the music seems a couple of emotional levels shy of making your heart swell. It more often suggests the score for a soft-focus documentary about caribou.

--M.Z.S.

Christmas Gonzo Style
Jerry Jeff Walker
Rykodisc

Jerry Jeff, the alleged "Texas singer-songwriter" who can't sing and who wrote only one of his hits and hails from upstate New York, digs out every single Christmas standard--"White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and so forth--and croaks them out with as much passion as a mall Santa soaked in kiddie urine after a 12-hour shift without a cigarette break. Then, Walker always has been the master of the obvious, coasting on the hard work of others and a reputation he never particularly deserved. Rudolph has more talent.

--R.W.

Christmas Cracker
Graham Parker
Dakota Arts

On the first song of this three-song EP, Parker pays too much for a present, knocks the needles from his cheap tree, buys a vibrator for his wife but forgets the batteries and winds up throwing the damned thing out, and comes home to find the wreath rotting on the door--all of which proves his thesis that "Christmas is Mugs" (translated from the English: suckers). Then he calls for a "New Year's Revolution" and invites Sam and Dave, Aretha, Booker T. and the MGs, and Al Green for a "Soul Christmas" celebration with special guest Nona Hendryx. In short--and this is short, even with the demos included at the end--the snidest, angriest, most perfect Parker album in years, applicable at any time of the year.

--R.W.

The Christmas Album: Volume II
Neil Diamond
Columbia Records

From pop war-horse Neil Diamond comes this sequel to his previous megahit foray into Christmas music, and it delivers exactly the sort of hilariously overwrought aural posturing we've come to expect from him. His delivery is as bombastic and quavery and gruffly passionate as ever, and on songs like "Joy to the World," "Sleigh Ride," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," he barks the lyrics with such a beguiling mix of gusto, smarm, and speed-bump phrasing that he seems to be auditioning for a job as an auctioneer. (If William Shatner could sing, this is what he'd sound like.)

Overwrought, melodramatic, and sappy--it's exactly what we love about Neil Diamond. It's easy to make fun of his tendency to over-torque songs until they flame out like the bulbs on an old string of lights, but when all is said and done, you have to admire the guy's willingness to belt almost every verse as if it were his last. (And when he gets subdued on cuts like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," he can be quite charming--although the alternately weepy and perky Midnight Cowboy-style harmonica on the latter is a bit much, even by Diamond's standards.) It's a lovingly packaged gift to Diamond fans everywhere: the biggest, gaudiest, most colorful cheese log you've ever seen.

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