Chestnuts and lumps of coal

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

--M.Z.S.

We Three Kings
The Roches
Rykodisc

Originally released on MCA in 1990 and out-of-print since then, We Three Kings marks a return for the Roche sisters to their origins: they began performing as a trio on New York street corners with much of this material, for which they are as perfectly suited as three wise...women. The sweeter-than-a-candy-cane harmonies can get cloying after 24 songs--OK, after four--but only when they get cute or ironic; when playing it straight on "God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen" or "Angels We Have Heard on High" or "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," they are like carolers sent from heaven.

--R.W.

"The Lord is a Monkey" b/w "Good King Wencenslaus"
Butthole Surfers
Trance Syndicate/ Capitol

The droning, presumably drunken version of "Good King" on the B-side is to be played at 45 RPM; the A-side, however, should be heard at 33 RPM. I didn't figure that out till I heard it five or six times, after which I slowed down the song and found it didn't make much difference either way.

--R.W.

Joyful Christmas
Various artists
Columbia Records

Allegedly this is gospel, and the choir in the back and the songs about God and Jesus up front almost bear it out. But the arrangements are decidedly secular--walloping, heavy-duty, slicked-up, keyboards-and-bass-driven R&B-urban pop for God and the '90s--which makes plenty of room for Patti LaBelle and Nancy Wilson and Oleta Adams but keeps Lou Rawls out in the cold.

--R.W.

Holly & Ivy
Natalie Cole
Elektra Records

Natalie Cole has a sweet, classy voice, and this assortment of standards both secular and religious is sweet and classy as well--and the medium-to-big-band arrangements that back her, contributed by a large group of pros that includes Johnny Mandel, Alan Broadbent, and John Clayton Jr., is understated perfection. The best cuts are "Jingle Bells," a boisterous take on an already swaggering song; a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, tambourine-slapping gospel rendition of "Joy to the World"; "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which is every bit as meltingly lovely as you'd expect from the daughter of Nat the King; and "The First Noel," in which Cole finds a core of emotion that transcends her usual brand mix of prepackaged perkiness and vaguely robotic "sincerity." This isn't a great album, but it's a solid piece of craftsmanship that's built to last--which is more than you can say for most gifts that end up in your hands on Christmas Day.

--M.Z.S.

The Sweetest Gift
Trisha Yearwood
MCA Records

Garth's former protege splits the playlist between secular standards ("Let it Snow," "The Christmas Song") and the sort of casually proselytizing religious songs ("There's a New Kid in Town"--no, not the Eagles song--and "It Wasn't His Son") that remind Jewish country fans why they've got Hanukkah.

--R.W.

Star of Wonder
Tingstad and Rumble
Narada Records
Christmas Eve
David Lang
Narada Records

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel are responsible for the first album, an anthology of New Agey rearrangements of seasonal classics so rhythmically dull and emotionally neutered that it's eerily evocative of the music you hear when your dentist is in your face scraping plaque from your teeth with a thin metal hook. By the time the woodwinds come galloping in, you'll swear you can just make out, somewhere in the hazy corners of your eustachian tube, the distant whir of an incoming drill bit.

David Lang's Christmas Eve isn't exactly a step up. There are few phrases in the English language that strike fear into this writer's heart like "solo piano," especially when the long-haired, purple-shirted, soulfully brooding practitioner is pictured inside the CD sleeve against a Caspar David Fredrichs-looking landscape painting along with a message to listeners that begins, "Winter is the time when Mother Earth takes a breath inward, and I believe it very natural for us to pause and do the same." The music itself is noncommittal noodling that's difficult to get upset over, but Lang's message in the liner notes ("I imagined that an Angel, a Guardian Angel of sorts, existed for each of the songs") should be avoided at all costs.

--

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