Jingle bells, Jingle sells

The industry aims for the heart of Christmas-- with a shotgun

Commerce and Christmas have long been linked; heck, at the end of A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge still had to buy the Cratchits that turkey, and in fact how he handled his money was one of the primary ways in which we could tell the change the spirits had wrought in his heart. Disposable income may not be too commected to what we celebrate at Christmastide--the Hope of Man (or at the very least a 40-watt light bulb) stashed away where we least expect it--but then few of our Yuletime traditions are: making our homes into gaudy electric displays that would embarrass a madam, driving around looking at those displays, overeating, overdrinking, leaving work early, overspending, and sleeping in.

In a culture so overstimulated and cross-referenced that neighborhoods and homeowners sue each other over 50,000-light photon orgies, Santa stands on every corner, and the spirit of the season is summed up by a socially inept round-headed kid taking Zen instruction from his beagle, it's little surprise that this year is burdened with what seems the most abundant crop of seasonal music ever. Music stores feature bins of the stuff, positioned near the cash registers like the barrels of stale soda crackers that used to grace the general stores of yore. Faced with such surfeit and recalling one of the season's primary signifiers (shopping bargains), the consumer can't be blamed for a certain amount of indecision and perhaps even naked fear, but fear not, for music writers--like unto and quite often very much identical to the poor--will be with you always, helping you separate the red-and-green wheat from the chaff. Heartfelt thanks and appreciation go out to those brave souls who helped map out an entire continent of seasonal music: Philip Chrissopoulos, Jimmy Fowler, Josh Alan Friedman, Arnold Wayne Jones, Rick Koster, Alex Magocsi, and Howard Wen.

Too Many Santas
The Bobs
Rounder Records

A capella group The Bobs turn in the best of the bunch in terms of modern Christmas music updates this year, straining seasonal cheer through a number of hipster filters: attacking commercialism through a sci-fi setting ("Yuleman vs. The Anti-Claus"), adding a variety of world flavors ("Mambo, Santa, Mambo") and musical styles, like the hilarious combination of funk and Hannukah narration by Jonathan (Dr. Katz) Katz that's "Santa's Got a Brand New Bag." The Bobs continue to adroitly walk a fine line between skill and novelty, balancing their precise harmonies with the myriad weird supporting noises they make with their mouths, and they have a take on what the modern age has done to the holiday ("Fifty Kilowatt Tree" and "Christmas in L.A.," which boasts lines like "Snowballs made of styrofoam--plastic trees in every home/all the kids are home alone") that is both funny and incisive. Their take on the idiotic "Rasta Reindeer"--written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love--is a hoot, and the way their soaring delivery out-Beach Boys the Beach Boys is truly impressive. Although you lose the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire mood from time to time along the winding stylistic road this album follows, it's perfect party fare.

--Matt Weitz

A Celebration of Christmas
Jose Carreras, Natalie Cole, Placido Domingo
Elektra Records

It's not apparent that the whole "kooky celebrity musical pairings" idea was ever a good one; now the concept is mutating out of control like some deadly entertainment virus designed to nauseate and stupefy. (Listen to Twisted Willie some time for all the evidence you'll ever need.) That it would extend to holiday albums was probably inevitable ever since Bing Crosby and David Bowie performed their ghoulish version of "The Little Drummer Boy" together on television years ago. What's next? "Frosty the Snowman" as performed by Eddie Albert and Evan Dando? In any case, the pairing of Carreras and Domingo, two of opera's great tenors, with pop chanteuse Natalie Cole is a reasonably logical and intriguing line-up. For one thing, unlike most of these efforts, the two opera guys had probably heard of Cole and vice versa. For another, they can all sing their asses off (to put it in Christmasy terms) and, finally, the selection is a nice cross-section which will appeal to WRR listeners as well as Wal-Mart shoppers.

--Rick Koster

A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas
Various Artists
Celtic Heartbeat

This beautiful set of Celtic-influenced songs--ranging from original modern pop to traditional reels and carols that trace their roots back as far as 900 years--features contributions from familiar names like Clannad and Altan and lesser-known (but by no means less endowed) talents like Aine Minogue and Brian Dunning. Although the Christmas connection is a bit tenuous at times--Fiona Kennedy's "Na Hu O Ha" is a pretty song about a man leaving his girlfriend in Scotland and traveling to Ireland, not a part of the Christmas story that springs readily to mind--there's still something about the delicacy and tone of Celtic music that connects with the time of year. The mix of vocal numbers and instrumentals and performances on harp, whistle and Uilleann pipes give this album a nicely changing texture; the older instruments and musics invoke well the history of the holidays.

--M.W.

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