Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

Many acoustic guitar geniuses are such virtuosos that they're no fun, but Clary's self-penned "Christmas Blues A-Comin'" is just that. It's a rollicking guitar rag that chugs along as happily as a Lionel train with new smoke pellets, bearing the gift of scene-stealing harmonica work from bluesman Phil Wiggins. This CD gets high marks for musical excellence and its ability to warm the heart.

--T.S.

A Very Special Christmas 3
Various artists
A&M Records

Christmas compilations like this should have been outlawed years ago, yet they apparently remain because they raise money for worthwhile charities. The premise is simple: gather a group of today's top pop stars (The Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, Sheryl Crow), throw in a couple of the usual suspects (Sting, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant), and have them all record Christmas songs. Pure gold, right? It sounds great in theory--in theory--but it rarely, if ever, works. This particular comp's merits are further lessened by the inclusion of the ubiquitous Sean "Puffy" Combs (can't you just picture the video featuring Puffy and his similarly ever-present buddy Mase mugging for the camera in patent leather Santa suits?) and No Doubt's version of "Joy to the World," horribly revamped as "Oi to the World." The only solid track on the album is Enya's beautiful rendition of "Oiche Chiun (Silent Night)," which is so good, it's a wonder it was included on this album. A word of good advice: Skip this compilation and donate $15 to your favorite charity.

--Zac Crain

Soul Train Christmas Starfest
Various artists
Epic Records

Soul Train Christmas Starfest reunites 16 Soul Train all-stars on this collection of R&B Christmas classics. Opening with Boyz II Men's smooth harmonies on "Let It Snow," the CD follows up with the master crooner himself, Luther Vandross, in "Every Year, Every Christmas." Stevie Wonder's 1973 hit single "Someday at Christmas" blends without a wrinkle with Az Yet's 1997 rockin' rendition of "O, Come All Ye Faithful." Dallas/Fort Worth's hometown son, Kirk Franklin, appears with The Family on the gospel-inspired single "There's No Christmas Without You." The compilation smacks of consumer manipulation, but what the heck. 'Tis the season to spend, spend, spend. Stuff it in an R&B lover's stocking.

--M.S.

Tradition
The Burns Sisters
Philo Records

There's something delightfully woodsy about the Burns Sisters. They sound extremely Tennessee (except when they're sounding Celtic), though they're in fact from Ithaca, New York. Their harmonies are incredibly close-knit and very sweet, but never cloying. Their Philo albums Close To Home and In This World have secured their respected stead in folk circles. They're lovely on traditional material: "Silent Night," "Little Drummer Boy," and a "What Child is This" so wintry it'll give you chill bumps. Acoustic guitar, dobro, fiddle, and the occasional cello provide appropriately folky accompaniment, and the production (by the Sisters) is gem-bright, but not poppy. Marie Burns penned the opening "Songs We Love," which is homey and familial, and though it's rather a surprise to hear them do the Yiddish "Shaloo Shalom Y'Rushalayim," they do it compellingly. They founder on a high-concept "This Christmas" that has too much of a "We Are The World" feel to it. Then comes a curve in the form of "Tibetan Prayer for Peace," which doesn't even have the Sisters on it, but is sung by a monastery full of Tibetans. Interesting, but a tad incongruous. The album closes with some kids singing a couple of "outtakes" that are gummy enough to gag Sandy Duncan, but all in all the Burns siblings bring solid fare to the holiday table.

--T.S.

Hymnes de Noël (Christmas Hymns)
The Greek Byzantine Choir
Jade Records

Dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, Byzantine music--or (after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, at least) the music of the Greek Orthodox Church--is an original construct, avoiding such Western ideas as harmony and counterpoint. Within its monophonic boundaries, however, the form has been so refined and so developed that the Western ear cannot help but feel the thrill of the wholly alien when listening to it. Anchored by a continuous bass drone and full of semi-tones, Byzantine music rings with the echoes of ancient walls. Less triumphal than the aforementioned pipe organ music of Richard Purvis and more spare (but no less beautiful) than the gorgeous harmonies of the Sistine Choir, the music of the Greek Byzantine Choir--formed in 1977 to preserve this form--is old and mysterious, and carries us to a completely different Christmas place that seems closer to the holiday's original form.

--M.W.

Christmas at the Biltmore Estate
Judy Collins
Warner/Elektra Records

Judy Collins makes you feel good about yourself: Even if you get drunk and puke wassail all over Mom's Christmas linen, you won't have disgraced yourself as badly as Collins does by singing. She essays some of the dippiest holiday songs ever written in a quavering simper that's tonally somewhere between Molly Shannon and Minnie Mouse. The banter between songs doesn't help.

--T.S.

Christmas
Rebecca St. James
Forefront Records

There's admittedly scant room for maneuvering within the realm of traditional Christmas songs, but this album perfectly illustrates the danger in pushing the boundaries too hard: the results just don't sound like Christmas. Here young contemporary Christian poster-gal Rebecca St. James plays against squeaky-clean type and delivers a collection of revamped favorites ("O Come Emmanuel") and current originals ("Sweet Little Jesus Boy"), treating all with a smear of vaguely hippity-hoppity (whoops, wrong holiday--but who can tell?), techno-ish beats and startling grunge-o-riffic loud/soft, fast/slow contrasts that aren't very soothing, heartwarming, or inspiring. Certain songs are nearly bulletproof--"What Child is This" didn't last hundreds of years because of anybody's interpretation--but when she unleashes her inner Gloria Gaynor on "O Holy Night," she (unlike RuPaul) can't make Christmas-'neath-the-mirror-ball sound anything but inappropriate. However, that failure pales next to whatever it is that she does with the Lennon/Ono classic "Happy Christmas." While St. James deserves credit for ambition, she overplays her hand.

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