Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

--M.W.

Hot Rod Holiday
Various artists
The Right Stuff

My mom saves the best ribbons and bows from Christmas gift-wrapping to use again in future years, and albums like this are the musical equivalent of that practice. Capitol-EMI's reissue division, The Right Stuff, has been compiling collections of '50s and '60s music under the imprimatur of Hot Rod magazine, and this doubly conceptual set actually works for the most part by leaning heavily on the best artists: three songs by the Beach Boys; two each by Fats Domino, The Ventures, and Dion; and Chuck Berry doing his classic "Run Rudolph Run."

But it's discs like these that also make a good case for programmable CD players, so one can separate the wheat from chaff like Bobby Vee doing a saccharine "White Christmas" or Bobby Helms' limp take on "Jingle Bell Rock." Even Dion and The Ventures have their one better tune (Dion gives "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" a Bronx swagger, while The Ventures take "Jingle Bells" to another wonderful planet) and one lesser (a so-so "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and a rather slight version of "Frosty The Snowman," respectively). The Beach Boys, however, have that lovely choral mix perfectly suited to the sound, songs, and spirit of the season, and Fats Domino sings his two holiday numbers (the venerable "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "I Told Santa Claus") like the funkiest angel in heaven bringing tidings of great joy. "Merry Twist-mas" by The Marcels is a groover, and Gary U.S. Bonds delivers a nice, soulful plea on "Call Me for Christmas."

I still can't imagine anyone saying: "I love the smell of hot-rod exhaust in the morning; smells like...Christmas." But if that's you, here's your holiday album. As for the rest of us, Hot Rod Holidays is a somewhat groovy little spin down the seasonal road.

--R.P.

Celtic Christmas III
Various artists
Windham Hill Records

Upon A Midnight Clear
Jonn Serrie
Miramar Recordings

Celtic music really has no middle ground: either people love it, or it bores them to tears. Similarly, Celtic Christmas music will only appeal to a select number of the buying public. Very few people who are not already into this type of music will pick up Celtic Christmas III, and they shouldn't. This compilation is a good change of pace to some of the more overdone songs of the season, but only serious fans of Celtic music (i.e., people who own more than one Enya or Clannad album) will enjoy it. Because--apart from its title--there is nothing on the album that evokes the feeling of Christmas; strip away the title, and it is simply another album of traditional Celtic songs.

Nascent fans of Celtic music would be better served buying Jonn Serrie's Upon A Midnight Clear. It is not a Celtic album per se, but it has the same kind of atmospheric sound normally associated with the genre. Serrie tackles a number of traditional carols ("The First Noel," "What Child is This?," "Little Drummer Boy") and imbues each with a serene beauty that perfectly captures that Christmas-morning feeling. This is a great album for those who aren't quite ready to make the transition to Celtic music full time, but don't want to hear the same tired versions of traditional Christmas songs.

--Z.C.

The Christmas Album
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Rising Tide Records

When you look at the rest of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's career, it doesn't seem possible that they could have produced 1972's groundbreaking Will the Circle be Unbroken. When they revert to Circle's formula of surrounding themselves with real-thing pros--as they did in 1989 with Circle's second volume--they can still recapture the old magic, but for the most part, they've trafficked in the basest kind of country-pop sentimentality. Naturally, Christmas brings out the very worst of these tendencies, and The Christmas Album doesn't disappoint: Pleasant arrangements and innocuous songs about the Colorado snow, how it doesn't seem like Christmas in Southern California, and a Christmas-in-the-kitchen menu-song straight outta Hee-Haw all combine to form a collection of treacle best thought of as Seasonal Country Lite.

--M.W.

A Winter's Solstice VI
Various artists
Windham Hill Records

Even people who don't get real Christmas trees know you can't beat the smell of one. Windham Hill music, by contrast, is odorless and colorless. All 15 cuts here feature the label's trademark immaculate musicianship and production, and would be perfect accompaniment for staring at a photo of snow while plowed on Xanax. You could nod to jazz lite from soprano saxist Marion Meadows (who makes Kenny G sound like a hardass), passionless piano from George Winston, and gutless guitar from Michael Hedges. A particularly puerile composition is by guitarist W.G. "Snuffy" Walden, who probably calls himself that because "Sweet N Low" was already in use. Pass this by.

--T.S.

Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all
Asleep at the Wheel
High Street Records

There's something a bit weird about putting a regional spin on Christmas--"It's the birth of the Son of God Himself, Redeemer of the World--Texas style!"--as if the original formula could stand improvement. Theology aside, though, Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all at first blush seems like yet another exercise in shtick extension from Ray Benson, the man who can wring more life out of "The House of Blue Lights" than anyone ever thought possible. Fortunately, Benson is as skillful and smart as he is relentless: Texas Christmas is a jumpy, swinging transformation of holiday standards and originals that is truly a regional reflection of the season. Full of fiddles, sax, and Western swing arrangements, Texas Christmas also benefits from guest spots by Tish Hinojosa, Willie Nelson, and Don Walser.

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