Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

--M.W.

Carols of Christmas II
Various artists
Windham Hill

The latest CD in the successful Windham Hill Sampler line, this holiday offering is largely a reverent and peaceful ode to joy, and one that updates the holiday staples without disturbing them much. Liz Story, Leo Kottke, and many other WH favorites are present here, and most of the cuts are finely crafted, easy on the ears, vibrant in feeling, and, ultimately, safe. The exception is Loreena McKennitt's valiant reading of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," as she conjures a droning Celtic trance full of life and fire. Steve Morse's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and George Winston's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" are also among the best cuts here, but with no fancy stuff, just a warm guitar sound and a little taste of each artist's virtuosity. The one truly annoying track is Steve Lukather's "O Tannenbaum," in which the ex-Toto guitarist's in-your-face plucking kicks up some annoying fret buzz as he manhandles the classic. The rest of the CD is full of familiar touchstones that Windham Hill fans will love, and others may find as exciting as warm milk.

--R.M.

Home for the Holidays
Robert Bonfiglio
Streetsong Records

There is a particular harmonica sound that was very popular in '60s pop--winsome, almost wishful, as on Henry Mancini's "Moon River." This sentimental sound is all over harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio's Home for the Holidays, and it works: primarily because of a wise mix of songs and Bonfiglio's skill in disguising the harmonica's distinctive sound. Bonfiglio mixes churchy faves like "Ave Maria" and "Silent Night" with sprightly fare like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Let It Snow," which in combination strike just the right note of reverence and celebration. The vocals are a bit less than studio quality, but in this case, they end up sounding homey and quaint rather than substandard.

--M.W.

A Christmas Cocktail
Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra
Milan Entertainment

Jaymz Bee, author of Cocktail Parties for Dummies (the degenerate terminus of what started out as computer-help books), applies the same lowest-common-denominator philosophy to Christmas songs in a cocktail mode. The results are unoriginal and uninspired, in the end sinking beneath too much velour and not enough vitality. If this kind of music is what you crave, check out the much better efforts of Esquivel or Arthur Lyman.

--M.W.

December Makes Me Feel This Way: A Holiday Album
Dave Koz
Capitol Records

Jazz musicians jokingly say that the first order of business in performing standards is to get the melody line out of the way so they can begin playing. Saxman Dave Koz can hardly dispense with the melodies on holiday chestnuts, but he does tweak them a bit, making a gift of creativity not only with his fluid, almost-playful lead lines but also in his arrangements. Acoustic guitars (both nylon and steel-stringed) figure largely in his accompaniment, lending a folksy feel you don't often get behind saxes. Flattop guitar strumming opens and gives a bluesy twang to "Winter Wonderland," while lap steel and a very Western waltz tempo makes "Little Drummer Boy" seem like it should've been played that way all along. "Silver Bells" and "Eight Candles (A Song For Hanukkah)" are engagingly played, and "O Tannenbaum" is beautiful. Unmentioned in the track listing but hinted at in the liner copy is a funny beat-poetry take on "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" with Phil Hartman at the mike and appropriately hipsterized backup from Koz and company.

--T.S.

Snowed In
Hanson
Mercury Records

You probably bought this when the group was known as the Jackson Five, who made a pretty indispensable Christmas record themselves way back when. This throwback--or throw it back--is more of the same-ol'-same-ol' from the band that conned grade-schoolers out of their lunch money a few months ago; nothing screams Merry Christmas, suckers! like a Christmas record as the follow-up to your billion-selling debut. Sort of puts the "ho" in ho-ho-ho. Not that Snowed In doesn't have a few charms up its silk sleeves: "Little Saint Nick" is what the Beach Boys might have sounded like if they had formed in 1987, and "Run Run Rudolph" has more bite than all these boys' baby teeth put together. Still, the "Silent Night Medley" is candy-cane cloying, and the rest of this CD would make even Jesus weep.

--R.W.

A Very Green Christmas
Artists For Earth
Seventh Wave

Instrumental Christmas albums often function as the background music to holiday settings, but this one is worth a more deliberate listen. Class artists of the genre such as Paul McCandless, Suzanne Ciani, Spencer Brewer, Kate Price, and Georgia Kelly lend their talents to this compilation, and though stretches of this CD will indeed lull you into that semi-dream state where the glow of the flickering tree bulbs begins to leave psychic messages on the ceiling, there is also enough jazz influence and variety here to keep one from nodding off in the eggnog. Michael Pluznick and Joel Lindheimer's version of "Little Drummer Boy" is especially noteworthy for the strong use of acoustic percussion and shadowy undertones, and Spencer Brewer's version of "Angels We Have Heard On High" is light as a Twinkie, but with just the right bit of melancholy for those who prefer their holidays a little less giddy. One dollar from the sale of each CD goes to the Trees Foundation, an organization that works with various environmental and animal preservation groups in Northern California.

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