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December 13, 2012
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Christmas Music II: This time it's repetitive

As promised last week, round two of reviews of recently released holiday music. Because one round (with reviews of seven albums) just wasn't enough. Have I fulfilled my display of Christmas spirit?

produced by Roy Bittan and Phil Ramone (Rhino)While other '70s bands have stagnated, trotting out nothing but the old hits for old audiences, Chicago has extended its legacy beyond "25 or 6 to 4," "Colour My World" and the like. Chicago has become not quite the undisputed champs of Christmas music - Brian Setzer, formerly of the Stray Cats, has put out four holiday albums and a DVD - but the discussion has to include them."The Ultimate Christmas Collection" compiles "What's It Gonna Be, Santa?" (which was originally titled "Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album," when originally released, in 1998), and last year's "Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three." It's a total of 34 tracks of holiday music, and if Robert Johnson could claim the title King of the Delta Blues Singers after recording just 29 songs in his lifetime, then Chicago is clearly Christmas-music royalty.Chicago touches all the bases on this collection: old favorites (pretty much, you name it, they did it) with a few originals sprinkled in ("Rockin' and Rollin' on Christmas Day," with signature Chicago horn parts); guest players (Dolly Parton, Bebe Winans, Steve Cropper) and a children's choir; sacred and secular. The fact that Chicago rearranges everything with such a heavy hand is almost excused by the amount of material they've recorded; it's almost as if they've earned the right to do what they like with the songs. They do sound like their hearts are in it, in all their soft-rock glory.

"Festivus" (Highline Records)"Daddy, what's this?" asks a wee child's voice to open "The Magic of Christmas," by Hunks & Friends. "It's a Christmas song!" comes the reassuring reply. "But it sounds just like every other Christmas song." "That's the magic of Christmas!"If the magic of Christmas music is that it all sounds oh-so-Christmasy, then "Festivus," a Brit-heavy compilation by the British label Highline, is short on magic. But it is rich with off-center, modern pop-rock; a little punk here and a little rockabilly there, and some quite good tracks ("St. Veit" by Still Flying, "Sentimental Christmastime" by the Birthday Kiss). If nothing else, "Festivus" proves that the Christmas song is far from a dead art.

produced by Eric Drew Feldman and the Speekers (Good Records)So what has the Dallas choral-rock ensemble the Polyphonic Spree been doing the past five years, since their last album, "The Fragile Army?" Apparently, working on a Christmas album. "Holidaydream" reveals plenty of effort, as holiday standards ("The Christmas Song," "Little Drummer Boy," "Do You Hear What I Hear?"), John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and two brief, original instrumental pieces, are turned into a grand-scale, experimental vision of Christmas sound. Strangely compelling.

produced by Ken Caillat (Universal Republic)A 27-year-old pop star from Malibu has little business making a Christmas album, much less one with five original songs. But Caillat's "Christmas in the Sand" hits almost all right notes, including a duet with Gavin DeGraw on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and a fine "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Justin Time)Christmas jazz, a cut above the usual. With Diana Krall, the Rob McConnell Tentet and Hank Jones leading the way, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" doesn't forget the adventurous spirit of jazz. Most interesting is the 7-minute "Christmas Calypso Medley" by the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.

produced by Loren and Treder (Justin Time)A well-mannered, by-the-numbers piano (Treder) and vocal (Loren) album, distinguished by a few uncommon songs selections ("Blue Holiday," "Grown Up Christmas List," "Nature Boy") and two instrumental originals by Treder.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 13, 2012 05:00PM Published Dec 13, 2012 04:54PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.