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Find yourself a merry little Christmas CD

Stewart Oksenhorn
Jack Johnson performs a version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on the compilation CD A Winters Night: The Best of Nettwerk Christmas. Stewart Oksenhorn photo.
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A stack of new Christmas CDs to review. Oy gevalt!Trans-Siberian Orchestra”The Lost Christmas Eve”produced by Paul O’Neill (Lava)The obvious crack about this overblown symphonic rock opera is that it should have stayed lost. But “The Lost Christmas Eve” – a story which begins “the night of Christmas Eve and somewhere on the other side of eternity (which is somewhere after today but before tomorrow),” according to the booklet which accompanies the CD – is so bad that you’d have to hear it to believe it actually exists.Various artists, “A Winter’s Night: The Best of Nettwerk Christmas”(Nettwerk)This shockingly excellent compilation shoots up to the top of my list of Christmas CDs (joining my perennial favorite, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “A Christmas Album,” with the incomparable “Colorado Christmas”).The album opens with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” performed by perpetual jokesters Barenaked Ladies. But their take, featuring Sara McLachlan, is no joke, but a finger-snapping and hip, but reverent re-working of the tune. Barenaked Ladies reappear later in the album with the more off-kilter original, “Green Christmas.” Also outstanding is Jack Johnson’s inventive acoustic version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” with additional original lyrics that add a surprise ending – and even an alternate, effective ending – to the sentimental tale. The acoustic girl group the Be Good Tanyas likewise offer another look at the Rudolph legend with their touching “Rudy.”Other highlights include Sixpence None the Richer’s lovely “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Ron Sexsmith’s heartful “Maybe This Christmas,” and Neil Finn’s John Lennonesque “Sweet Secret Peace.”

Various artists, “Christmas with the Kranks: Music from the Motion Picture”(Hollywood Records)I hesitate to give the filmmakers credit for a good idea, since reviews of “Christmas with the Kranks” range from bad to worse. (Favorite review quote, from the Des Moines Register: “A band of drunken elves working with leftovers from the Island of Misfit Toys could have pieced together a better holiday film.”)But the soundtrack has a twist that, however unintentional, works. Christmas classics are done in a variety of retro rock and pop styles, but with modern production quality, giving three layers of concept to each song. And sometimes more: Tina Sugandh’s “White Christmas,” for instance, features contemporary sounds, Middle Eastern instrumental flourishes, old-fashioned bells and a ’70s vocal-pop delivery over the classic of classic Christmas tunes.Even better is the Raveonettes – a group that mixes modern rock with ’60s girl-group singing – doing an up-to-date “The Christmas Song.” Another girl group, the Charms, do similar time-traveling on a thumping “Frosty the Snowman.” The Chesterfield Kings give “Hey Santa Claus” a Chuck Berry vibe, the Butties imitate the Beatles on “Joy to the World,” and the Brian Setzer Orchestra swings marvelously through “Nutcracker Suite.” The album ends with the real Elvis Presley doing his “Blue Christmas” to make the era-bending album complete.Dianne Reeves”Christmas Time Is Here”produced by Reeves & Peter Martin (Blue Note)It’s kind of hard to argue against this. Dianne Reeves is one of the finer traditional jazz vocalists of the day, she has a fine backing band, and the material – “The Little Drummer Boy,” “A Child Is Born,” “Let It Snow” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – are time-tested to say the least.On the other hand, it’s hard to get too excited about such a project, which has been done by countless singers. Until you actually listen to it. “Christmas Time is Here” manages to stand well above the pack with interesting arrangements and Reeves’ daring way with phrasings. This one should be hauled out year after year.Various artists, “Acoustic Christmas”produced by Steve Vai (Favored Nations)A bunch of stars of the instrumental guitar world take their cracks at

the classics, with a few originals tossed in. Since I was expecting new age mush, I was pleasantly surprised by the consistently lively tracks: a Spanish-tinged take on “Greensleeves” by Andy Timmons, a snappy “Home for the Holidays” by Johnny Hiland; and a wildly bluesy “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Greg Koch. Pierre Bensusan’s gentle “Fodere L’Astronome” was engineered by local Jamie Rosenberg at Aspen’s Great Divide Studio.Cherish the Ladies”On Christmas Night”produced by Joanie Madden (Rounder)Something about Celtic instruments and Irish voices just says “Christmas.” The all-female Irish group Cherish the Ladies thus seem a natural for this album, which combines interesting takes on the well-known – an instrumental “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Silent Night” sung beautifully in what I assume is Gaelic – and songs that may be well-known across the Atlantic, like “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “The Castle of Dromore” and the title song. Apart from the Christmas theme, it’s a fine example of traditional jigs, reels and songs.Big Bad Voodoo Daddy”Everything You Want For Christmas”produced by Scotty Morris & Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Vanguard)Brian Setzer Orchestra”Boogie Woogie Christmas”produced by David Darling (Surf Dog)Either one of these CDs will give you a cool and swingin’ Christmas. Both Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra are retro-style big bands that play all kinds of swing.Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “Everything You Want for Christmas” has



three original tunes, including “Rockabilly Christmas”; a sense of humor, evident in the too rarely covered “Mr. Heatmiser”; and the Latin-touched “A Party for Santa.”The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s 2003 album “Boogie Woogie Christmas” has been expanded with new recordings of the Western-swinging “Cactus Christmas” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” and also features Ann-Margaret cooing on “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”Various artists, “Reggae Pulse 4: Christmas Songs” (Sanctuary)This compilation collects some of the bigger names in reggae, including Beres Hammond, Freddie McGregor, Culture and the Mighty Diamonds. It is solid throughout, with a few noticeable high spots – John Holt’s “White Christmas,” Hammond’s pair of “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But too much of it sounds by-the-numbers – season’s standards put to a reggae beat without much imagination.LeAnn Rimes, “What a Wonderful World”produced by Peter Amato and Gregg Pagani (Curb)Vanessa Williams, “Silver & Gold”produced by Rob Mathes (Lava)LeAnn Rimes does nothing out of the ordinary on “What a Wonderful World.” She gets credit for writing three new tunes, though none seems likely to make yearly holiday appearances. On her own vocal pop album “Silver & Gold,” Vanessa Williams steers away from the usual to interpret the lesser-known “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” “Winter Weather” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” Further straying from the expected, she gives a tiny touch of Celtic influence to “Silent Night,” makes gospel of “Rise Up. Shepherd and Follow,” and brings in actor Ossie Davis to do a spoken word take of the Langston Hughes poem “I Dream a World.” Too predictable is that Williams would fall into schmaltz, as she does on “December Lullaby.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com