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'Tis The Season

It's time to sing the praises of Christmas music

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For many of us, holiday music is one of the best parts of the Christmas season, as well as one of the best ways to help keep a good focus. Someone cut you off in the Belk parking lot? To heck with it, listen to Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas" and fuggedaboutit. That old bag beat you to the last of the pen and pencil sets you wanted for your niece? Who cares, when Ella Fitzgerald is on your stereo, bopping her way through "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"? No matter your mood or attitude, the Christmas musical choices these days are enormous. That wasn't always the case, though, which is surprising since Christmas songs have been a Western tradition for nearly a thousand years. Nonetheless, once sound recording came into being, it took the record industry decades to capitalize on seasonal sounds. In fact, it wasn't until 1942, when Bing Crosby raced to Number One with "White Christmas," that record buyers were given much of a chance to plop down money for Yule tunes at all.

Since the 1980s, the selection of holiday recordings has run amok. And, as in other years, we're here to give some guidance on the latest Christmas smash and trash. Following is CL's roundup of holiday recordings for 2001, as well as our all-time Top Dozen Christmas Albums list. Have fun.

A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA) -- B.B. King

At an age when most of his peers begin to slow down, B.B. King keeps right on working. And unless King is as good an actor as he is a singer and guitarist, he still appears to be having the time of his life. Seen recently in concert at Calgary's Jubilee Theater, King, 76, divides his show into three segments. First, there's the warm up, where King comes on as showman and host with a large, tight band. Next comes King the singer with amazing pipes, now sweet and soulful, now down deep with bass notes and mighty growls that exemplifies the black gospel experience. Then comes the serious music segment where, seated, King shows why he's respected as one of the living masters of the blues guitar picking, stretching and stinging with delicious sustain. This new album is much like his shows. There are warm and homey moments on chestnuts like "Merry Christmas Baby," a bit of raunchy blues on "Back Door Santa," imbued with the clear, powerful voice, and some fine instrumentals to boot.

Christmas (Kudzu King) -- The Sincere Ramblers

Mississippi's Sincere Ramblers may look like your ordinary bluegrass quartet but they pack a few more surprises. Bluegrass is just the launch pad for this collection of acoustic tunes that draws from such disparate sources as 9th century Latin texts, 18th century German carols and a version of "Blue Christmas" that would make Hank Williams proud. With 11 musical stops along its way, the Ramblers -- Wendell Haag (guitar), Bryan Ledford (banjo/guitar/mandolin), Dave Woolworth (bass) and guitarist/mandolinst Caroline Herring -- split up the vocals. Musically, the band knows few bounds, drawing from bluegrass, folk and country. And while this approach merely serves as backing on some numbers, others, such as the instrumental "We Three Kings Of Orient Are," start out sounding traditional and then blast off into "Take Five" territory.

A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night (CMC International) -- 38 Special

What a let down it is to find that 38 Special sleepwalks its way through more then two-thirds of this new release, especially following the band's spirited guest spots on labelmates Lynyrd Skynyrd's Y2K Christmas album. With that disclaimer, it's best to program your CD player to skip right to track #4, "Hallelujah It's Christmas," where the band cranks up a Southern boogie barrage for a brief, three-song stretch that peters out after #6 (the lively title track). Oh well, guess it's back to the county fair circuit for this lot.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Loyal Dutchess) -- Suzy Bogguss

Long ousted from the ranks of the major country labels, Suzy Bogguss goes indie with her own Loyal Dutchess label and turns in what is probably the best release of her career. How can a mediocre, squeaky clean, fashion plate such as Bogguss come back with such a gem? Hard to say. But one cold speculation is that the pressure to produce hits on a major label caused her to turn in made-by-committee volumes that didn't represent her true talents. Such seems to be the case here, with the first surprise being that Bogguss can really sing and she does so with a supple finesse that makes this record beguiling. Sure, it's packed full of the usual suspects, from the title track to "Rudolph" and "Jingle Bells." But, for the first time, Bogguss proves to be the piper in charge, putting an unexpected lift into "Two-Step 'Round The Christmas Tree" with a smile here and a dab of her own stylistic magic in just the right place. And, of course, the duet with country blues belter Delbert McClinton on "Baby It's Cold Outside" don't hurt none neither.

Our Favorite Things (Sony Classical) -- Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Placido Domingo, Vanessa Williams

Four famous faces on the CD cover should get the registers ringing, but what a weird combination of talents this project draws together. Domingo attempting to "go cabaret" doesn't work so easily -- skip his "Jesus De Nazareth." Likewise, whenever screechy Church comes on, it's best to pop in the earplugs. Pairing Domingo with Williams, who fight each other for control on "I Saw Three Ships," is simply ludicrous: She sounds soulful while he huffs and bellows, which should remind everyone involved that opera singers, in accordance with their training, need fewer words and larger notes. Make them sing pop lyrics and it's just too many words coming too quickly to hopscotch the consonants and round out all the vowels. But before you use this silvery disc for target practice, bounce around to the Bennett and Williams solo stuff and their duets. That, backed by Bennett's venerable Ralph Sharon Quartet and the Vienna Symphony, is where the good stuff, and our favorite things, on this disc are.

Holiday Sampler (Philo) -- Slaid Cleaves

Somewhere between the pumpkin patch and the Christmas tree, Austin-based singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves has cooked up a five-song EP with autumnal sentiments. He presents these to us from the cover image: a box of chocolate creams. But that's a bit deceptive, as the fillings found inside are more somber. Things start out with a rousing twist on "Monster In Law" and Dr. Seuss' bouncy "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." But the real Cleaves is much more contemplative and quickly surfaces on the melancholy "November Skies," and with the simple "You Don't Have To Tell Me," he says enough with just voice and steel.

Freebies -- Various

Here's a twist: free Christmas music on the web from James Taylor. Simply surf on over to www.windowmedia.com to hear Taylor sing a streaming version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." Recorded with guitarist John Pizzarelli and drummer Steve Gadd last spring, it's a listen-only situation that cannot be downloaded.

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