Christmas music is like a string of lights that change color depending on who plugs it in. This year I've had more than a dozen new Christmas albums and collections cross the CD laser, ranging in style from jazz and rap to pop, soul and opera. But they all have one thing in common: the songs. The "accepted" Christmas song canon grows only very slowly, and every Christmas album, regardless of musical style, treads on at least some of the "classics." I'll spend this week and next running through some of the best and worst of this year's holiday offerings:

 

Various Artists
Just Say Noel
(Geffen)

With a selection of artists including Beck, Sonic Youth, Elastica and Southern Culture on the Skids, you know this is the Christmas album of the year for the alternative set. Unfortunately, much of it is mediocre to lame.

Beck leads it off with "The Little Drum Machine Boy," a confused, rambling studio experiment with babbly lyrics and robotic voices that mostly doesn't have much to do with the season. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn team up next for the ambling "Christmastime" which listens a little better — at least there's a Christmas theme and a melody to follow here. But it seems as if these two great singer-songwriters could have pulled off something a little more exemplary together. There are also unexceptional offerings from Ted Hawkins, Wild Colonials and Remy Zero. The Roots revisit De La Soul's rap "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa" and Southern Culture on the Skids offer a country blues duet in "Merry Christmas Baby" There are bright moments on this mix, however. Sonic Youth pull a typically twisted moment on Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope" which is actually quite fun.The Posies dampen the mood with the somber but catchy "Christmas," which sums itself up in the line "Christmas means little to me...don't have faith in what's supposed to be." Elastica steals the "Gloria In Excelcius Deo" bassline for their punky rewrite "Gloria," recorded a couple years back for the BBC. There's also an oldie from XTC that's available elsewhere under the moniker "Three Wise Men." "Thanks For Christmas" is a big beat, happy horn- and bell-punctuated number that should become one of those few Christmas songs that everybody sings. Another pickup from years past is Wendy & Lisa's "The Closing Of The Year," sung with the cast from the movie Toys. It was one of the finest moments in the film, and remains a moving seasonal song.

 

Boney James
Boney's Funky Christmas
(Warner Bros.)

If you like good saxophone playing, you must buy this disc. Much of it is instrumental and gently jazzy, focussing on James' smoothly blown sax. Included are "Jingle Bells," "The Christmas Song," "Sleigh Ride," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and a couple lesser known carols. This is a perfect album for playing in the background of family gatherings or relaxing quietly by the fire.

 

Quad City All Star Christmas
(Atlantic/Big Beat)

The Waitresses managed to effectively meld rap and a Christmas song that was both catchy and captured the holiday spirit, but nothing on this entire album manages to do the same. Featuring The 69 Boys, Quad City DJs, K-nock, 24K, Big Dave and more, there are several raps that list what the singers want for Christmas (money, girls or men with money). One rap reconstructs a "12 Days of Christmas" wish list for "the 'hood."

 

Jose Carreras, Natalie Cole and Placido Domingo
A Celebration of Christmas
(Elektra)

The operatic tenors of Carreras and Domingo aren't for everyone, but for those who love opera and orchestra, this is a fine album. Recorded live last December in Vienna with a full orchestra and backing choir, it sets the three name singers loose on classics like "Panis Angelicus," "The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Stille Nacht," and more.

 

Jimmy Buffet
Christmas Island
(MCA)
½

Buffet pulls off a surprisingly strong Christmas album by doing what he does best: croonin' about relaxin'. The classic title track is a perfect vehicle for Buffet's steel drums and breezily picked guitars. "Mele Kalikimaka" enjoys equally effective treatment, and Buffet takes on a "surf-dude" persona to add a quirky mod touch to "Up On The House Top." "Jingle Bells" takes on an island sway, but John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" follows the intent of the original (with just a hint of steel drums). Buffet also offers two original Christmas songs, the best being "Ho Ho Ho and A Bottle of Rhum," a horn- and whistle-punctuated tale of Santa leaving it all behind for the Caribbean, "He needs a vacation from bad decorations and snow."

Various Artists
A Classic Cartoon Christmas
(Nick at Nite/550 Music)

Is there anyone who can't sing along word for word with "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" from the TV special "How The Grinch Stole Christmas"? Well that and songs from TV's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Muppet Family Christmas" are all included here. If you haven't heard these songs enough from their yearly reruns on TV, then this could be your Christmas goldmine.


Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Christmas Eve and Other Stories
(Lava/Atlantic)

Hard rock fans will snatch this like kids for rock candy. Broadway buffs will dance down the aisles in joy of its discovery. The brainchild of Savatage producer Paul O'Neill, and featuring instrumental backing from that band in addition to an orchestra, this is a strange and wonderful hybrid of a Christmas album.

It all started last year when Savatage released "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," an instrumental track from its rock opera Dead Winter Dead. That song got enthusiastic airplay, and producer O'Neill hatched the idea of putting together a floating lineup rock-orchestra for a full album of Christmas songs. He wrote a short story (that appears on the inside of the disc booklet) and recorded 17 new and traditional Christmas songs around it with the help of Savatage members, an orchestra, and some vocalists stolen briefly from Broadway. The result is an album of powerful Christmas songs. If you've never heard "O Holy Night" driven by an electric guitar, you should. It's as stirring as any midnight mass choir has ever made it. There are instrumentals of "The Silent Nutcracker" and "The First Noel," as well as the inclusion of "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" (which lifts passages from "Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Carol of the Bells" and turns them into power chord engines.) In "A Star To Follow," O'Neill turns a dizzying trick that Savatage has used to great effect: having several voices singing different lines all at once (like singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in the round). The song includes a children's as well as a men's choir. One of the best tracks on the disc is the new instrumental "First Snow," that has a great catchy guitar riff balanced by bell-toned keys and an easy rock drum push. Among the other lyrical numbers are "The Prince of Peace," which spotlights Cats Broadway cast member Marlene Danielle and "Old City Bar," a moving acoustic-guitar backed song about an angel who leads a barkeep to change someone's life. This is a Christmas album with rare power and grace. Don't miss it.

 

Patti LaBelle
This Christmas
(MCA)
½

This album was actually released six years ago, but MCA has repackaged and remixed it for rerelease. It includes LaBelle's soulful renderings of the title track, "O Holy Night," "Angelman" and others. It's an easy listening album of relatively unknown holiday ballads. LaBelle is also debuting an autobiography and cosmetics line this season!

 

Various Artists
Merry Soulful Christmas
(MCA)

Two of the songs from LaBelle's Christmas album turn up on this collection, which also lifts songs from past Christmas collections by The Jets, New Edition, Stephanie Mills and Gladys Knight & The Pips. Most of these are original songs; none seem to have the power to become new Christmas standards.

 

Various Artists
A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas
(Celtic Heartbeat)
½

This is a delicate, beautiful collection of mostly original holiday hymns by celtic artists. Fiona Kennedy opens the album with a lovely acoustic number sung in Gaelic: "Na Hu O Ho." If you like Clannad or Enya, you'll love it. Clannad, in fact, turn up on the disc to offer the moody, magical "A Dream In The Night." There are quietly moving instrumental pieces from Altan and Thomas Loefke, a racing jig from Ashley MacIsaac and choir chorals from Anuna. For a taste of traditional Celtic Christmas, if not through traditional songs, this is a magical listen.

 

Various Artists
World Christmas
(Metro Blue/Capitol)


You just don't get to hear an African band singing "Angels We Have Heard On High" very often (here it's reproduced as "Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes." It's worth hearing. This is a spirited collection of mainly traditional holiday songs sung by artists from all around the world. Papa Wemba and Mino Cinelu put the exotic rhythms behind "Angels We Have Heard on High," while bongos turn up in the Eastern flavor of Bob Berg, Jim Beard, Arto Tuncboyacyan and Zakir Hussain's "We Three Kings." Bongos, African chants and an electric guitar flavor "Go Tell It On The Mountain," from John Scofield and the Wild Magnolias. Subdued touches of African vocals also color Deep Forest's synthesizer rich "Ave Maria." Angelique Kidjo brings the sounds of the dark continent's outback to an afro-funk "Zan Vevede (O Holy Night)." Steel drums turn up in The Caribbean Jazz Project's jazzy, sax-driven "Santa Claus is Coming To Town," while Gipsy Kings bring their flamenco guitars and powerful voices to a new song, "Navidad." This is the fourth in the series of Very Special Christmas albums that have been produced to benefit the Special Olympics (the first two volumes featured pop artists' covers of holiday songs, while last year's Jazz to the World concentrated on jazz artists).

 

John Pizzarelli
Let's Share Christmas
(RCA)

Miss those crooners of old? The kind of singers that Harry Connick, Jr. has made a living imitating? Then you'll love Pizzarelli. He's been compared to Nat King Cole and has toured with Sinatra. This album features a 52-piece orchestra, a Pizzarelli original song in the gentle title track, and a selection of standards like "White Christmas," the horn-popping "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," and "Sleigh Ride," among others. This one falls somewhere between a Perry Como Christmas special and a Sinatra holiday album.