Last week I wrote about new Christmas albums from Donny Osmond, Cyndi Lauper and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This week, there's a long list of seasonal album offerings, including a couple of the biggest releases for the holidays Christmas albums from Celine Dione and Babyface.

ADULT CONTEMPORARY CHRISTMAS

Celine Dion Celine Dion
These Are Special Times
(550 Music/Epic)


Celine's Christmas album is a predictably dramatic and well-produced affair, loaded with strings and background vocalists and warm songs filled with holiday cheer. She plays "Blue Christmas" as a slow sad song, "Feliz Navidad" as a big party song and does a great job turning "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" into a big pop production. Her recording of D.Snider's "The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)" could easily become a new holiday standard and her angelic duet with Andrea Bocelli on David Foster and Carol Bayer Sager's "The Prayer" is gorgeously operatic.

There are a couple of new songs that sound more like straight pop songs than Christmas carols ("Another Year Has Gone By" and "These Are Special Times") and a duet with songwriter R. Kelly on "I'm Your Angel" that sounds like it owes a lot to Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." Overall, though, Dion has crafted one of the top three holiday albums this year (I'd pit this album against the Lauper and Trans-Siberian Orchestra CDs reviewed here last week).

 

Kenny Loggins
December
(Columbia)


Loggins' Christmas album is a pretty quiet affair. So quiet, in fact, that he might put you to sleep ... There are slow string-laden versions of "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas" as well as of original holiday offerings in "December," "Angels in the Snow" and "Walking In The Air," which probably won't become new seasonal classics (yawn).

 

Shawn Colvin Shawn Colvin
Holiday Songs and Lullabyes
(Columbia)
½


Colvin knows how to make a contemplative album without acting like a sleeping pill on the audience. Her folksy style is perfect for the always melancholy "In The Bleak Mid-Winter" and the "Peanuts" piano classic "Christmas Time Is Here." Colvin works with older, traditional carols, though most are far less widely known than "Silent Night" (which does appear here with slowly oscillating organ backing).

Holiday Songs and Lullabies leaves a warm glow in its wake, filled with hints of Christmas past buoyed by an often somber band of piano, guitar and strings. Her light, high vocals are unmuddied by too many other background vocals on this disc they're always right out in the front spotlight, sending these warm holiday messages home with quiet intensity. This is a nice easygoing Christmas Eve disc.

 

Babyface
Christmas with Babyface
(Epic)
½


There are lots of soulful vocal croons here as Babyface roams through the classics, offering a funky "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer," and elevator orchestra takes on "Winter Wonderland," "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas." Babyface doesn't really have a voice quite deep enough to pull off the orchestra numbers with authority, but overall, with thick background vocals and the occasional saxophone solo, these are calming, if unexciting, renditions of popular holiday classics.

 

A FUN CHRISTMAS

Vince Vance & The Valiants
All I Want For Christmas Is You
(Waldoxy)
½


This one might be a little harder to find it's on a small label. But it follows Celine's album on my list of best Christmas albums this year. This one has actually been around a few years, thanks to a regional hit with its title track, but has only recently gotten distributed outside the Valiants' home in Jackson, Miss.

Vince actually sings here very little, leaving these classic '50s and '60s sounding originals and traditionals to the vocals of Vince Ann, Vanessa, Vixie and Vickie. The girls do good Brenda Lee and Peggy Lee style rockin' Christmas takes on "White Christmas," "Winder Wonderland," and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," as well as on originals like "All I Want for Christmas is You" and "Merry Christmas To You."

There are also a couple of comedic songs here that the kids will love, sung by Vince, the best of which is "I Wanna Be A Christmas Tree" ("if I got thirsty it'd be so neat/to drink right from my feet ... that's why I wanna be a Christmas tree").

Seek this one out.

 

BLUES, REGGAE INSTRUMENTAL AND MORE

Want a blues edge to your Christmas classics? Private Music offers seminal blues vocalist Etta James giving a walking bass workout to 12 Songs of Christmas, including "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," "Merry Christmas Baby" and more. This album is more subdued than you might expect from a blues Christmas album, but it listens with a "classic" appeal.

Windham Hill Records has released a handful of holiday titles this year, including A Jazz Christmas featuring Jim Brickman, Earl Klugh and Tim Weisberg and Celtic Christmas IV (which, amid Irish-oriented holiday offerings from Liam O'Flynn, Nightnoise and Patrick Cassidy, inexplicably includes a song by country artist Ricky Scaggs). Windham also pulls back together some of its early New Age stars to offer A Winter Solstice Reunion. This is Christmas music for late at night gently picked acoustic guitars and lightly tickled ivories dominate this instrumental collection of standards and new holiday songs by the likes of Liz Story, Alex DeGrassi, William Ackerman, Nightnoise, Michael Manning, George Winston, Williman Coulter and Paul McCandless. This is a Christmas album with the quiet beauty of first snow. Windham Hill has laso released The Colors of Christmas, which features songs from a string of last year's Angel Records' holiday releases. Since Angel has gone belly-up, Windham has apparently picked up the option to offer these songs from Melissa Manchester, Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, Sheena Easton and more. Bryson and Flack's new recording of Jim Brickman's 1997 hit "The Gift" is included, as is Easton and Jeffrey Osborne's "The Place Where We Belong.

Another mostly instrumental album comes from oriental harpist Jung. This is a relaxing well-orchestrated album with "Carol of the Bells/Jingle Bells," "What Child is This?," "The Christmas Song" and more. Vocalist Sumi Jo turns up on two traditional carols ("Silent Night" and "O Holy Night") and Linda Eder sings to recently penned holiday tunes, "The Gift" and "Christmas Stays The Same."

Rhino Records (as always) jumps into the holiday fray with several releases: for a holiday with an island feel you can pick up the 18-song Natty & Nice, A Reggae Christmas with holiday standards performed by Toots & The Maytals, Lee Perry, Washington & Clarke and more. Putting everything to the same reggae beat, however, gets old fast ... Rhino also offers To Life! Songs of Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations, a disc of accordion-driven feet kicking polkas featuring Jay Levy, Mandy Patinkin, Nell Carter and The Weavers among others, performing "Chanukah Joyous Holiday," "Torah, Torah," "Shabbat Shalom" "Hava Nagila" and other music for Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat.

Rhino Yuletide Box SetThe real capper on Rhino's Christmas list, however, is its Yuletide Soiree Party Pack, a box set collection of two CDs worth of classic holiday rock recordings including Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," and The Chipmunks' "Chipmunk Song." There are also older classics from Bing Crosby ("White Christmas"), Jose Feliciano ("Feliz Navidad"), Gene Autry ("Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer") and more. But the real key to this box is the binder book. As a party pack, this box set includes more than just music it has a book of plans for throwing a Christmas party, complete with decorating ideas, a party plan, full menus with recipes, caroling lyrics and sample invitations which can be copied and sent. This is really a useful package for anybody throwing a holiday party.