Christmas seems to come around the bend faster and faster every year. Seems like just a couple of months ago we were taking down the decorations and yearning for summer. But ... time stops for no man or music columnist and here I am again with a couple of dozen Christmas albums and a mug of steaming coffee. This week and next, I'll give you the rundown on what Christmas albums are new on the shelves and which ones you might want to keep close to your stockings (and stereos) for holiday play.

 

Ringo Starr - I Wanna Be Santa Claus

Ringo Starr
I Wanna Be Santa Claus
(Mercury)


It's the first Christmas album from a Beatle, and, not surprisingly, it's the most lighthearted bit of musical fun out there this holiday season.

The former Fab-er stirs up a grin-bringing eggnog of new and old holiday songs, while referencing the small amount of seasonal work that the Beatles did do he covers the band's only Christmas song, "Christmas Time Is Here Again" (even keeping in the enigmatic line "O-U-T spells out!") and echoes John Lennon's Christmas classic "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" in his original "Dear Santa," asking for Santa to bring the world "peace and love" for Christmas. The album opens with a party shakin' rocker in "Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On," which borrows the hand-clapping beat from Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2."

Starr slips into a Cajun mood to rock through a nice upbeat reworking of "Winter Wonderland," and the former Beatle drummer puts his own martial beat to "The Little Drummer Boy" to good effect. He turns a reggae trick with "White Christmas," countrifies "Blue Christmas" and gets funkily Cajun again for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which includes an offhanded (though incredibly well-orchestrated) jam with a funny vocal flub: "Then one stormy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, he said Santa ... no he didn't, he said Rudolph..."

"I Wanna Be Santa Claus" should be the new holiday song for this season, with its light "do-do-de-do" background singers and sentiment of "I wanna be Santa Claus/I wanna get all the toys/and just like Santa Claus I'd give them away/to all the girls and boys."

The only missed note on this disc is "Christmas Eve," a slow piano-and-strings song that features Ringo's voice front and center on a sad "lonely on Christmas Eve" song. But Ringo has never had the strongest of balladeer voices and doesn't quite pull this one off. For the rest of the disc though, he's helped out with lots of background singers and a Phil Spector-would-be-proud wall of jingle bell sound that is a true joy to listen to. Pick this one up it will be a holiday favorite for years to come.

 

Various Artists
Touched By An Angel: The Christmas Album
(Sony Music Soundtrax)


Opening with Della Reese singing a gospel hymn called "If I Can Dream," this is a laidback, soulful collection of Christmas songs with several nonstandard (and not particularly Christmas-sounding) holiday songs. It includes several previously released tracks: Donna Summer's "Christmas Spirit," Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)," Randy Travis' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and Keb' Mo's "Jingle Bell Jamboree." There are also new recordings from Kenny Lattimore, Ashley Robles and Crystal Lewis.

 

A Very Special Christmas Live Various Artists
A Very Special Christmas Live from Washington, D.C.
(A&M)
½


Back in 1987, the Special Olympics organization gathered 15 popular artists and created A Very Special Christmas, one of the best contemporary Christmas albums, with proceeds going to charity. The group has continued to produce periodic seasonal offerings, including 1992's A Very Special Christmas 2 and 1996's World Christmas. None have had quite the impact of that first album, and the smaller cast of the latest disc (eight artists, 11 songs) doesn't weigh in next to the first two Very Special Christmas albums. But if you're looking for a "live rockin' " feel for your Christmas parties, this disc will certainly fill the bill. Mary J. Blige and Sheryl Crow team up to handle "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Run DMC reprise their "Christmas in Hollis" from the first Very Special Christmas album in a typically raucous performance.

This disc has a decided blues rock influence as John Popper of Blues Traveler belts over Eric Clapton's guitar on "Christmas Blues," Clapton works a slow blues groove on "Christmas Tears" and Clapton also adds his bluesy guitar to Crow's performance of "Merry Christmas Baby" and Tracy Chapman's non-holiday offering of "Give Me One Good Reason" (which appears here following her performance of "O Holy Night"). Jon Bon Jovi croons the slow "Please Come Home For Christmas" which he previously recorded for the Very Special Christmas 2 disc. Vanessa Williams also reprises her Very Special Christmas 2 loungey jazz studio recording of "What Child Is This?" The entire artist roster closes the disc with a run-through of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," performed in Bruce Springsteen's now-classic rock arrangement.

 

Rosie O'Donnell - A Rosie Christmas Rosie O'Donnell
A Rosie Christmas
(Columbia)
½


Rosie O'Donnell proves herself an all-around performer on this Christmas disc, which has her singing holiday duets with everyone from Celine Dion to Elmo from "Sesame Street".

She blends in beautifully with Dion on "The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone)," which Dion previously performed on her own 1998 holiday album.

Cher turns up to duet on a "Believe"-style dance beat workout of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Trisha Yearwood brings out the country in Rosie on "Santa on the Rooftop" and she teams with Billy Joel for a laid-back lounge piano treatment of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Rosie doesn't forget the kids, duetting with Elmo on "Do You Hear What I Hear" and swinging with Angelica Pickles from television's "Rugrats" on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

She also gets into a swing groove with Rosemary Clooney on "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and with Gloria Estefan on the "forget the diet" humor of "Gonna Eat for Christmas." Darren Hayes of Savage Garden turns up to share the mike on Wham's synthesizer-warm Christmas carol, "Last Christmas." Also included are duets with 'N Sync, Elton John, Lauryn Hill, Donny Osmond and jazz great Billy Porter.

 

Natalie Cole w/the London Symphony Orchestra
The Magic of Christmas
(Elektra)


This big orchestral Christmas outing opens with the classic pairing of Cole with her father Nat King Cole on "The Christmas Song," and then ranges through standards like "O Tanenbaum," "Sleigh Ride," "My Grown-Up Christmas List" and "Carol of the Bells."

It listens like a PBS Holiday special, with gorgeous strains of strings and horns counterpointing Cole's silky, soulful leaning vocalizations.