Once again, Bob Dylan is redefining the musical landscape.
He released his first Christmas album in October, and that not only meant that we had to listen to a holiday album before Halloween for the first time in our life, but we also had to review it immediately.
Ah, Dylan, your Christmas leader. Who'd have thunk it? With Dylan at the top of our list, we evaluate this year's new holiday music discs, sorting them into three categories: stocking stuffers, lumps of coal and white-elephant gifts.
Bob Dylan, "Christmas in the Heart" (Columbia). If you can get past the - oy vey - croaky, nicotine-stained voice and schmaltzy Ray Conniff arrangements on some Yule chestnuts, you'll find joy in the lazily jazzy "Christmas Song," the jaunty Tex-Mex polka of "Must Be Santa" and the Hawaiian-flavored "Christmas Island," as well as the Norman Rockwell-like cover art and Bettie Page-as-Santa's-helper photo inside. Produced by Jack Frost, Dylan's apt pseudonym of late.
Sugarland, "Gold and Green" (Mercury). The popular country duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush has come up with the season's gem, mixing creatively arranged classics and spirited originals, especially the bluesy-gospelly "Coming Home."
Various artists, "A Very Joma Christmas" (Joma). This indie compilation is December's freshest-sounding disc. Mercury on Fire slows "Jingle Bells" to a minimalist, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum pace, Brandon Wilde's Phil Spector-like original song "Christmastime Again" warms like egg nog, and obscurities such as the sad, jazzy dirge "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" by A Girl Called Eddy are welcome little gifts.
Andrea Bocelli, "My Christmas" (Decca). Producer-to-the-superstars David Foster prudently packages the pop-opera superstar with partners Mary J. Blige, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Muppets to make "My Christmas" just right. Naturally, this project is tied to a PBS special.
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Neil Diamond, "A Cherry Cherry Christmas" (Columbia). He cherry-picks nine tunes from his previous two holiday albums and adds five new numbers, including the cutesy title cut featuring puns from his hits ("wish you a holly holy holiday") and "The Chanukah Song," the Adam Sandler ditty done with cheesy Diamond panache.
Mick Sterling, "Blessed Songs for Christmas Time" (New Folk). The gravelly-voiced rocker plays it loose and acoustic here, going Cajun on "Merry Christmas Baby," getting bluesy on "Please Come Home for Christmas" and inviting Alison Scott to warm up because "Baby It's Cold Outside." He has two curious non-holiday choices, the pop classics "Have I Told You Lately" and "God Only Knows."
LUMPS OF COAL
David Archuleta, "Christmas From the Heart" (19/Jive). Don't confuse this with Dylan's similarly titled disc. Season 7's "American Idol" runner-up applies his breathy choirboy tenor to arrangements of holiday fare we all learned in choir and throws in an original, the cliched "Melodies of Christmas," for good measure. Can't decide whether to label this bland or sleepy - or both.
Various artists, "A Very Special Christmas 7" (A&M). This all-star fundraiser for Special Olympics goes tween with tracks from Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale and a flat Colbie Caillat. Sean Kingston adds reggae-lite seasoning to "The Little Drummer Boy" and Leighton Meester seduces on "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."
Connie Talbot, "Holiday Magic" (Rainbow). Two years ago, this girl, then 7, lost in the finals of "Britain's Got Talent." Since Susan Boyle, this year's winner, didn't have time to make a holiday CD, we get this kid stuff from Connie, which is more cloying than cute.
A Fine Frenzy, "Oh Blue Christmas" (Virgin). Singer Alison Sodol's chilly, vibrato-heavy minimalism is more annoying than elegant. This disc will leave you blue, indeed, especially the sour, country-tinged kiss-off "Winter White."
Sting, "If on a Winter's Night" (Deutsche Grammophon). Think of this as the thinking man's holiday album. There's nary a familiar Christmas song here, but rather solemn, Brit-flavored meditations on winter via medieval carols, a remake of Sting's "Hounds of Winter" and, best of all, a fiddle-and-brass treatment of Peter, Paul & Mary's perky "Soul Cake." Not everyone's cup of Christmas tea.
Eban Schletter, "Cosmic Christmas" (Oglio). Best known for scoring TV's "SpongeBob SquarePants," this eccentric L.A. musician offers a sci-fi concept album about a space satellite infected with the Christmas spirit. His sounds on both Yule standards and out-there originals are shaped by electronic blips, children's choirs, Beach Boys-like harmonies and guest vocalist Grant Lee Phillips. Is this wonderfully weird or nuttier than a fruitcake?
The Christmas Jug Band, "On the Holiday Highway" (Globe). This is a fun, tongue-in-cheek collaboration by several San Francisco luminaries, including Dan Hicks, Country Joe McDonald and the late Norton Buffalo, trying to get their holiday jollies in concert. Dig the parodies ("Santa, the Man"), clever reworkings ("Santa's on the Mainline") and delightful originals ("Santa's Going Crazy This Year") on this hit-and-miss banquet.