Here they come a-caroling: New CDs to put you in the holiday spirit

Dan Hicks brings his dry wit to "Crazy for Christmas."
Dan Hicks brings his dry wit to "Crazy for Christmas."
Posted: November 30, 2010

THE HOLIDAY MUSIC deluge is upon us! And however you like it - spiritual or soulful, swinging, satiric or school-age friendly - there's a new CD or downloadable album aimed for you.

Naturally, there's a fair helping of big-time artists - like Mariah Carey, Annie Lennox and the cast of "Glee" - engaged in the pursuit.

Hey, Christmas albums can be huge sellers.

But as our marathon listen sessions have revealed, some of the most exciting new holiday-themed sets this year are being carved and served by artists you've probably never heard of.

THE BLOCKBUSTERS: In the grand tradition of holiday TV specials comes Mariah Carey's all-purpose "Merry Christmas II You" (Island, B), so named cause it's her second set of seasonal cheer.

Frothy dance-pop ("Oh Santa"), torchy ballads ("Christmas Time Is in the Air Again") and horn-flecked soul (the standout "When Christmas Comes") vie for attention with Mariah's more histrionic takes on traditional fare like the cut-live (with a south-central L.A. gospel choir) "O Holy Night" and a medley of "O Come All Ye Faithful"/"Hallelujah Chorus" shared with her operatic-toned singing sister Patricia Carey.

While the material is strictly traditional, the contemporary miracles of Annie Lennox's "A Christmas Cornucopia" (Decca, A) are twofold.

I'm pleased to note how much this warmly flowing set sounds like her nonsectarian albums (truly, sweet dreams are made of this). And how well Annie reasserts, for contemporary ears, the traditional messages of hope, kindness and charity inherent in the likes of "Angels From the Realms of Glory," "The First Noel" and "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem." The artist really ruminated before opening her mouth.

Like everything musical that the TV cast cranks out, "Glee - The Christmas Album" (Columbia, C+) oozes professional gloss.

Yet it also feels a bit "phoned in" as Lea Michele and company glibly slide through (mostly) poppier classics like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year" and barely veer outside the box. (Note the scene-resetting "Deck the Rooftop." What a stretch.)

YOTSA YUCKS: To mark their 25th anniversary, seasonal satirists (and hometown heroes) Bah and the Humbugs have gone totally bonkers with "Bigger Than Santa - A 25th Anniversary Humbug Tribute" (www.bahandthehumbugs.com, A-). As they're telling it, this twisted troupe of mythmakers have called in "favors" from a huge rash of bands (uh-huh) - persuading each to "cover" their favorite Humbugs original.

We're talking the B-52-ish Area 25 blasting "Here Come the Christmas Zombies," a suspiciously Enya-like Myrrhna chilling with a snowman to the point of "Frostbite," the Flaming Snowballs putting their Lips to a smelly new holiday hero, "Skunky Claus," and urban toughs Elf Control perking up ears (say, wha?) with "Jesus Funky Christmas," to name-drop just a few from the double disc of delirium. Visit the Humbugs' website for equally amusing faux bios of the "contributors," full sets of lyrics, free streams and your golden opportunity to buy the set. All proceeds get funneled to the United Nations World Food Program.

Dan Hicks approaches life with a loopy grin, dry wit and jazzbo acoustic-swinging sound. So how could the hipster and his Hot Licks band help but have fun with their first set of holiday cheer, "Crazy for Christmas" (Surfdog, A)? I'm especially fond of "Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit" and his Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli-styled "Cool Yule," but all's copacetic.

MORE JAZZY HIJINX: Bachelor-pad music master Esquivel is long gone, but his martini-fueled spirit lives on in the goofy antics of 11 Acorn Lane on "Happy Holy Days" (www.11acornlane.com, B-). Sip the soused "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and south-of-the-border "Silent Night."

"Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O" (Palmetto, A) is all about going for the gusto and striking original tones. The drummer/bandleader lets loose with bassist Paul Sikivie and deliciously honkin' hornsmith Jeff Lederer, evoking surprise even with burnt chestnuts like "Winter Wonderland," wringing heartfelt emotion from John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and going for baroque with a flamboyant "Hallelujah Chorus." One of the happiest "finds" of the season.

Mixing rocking guitar with horn-scorched big-band arrangements on Christmas material is nothing new for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. But "Christmas Comes Alive" (Surfdog, B) puts the rompin', stompin' in concert context, getting especially sweaty on "The Nutcracker Suite."

New York cabaret regular Lea DeLaria growls through a typical Christmas songbook with conviction and implicit grrrl power on "Be A Santa" (Warner Classics & Jazz, B).

On "Christmas is the Time To Say I Love You" (Verve Forecast, B-), "American Idol" escapee Katharine McPhee tries to have it both ways. She starts out cool and slinky (with trumpeting special guest Chris Botti) on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" then moves into a blander, crooning pop mode. Pleasantly inoffensive.

DUELING CAROLERS: Oh, the insult. Wilson Phillips finally gets it together again to serve up "Christmas in Harmony" (Masterworks, B-) and what happens? They discover another sisterly trio likewise servicing the season in neo-Andrews Sisters fashion (and dare we say, with a tad more edge?) on "Christmas With the Puppini Sisters" (Verve, B).

FOLKNIKS: Gotta give props to the Indigo Girls for summoning up several folky and bluegrass-toned originals for their "Holly Happy Days" (Vanguard, B). The self-referential "Your Holiday Song" most sounds like their conventional material. "It Really Is a Wonderful Life" moves nicely off the movie title.

Need a reality check? Nothing tops Shelby Lynne, putting her dark, bluesy country spin on "Merry Christmas" (Fontana, B). The self-penned "Xmas," referencing her long-dead dad, is particularly harrowing.

KID STUFF: Haven't caught their act on the Disney Channel, but I'm guessing there's a cartoon special to go along with the musical antics of "Phineas and Ferb - Holiday Favorites" (Disney, B-). The music's only occasionally grating with nasally voices (like Bowling For Soup) and salted with lyric references aimed at parental units.

A good lesson is to be had in "The Year Without Santa Claus" (Capitol, B+), a rhymed tale narrated by Boris Karloff about a global children's movement making Christmas when Santa takes his 1,000th year off.

Fleshing out the album are "Santa's favorites" sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mercer, the Beach Boys and Amy Grant.

Wow the young'uns with the skills of "America's Got Talent" celeb Jackie Evancho on "O Holy Night" (Syco/Columbia, B).

When the 10-year-old opens her mouth, she sounds like a mature operatic singer. OK, and an angel.

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