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Tinsel tunes for holidays

December 11, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

What's another holiday season without a slew of new yuletide recordings to provide the soundtrack? Diversity reigns once again, except perhaps for the absence of a good death-metal Christmas collection.

* * * 1/2 Blind Boys of Alabama

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Realworld

One of those rare seasonal recordings you wouldn't mind hearing in March, or July. The venerable vocal group strikes an ideal balance between material familiar and fresh in a session that unfolds with the electricity and impeccable pacing of a gospel sermon. Icing on the cake is the presence of a far-flung group of guests including Tom Waits, Shelby Lynne and Aaron Neville. The group's holiday tour stops Saturday at UCLA.

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* * * 1/2 Kerry Getz

It's a Wonderful Life

World in Motion

One of those rare musicians who sees winter, Christmas, death and rebirth as adult themes worthy of serious examination. This veteran Southern California singer-songwriter's original songs and renderings of a few less-than-obvious carols delve into the myriad emotions the season can release, from loneliness and self-reflection to spiritual yearning and, yes, joy.

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* * * Various Artists

A Very Special Acoustic Christmas

Lost Highway

The sixth entry in the series benefiting Special Olympics zeroes in on country, bluegrass and folk performances by Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Wynonna and a dozen others. Alison Krauss does Memphis country funk, Marty Stuart gets bluesy, Ralph Stanley remains existentially melancholy and Norah Jones turns up with a classy and ethereal reading of Horace Silver's "Peace."

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* * * Various Artists

Maybe This Christmas, Too

Nettwerk America

A follow-up to last year's inspired alt-rock collection gathers an equally diverse roster, from Rufus Wainwright and Avril Lavigne to the Dave Matthews Band and Badly Drawn Boy. The material is roughly half and half classics and originals, the latter injecting the emotional dimension (melancholy, sarcasm, silliness) often in short supply in holiday outings.

* * * Leon Redbone

Christmas Island

August/Rounder

This 1989 treat from one of pop's true eccentrics has been reissued in conjunction with his role in the holiday movie "Elf." It shows how all you really need to make a Christmas collection special is to inject it with a megadose of joy, which Redbone accomplishes effortlessly.

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* * * Various Artists

Christmas Remixed

Six Degrees

Who knows whether Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme and the rest would consider the revamping of their recordings inspired or sacrilegious. There are examples of both here by Dan the Automator, Mocean, Attaboy and other remix artists, but any group of tracks that yields as many smiles as this deserves a spot in the holiday CD rotation.

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* * 1/2 Jethro Tull

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album

Fuel 2000

The British progressive folk-rock band's excursion into the holiday genre makes sense given its roots in Celtic folk music. It runs on too long for its own good, but application of the mixed-meter Tull tradition gives several traditionals some kick. Ian Anderson's originals add freshness in a field where overworked material proliferates.

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* * Kenny Chesney

All I Want for Christmas

Is a Real Good Tan

BNA

Country music's paradise-minded hunk puts an island spin on his collection of classics sprinkled with a few recently written numbers. Paul Overstreet's title tune injects some humor amid seasonal sentimentality that occasionally turns saccharine.

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* * * Johnny Cash

Christmas With Johnny Cash

Columbia

The collection includes a dozen tracks compiled from albums the Man in Black put out in 1962, 1972 and 1980. A few ultra-familiar carols suffer from heavy-handed production, but several heartfelt narratives and Cash originals make this an uncommonly moving collection, especially for the first holiday season since his death.

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* * 1/2 Various Artists

Now That's What I Call

Christmas! 2

Capitol

Last year's first "Now" holiday collection gathered most of the 20th century's key seasonal recordings, leaving for this second 2-CD set a less consistently rewarding exhumation of the pop archives. The highlights: the Tom Jones-Cerys Matthews duet on "Baby It's Cold Outside," Dean Martin's "The Christmas Blues" and Destiny's Child's "Opera of the Bells."

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* * Harry Connick, Jr.

Harry for the Holidays

Columbia

This favorite son of New Orleans certainly knows his Crescent City grooves, which livens up many of the chestnuts on his second holiday collection, but his vocals are so laid-back this often turns into a Big Easy-listening session.

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* 1/2 Whitney Houston

One Wish: The Holiday Album

Arista

One wish that goes unfulfilled in this overwrought outing is that the singer would serve the song rather than vice-versa. Houston seems intent on showing she can shoehorn more notes into each syllable than Mariah Carey, resulting in an orgy of melismatics that often obliterates the spirit of the holiday tunes she's selected.

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