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HOLIDAY MUSIC

An earful of glad tidings

This year, several artists have brought something special to a genre that's usually stocked with the same old chestnuts.

December 17, 2007|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Some people like to say that the world would be a better place if every day were Christmas. There's no question, however, that the holiday-music field would be infinitely better off if everyone put as much thought and heart into making seasonal music as fresh and inspired as this year's standout holiday releases from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith and Ohio alt-rock duo Over the Rhine.

On the assumption that anyone remotely interested in holiday music to begin with will know exactly what to expect from the glistening new Mannheim Steamroller "Christmas Song" collection or Toby Keith's modestly understated "Classic Christmas, Vols. 1 and 2," we'll focus our annual holiday music roundup on those bringing something out of the ordinary to this tried-and-true genre.

Johnny Cash

"The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1977" (Shout! Factory)

* * *

This DVD finds Cash reconnected with his former Sun Records label mates Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins for a holiday salute to Elvis Presley a few months after the King's death. It's a lively session with strong performances from all four as part of an hour that also features June Carter, the Carter Family and guitar great Merle Travis (with Roseanne Cash and Carlene Carter, in their early 20s, looking on appreciatively from a living-room sofa). And what a difference a year makes. Cash's special from 1976 also has been reissued this year, but much of it is nearly unwatchable because of the extended camera time this titan of country music gives his special guest -- Tony Orlando.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Spector album: An article in Monday's Calendar section about holiday music said Darlene Love sang on Phil Spector's Christmas album 43 years ago. It was released in 1963, 44 years ago.

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The Dan Band

"HO: A Dan Band Christmas," (Reincarnate)

* * 1/2

This humor-minded outfit sends up R&B and hard-rock conventions with irreverent tunes such as "I Wanna Rock U Hard This Xmas" and the PC-minded "Christmakwanzakah." The joke runs a bit thin over the course of eight songs, but there's enough fun to make it worth a listen.

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Josh Groban

"Noel" (143/Reprise)

* * 1/2

The first holiday album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since -- gulp! -- Kenny G in 1994 has more going for it than the king of jazz-lite schmaltz. Groban has delivered the album everyone's mother can love, one in which that heroic tenor soars to the mountaintop time after time. Still, there's only so much opening of the heavens one album should rightfully offer. If the swelling crescendos here were snowflakes, global warming would be over tomorrow.

--

Jewmongous

"Taller Than Jesus" (Chow Fun)

* * *

"Weird Al" Yankovic fans shouldn't be the only ones who pick up on this wickedly humorous exploration of Judaism by the alter-ego of singer-songwriter Sean Altman. The title references the Rutles' spin on John Lennon's incendiary 1966 comment about Jesus, and Altman's songs are often as tuneful and sharply witty as the Prefab Four's.

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Darlene Love

"It's Christmas, of Course" (Shout! Factory)

* * *

Love knows a lot about the intersection of rock, R&B and Christmas music, going back 43 years to her role as a lead singer on Phil Spector's classic holiday album. Here, she applies her fabulously dusky voice to a powerfully moody group of songs traditional and un-, new and old, expected and not.

--

Raul Malo

"Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites" (New Door/Universal)

* * 1/2 Malo can sing pretty much anything with that goose bump-inducing Roy Orbison-esque tenor, which is at its best on the original "Not So Merry Christmas." But this outing sometimes feels tossed off, as if a latter-day Dean Martin swagger by itself is enough to carry the day.

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Barry Manilow

"In the Swing of Christmas" (Hallmark)

* * *

"Barry Manilow" and "swing" aren't terms typically found in the same sentence, but the master of mainstream pop balladry surrounds himself with bona fide jazz players here and -- surprise, surprise -- it really does swing. Manilow is nothing if not a gifted arranger, and his treatment of these holiday chestnuts is often inventive and occasionally inspired.

--

Over the Rhine "Snow Angels" (GSD)

* * * *

Singer Karin Bergquist and multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler share songwriting duties, and with this set of original songs, they've crafted not just one of the year's best holiday albums, but one of its best, period. Knowing the season sparks a multitude of emotions, they explore loneliness, romance, hope, spirituality, wonder and forgiveness, subjects wrapped in music that's evocatively atmospheric and irresistibly melodic.

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Relient K

"Let It Snow Baby . . . Let It Reindeer" (Capitol)

* * *

It's the most wonderful time of the year . . . for a Christian pop-punk band. This Ohio outfit mixes crunchy, barre-chorded up-tempo carols with several holiday originals, some melancholy, most spiritually attuned.

--

Mindy Smith

"My Holiday" (Vanguard)

* * * *

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