It's an annual ritual -- the flooding of the music market with dozens if not hundreds of holiday-themed titles, and this year is no exception. Plenty of artists are releasing festive recordings, and labels are hoping all that good cheer will translate to some sales uplift. In the mix are offerings from a crystalline-voiced would-be American Idol and from a sandpaper-throated bona-fide American icon. Sting does some musical time-traveling, and one adventurous experimentalist beams the spirit of the season into the vastness of deep space. What follows is a look at some of the most interesting collections available right now:
"Christmas From the Heart"
(19/Jive) ** 1/2
America's favorite elfin pop idol, Archie sounds every bit as spot-on key and invested with holiday reverence and good cheer as humanly possible -- and nearly as predictable. But given that "American Idol" is about meeting popular expectations rather than exceeding (much less defying) them, it's somehow comforting that within the familiar arrangements and production touches are a few intriguing touches such as the musical quotations of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" into his version of "Angels We Have Heard on High."
(Decca) ** 1/2
There's always an audience for yuletide music sung in a romantic tenor voice, and this year, Bocelli's under the tree. He's brought along several vocal partners including Natalie Cole, Mary J. Blige and Reba McEntire -- even the Muppets and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As usual with operatic singers for whom English is a second language, Bocelli tends to succeed better with carols than with pop tunes.
"A Cherry Cherry Christmas"
(Columbia) ** 1/2
The erstwhile Brill Building songwriting pro adds a few of his own musical thoughts to the carols and pop standards he covers here. The title track is earnest but misfires with the multiple references to his classic pop hits. "Christmas Dream," however, is sweet, and you've got to admire his chutzpah for including an appropriately silly rendition of Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song."
"Christmas in the Heart"
(Columbia) *** 1/2
Most seasonal albums invite listeners to celebrate, appreciate or vegetate; Dylan's, not surprisingly, practically forces you to cogitate. His 15-song collection tips a red felt hat to vintage holiday recordings from genre standard-bearers such as Gene Autry ("Here Comes Santa Claus") and Bing Crosby ("Do You Hear What I Hear?") to wisecracking upstarts including Brave Combo ("Must Be Santa") and Leon Redbone ("Christmas Island"). A name-that-reference game for pop music geeks? Probably. Innocuous background music? Not a chance. Proceeds benefit hunger relief organizations.
"Chanukah Fever: 13 Macca-beats
for the Whole Family"
(Mama Doni) ** 1/2
Mama Doni, a.k.a. singer-songwriter-producer Doni Zasloff Thomas, goes primarily for campy Yiddish humor in this low-fi, bedroom-studio-sounding outing. The wit isn't consistently inspired, eliciting modest smiles rather than belly laughs. She even gets warmly sincere in "Eight," a song that celebrates the myriad manifestations of love represented by the number of days in the Jewish holiday season.
'A Christmas Story'
(TCM Music/Rhino) ***
Why it's taken 26 years for a soundtrack from this contemporary holiday movie classic to surface is anybody's guess. But Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza's original music is every bit as evocative on its own as it is within the framework of this delightful movie about little Ralphie and his unquenchable desire for an official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot range-model air rifle on Christmas Day.
Anybody who builds a holiday album around the spacey sounds of theremin and synthesizers almost assuredly relegates their work to the "Christmas on Forbidden Planet" bin. But Schletter's loose concept -- an automated deep-space probe that tries to unravel the mystery of the Christmas spirit -- is surprisingly engaging and less gimmicky than you might think, thanks to charming original songs dressed up in Brian Wilson-inspired harmonies.
"If on a Winter's Night"
(Deutsche Grammophon) ***
Leave it to pop's Renaissance man to deliver a seasonal collection that would have been right at home during the Renaissance. It's not a Christmas album in the traditional sense; instead, it's a collection of wintry songs crafted from prose and poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson, Michael Praetorious, John Dryden and even Sting himself. It's an ambitious undertaking, only occasionally bowing under the weight of grand intentions.
"Gold and Green"
The country duo has fun getting into the holiday spirit in 10 songs, half of them freshly written for this CD. "Little Wood Guitar" puts a homey musical spin on what the season means over time, while "Coming Home" taps the warmth of a family reunion as well as the melancholy this time of year can bring.