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Tunes for the Holidays 

Our Christmas-music-lovin' Jewish music critic yet again reviews his mail

Well, hello again! It's your friendly neighborhood Jewish music critic, here to recap all of the holiday albums that showed up in my stocking this year. In other words, this is by no means a comprehensive summary of the seasonal music released in 2006, but rather my thoughts on the CDs that were sent to me, for free, by record companies and publicists.

Just in case you're wondering why a Jew would be given this assignment, rest assured: I seem to have a fondness for seasonal music that surpasses most of my goyim friends' appreciation for this stuff. Heck, I count the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" as one of my favorite songs of all time--not one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, but one of my very favorite songs, period.

So, with my bona fides firmly established, here's a rundown of the goods that Santa delivered this year.

Lou Rawls
Christmas Time Life
The bad news is that this would prove to be Rawls' final album. He passed away in January, and no one--least of all a man whose career encompassed triumphs in gospel, jazz and soul, and benefited from a silky smooth delivery that spanned four octaves--deserves to go out on a collection of Christmas classics. The good news, then, is that Rawls is still in excellent form here: The swinging arrangements perfectly suit his suave style, and you'd never guess that he'd already been diagnosed with cancer prior to these recordings. To the very end, the man defined class, and this is proof.

Various Artists
Redneck Christmas Time Life
Based on the title alone of this compilation, one would assume it's an attempt to cash in on the success of the redneck comedy boom of the last several years (see: Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and all their pals). And maybe it is--on the surface, anyway. But it's actually a well-curated collection of country Christmas originals--no "Silent Night" or "Jingle Bells" here--ranging from the '50s and '60s (Buck Owens' "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," plus tracks from George Jones and The Louvin Brothers), then oddly fast-forwarding to more contemporary tracks from the '90s by the likes of Travis Tritt, Dwight Yoakam, John Anderson and Asleep at the Wheel. And just in case you're wondering, yes, it includes "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"--the lone concession to the album title.

Various Artists
Classic Soul Ballads: Christmas Time Life
The latest installment in Time Life's Classic Soul series is this gathering of classic and original Christmas tunes culled from the '60s through the '90s, all rendered in ballad form. Mellow soul is the name of the game here, with contributions from The Temptations ("Silent Night") to Luther Vandross ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), from Aretha Franklin (who can't help but get sassy on "Winter Wonderland") to Otis Redding, who improvises his way through the grittiest "White Christmas" you'll ever hear. This one would be equally at home as Christmas-dinner background music as it would be a tool of seduction for that potential holiday hottie.

Aimee Mann
One More Drifter in the Snow Superego
By this point, you've probably made up your mind about Aimee Mann: You either find her melancholy musings unremarkable and boring, or you find those musings full of heartbreaking pathos. This collection of Christmas chestnuts, plus a pair of originals--one by Mann and Paul Bryan, the other by Mann's husband, Michael Penn, and the amazing Jon Brion--is an attempt to re-create a lush-sounding album that could have been released some 50 or 60 years prior, full of orchestral flourishes and a general air of sophistication. One highlight is "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," a genial collaboration with Grant Lee Phillips, who expertly assumes the role of the narrator.

The Go-Go Boys
... Go Homo for the Holidays Ring
Definitely one for those holiday gatherings of 'mos and those who love them, as opposed to family fare--unless your grandmother is Donatella Versace. The Go-Go Boys celebrate and skewer every facet of gay culture imaginable, and somehow manage to make reference to Christmas in each song along the way. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" becomes "Taking Cover": "Some casing you need to stuff with your pork / Before you proceed his cornhole to cork / STDs are goin' to town." Although the focus here is obviously on the funny lyrics, and in hearing Christmas classics recast in a fabulous new light, it would be a bit more enjoyable if the whole thing didn't sound as if it were recorded on a cheap Casio keyboard.

The Wyatts
"Merry Christmas Darlin'" Self-Released
OK, so this one isn't an album, but rather a CD single of a Christmas tune cooked up by local country-pop-rockers The Wyatts. With its lush production, complete with piano, lap steel and Christmas bells, it sounds like an instant classic. Available at iTunes or wyattstheband.com.

Poppa's Kitchen
A Rockin Hanukkah Self-Released
Unlike Christmas albums, which have a wealth of traditional songs from which to choose, anyone attempting a Hanukkah album pretty much lives and dies by the songs they write. How many reinventions can "The Dreidel Song" endure, after all? Poppa's Kitchen is a duo from the Los Angeles area who have come up with a mere eight songs celebrating the Festival of Lights, but they're all pretty enjoyable, and each seems to ape the style of an established performer. "Hanukkah (Say It Loud, Sing It Proud)" is done in the style of Neil Diamond; "A Rockin' Hanukkah" sounds like a Dire Straits song; and so on, which gives the whole album a feeling of familiarity. Still, unlike most Hanukkah albums it's short on humor--even "Oy Vey Blues" doesn't manage to coax a laugh.

Various Artists
African Christmas: Christmas Favorites With an African Beat Higher Octave
The concept sounds awfully intriguing, right? One would imagine this would sound something like Ladysmith Black Mambazo throwing down some serious harmonies on seasonal classics, and on parts, it does. But it also suffers the same fate that many World Beat albums do: the attempt to Westernize the music in order to make it more palatable to our ears. Still, slick though it may be, it's also authentic enough to remain solidly interesting and entertaining throughout. Expect to hear this at any holiday parties thrown by KXCI DJs.

Carl Tanner
Hear the Angel Voices Bounty/Timeless
If I knew a whit about opera, I might have known that Carl Tanner is, according to his press kit, a "world-renowned tenor" whose voice, according to the New York Post, "is robust and virile." But I don't know a whit about opera, so to my ears, this sounds like what Christmas albums sounded like before we got all postmodern about this stuff. In other words, this is far and away the most traditional album discussed here, the soundtrack to Christmas dinner at the home of a family that takes this stuff really seriously.

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