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HEAR FOR THE HOLIDAYS: It's time again for our annual Holiday Album Round-Up, whereby I pore over all the new seasonal releases (or at least the free ones bestowed upon me by the record labels -- y'know the season of giving and all that), and report to you, dear reader, which ones are worth blowing 15 bucks on.

I know what you're thinking: Why in the world would they get a Jew to write about Christmas music? (In case you hadn't noticed, the market isn't exactly flooded with Hanukkah albums). But I use this true anecdote as my credentials: When I was probably 5 years old, I actually cried myself to sleep on Christmas night because I was so sad that it would be a whole year before I got to hear "Little Drummer Boy" again. (That's right, Virginia, some of us grow up without a single Christmas record in the house). To this day, I still think the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version of "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" stands as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. It literally gives me chills every time.

So yes, I do like the stuff. And this year's bounty offers up a little something for all, a holiday soundtrack for every family, no matter how dysfunctional that family might be. A little sample of what the record store bins are offering this year:

One of the more mainstream discs to pop up in my mailbox is the generically titled My Christmas Album (MCA), a collection of traditional and original tunes (I don't seem to recall Perry Como doing a version of "Christmas Came to the Ghetto" on any of his Christmas specials) from R&B veterans (Patti LaBelle, who's never sounded so annoying as she does here, and Gladys Knight) and new-schoolers (K-Ci & JoJo, Mary J. Blige and Cherokee) alike. Highlights include Rahsaan Patterson's "Christmas At My House," which comes off as more of a supersexy slow jam -- and a damn good one, too -- than a Christmas tune; and Mary J. Blige's "Someday at Christmas" sounds especially winning in context, as she's one of the few performers here who doesn't feel the need to completely over-sing her part, cooing subtly instead over a shuffling hip-hop beat. Jesse Powell's hauntingly sparse "O Holy Night" is a fine addition to the collection as well. On the other hand, Pam and Dodi's "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" is unintentionally hilarious and laughably awful, and Cherokee's hip-hop flava'd take on "Little Drummer Boy" is misguided at best. I swear to God when I first heard it I thought she was doing the spoken word intro to C.W. MaCall's '70s trucking opus, "Convoy."

Ever since the Hendrix estate finally (and deservedly) obtained the rights to their son Jimi's catalog a few years ago, the late guitarist's section in your local music store has been ever-expanding with previously unreleased live material and other lost treasures. Which brings us to the first-ever release of Jimi's medley of "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne" as recorded whilst fucking around in the studio with the Band of Gypsys in 1969. This "special holiday single," generically titled Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (Experience Hendrix/MCA) includes two versions of the medley, one edited for brevity, the other in its full seven-and-a-half minute version: tossed-off wankery of the highest order. The disc also includes a nifty little throwaway ditty called "Three Little Bears," recorded with the Experience, and previously unreleased, as well. No one besides Hendrix completists need waste their time with this one, though.

Best known for his '70s AM radio classic "Wild Fire," Michael Martin Murphey is now leading a true cowboy existence in Taos, New Mexico, where he has recorded four albums of cowboy songs. On his second Christmas release, the generically titled Cowboy Christmas II (Valley Entertainment), Murphey is joined by his two sons, Ryan and Brennan, both guitarists, and his daughter, vocalist Laura, as well as the immensely talented multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, whose chops here are completely wasted. Since Murphey sticks mostly to the classics, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night," for example (with a couple of lesser-known traditional tunes thrown in as well), I'm not sure why this constitutes a cowboy Christmas album. It's well-intentioned, extremely mannered, and downright interminably boring. For Chrissakes, at least "Wild Fire" had some drama; I dare you to try and stay awake for this snoozefest.

While I'll cop to the fact that I actually liked an Amy Grant song, "Baby, Baby," a bouncy little pop nugget on her first non-Christian album, upon its release many years ago, I'll also cop to the fact that her new holiday offering, the generically titled A Christmas to Remember (A&M), was the catalyst for a somewhat bizarre vision I had: Amy, in her network Christmas special to accompany this release (natch), is in the middle of her insipidly soul-sucking version of "Jingle Bell Rock" when a leatherman strolls onto the set and ball-gags Ms. Grant. Nothing sexual, just to get her to shut her goddamn mouth. Sick? Maybe, but not as sick as record company executives foisting this kind of crap off on us.

Utah world music combo Desert Wind's holiday release, Christmas: Rhythms of the Holy Land (Desert Wind Music), looked promising at first, its premise being to incorporate Middle Eastern rhythms with traditional Christmas songs. The result is a mixed bag. Far too often the renditions end up sounding like typical New Age pap with lots of drums laid over it, but there is the occasional stunner, too, like the group's "Little Drummer Boy," which positively delivers on the album's grand concept, a delicious fusion of the familiar and the exotic.

The highlight of the bunch comes courtesy of the joint Artemis/DCC venture, which has recently released other historical Rat Pack-related material on 24-karat-gold CD. Originally recorded in the late '60s, the re-release of the somewhat generically titled The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas includes recordings of the whole family on a few numbers (the full-on kitsch of "I Wouldn't Trade Christmas" and the rewritten-especially-for-Frank "The 12 Days of Christmas") and solo turns from each family member (Frank Jr. takes on "Some Children See Him," Tina warbles her way through a late-'60s period-piece version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" that inspires visions of go-go boots and lava lamps, while Nancy gets two tracks to herself, "It's Such a Lonely Time of Year" and "Kids"). The only complaint I have is that there's simply not enough Frank, damn it! The Chairman of the Board takes center stage for the album's highlights: "The Christmas Waltz" and a lovely, if somewhat overblown, take on the Jimmy Webb nugget "Whatever Happened to Christmas?" All in all, it's a tastefully fun little package.

And for completely tasteless fun, we turn to the (I swear to God) Blowfly Christmas album, appropriately titled Blowfly Does XXX-Mas (Pandisc). In case you don't know, Blowfly is a guy who's been recording parody songs since the early '60s so completely filthy they'd make Larry Flynt blush. He is often cited as having a major influence on the early days of rap, and now at age 54, he unleashes his Blowfly'd versions of all the holiday classics: "Jingle Bell Rock" is recast as "Jingle Bell Cock," "Deck the Halls" becomes "Dick the Hoes," and so on and so forth. Only bust this one out at the family dinner if you intend to send grandma into cardiac arrest. It also merits the honor of being the only Christmas album I've ever heard that opens with the words: "All you freaky motherfuckers!!! Merry Christmas!!"

Happy shopping, y'all.


SKA AND SPIRITUALISM: A few quick notes on a couple of worthwhile shows hitting town this week...

Fans of New Age label Windham Hill's roster will be pleased to welcome the return of that label's annual Winter Solstice Concert. This year's lineup features pianist Liz Story, keyboardist, composer and "sound designer" David Arkenstone, Celtic harpist Lisa Lynne, and guitarist Sean Harkness. The event hits the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., at 8 p.m. Sunday, December 19. Advance tickets are available for $22 at Hear's Music and both CD City locations. For more information, call 740-0126.

It'll be a meeting of the new wave-lovin' ska bands when The Aquabats and The Hippos duke it out at a show this week. The Aquabats are the Devo of ska: all nerdy sci-fi conspiracy theories and jerky rhythms. And on top of it all, they dress like bats! They're touring in support of their new release, The Aquabats vs. The Floating Eye of Death! (Time Bomb). The Hippos, who released Heads Are Gonna Roll on Interscope earlier this year, merge ska with heartfelt post-punk pop and Moog flourishes. The two bands will be joined by Tucsonans Pasta Rocket, who'll kick the festivities off at 8 p.m. Friday, December 17, at the Rialto Theatre. Advance tickets for the all-ages show are $12 and are available at CD Depot, the Congress Street Store, Guitars, Etc. and Zip's University, or by calling 1-888-244-8444. For more details, call 740-0126.

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