WRAP IT UP: It's time once again for my annual holiday album roundup, wherein I provide a consumer guide of sorts to new releases. Let it be noted, however, that I limit my critical musings to only those releases that have been sent to me for free by the record labels. Thus I will not be discussing, for example, the new Christmas album by Linda Rondstadt, local hero or not. No fault of hers; the label just didn't send me one (like she needs me to help her sell albums anyway). Almost all the albums that follow were released on indie labels, and might otherwise fall between the cracks of the major holiday releases. Hopefully there's something here to make the holiday a little brighter for you and yours.

Let's start with a biggie: The Three Tenors Christmas (Sony Classical) will please fans of the renowned trio of José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, as the disc mixes in all the classics you'd expect, from "Adeste Fideles," more commonly known as "O Come All Ye Faithful," to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Opera has never really been my bag, but hey, I can appreciate three middle-aged guys with fine voices as much as the next guy (though not as much as, say, my dad). Plus, it's really fun to try and figure out what language they're singing in. (Hint: It's usually English; it just doesn't sound like English). And the tenors' take on John and Yoko's "Happy Christmas/War is Over" is one of the more surreal tracks I've ever heard on a Christmas album.

World music Christmas releases have picked up some steam in the last few years, and this year proves no exception. I received two Celtic-themed Xmas discs this year, the first of which is Caroline Peyton's Celtic Christmas Spirit (Green Hill). Peyton's take on the holidays proves chock-full of that dreamy, ethereal Celtic-meets-New Age stuff that fans of Enya love so much. And while I wouldn't be caught dead listening to this stuff at any other time of the year, I must say that it is pretty and surely wouldn't offend anyone as the background music for the holiday post-feast round-table discussion. Plus, to its credit, there's not a single recognizable Christmas classic among the 11 tracks here, yet it does indeed manage to invoke the holiday spirit.

The second disc on the Celtic tip is the Green Linnet compilation A Thistle & Shamrock Christmas Ceilidh, a far more traditional Celtic affair than Peyton's New-Age take on the matter. The 17 tracks here were hand-picked by NPR's Fiona Ritchie, host of that network's The Thistle & Shamrock radio program, and she obviously knows her stuff. Tracks by relatively big names such as Altan, Lunasa, the Tannahill Weavers and Capercaillie sit alongside worthy lesser-knowns like Andy M. Stewart & Manus Lunny, Milladoiro and Patrick Street. Again, the tunes here are traditional Celtic songs, so likely only one or two will be recognized by the jig'n'reel novice, but the collection is highly listenable from start to finish. Plus, how many Christmas albums do you know of that include a recipe for a Scottish Holiday Whiskey Cake in the liner notes?

Latin/salsa guitar duo Lara & Reyes throw their hat in the ring with Navidad (Higher Octave), an instrumental collection of most of the usual suspects found on Christmas albums: "Winter Wonderland," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the like. And while both are excellent guitarists, the duo doesn't do anything spectacular with the arrangements: familiar songs + lack of Latin flair = a spiceless and boring Christmas album best relegated to elevators.

Far more interesting is A Putumayo World Christmas (Putumayo), which gathers a combo platter of world music styles together over the course of 11 tracks (only complaint: It coulda been longer). There's a little bit of everything here, though, from Jamaican Ini Kimoze's reggae take on "All I Want for Christmas" to the steel drum rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" from Barbados' Banks Soundtech Steel Orchestra, with only the occasional slight misstep. It's like taking a world tour for the holiday season without leaving the comforts of your living room.

Back on home turf, The Weisstronauts turn in I'm Dreaming of The Weisstronauts' Christmas (Stereoriffic Recordings), a five-song romp of an EP that features a rockabilly take on "Jingle Bells" and an instrumental country waltz version of "Silent Night," as well as a pair of inspired originals: the swamp rock of "Nuthin' Good Comin' This Christmas" and the oddly inspiring "Sweet Baby Jesus."

Finally, the retro-chic culture experts at Atomic Magazine give us Sleigh Me: A Collection of Retro Holiday Classics (Atomic Goodies), a mostly jump-swing affair that features timeless-sounding modern recordings of the songs we all know and love, save the occasional original and rewrite (see Lavay Smith's "Winter Wonderland," Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's "Christmas Time in Tinseltown [Again]" and the Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra's "Jingle Bells," in respective order). If you're not still sick of the now-bygone neo-swing renaissance of a few years back, this one should please your grandparents as much as it will you.

SING-ALONGS: And now for the live music portion of our column --

Norman, Okla.'s Starlight Mints aim to combine the sound of British invasion bands (think the Beatles and the Kinks), Latin American psychedelia (think Os Mutantes) and classic American pop (think the Beach Boys and anything else played in heavy rotation during the '70s), plus pomo touches à la the Pixies. The good news is that, on their debut album, The Dream That Stuff Was Made From (See Thru Broadcasting), they are wildly successful. Bowie-esque vocals accompany the twisted psychedelic landscape that includes everything from string sections and march-like dirges to gurgling vintage synths and fully charged guitars, while never losing sight of the song. Much like their state-mates the Flaming Lips, the Mints take a decidedly sideways approach to their hooks, only making them richer and more textured in the process.

Starlight Mints appear on Wednesday, December 20, at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. Twine opens the show at 9 p.m., and cover for the all-ages show is $5. For details call 884-0874.

Local folk-popper Amber Jade touts the release of her brand new CD (just in time for Christmas!) with a celebratory shindig at 9 p.m. on Friday, December 15, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Opening duties will be provided by Tongue Dried Sun and Emily Long, and you can call the hotel's front desk at 622-8848 for cover charge info.

Then on the following night, Tongue Dried Sun headlines its own CD release party along with opener Green Vinyl Dream. Doors open at 7 p.m. on Saturday, December 16, at The Rock, 136 N. Park Ave. Tickets are $6 and may be purchased in advance at Guitars, Etc., Zip's University and CD Depot. For more info call 629-9211.

After a year of touring with the likes of Slipknot and Papa Roach, tuneful rap-metal combo (hed) has graduated to headlining status its own damn self. Touring on the strength of its successful second album, Broke, released earlier this year on Jive Records (home to Britney Spears), the band will drop into Gotham, 4385 W. Ina Road, on Monday, December 18. Doors open at 7 p.m. and PH8 will open the all-ages show. Advance tickets are available for $12 in advance at the club or any Western Warehouse location. They'll be $15 on the day of the show. For more 411 call 744-7744.

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