John Lennon once sang that there's "nothing you can sing that can't be sung." That appears to be the guiding principle behind a flood of more than 50 new holiday albums; all you need is cash.
*** 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Festival of Light," Six Degrees. Peter Himmelman, Jane Siberry, Marc Cohn, John Zorn and others celebrate Hanukkah with a collection of songs that vibrantly honor or expand upon klezmer tradition.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Christmas on Death Row," Death Row. No slugs to Santa's head in this compilation from rap's most notorious label. In fact, the offerings from Snoop Doggy Dogg and company can get downright heartwarming. Muscular raps alternate with glistening, smooth, occasionally mushy treatments of such standards as "The Christmas Song" and "Silent Night," and Nate Dogg's heartfelt original "Be Thankful."
*** TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories," Atlantic. Easily the most ambitious Christmas project this year: an original symphonic hard-rock opera by Paul O'Neill about how mankind is faring 2,000 years after Jesus' birthday. A surprisingly entertaining alternative to the usual yuletide fare.
*** "CHRISTMAS WITH THE NEW BLACK EAGLE JAZZ BAND," Daring/Rounder. The simple, familiar melodies of these holiday tunes are perfect source material for the spirited improvisational tack of this traditional New Orleans jazz outfit. One of the few that will hold up under repeated play.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas," Celtic Heartbeat. The one to put on after the craziness of family gatherings has subsided. Ethereally beautiful music avoids stepping over the line into the land of new-age vacuity.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice," Columbia. Henry Rollins leads off with a tension-filled, urban-apocalypse setting of C. Clement Moore's perennial "A Visit From St. Nicholas," and the roller coaster roars from there through Juliana Hatfield's winsome "Make It Home" on through to the infectiously polyrhythmic Deep Forest-Wes Madiko number "Nemeke."
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Just Say Noel," Geffen. Highlights include Beck's wry "Little Drum Machine Boy," XTC's glistening "Thanks for Christmas" and the touching performance of "Amazing Grace" by the late Ted Hawkins.
*** VANESSA WILLIAMS, "Star Bright," Mercury. Williams takes a nicely relaxed approach on originals and chestnuts, dipping from sultry R&B; through some persuasive swing.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Quad City All-Star Christmas," Atlantic/Big Beat. This hip-hop entry has a grittily honest Christmas-in-the-inner-city focus. A solid sense of humor and some soothing ballads keep the tone appropriately festive.
** 1/2 "TINY TIM'S CHRISTMAS ALBUM," Rounder. If the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come had wanted to scare the Dickens out of Charles, he'd have given him a glimpse of this wacky outing. Still, it's perverse fun, especially the late singer's unexpected booming baritone rendition of "O Come All Ye Faithful." Not for the reverent.
** 1/2 JOSE CARRERAS, NATALIE COLE, PLACIDO DOMINGO, "A Celebration of Christmas," Erato/Elektra. Or two tenors and a pop diva. This is the equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille production--big voices, big arrangements, big emotions. Genuinely inspired moments arise sporadically.
** 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Bending Towards the Light--A Jazz Nativity," Milan/BMG. This documents what has been an annual event in New York for more than a decade. Jazz notables including Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, Benny Powell, Ron Carter and lots more approach familiar carols in thoroughly unfamiliar ways, some of which will lose all but the most ardent jazz fans.
** MICHAEL BOLTON, "This Is the Time--The Christmas Album," Columbia. As you'd expect, Bolton mostly sings familiar songs of the yuletide season with such emotional intensity he sounds as if he's in the throes of childbirth. Now and then he reins in the histrionics to communicate heartfelt, human-scale season greetings.
Among this year's noteworthy re-releases: "Christmas EP" (KOCH), the exquisitely melancholy 1991 release by singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara; "A Classic Cartoon Christmas" (Nick at Nite Records), with songs from various animated Christmas TV specials; and possibly the goofiest entry of the year: "Christmas in the Stars--Star Wars Christmas Album" (Rhino), the 1980 release by Meco.
Albums and other items in the Gift Guide are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).