It's the most wonderful time of the year, whether you like a choir-sung carol, a jokey jingle or even a tinsel-tinged tearjerker.
This year's holiday musical compilations run from "White Christmas" to white noise. And, as always, there are plenty of presents under the tree. But how to separate the diamonds from the fruitcake?
Funny you should ask. Here's a sampling of the 2001 holiday fare, rated on a scale of one to four stars.
* Swingin' Christmas -- Various artists (Rhino). Score: HHH
Some of the hep tunes on this compilation are cooler than the driven snow -- Louis Armstrong (" 'Zat You Santa Claus") and Louis Prima, Tex Beneke and even Kay Starr gettin' frisky with "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man With the Bag." So what's with the lame stuff like two cuts by Jack Jones, the poor man's Andy Williams?
* What a Wonderful Christmas -- Anne Murray (Straightway Music). Score: ** 1/2
Nothing special. Nothing new. Still, whatever Anne Murray does has a certain homey feeling to it, whether her honeyed alto is going standard ("Joy to the World") or lightening things up ("Christmas in Killarney") on this two-CD set.
* The Big '80's Christmas -- Various artists (Rhino). Score: **
"Thank God It's Christmas" might be the nadir of Queen's career -- and of this compilation -- but there's good stuff, too. The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" and the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)" are fun, but the highlight is the Pretenders' "2000 Miles," one of the best original holiday tunes of the past couple of decades.
* Christmas Memories -- Barbra Streisand (Sony). Score: * 1/2
What a downer! Streisand starts nicely enough with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and a warm and fuzzy "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" (neither of which, happy holidays, is overproduced). The remaining cuts of the two-CD collection are dark and gloomy. She even sings about a "grown-up" Christmas. Heck, who wants that?
* Our Favorite Things -- Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Placido Domingo, Vanessa Williams (Sony Classical). Score: **
Only one of these cats has whiskers: Tony Bennett, who's definitely one of our favorite things. Even Placido Domingo qualifies, if you like the operatic stuff. But Charlotte Church, the Welsh teen who became an international star through pushy marketing, is out of her element. And Vanessa Williams sounds strangely pinched. Maybe "Our Scariest Things"?
* A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night -- 38 Special (CMC International). Score: **
A rolled-eyes Christmas is what you might expect. But hold on (loosely, if you like). This well-intentioned, Southern-fried collection mixes holiday classics with 38 Special originals. Tracks include a cover of Elvis' "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" and an instrumental of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The originals include "That Old Rockin' Chair," in which the boys sing of missing a departed mom, who is watching from above, truly home for the holidays. Sweet.
Christian / Gospel
* Christmas -- Jaci Velasquez (Word). Score: ****
Even Scrooge would like this album. Velasquez has a soulful voice that wrings emotion out of every nuance of a song. This is a beautiful collection of dramatic, well-crafted Christmas songs.
* Fred Hammond Christmas ... Just Remember -- Fred Hammond (Verity). Score: ** 1/2
It's called Christmas because it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, and contemporary gospel star Fred Hammond doesn't dance around that point. Unfortunately, he doesn't give listeners much to dance about, either. Instead, with an acoustic guitar and light drum snaps, Hammond has created an album of contemplative, modern-day Bible stories.
* Father Christmas -- Deana Carter (Rounder). Score: ****
Spacious, spare guitar arrangements and the singer's smoky, girlish voice fit these holiday classics like a snug Christmas stocking. Carter makes familiar tunes such as "The Christmas Song" and "Winter Wonderland" sound fresher than seemed possible.
* Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas -- Suzy Bogguss (Loyal Dutchess). Score: ** 1/2
With her pure voice and understated feel for the nuances of western swing, Bogguss scores a modest triumph with this self-released disc (available through www.suzybogguss.com). It includes a marvelous reinterpretation of "Mr. Sandman," redubbed "Mr. Santa," with the late Chet Atkins on guitar and Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, and a duet with her randy, raspy-voiced opposite -- Delbert McClinton -- on "Baby It's Cold Outside."
Jazz / Blues
* Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz -- Various artists (Verve). Score: ***
With songs from Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Smith, you know it can't be bad. It's not perfect, either, but listening to Dinah Washington's powerful voice cut through the stodgy backing vocal arrangement on a version of "Silent Night" is a treat in itself.
* A Nancy Wilson Christmas -- Nancy Wilson (MCG Jazz). Score: ****