It’s time to deck the halls with Christmas albums

In tune with the holidays > from pop stars to country crooners

The best of the new this holiday season is largely reissued recordings of veteran singers sing, sing, singing the tried and true. A handful of younger (and still living) artists, Sufjan Stevens, Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley, Lindsay Lohan’s sister, have coughed up holiday albums with varying degrees of good cheer, but this year’s crop of new yuletide-themed recordings is among the thinnest in recent years.

That might explain so many reheated offerings from ghosts of Christmases past: Vince Guaraldi, Bing Crosby and others. Still alt-folk oddball Stevens and sourpuss singer-songwriter Mann have done a surprisingly fine job keeping the format fresh.

Here’s some of this season’s offerings >

Vince Guaraldi’s cool and spirited A Charlie Brown Christmas remains my favorite holiday album. A new remaster/repackage (Fantasy) doesn’t so much improve on the original as add a few more ornaments: a nice set of liner notes by Joel Selvin and four alternate takes on some of its 12 songs. It’s exclusively for fanatics of the original soundtrack or for those obsessed with Guaraldi’s fluid West Coast jazz. The bittersweet holiday spirit embodied by Charlie Brown is taken to even bluer ends by Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan.

The dour title of Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow (Superego) is almost a deal-breaker from the get-go. But she does the slow, moodier stuff (White Christmas) nicely and the inclusion of You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch suggests a thawing sense of humor. Her original Calling on Mary definitely falls on the sour side of Christmas.

McLachlan’s Wintersong (Arista) is more ambient than ethereal, which is strange since she took a few gambles with nontraditional fare by the likes of John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. It’s a decent, if inessential, holiday set.

Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty) is undoubtedly the first holiday album to include an essay by novelist Rick Moody. That’s all well and good, but how’s the music? It’s a little hit and miss (no big shock), but well worth a selective spin. The 42-song set, made up of five EPs recorded during five years, is inexplicably charming.

At this time of year, new music is usually like fruitcake, obligatory, but hardly greeted with enthusiasm. But Stevens has embraced the perky punctuation of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! (which he covers) by adding exclamation points to most of his new stuff (It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!; Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!). His idiosyncratic style, the underrated glockenspiel is one of several instrumental characters to appear, puts over songs such as Get Behind Me, Santa! and the very good Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! with weirdo panache. It’s one of the most enjoyable banjo-filled holiday records ever made.

Like all country music stars, Brad Paisley does much better by the old stuff on Brad Paisley Christmas (Arista Nashville) than he does with his originals. His tidy, twangy voice is warm on Winter Wonderland and Silent Night, but the new dad gets too goofy on Penguin, James Penguin.

Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub (Surfdog) is the most enjoyably cracked holiday album ever recorded. Cheese puts a loungy spin on a few old favorites (Silent Night, Christmas Is Here) and adds covers of some ’80s songs that have very, very, very thin yuletide ties (Holiday in Cambodia, Like a Virgin, Ice Ice Baby … get it?). This one’s not for the reverent holiday music fan.

Capitol Records has gone back to its vaults to repackage some storied stuff from its past. Bing Crosby, Christmas Classics (Capitol): Twelve of these 16 tracks are from Crosby’s lovely I Wish You a Merry Christmas. “New” tracks include White Christmas from a 1957 appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show, a spirited Do You Hear What I Hear with a chorus and Ralph Carmichael’s Orchestra and the still-bizarre Peace On Earth/The Little Drummer Boy duet with David Bowie from 1977.

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas (Capitol) includes two good albums, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas and Brighten the Corner, the latter a gospel set, neither of which are quite as good as her Swingin’ Christmas, which got a dandy reissue a few years ago.

Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol) is more packaging ploy than anything, a collection of holiday odds and ends by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. Better is Martin’s Christmas With Dino (Capitol), which consolidates The Dean Martin Christmas Album with A Winter Romance. It’s loaded with the standards, all nicely presented by Dino, though it gets docked a half-star for a wholly unnecessary post-mortem duet with Martina McBride on Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

Lou Rawls’ Merry Christmas, Baby (Capitol) is also a consistent winner, with his big, broad voice lighting up several favorites. The soulful set also includes a bonus in Oh Come All Ye Faithful from Rawls’ last-known recording session.

Christmas With the Chipmunks (Capitol) is good for little more than nostalgia these days. The chirpy rodents run through the standards, but the voices, and Alvin’s persistent whining about a Hula Hoop, are grating over 24 tracks. For an animated soundtrack, stick with Guaraldi (who’s not irritating in the least) and Charlie Brown.

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