Pop's Claus Celebre

Festive songs for the season.
Festive songs for the season. (Photos By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Silent night? Are you kidding?

Pour yourself an eggnog, and let's make our annual survey of the CDs cranked out by the North Pole's recording studios:

The Best

Brian Wilson, "What I Really Want for Christmas." The first solo Christmas album by the founder/mastermind of the Beach Boys, whose 1964 offering remains a seasonal favorite. Wilson reprises two favorites from that album -- the dune buggy-driven "Little Saint Nick" and delightful "The Man With All the Toys" -- and serves up traditional holiday favorites, including a cappella versions of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Silent Night," that benefit from his continued association with the empathetic musicians and vocalists who helped him revive "Pet Sounds" and "Smile." Wilson, who produced and arranged the album, contributes a pair of new songs with guest lyricists: Jimmy Webb on "Christmasey" and Bernie Taupin on the title song.

While the voice is diminished, the spirit is not.

"Elton John's Christmas Party." Taupin's lyrics bookend this collection curated by John, opening with John's 1973 track, "Step Into Christmas," and closing with his new "Calling It Christmas," a duet with Joss Stone. The older song has a Phil Spectorish feel, and John honors that preeminent producer by including two examples of his work: the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" and the Crystals' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." With a generous 21 tracks, there's plenty of star power (U2, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen), peer faves (Rufus Wainwright, Kate Bush) and curiosities (Flaming Lips). Available only at Starbucks.

"The McGarrigle Christmas Hour," in which the great Canadian singer-songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle gather family (quiet sister Jane, Kate's kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Anna's husband Dane Lanken and their two children, Lily and Sylvan) and friends Emmylou Harris and Chaim Tannenbaum to create their own Christmas revels. The crystalline "Seven Joys of Mary" and "Old Waits Carol" feature the massed families masquerading as an English church choir, while "Il Est Ne/Ca Bergers" honors their French Canadian heritage. Harris contributes a serene "O Little Town of Bethlehem," underscored by a trio of trombones and a chorus, while sweet-voiced Rufus Wainwright has three showcases, including a romantic "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and his own prickly "Spotlight on Christmas." You wish there were more of Kate and Anna themselves, but a pair of new songs, "Wise Men" and "Port Starboard Sox," prove they remain wonderful writers whose sisterly harmonies are as gorgeous as ever.

The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble, "La Noche Buena: Christmas Music of Colonial Latin America." These are the real holiday oldies, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries. The ensemble, which specializes in musical reconstruction and anthropology, has collected indigenous and European period instruments to re-create some of the first Christmas music written in the Americas. Music and languages of the Aztec, Maya and Inca, and newly converted African slaves, melded with the traditions of Catholic missionaries and Spanish conquerors to create some of the earliest multicultural expression. This beautiful music deserves a place in the larger medieval and Renaissance repertoire.

"A Skaggs Family Christmas." A family gathering that moved from the living room to the concert stage and, finally, to the recording studio. In a collection of traditional Christmas songs done bluegrass style, Ricky Skaggs and his tremendous Kentucky Thunder band support the Whites -- patriarch Buck White; daughters Sharon (married to Skaggs) and Cheryl; and Ricky's kids, Molly and Luke. They all sing like angels, particularly Sharon on the beautiful "Love Come Gently," Cheryl on a stately "Mary, Did You Know?" and young Molly on a spry "Christmas Time Is Here." Great voices, rich harmonies. The picking is first-rate as well: Check out the spry instrumental version of "Deck the Halls."

Diana Krall, "Christmas Songs." Krall follows up her 1998 Christmas EP, revisiting "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and other standards in the company of the swinging Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (on seven tracks) and her own stellar quartet. Johnny Mandel provides lush string arrangements and conducts three tracks. Heartily swinging one moment, ruminative the next, Krall closes with a lovely reading of the odd but somehow appropriate "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)" by Irving Berlin.

Faith Evans, "A Faithful Christmas." A mix of secular and religious songs, although the latter sometimes get a tad too secular and slick in their arrangements ("O Come All Ye Faithful" sounds like an R. Kelly production). But when Evans brings her sensuality to the right material -- Eartha Kitt's slinky "Santa Baby," for instance -- she's just fine, and her reading of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" is lovely. The originals are okay, but the chestnuts are rip-roaring, and Evans serves up the best distaff James Brown ever on a gritty reading of his "Soulful Christmas."

Aaron Neville, "Christmas Prayer." Blessed with an ethereal, tremolo-laden tenor seemingly designed to soar heavenward, Neville comes to this collection with an almost unfair advantage. Except for Berlin's "White Christmas" (delivered with doo-wop charm), a wry "Merry Christmas Baby" and reggae-tinged "Christmas Everyday," the songs are mostly traditional carols delivered gracefully ("Joy to the World" with the Blind Boys of Alabama), energetically ("Go Tell It on the Mountain") or majestically, as in one more reading of "Ave Maria," which has become Neville's signature song year-round.

Odetta, "Gonna Let It Shine: A Concert for the Holidays." Another majestic voice, though much deeper and richer, given here to a recital of African American seasonal songs and spirituals. Odetta, a major presence in both the civil rights and folk movements, is accompanied by pianist Seth Farber and on a number of tracks gets vocal support from the Holmes Brothers, but she can also power a song a cappella or lead an audience in inspired singalongs. Providing historical context to the material, some of it dating to slavery days, Odetta gives luminous readings of "Mary Had a Baby," "Shout for Joy," the bracing "Freedom Trilogy" and two of her best-known songs, "Somebody Talking 'Bout Jesus" and "Keep On Moving It On."

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