It's Okay to Peek: DVDs Have Something to Give, Too
'The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1976' and 'The Johnny Cash Christmas Special 1977'
The first special is a folksy affair shot in Tennessee on the family farm and Cash's home, mostly outdoors and obviously sung to pre-recorded tracks: When guest Roy Clark stands outside a barn and plucks his banjo while singing "The Christmas Song," the music is all orchestral. Though Cash narrates "Christmas as I Knew It," the fare here is only half-seasonal. He and Clark sing non-holiday standards, and June Carter Cash covers John Denver's "Follow Me." Merle Travis and, of all people, Barbara Mandrell deliver some hot instrumentals, while the Rev. Billy Graham closes the show with an inspirational story. The 1977 special, filmed in a television studio, was far more formal and even less seasonal, except for a Gene Autry tribute that features his three Christmas kiddie classics. There is a Sun Records tribute featuring Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and a sort of reunion of the Million Dollar Quartet, with Roy Orbison filling in for the then recently deceased Elvis Presley (the originals came together for the first and only time in an impromptu studio session in 1956). Those still on hand send Elvis off with the gospel standard "This Train Is Bound for Glory."
'Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration'
The PBS special that accompanied last year's Christmas album is now on DVD, featuring Celtic sirens Orla Fallon, Lisa Kelly, Chloe Agnew and Meav Ni Mhaolchatha (who has since departed the group) and violinist Mairead Nesbitt doing for Irish voices what "Riverdance" did for Irish dance. Shot in Dublin, this is a slick presentation -- visually and musically -- of mostly traditional yuletide fare that often feels more pop than Celtic. The better moments include Agnew's reverent take on "Panis Angelicus" and Nesbitt's haunting violin solo "In the Bleak Midwinter." Horrid miscalculation: The gals trying to swing on "Let It Snow."
'A Christmas Celtic Sojourn Live'
An annual concert growing out of Brian O'Donovan's longtime radio program in Boston, this is as down-home as Celtic Woman is slick, a house concert extended to the stage last December. One lovely moment: O'Donovan's 13-year-daughter, Fionnuala, delivering a beautiful "In the Bleak Midwinter," gradually joined by other singers and musicians, including Karan Casey, Robbie O'Connell and the a cappella harmony trio Navan. The instrumental reels and hornpipes are spry, and "The Bucks of Oranmore" is a haunting Celtic harp showcase for Michelle Mulcahy. O'Connell gives a poignant reading of John McCutcheon's classic-yet-timely "Christmas in the Trenches."
Twisted Sister: 'A Twisted Christmas Live'
Twisted Sister plays it surprisingly straight, albeit loud and raucous, on a dozen standards from last year's "A Twisted Christmas" album. The odd turns include "O, Come All Ye Faithful" performed to the melody of "We're Not Gonna Take It" (a mash-up that actually works) and "Heavy Metal Christmas," the Sisters' take on "The Twelve Days of Christmas" ("10 pairs of platforms . . . nine tattered T-shirts . . . eight pentagrams . . . seven leather jackets," you get the idea). Recorded last December at New Jersey's Starland Ballroom, the concert included several of the band's '80s hits, and the DVD has assorted videos and bonus features.
'A Very Special Christmas: The 20th Anniversary Music Video Collection'
This release celebrates a project that produced six charity compilations featuring music stars singing holiday music. The highlights are Run DMC's 1987 track "Christmas in Hollis," full of high energy, lyrical fun and hilarious period fashion (the trio's gifts include new Adidas and heavy gold chains) and No Doubt's ska-nimated "Oi to the World." There are videos from U2, Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp and Sting, as well as five performances filmed in 1999 in a South Lawn tent at the Clinton White House as part of a Special Olympics tribute. It features blues guitar legend Eric Clapton on "Christmas Tears," then gal-pal Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Stevie Wonder and Wyclef Jean, who gets the (let's admit) conservative crowd, including the Clintons, up and sort-of boogieing on "Hot Hot Hot."
Sissel: 'Northern Lights'
The stellar Norwegian soprano first captured American ears with her wordless, ethereal vocals in the soundtrack of 1997's "Titanic." She recorded this current PBS special last spring in the intimate and historic mountain church in Roros, singing in English, Norwegian, Danish, Italian and Latin. It's a program of semi-classical, pop and Scandinavian folk songs, along with a number of Sissel originals, the best being "Sarah's Song," a lullaby for her youngest daughter. Tenor Jos¿ Carreras guests (solo on the elegant "Amore Perduto" and in a duet with Sissel on "Quando Sento Che Mi Ami"). The mood is stately, the tone reflective, the voice pristine and analogous to those haunting northern lights. Several songs -- "In the Bleak Midwinter" and an elegiac "Going Home" -- accompany gorgeous film footage of Norway.
-- Richard Harrington