Christmas Wrap-Up

By Allen Howie

Making a great Christmas record is tough. People usually buy Christmas records for one reason: to get in the Christmas spirit. So while a disc may be very good musically, it can fall short as a Christmas record if it doesn't conjure up all those warm, fuzzy feelings of holly and mistletoe. Having said that, here's a sampling of the Christmas albums released this year.

A Very Special Christmas 2 (A&M)
Various Artists

Case in point. While there are very few dogs here, only half of these tunes are likely to give you that old holiday shiver. Among them are Randy Travis' high-stepping "Jingle Bell Rock," the unlikely but inspired pairing of Frank Sinatra and Cyndi Lauper on a swinging "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Boys II Men's shimmering "The Birth of Christ" and Aretha Franklin's lush "O Christmas Tree." Other tunes that find the holiday mark include Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Tevin Campbell's reverent "O Holy Night," and "What Child Is This" by Vanessa Williams.

But even though the remaining songs are a little light on Christmas mood, there are still some gems to be found, including Tom Petty's goofy "Christmas All Over Again," the blue-eyed soul of Paul Young's "What Christmas Means to Me," a nice turn by Jon Bon Jovi on Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas," and Brown's own duet with Bonnie Raitt on "Merry Christmas Baby." Run DMC returns from Volume I with the yuletide thump of "Christmas Is," while Extreme, Luther Vandross and Sinead O'Connor all turn in interesting performances (although the latter's cover of Dylan's "I Believe in You" stretches any Christmas connection to the breaking point).

Holiday howlers are few but notable: Michael Bolton's whiny "White Christmas" (please stop him before he kills again), Debbie Gibson's bumpy "Sleigh Ride," Ann and Nancy Wilson's strident "Blue Christmas (proof positive that Elvis is dead) and Wilson Phillip's bombastic misreading of "Silent Night." Still, with 15 solid tunes, half of which work as Christmas gems, this is well worth owning, especially since the proceeds benefit the Special Olympics.

A Christmas Song (Sparrow)
Russ Taff

For my money, the pick of the litter. Taff has managed to recreate the ambience of Christmas classics by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The production has that intimate, living room feel, the instrumental support is flawless, the song selection is right on the mark, and the singing is smooth and relaxed. But you can analyze a good thing too much. Instead, just listen to Taff's swinging rendition of "Angels We Have Heard On High," or his cozy "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," and judge for yourself. (If you have trouble tracking this one down, try your local Christian music store.)

The Night Before Christmas (Perspective/A&M)

The Sounds of Blackness

You might expect a record from a gospel choir to sound pretty much the same from start to finish. Well, the Sounds of Blackness is no ordinary ensemble, and they weave everything from R&B and blues to traditional gospel, hip-hop and classic soul into their ingenious Christmas tapestry. Virtually every song features the group's stunning vocals, with solo turns by many of its members. Whether they're serving up a bluesy "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," a traditional gospel reading of "O Come All Ye Faithful" or (my personal favorite) the delightfully jazzy R&B of "Dance, Chitlins, Dance," the Sounds of Blackness concoct a potent remedy for the holiday blues. And while only a few of the songs here can lay claim to a "classic" Christmas sound, the record still stands as a joyful holiday celebration.

Christmas Comes Anew (Virgin)
New York City Gay Men's Chorus

If you like your Christmas on a grand scale, this is the record for you. The New York City Gay Men's Chorus, with their annual performances at Carnegie Hall, have become something of a holiday tradition in their hometown. Here they provide a sample of what folks in the Big Apple have been enjoying for years, with dramatic choral arrangements of both hymns and popular tunes. Also featured is the acclaimed soprano Faith Esham, who is well-known to opera lovers around the world and has appeared with the group twice at Carnegie Hall. The sixteen numbers here are robustly performed and lavishly produced, an engaging assortment of holiday favorites.

Home for Christmas (Myrrh/Word)

Amy Grant

Amy Grant's voice has matured a bit in the nearly ten years since her last Christmas album, and Home for Christmas easily surpasses its predecessor. Deftly produced by longtime Grant associate Brown Bannister, the record alternates between well-known secular and spiritual numbers. Like Russ Taff's album, Grant's features "traditional" Christmas orchestration, earning high marks for both musical content and holiday warmth. Especially noteworthy are the singer's own "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Lamp)," which captures with uncanny clarity the tremble of anticipation that must have touched a very young girl on that first Christmas Eve; a fun and frisky "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and a whimsical "Winter Wonderland." The closing instrumental, Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," is a nice touch, an elegant ending to a nicely done collection.

Beyond the Season (Liberty)
Garth Brooks

Let's put it this way. If you like Christmas, and you like Garth Brooks, you'll probably love this collection of holiday standards and Brook's originals, especially "The Gift," a sweet Christmas fable with a nice arrangement, and the rollicking "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," an update of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

Me? I like Christmas.

Comfort and Joy (Word)

Babbie Mason

Meticulously produced and exquisitely performed, gospel singer Babbie Mason's stirring, soulful Comfort and Joy offers a genuinely moving reminder of why we celebrate Christmas. But in any season, this would be a gem of a record, and while it contains little "traditional" Christmas instrumentation, it still possesses a charm and appeal unique to the holiday.

Mason's voice is beautifully smooth, rich and full in the low tones with an effortless, clear upper register. But rather than engage in vocal acrobatics, she puts her gifts to the service of the ten songs collected here. Highlights include her own sly "Shopping List," a triumphant "A Great Joy," the silken strains of "Christmas Is" and an alternately haunting and exultant "Christmas Medley." She falters only on "Christmas Is a Time for Children," whose chorus of young singers undercuts its effectiveness. But it's a minor flaw in a sweet, soulful Christmas set.