Better Than Tinsel

Use your CD player to set the mood with these holiday chestnuts.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with Christmas music. I’m as sentimental as the next slob, but some stuff I’ve OD’d on: I could do without “Feliz Navidad” this season, and for that matter, whenever I hear that “Mary’s Boy Child” thing by Eurodisco mooks Boney M., I become one gringo loco.

Still, a classic’s a classic. For private listening, I’m partial to the luminous Native-American flute/ ambient guitar interpretations of holiday tunes on Winter Dreams (Canyon, $15.98) by R. Carlos Nakai & William Eaton. Equally relaxing, in a more rootsy/folky vein, is Seven Gates (Warner Bros., $16.98), assembled by Ben Keith and featuring guest spots from Johnny Cash, J.J. Cale, and Keith’s occasional employer Neil Young (singing, and joined by a boys choir for an utterly moving “Greensleeves”).

If friends drop by, a couple of can’t-miss bets are the jazzy, upbeat Vince Guaraldi Trio‘s A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, $15.98) and—for a funky good time—James Brown‘s James Brown Christmas (Polygram Special Markets, $5.98). Later, when everyone’s tanked, throw on Bummed Out Christmas (Rhino, $11.98), which contains such uplifting numbers as “Christmas in Prison,” “Christmas in Jail,” and, yup, “Christmas in Vietnam.” Parents, if all the revelry wakes up the kids, don’t worry: You can make it up to ’em the next morning with a family sing-along courtesy of Raffi‘s Christmas Album (Rounder, $17.98)—the 2002 reissue includes a newly recorded bonus track, “A Child’s Gift of Love.” And if you have teenagers, hand ’em shock-rappers Insane Clown Posse‘s Carnival Christmas EP (Psychopathic, $3.49), featuring the timeless “Santa’s a Fat Bitch”, and tell ’em to stay in their room until your hangover goes away.

New release-wise, 2002 brings a bumper crop of genre-spanning tunes. The self-explanatory A Classic Rock Christmas (Sanctuary, $18.98) collects memory-lodgers from Greg Lake (“I Believe in Father Christmas”), John Waite (“All I Want for Christmas”), and Father Guido Sarducci (“Santa’s Lament”), as well as lesser tracks by Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Survivor, but thankfully none of that faux-classical mullet-prog from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. For alterna-types, check out Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk, $17.98), featuring originals and covers from indie moper Bright Eyes, Brit-twits Coldplay, emo kings Jimmy Eat World, pop vixen Vanessa Carlton, and more. While gats, hoes, and elves usually don’t mix, the soundtrack to Ice Cube vehicle Friday After Next (Hollywood, $18.98) not only has a couple of seasonal-themed rap numbers from Westside Connection (“It’s the Holidaze”) and Krayzie Bone (“Wonderful World”) but also includes soul classics courtesy of Donny Hathaway, Eartha Kitt, and the Temptations. Hey, Santa’s always been old-school! And fans of surf and instrumental music will thrill to Los Straitjackets‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc, $16.98). They hang ten with Rudolph and Frosty, transform “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” into a “Pipeline” pastiche, and even La Bamba-fy my old, er, fave, “Feliz Navidad.”

In a more mainstream vein, both Johnny Mathis and Carly Simon have new releases, respectively the schmaltz- and classics-heavy The Christmas Album (Columbia, $18.98) and the Don Was- produced Christmas Is Almost Here (Rhino, $17.98). Don’t miss Simon’s duet with Willie Nelson (“Pretty Paper”) and her moving—and timely—version of John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Also recommended is America‘s Holiday Harmony (Rhino, $17.98), down-to-earth, tuneful originals—sadly, no “A Reindeer With No Name”—and traditional faves.

Speaking of traditional, the country world always weighs in this time of year. With the O Brother Where Art Thou? afterglow still in effect, a slew of bluegrass titles have appeared. Pick to click: O Christmas Tree (Rounder, $17.98), 18 tracks from some of the best in the biz, names like Rhonda Vincent, the Cox Family, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Curiously, though, while superstars Jo Dee Messina, on A Joyful Noise (Curb, $18.98), and Alan Jackson, on Let It Be Christmas (Arista, $17.98), both round up the usual song suspects (“Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night,” etc.), aside from their telltale vocal twangs, you’d be hard-pressed to call either’s disc “country.” Instead, you get orchestrated/big-band arrangements that seem out of place; think Granny and Jed Clampett dressed in their best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and checking out the Vegas strip.

Hold that thought—Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol, $17.98) is a finger-snappin’, 21-song tinsel-fest of tunes originally recorded in the ’60s and ’70s by Frankie, Dino, and Sammy Davis Jr. (The latter’s “Jingle Bells” is to die for.) These chestnuts are definitely well-roasted, baby.