Whether you prefer sleigh bells or silver bells, the hubbub of the holidays is sure to leave your ears ringing. With that in mind, we present the more melodious sounds of the season in our annual Christmas CD roundup. Sure, you can't beat Bing, but sometimes it's nice to spike the usual musical eggnog with some modern versions of familiar favourites. (Albums reviewed by Brad Oswald, David Sanderson, Jeff Monk, Bruce Leperre, Chris Smith and Jill Wilson.)
A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS: 25 YEARS -- BRINGING JOY TO THE WORLD (BIG MACHINE RECORDS)
The offering: It's hard to believe a quarter century has passed since the first AVSC was released as a fundraiser for Special Olympics (with a roster that ranged from Springsteen to Madonna to U2 to Run-DMC), but the festive-compilation machinery continues to churn. This year's lineup is equally diverse, and the resulting playlist ranges from festively lovely to waste-of-time loony.
Classic chestnuts: Jewel's rendition of Angels We Have Heard On High is simple and moving; Michael Bublé's It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is satisfyingly smooth, and Train's surprisingly catchy version of Joy To The World (in which they sample, to good effect, their own Calling All Angels) is a keeper. Christina Aguilera ruins what might have been a soaring Oh Holy Night with over-the-top vocal gymnastics.
New jingles: Christian popster Francesca Battistelli's December 25 is easy on the ears; Korean girl group Wonder Girls' Best Christmas Ever is immediately forgettable; Cheap Trick's reworking of I Want You To Want Me into I Want You For Christmas is, well, pointless. 'Ö'Ö'Ö -- BO
H2, HARKNESS HERRIOTT
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (OPENING DAY)
The offering: Mike Herriott on flugelhorn and Sean Harkness on guitar put a jazzy spin on a dozen classic songs.
This Canadian/American duo keeps the tunes recognizable while giving them little improvisational twists. The guitar-flugelhorn pairing is spare, yet gives a full sound and helps bring back the tunes to their original intent from their current use as shopping mall annoyances.
Classic chestnuts: The 12 tunes are all chestnuts, ranging from Good King Wenceslas to O Tannenbaum. The title track is perhaps the jazziest with some lovely guitar work. We Three Kings and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing are sprightly. Silent Night sounds just right with plaintive flugelhorn.
This spare instrumentation keeps the Christmas music simple, yet the duo keeps it lively with some subtle improvisation. 'Ö'Ö'Ö 1/2 -- CS
HOLIDAYS RULE (HEAR MUSIC)
The offering: This season's requisite alt compilation skews rootsy, with contributions from The Civil Wars, Fruit Bats and The Head and the Heart. They throw in a couple of New Year's tunes for good measure, including a charming Western swing/bluegrass version of Auld Lang Syne by Andrew Bird.
Classic chestnuts: fun. does an aptly fun Sleigh Ride, the Shins turn in a faithful but pretty version of Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime and Irma Thomas and the Preservation Jazz Hall Band swing it old-school on a jazzy, brassy May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas but Eleanor Friedberger's version of Elvis's Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me takes a dire turn for the dirge-like, and Sir Paul's take on the Christmas Song offers little new seasoning for those roasting chestnuts.
New jingles: Se±or Santa, an adaptation of Mister Sandman originally performed by Amy Grant, is new-ish, and given a delightful Latino/Parisian café twist by Y La Bamba. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2 -- JW
TINSEL TOWN (SONG DOG)
The offering: When the Rankin Family's award-winning vocalist Jimmy Rankin decided to record his first Christmas disc, he brought in producer Bill Bell (Jason Mraz, Tom Cochrane) and players as celebrated as drummer Kenny Aronoff (Mellencamp, Fogerty). The result? One of the better seasonal offerings, sure to enhance your holiday celebrations this year.
Classic chestnuts: The Nova Scotian singer breathes life into such standards as Winter Wonderland, Silver Bells and White Christmas.
New jingles: December is much like the month itself, sombre but beautiful. Boogie Woogie Christmas is lively and effervescent. Don't Wanna Say Goodbye to Christmas is an infectious love song to the season itself, while Tinsel Town is a refreshing blast of cool holiday air that evokes the feel of a Currier & Ives print. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö -- BL
THIS IS CHRISTMAS (604 RECORDS)
The offering: The Ontario-born singer/songwriter, known to many TV viewers as either a judge on YTV's The Next Star or that girl in the ads for Thrive quit-smoking lozenges, serves up an eight-song holiday collection that's heavy on electronic beats and layered vocal tracks.
Classic chestnuts: White Christmas starts out pleasantly enough, but transforms into an electro-pop mess that short-circuits the song's dreamy message; Silent Night also succumbs to an overdose of drum-machine injections; McNeil's spin on Joni Mitchell's River is wisely subdued. The CD's final track, Let It Snow, is a standout because of its relative simplicity.
New jingles: The title track, one of four co-written by McNeil, is upbeat and catchy, but by the time the other originals -- It's Christmas Time, Santa (I'm Waiting For You) and For Christmas Time -- have been heard, it all starts to feel like one overproduced and indistinguishable mass. 'Ö'Ö -- BO
ON THIS WINTER'S NIGHT (CAPITAL NASHVILLE)
The offering: Much-decorated Nashville trio Lady Antebellum builds on its 2010 seasonal EP -- A Merry Little Christmas -- by adding six freshly-fallen tracks to the mix.
Classic chestnuts: The group's trademark harmonies shine on a brassy arrangement of Burl Ives's Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. But the true gift is Silent Night (Lord of My Life). While Hillary Scott lays claim to the oft-heard German carol, Charles Kelley echoes her with the lesser-know prayer Lord of My Life.
New jingles: The title track is a pleasant enough ballad -- the group's signature sound is augmented by fingersnaps and a children's choir -- but since it also appeared on Lady A's other holiday effort, we are forced to add one lump of coal for lack of originality. 'Ö'Ö'Ö -- DS
THIS IS CHRISTMAS (REPRISE)
The offering: The Welsh classical-crossover artist uses her flawless mezzo-soprano voice in a variety of songs and settings, venturing into the expected operatic territory but also injecting a bit of fun into the mix with lighter-themed modern fare.
Classic chestnuts: The opener, O Come O Come Emmanuel, is hauntingly beautiful; Away in a Manger is simple but splendid; Hark the Herald Angels Sing is formal and substantial. Jenkins takes more of a pop-minded approach to Santa Baby and The Christmas Song, but is equally impressive.
New jingles: In Dulci Jubilo, the CD's most operatic number, is very nice; Sleep Quietly My Jesus is an ornate showcase for Jenkins' vocals; the album's closer, Come What May (a duet with Placido Domingo) isn't specifically a Christmas song, but it's true to the sentiments of the season. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö -- BO
CHRISTMAS WITH THE BLUES (CORDOVA BAY)
The offering: Mainstay Canuck bluesman David Gogo throws down a short, nine-track, rock 'em, sock 'em, then subdue 'em set of well-worn soul/blues seasonal songs. It mostly works. Gogo's road-worn vocals suit some tracks better than others.
Classic chestnuts: Santa Claus is Back In Town is good but Elvis Presley's version is the gold standard. It simply can't be beat. The country blues-tinged instrumental version of Little Drummer Boy spins in a new direction complete with evocative harmonica work by Shawn Hall.
New jingles: There are only two Gogo-penned tracks here and both of 'em could theoretically add to the canon. Christmas On The Bayou would hypnotize a funky alligator while the hilarious Let's Get a Real Tree is a standout. Best lyric? Since Gogo was raised on a Christmas tree farm it only makes sense that he tells his vegetarian girlfriend, "Don't be a hippie, we're gonna get a real tree!" 'Ö'Ö'Ö -- JM
MERRY CHRISTMAS, BABY (VERVE MUSIC)
The offering: Given all the popular-songbook exploration and reinterpretation he's done since 2002, it was probably only a matter of time until Rod the Mod turned his attention to the Christmas catalogue. This 13-song effort, produced by David Foster, focuses on the season's secular selections, and depends on a handful of special-guest duets (Michael Bublé, Cee Lo Green, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary J. Blige) to lift Stewart's rather nondescript song stylings.
Classic chestnuts: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is subdued but sterile; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town fails to generate much in the way of excitement; Stewart's duet with Bublé on Winter Wonderland feels like an unnaturally forced pairing. The down-tempo title track (with Green) is even more awkward, but the duet with Fitzgerald on What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? is charming. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, Blue Christmas and the not-exactly-seasonal When You Wish Upon a Star, while pleasant, are more likely to inspire a pre-Christmas snooze than a sense of wonder.
New jingles: Red-Suited Super Man (featuring Trombone Shorty) is an infectious big-band-driven number that's a worthy addition to the Christmas playlist. 'Ö'Ö1/2 -- BO
KEENING FOR THE DAWN (SIGNPOST MUSIC)
The offering: Far removed from the usual festive-jingle compilations, this 11-track collection by Winnipeg singer/songwriter Bell is a varied, thoughtful meditation on Christian tradition. As such, it isn't exactly apt background music for the office party or friends-and-family gathering; in the season's more contemplative moments, however, this is certainly worth a careful, focused listen.
Classic chestnuts: The deeply traditional O Come, O Come Emmanuel is given an upbeat, folksy treatment; While Shepherds Watched is a sparse but lovely acoustic rendering; In the Bleak Midwinter is a perfect fit for Bell's lush tenor voice.
New jingles: Not much jingly to report here, but the remainder of the locally produced CD -- most tracks either written by Bell alone or in collaboration with British poet Malcolm Guite -- is a soothing antidote to the usual overproduced commercial-Christmas fare. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö -- BO
CHRISTMAS IN THE SAND (UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC)
The offering: Grammy-winning pop chanteuse Colbie Caillat set the tone for her fourth album -- and first seasonal outing -- by showing up for recording sessions in a bikini. Between takes, Caillat reportedly hit the beach near her Malibu, Calif., home.
Classic chestnuts: Country star Brad Paisley duets on Merry Christmas, Baby, adding a discernible honky-tonk edge to the R&B classic. Caillat doesn't need any extra help, however, on a jaunty Santa Baby or a summery Santa Claus is Coming to Town. (Note to the jolly old elf: pack your swim trunks.)
New jingles: The title song may not be what Bing Crosby envisioned, but to Winnipeggers who have been there, shovelled that, Christmas in the Sand sounds a whole lot dreamier than windrows and overnight parking bans. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö -- DS
A VERY MERRY PERRI CHRISTMAS (ATLANTIC)
The offering: A six-song EP from the Philadelphia-born songstress that is simple, straightforward and perfectly, seasonally sweet. The only quibble is that it's so brief -- Perri's deft touch with Christmas tunes would undoubtedly have made a full-length album a real treat.
Classic chestnuts: Merry Christmas Darling is appropriately moody; Please Come Home For Christmas is an appealing, piano-driven mid-tempo rocker; Perri's cover of John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over) -- not an easy one to do well -- is lovely. Ave Maria is a bit wispy, but nice; the EP's closer, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, is just right.
New jingles: Only one original in this abbreviated collection, but the Perri-co-written Something About December is catchy, and carries a note-perfect seasonal sentiment. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö -- BO