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Holiday albums 2011: Carole King, bluegrass, Chicago, She & Him, more 'Glee' and ... Scott Weiland?!

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It's a Justin Bieber Christmas! The Beeb's holiday album, "Under the Mistletoe" (previously reviewed, 2 and a half stars), clocked 210,000 copies sold in its first week in early November, making it Bieber's second album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

In other 2011 Chirstmas album offerings ... well, last year we had Mariah Carey, Susan Boyle, Lady Antebellum and more. Who's the biggest name this year? Carole King? Michael Buble? Bah humbug!

Here's a look at the few musical gifts and several lumps of coal this holiday season ...

Various artists, "The Gathering" (Sycamore Road) 3 and a half stars
Mark O'Connor, "An Appalachian Christmas" (OMAC) 1 star
TheGathering2011.jpgCollections of Appalachian holiday tunes have come along before, but one of the finest is now "The Gathering," a joint effort by several notable bluegrass players including Rhiannon Gidden (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Mike Compton (Nashville Bluegrass Band) and Laurelyn Dossett (Polecat Creek). Opting for a suite of hymns ("On This Christmas Day") and breakdowns (Ralph Stanley's "Old Ebenezer Scrooge"), these players dig deep into fertile North Carolina musical ground for a refreshing blend of wry, homespun stories ("On Christmas Eve") and poignant moments ("Light in the Lowlands"), all performed with amazing grace and subtle proficiency. Come for the wintry warmth of Dossett's family tale "Redbird," but by all means stay for the version of "O Holy Night" sung by Gidden and backed only by upright bassist Jason Sypher. Superb.

markoconnorxmas.jpgMeanwhile, popular fiddler Mark O'Connor gathered his own buddies for an Appalachian holiday. The Seattle native and Nashville session musician has a decent Rolodex, that much is clear, but his definition of bluegrass is, shall we say, liberal. In between O'Connor's own sleepy, background-music instrumentals -- several of which have more to do with Paris jazz than West Virginia folk -- friends drop by (opera singer Renee Fleming, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and more) but no one raises a pulse.

Carole King, "A Holiday Carole" (Hear/Concord) 3 stars
carolexmas.jpgIt's no surprise Carole King, one of the era's finest pop composers, gets a firm grip on a project as slippery as a holiday album. For her first such outing, King dishes up superb pop arrangements of Christmas classics performed by a crack band. "This Christmas" sways its horn-section hips, "Carol of the Bells" really rings and William Bell's "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday" is romantic and warm. The hottest moments, though, blaze in a handful of new songs co-written with daughter and producer Louise Goffin, including "Christmas Paradise," a delightful Latin-flavored beach getaway full of marimba and cuatro, plus the joyful pop-soul groove of "Christmas in the Air" and the wistful, hopeful "New Year's Day." These songs are written within her laid-back vocal range, too, so she sounds great; elsewhere, the 69-year-old singer struggles occasionally, yelping into the higher notes of "Sleigh Ride." "My Favorite Things" is overly precise, but is eventually saved by a Ramsey Lewis kind of swing and some "Tapestry" chords. King's been cooking up this album for years, and it's actually worth the wait.

TobyMac, "Christmas in Diverse City" (EMI) 2 and a half stars
Various Artists, "WOW Christmas (2011)" (Word) 2 stars
tobymacxmas.jpgToby McKeehan has come a long way from his role as the MC in '90s Christian rock trio dc Talk. His first holiday outing is his usual indecisive mix of rock, pop, hip-hop and dance music carefully engineered with radio-ready hooks and big choruses. Get past the first few wallpaper tracks for sugarplums such as a glitchy dubstep version of "Little Drummer Boy"; a creepy Danny Elfman-esque carnival, "Carol of the Kings," with spewing rap and R&B vocals from Gabe Real and Liquid; and a hard-rocking hallelujah for something as simple as "It Snowed." Typical Christian album -- an overstuffed smorgasbord of styles and sounds -- but it's a holiday album occasionally worth cranking.

wowxmas.jpgTobyMac's "Christmas This Year" is one of several new tracks on the latest two-disc "WOW Christmas" collection. This sprawling sequence mostly steers for respectful spins of classic tunes, but a few originals are worth hanging by the fire -- the acoustic shuffle of Chris August's "Come Now Our King," Third Day's surprisingly Eddie Vedder-esque "Born in Bethlehem" and the tuneful, occasional shoegaze roar of "Mary Did You Know" by Kutlass.

Scott Weiland, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (Atco) 2 stars
weilandxmas.jpgIt's OK, man, you have not smoked too much holiday greenery. Scott Weiland is actually singing "Silent Night." Not only that, he's purring it -- as a bossa nova. He even uses the bullhorn to punch the end of the verses. For this season's WTF holiday title, the former Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver singer croons 10 string-laden, Bob Hope special-ready Christmas tunes. It's not a joke, he's perfectly serious -- the genesis for this was a daring run-through "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" two years ago on "The Tonight Show" -- and it's not completely horrible. The sequencing does the set few favors; the worst tracks are right up front, several syrupy classics Weiland burbles with a delirious kind of Leon Redbone cottonmouth. Not exactly practiced at this kind of singing, he dons several voices throughout this album, but once the orchestra (arranged by Weiland himself!) perks up on "Silent Night," the title track and a jazzy glide through "What Child Is This," it's easier to hear past Weiland's unsteady, occasionally ridiculous vibrato and enjoy a few of the faux holiday moments. The reggae closer of "O Holy Night" pushes the gag one steel drum too far, but the whole thing should at least make for amusing guessing-game moments at holiday parties.

Cast of "Glee," "The Christmas Album, Vol. 2" (Columbia) 2 stars
glee2xmas.jpgIn just two years, entertainment's most overworked performers have recorded seven albums and five EPs worth of music. (Wow, "Vol. 7" arrives Dec. 6.) It took Madonna about 15 years to do that. Of course, the Gleeks are simply peeling off covers of Madonna and more, and this follow-up to last year's debut holiday collection sounds as harried and ham-fisted as everything else. These are all talented young singers, but the deadlines don't give them much time to work up their songs, find an emotion or actually consider interpretation. Naya Rivera -- as Santana, one of the show's underutilized talents -- seems as if she could deliver a purr-fect take on "Santa Baby," but on this track she sings like she's checking her watch. Likewise, Heather Morris as the spacey Brittany skips through the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" (atop a nice, knotty bass line) without any time to draw out the ruminative lyrics and their romantic epiphany. Only Amber Riley as Mercedes manages the reins a bit, giving Mariah Carey's close-to-overexposed "All I Want for Christmas Is You" some real swing. By the album's overwrought end (a Band Aid-sized "Do They Know It's Christmas"), listeners may feel as exhausted as the performers.

She & Him, "A Very She & Him Christmas" (Merge) 1 and a halfstars
shehimxmas.jpgOn Fox, she's "The New Girl." Everywhere else, Zooey Deschanel is the it girl -- starring as every hipster boy's doe-eyed dream in films and playing at some kind of vanilla retromania in her music duo with musician M. Ward. This Christmas album marks their third recording together, and it's even flatter than the other two. Deschanel's voice is creamy and romantic, but she lets it just lay there -- monotone, cheerless, dreary. Indie popsters often confuse this with cool detachment, but on a Christmas album it's a major misfire. As Ward's guitar steps lively over the moguls on "Sleigh Ride," Deschanel is merely along for the glide, drowsy, nodding off. When the two of them tackle "Baby, It's Cold Outside," it's as sexless as Deschanel's casual turn with the same tune in the movie "Elf." She's still really just singing in the shower.

Chicago, "Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three" (Chicago) 1 and a halfstars
chicagoXXXIIIxmas.jpgChicago formed in the late '60s in its namesake town but didn't make its first Christmas record until 1998, the pioneering rock 'n' horns sound putting a mildly refreshing spin on holiday classics. Contemporary Chicago, however, rarely knows when to dial it back, so a second album -- way too long, way too ambitious -- followed in 2003, and now here's a third. "O Christmas Three" is a head-spinning mish-mash of styles and sounds, opening with a limp jangle featuring Dolly Parton ("Wonderful Christmas Time") and pinballing through soul, big-band jazz, modern pop, slow jams, R&B, rock styles from nearly every decade and more. For "My Favorite Things," they apply Brazilian flair, a bongo solo and some unintentionally hilarious rock inflections ("schnitzel with noo-oo-duhls!"). When they stop trying so hard to please every Nielsen demographic, they score -- as on the light, acoustic breeze of "I Saw Three Ships," performed with America, and a thoughtful reading of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" with a lone trumpet.

Stocking stuffers

Gruff Rhys, "Atheist Xmas" EP 4 stars -- The snow falls, a car goes by like a rolling stone, and the Super Furry Animals front man is taking his loved one to the hospital because she's slashed her wrists -- on the wrong side, "the watch side." What a swelling, bruised narrative he spins in "Slashed Wrists This Christmas" and other gems on this holiday EP. Here's to cheer where you can find it, boys.

Shonen Knife, "Sweet Christmas" maxi-single (Good Charmel) 3 and a half stars
Hooray, Tokyo's female answer to the Ramones (recently in Chicago on its 30th anniversary tour) throws out a Christmas single this year, featuring the title track in both rocking and caroling/acoustic versions, plus a wiggy, figgy "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Available Tuesday.

Dean Martin's duet with Scarlett Johansson 3 stars
The latest Dino anthology, "My Kind of Christmas," features a duet from beyond the grave. Scarlett Johansson, last heard on her own album of Tom Waits covers, pulls a Natalie Cole and sings along with Martin to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." It's surprisingly seamless and spirited.

Fear, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" 7-inch and mp3 (The End) 3 stars
Lee Ving's classic punk moniker returns with a special Black Friday release featuring the title track and the band's classic "Another Christmas Beer." Is it any wonder John Belushi loved this band so much?

Vanessa Carlton, "Hear the Bells" EP (Razor & Tie) 2 stars
The singer who had such a hit with "A Thousand Miles" turns in a four-song Christmas EP without including a cover of "2,000 Miles"? Instead, the precocious pianist coos listlessly through "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," plus the title track, an acoustic version of a song from her latest album. The closer: an acoustic "A Thousand Miles."

Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas Symphony" (American Gramaphone) 1 and a halfstars
Nothing new here. Chip Davis just took his very stale chestnuts and tried to season them with bigger (but largely identical) arrangements, courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. But what's Christmas without a synthesized, steamrolled "Deck the Halls"?

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on November 25, 2011 12:00 PM.

Christmas concerts: Straight No Chaser, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Chicago, Brave Combo, more was the previous entry in this blog.

The two halves of Poi Dog Pondering: An Orrall history is the next entry in this blog.

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