A guide to new holiday music

Dylan, Sting and Diamond join the party with holiday surprises

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It took more 45 years for him to get around to it -- not that anyone was waiting -- but we're finally getting to hear what it sounds like when Bob Dylan sings "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

And it isn't pretty.

But Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" does have its charms and is likely to be the most memorable of the holiday releases from 2009, a batch that includes Sting in medieval mode, Tori Amos in pagan graces and a "Messiah Rocks" that will clear the party.

Here's a rundown of the new caroling (rated on a scale of one star, awful -- to four stars, classic):


Bob Dylan 'Christmas in the Heart' (Columbia)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

No one laughed at Barbra Streisand when she did it. Neil Diamond, also Jewish, did two of them, and folks fell over themselves praising it.

So why do otherwise intelligent people guffaw and gasp with incredulity at the prospect of Bob Dylan singing "O' Come All Ye Faithful" and "Here Comes Santa Claus"?

With "Christmas in the Heart," Dylan dips into the American music catalog and pulls out versions of familiar Christmas songs that undercut our expectations by refusing to sound conventionally pretty.

Now, it would be dishonest of me to suggest that I fell in love with "Christmas in the Heart" the first time I played it. In fact, my wife kept shouting at me to turn it off. That only hardened my determination to give the CD a fair hearing.

OK, so his vocal cords sound as if they blew out on "Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" but, so what? Dylan can't quite hit the high notes on "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," but he doesn't need to.

Given his amazing track record, I'm inclined to listen to "Christmas in the Heart" with all the charity and goodwill the holiday demands. Having played it roughly 10 times now, I can truly say it doesn't freak me out anymore. It's not recommended, though, to narrow-minded people who prefer a saccharine-drenched listening experience for the holidays.

-- Tony Norman, Post-Gazette staff writer

STING 'If on a Winter's Night ...' (Deutsch Grammophon)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

The guy who gave us "Roxanne" singing "Rudolph" could have been great. But that's not what this is.

This is the more somber, old-soul Sting gets medieval on us in a timeless holiday record using the traditional music of the British Isles as its base. If this came on the radio -- public radio, surely -- you might have to wait for someone to tell you it was Sting, as he sings most of it in a barely recognizable deep husky tone. Sometimes it even sounds as if it's playing on the wrong speed.

Likewise, there isn't a single jingle here. Rather, Sting adapts a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson ("Christmas at Sea"), unearths a 14th-century carol ("Gabriel's Message"), writes lyrics to Bach and dips twice into the Henry Purcell repertoire. He sounds more like himself on the hushed "The Hounds of Winter," one of two pure originals.

Of course, surrounding Sting are chamber and folk players wielding harps, ouds, cellos, violins and wind instruments for the full Old World effect. Fun and festive? No. But suitable for that more contemplative holiday mood.

-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette pop music critic

Tori Amos 'Midwinter Graces' (Universal Republic)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Tori Amos' seasonal collection strikes the right blend of originality and heart, without compromising her artistic soul. Amos calls it a celebration of the Winter Solstice. It touches on mythology and empowerment and, in her eyes, provides the perfect blend of spirituality and nature.

Amos penned five of the album's dozen songs and changed others to reflect a modern touch.

Throughout the album, Amos tinkers with traditional carols. The album's first track, "What Child, Nowell," is a restructuring of the holiday favorite "What Child Is This?" but without the "Greensleeves" melody most listeners are familiar with. "We Three Kings" becomes "Star of Wonder" and adds a rich arrangement, replete with her sultry, breathy vocals.

While the covers are well thought out, the originals balance the record. "Pink and Glitter" has the glitz and feel of a Christmas show tune, "Winter's Carol" captures the spirit of nature in the season, and "Our New Year" closes with the emotional barometer of a traditional Amos record.

-- John Carucci, Associated Press

David Archuleta 'Christmas From the Heart' (Jive)

2 1/2 stars = Average
Ratings explained

Wait a second. Who ever said your second album could be a Christmas record? What happened to paying your dues before you sing "Silent Night"?

Perhaps the shaky careers of "American Idols" require having to fast-track these things. Plus we're getting this mere babe of 18 before his voice changes, if that's possible.

Archuleta rounds up the usual carols -- plus a little-known "Pat-a-Pan" with an electronic beat and a Spanish "Riu Riu Chiu" -- and wails on them with a voice that could break your champagne glasses. He's a little young to have much character behind it -- and I prefer a little grit -- but if you want a pretty voice for Christmas, you could do worse. -- Mervis

Michael McDonald 'This Christmas' (Razor & Tie)

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained

Being the apostle for blue-eyed, white-haired soul, Michael McDonald kicks off his holiday CD messing with classics by Stevie Wonder ("That's What Christmas Means") and Donny Hathaway ("This Christmas") and coming up short by comparison -- not that many people wouldn't.

The former Doobie Brother has that vocal style where he often sounds like he's straining to hit the note, which can make listening to his interpretations a bit of a strain on the other end, especially on "White Christmas," "Wexford Carol" and "On This Night," one of three originals. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is smoother sailing as he mercifully delivers it in a lower register with a mellow '70s soul backdrop. McDonald also gets it right with his simple, ukulele-accompanied "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Stylistically, though, this becomes quite a stew, between the endless gospel choir workout on "Children Go Where I Send Thee," the Chicago-like funk of "Every Time Christmas Comes Around" and the Dixieland "I'll Be Home for Christmas." By the end, you get the sense that McDonald overcooked it. -- Mervis

Neil Diamond 'A Cherry Cherry Christmas' (Columbia)

2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained

The ol' Jewish caroler takes a risk right off the bat, singing, "You'll have a very merry/cherry cherry/holly holy/rock 'n' rolly/Christmas this year."

It's a song, obviously, that only Diamond could sing, and that doesn't mean he should.

After that we're in more comfortable, less cringe-worthy territory with Diamond doing the traditional carols, plus two more originals, in that raspy voice that's like an old shoe -- sometimes comfy, other times blistering.

His third holiday album, though, is too scattered: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is cocktail music; "White Christmas" gets a busy '50s doo-wop flavor; a barbershop quartet is on board for "Deck the Halls/We Wish You a Merry Christmas"; "Winter Wonderland" is a bluesy stomp oddly topped with smooth choral vocals; and the Soul Children of Chicago are mixed to the max on a bombastic "Joy to the World."

It could have ended at track 13, but Diamond must first take all the joy out of Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song," covering it like it's gospel. Yoi. -- Mervis


Canadian Brass 'Echo: Glory of Gabrieli' (Opening Day Recordings)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

You won't sing along with any of these tunes, but they will brighten your holidays. To me, it isn't Christmas unless you hear some brass music playing in the background somewhere, but the excellent ensemble and timbre of the renowned Canandian Brass is great foreground entertainment, too.

Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612)was a Renaissance composer who wrote music for St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. The church had two choir lofts, so Gabrieli and other composers often wrote music that would bounce from choir to the other (called antiphonal) and later wrote the same for "choirs" of brass players. Performed by the Canadian Brass, his intricate and layered sonatas and canzonas go down like eggnog: mellow and sweet. Also included here is the Suite from Claudio Monteverdi's early opera "L'Orfeo."

-- Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette classical music critic

Various Artists 'Sacred Music' (Harmonia Mundi)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

This 30-disc box set brings together many of Harmonia Mundi's greatest recordings of sacred repertoire by its best artists, including more than a few Christmas classics.

Handel's "Messiah" (recorded by Les Arts Florissants and director William Christie) is here, as is Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" (performed by the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin and director Rene Jacobs). But there is so much more, from early chant and masterworks such as Josquin Des Prez's "Missa Pangue Lingua" (Ensemble Clement Janequin, Dominique Visse) and Monteverdi's "Vespers" (La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale Gent, Herrweghe) to requiems by Mozart, Faure, Brahms and Durufle. Ok, the latter aren't typical Christmas fare, but by the time you get to them in this huge set, it will be Easter.

In toto, "Sacred Music" amounts to a stellar way to start a collection of sacred classical music, and not a bad means to augment your collection. -- Druckenbrod

Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Brian Stokes Mitchell 'Ring Christmas Bells'

2 1/2 stars = Average
Ratings explained

The singing remains the superb standard we have come to expect with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, now fully under director Mack Wilberg. But there's a touch more cheese than is typical in this recording of the choir's annual Christmas spectacular at Temple Square.

Square in the middle of it is singer Brian Stokes Mitchell. While the Broadway star can belt out with an attractive tone in a show tune by Stephen Schwartz "Through Heaven's Eyes" from the movie "The Prince of Egypt," he adds corniness by mimicking animals in "The Friendly Beasts," by singing a sliding falsetto in his arrangement of Bach's "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring" and by exaggerating "The Christmas Song." His vanilla inflection in the song "Grateful" didn't do much for me either.

But the album still captures the pageantry of the concert that brings 80,000 to the Temple Square in Salt Lake City, beginning with a procession with more than 100 hand bell players. Not surprising, the best selections on the disc are the all choral ones, highlighted by sensitively sung selections from Handel's "Messiah," which show Wilberg's keen ability to craft rounded phrases that never strain the voices. -- Druckenbrod

Andrea Bocelli 'My Christmas' (Decca)

1 1/2 stars = Bad
Ratings explained

It's "My Christmas" and tenor Andrea Bocelli can keep it. This is one of those holiday mixer CDs, which, like the parties, can get awkward if everyone is a stranger. Well, when you combine "White Christmas" with "The Lord's Prayer" (sung with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), "Angels We Have Heard on High" with "The Christmas Song" with Natalie Cole or "Caro Guesu Bambino" with "Jingle Bells" (with the Muppets, of all things), incongruous is the spirit of the season.

I like my stockings stuffed with a wide variety of things, not my Christmas discs. Add to this that Bocelli is either belting out this music in operatic style or singing in hard-to-understand English, and you have one uncomfortable listening experience. -- Druckenbrod

Various Artists 'Handel's Messiah Rocks' (Sony Classical)

1 star = Awful
Ratings explained

Among many famous lines in the "Messiah" is "He was despised," but this debacle of a disc also gets that distinction from me. This ill-conceived, repulsive conflation tries to put a new spin on Handel's "Messiah" with this brilliant formula: use neither the words nor the music. Sure, there are touches of Handel's score here and there, but predominantly the producers of this theatrical piece have replaced it with banal '70s rock music and generic gospel singing that has little connection to the classic 1742 score. A chorus and symphony pop up from time to time, but the rockers dominate.

The lyrics are contemporary-casual translations of Jennens' biblical libretto, but with an odd, preachy tone. In its version of a few movements starting with "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" we get lines such as, "He'll come in glory because you believe" and "Speak to them knowing his word lives inside you." Fine for Sunday, but simply not the tenor of Handel's work (even if Jennens might agree). Speaking of the tenor, the soloists, while sporting decent voices, are all mic-in-the-mouth pop singers, at odds with the oratorio style, to say the least.

There have been many a good contemporary, gospel or rock version of "Messiah," but usually they make some attempt to honor the original. The creators of "Messiah Rocks" clearly didn't want to do that, and they would have spent their energy better by writing a new work rather than dismantling a masterpiece just for its name value.

Even listening to this ironically pains my ears. Consider it the musical version of coal this Christmas. -- Druckenbrod


CHRIS DAWSON 'Stridin' Through Christmas' (Astin Music)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

You don't hear much stride piano -- in which the left hand alternates between bass notes and chords -- these days, so I appreciated this refresher course. Given that he's bringing back a style of music that is all but forgotten, Dawson's performance is solid, steady and clean, if not overly spectacular. Best moments are "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," the dissonance of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "We Three Kings" -- which employed 5/8 meter at the beginning a la "Take Five." "Silent Night" lacked a little energy, and Dawson omits the bridge to "Sleigh Ride."

-- Rick Nowlin, Post-Gazette staff writer


JIM BRICKMAN 'Joy' (Compass Productions/Somerset Entertainment)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

The "ambient" pianist, who uses some spare, semi-classical doesn't hit a home run or strike out with this release. The best tune is the elastic "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which modulates from F to G and back several times; "Jingle Bells" has more heart than I'm used to hearing in it, thanks to moving full block chords during the chorus. However, none of the original numbers -- "Lights of Christmas," "Shades of White" or "Christmas Waltz" -- do anything for me, and I wish the album had a personnel list so that I could have determined who else was playing. -- Nowlin

Other titles

REO Speedwagon "Not So Silent Night ... Christmas With Reo Speedwagon": On their first Christmas album, the classic rockers do traditional carols plus John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."

Mary McBride, "Every Day Is a Holiday": Roots rocker Mary McBride, who sang "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me" in "Brokeback Mountain," offers standards, two originals and covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and "Patty Griffin's "Oh Heavenly Day."

The Irish Tenors "Christmas": The classically trained PBS sensations -- Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns and Karl Scully -- offer "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and a medley of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree/Jingle Bell Rock."

Wynton Marsalis, "Christmas Jazz Jam": The trumpeter's first Christmas collection in 20 years is a Target/iTunes exclusive with 12 songs, including "Greensleeves," "Jingle Bells" and "Blue Christmas."

Sugarland "Gold and Green": The country duo releases its first Christmas CD with classics and originals.

Eban Schletter "Cosmic Christmas": The L.A. musician best known for scoring "SpongeBob SquarePants" offers a holiday collection that has been called "bizarre theremin-filled exotica."

The Jackson 5, "Ultimate Christmas Collection": The classic Jackson 5 Christmas album, originally issued in 1970, gets a re-release with six bonus tracks including Michael's "Little Christmas Tree."

"A Christmas Story: Music From the Motion Picture": The whimsical orchestral music from the 1983 classic, composed by Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza, is finally released.

Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas 25th Anniversary Collection": Two-CD retrospective set features 25 tracks from the group's six holiday albums.

Tenebrae, "What Sweeter Music": The British choir known for serious polyphony has fun with traditional Christmas classics, including "Jingle Bells" and "Twelve Days of Christmas."

Various Artists, "A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector": Reissue of the classic 1963 album, which featured the Ronettes, the Crystals and Darlene Love.

Various Artists, "Now That's What I Call a Country Christmas": Two-CD set mixes Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry with newer stars like Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker.


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