Calendar offers our annual rundown — sorry, Grandma — of the best, and not, of the fresh crop, which, as always, range from deeply reverential to outright cynical. Let the ride down Santa Claus Lane begin — with 1 star being an inessential release, and 4 stars indicating a classic-in-the-making:
11 Acorn Lane is the moniker of nom de accomplished musical whimsy used by New York-based duo featuring of Neal Pawley and Thomas Foyer, who play all the instruments on this expansive, whimsical big-band-lounge workout inspired heavily by the retro stylings of Esquivel. Along with loopy arrangements of familiar carols, there's one original holiday-ish march and a couple of mazinkas traditionally played at Jewish weddings. Novelty-ish for sure, but often entertainingly out of the box.
Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Rounder)
The Nashville singer with pipes of steel, who first earned plaudits for her star turn in the musical "Always … Patsy Cline," avoids sounding generically country thanks to hard-swinging backing from such instrumental greats as guitarist Harold Bradley, steel player Lloyd Green and drummer Gene Chrisman. Her big, brassy voice and vintage-sounding arrangements still echo Cline at times, but as she employs them in "All I Want for Christmas Is You," what a glorious echo it is.
Susan Boyle "The Gift" (Columbia)
The " Britain's Got Talent" sensation sidesteps an utterly predictable (if faultlessly sung) session of unrelentingly ethereal yuletide traditionals by sprinkling in a few offbeat song choices (for which she credits Simon Cowell and Nick Raymonde in the liner notes), including Lou Reed's deceptively sunny "Perfect Day" and Crowded House's melancholy "Don't Dream It's Over." Sonically beautiful but a bit lacking in real spirit.
Mariah Carey "Merry Christmas II You" (Island/HSN)
The R&B diva's 1994 "Merry Christmas" collection is a perennial bestseller, and she's followed it another exhibition of her signature ADD vocals on a new batch of tunes, the only holdover being a reprise of the song she co-wrote that's become a contemporary holiday standard, "All I Want For Christmas is You." Her unrelenting melisma will leave many in awe, others exhausted. The Home Shopping Network's package includes an exclusive DVD with 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage on the making of the album.
Dr. Elmo "Bluegrass Christmas" (Time Life)
It's hard to imagine just who's been clamoring for a full-length follow-up to Elmo & Patsy's inescapable 1979 Christmas novelty classic "Grandma Got Run Over By a Raindeer," reprised here as an instrumental. Banjo player Elmo Shropshire's vocal rasp is perfectly suited to this Appalachia-rooted music, and he's at his best when he plays it straightest. There are, however, many, many more accomplished bluegrass-soaked holiday collections already in circulation.
Jason Michael Carroll "Christmas on the Farm" (Arista)
The Carolina-born country singer and songwriter targets the back porches of rural America with his five-song EP. Most are sung and played in unfussy acoustic arrangements, except for the electrified title track, which goes a bit overboard with the country-cliché imagery.
Jackie Evancho "O Holy Night" (Columbia)
The 10-year-old "America's Got Talent" prodigy wraps her preternaturally mature-sounding soprano around a quartet of classically minded seasonal/religious numbers on the first disc of this budget-priced CD/DVD package. The DVD includes her AGT audition and some performances from the show. Short, but impressively and reverentially sweet. And, yes, she nails the money note in "O Holy Night."
The "Glee" Cast "Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album" (Columbia)
You love the show or you don't. The cast charms, or makes you scramble for the channel button on the remote. Their sugarplum sweet holiday album won't change either response. Lea Michele's Rachel gets the most time in the spotlight, and stops the show with her "O Holy Night."
Jimi Hendrix "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" (Experience Hendrix)
This abbreviated session includes two passes at his 1969 medley of "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne," featuring Hendrix's Band of Gypsys co-horts Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums). "Three Little Bears," a playful original, is an "Electric Ladyland" outtake that's been out of circulation for a quarter century and captures him in 1968 with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, before the Jimi Hendrix Experience disbanded. It's 16 minutes of guitar-shredding fun, largely for Hendrix die-hards.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks "Crazy for Christmas" (Surfdog)
The Bay Area hipster goes off the map for most of the smart songs on this elegantly swinging outing. The perfect accompaniment to a holiday martini gathering.
Indigo Girls "Happy Holly Days" (Vanguard)
Amy Ray and Emily Sailers, aka the Indigos, apply their rootsy folk-country-bluegrass sensibility winningly to a handful of originals, a few carols and Woody Guthrie's playful "Happy Joyous Hanukkah." Not every new idea works, but they've got the right spirit.
The Irreconcilables "Merry Ex-Mas" (Merry Ex-Mas Records)
This ad hoc group of studio musicians and songwriters get, and often give, a kick out of reveling in the predicament of making it through the holidays after, or during, a divorce. Titles including "Hark the Hell Has Just Begun" and "Frosty My Ex-Wife" give you an idea of where they go with these 10 twisted takes on the Yuletide spirit.
Annie Lennox "A Christmas Cornucopia" (Decca)
One miracle of the modern holiday season is that anyone can find fresh takes on this music, yet the former Eurythmics singer seems to hear, and thus sing, the songs she's chosen as if for the first time. Unexpected harmonic, melodic and rhythmic choices buoy such stalwarts as "The First Noel," "The Holly and the Ivy" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and she brightens the mix further with lesser-known tunes including "See Amid the Winter's Snow," "As Joseph Was A Walking" and one anthem-ish original, "Universal Child."
Shelby Lynne "Merry Christmas" (Everso)
The wild child of alt-country singer-songwriters plays it pretty straight on her holiday outing, contributing two blues originals ("Ain't Nothin' Like Christmas" and "Xmas") to her touchingly spare, uncommonly intimate performances of seasonal standards ("O Holy Night," "Silent Night") and pop and country chestnuts ("Christmas Time's A-Comin'" "Silver Bells" and the Peanuts gang's "Christmas Time Is Here").
Katharine McPhee "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" (Verve Forecast)
The "American Idol" Season 5 runner-up sounds as shimmering and lush as you'd expect, with fewer surprises up her sleeveless gown than you might hope. Her gospelized attempt at "Jingle Bells" doesn't click, and "It's Not Christmas Without You," which she co-wrote, comes off more self-pitying than she probably intended. Her "AI" fans, however, likely will gobble it up.
Point of Grace "Home for the Holidays" (Curb)
The country-pop trio gets all misty-eyed and sugary over everything the holiday season represents to them. That translates into a mix of secular sentiments ("White Christmas," "Silver Bells") and less well-trod contemporary Christian-minded choices ("Immanuel," "Labor of Love").
The Puppini Sisters "Christmas With the Puppini Sisters" (Verve)
There's only one Puppini — singer and multi-instrumentalist Marcella — so the sisterhood is strictly musical within this British trio that also features Kate Mullins and Stephanie O'Brien. Their obvious affinity for old-school pop harmonizing a la the Andrews Sisters is a great fit with this mélange of largely secular numbers from the period ("White Christmas," "Here Comes Santa Claus") and a couple of rock-era entries ( Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," George Michael's "Last Christmas"). Christmas swings.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra "Christmas Comes Alive!" (Surfdog)
Since releasing his first big-band swing collection of holiday music in 2002, the British singer and guitarist has turned the season in to a cottage industry with a follow-up album, a couple of Christmas compilations and more than 100 Yuletime CQ concerts. This was recorded last year with his 18-piece band and captures a fairly sizzling performance of many of the numbers he'd released in studio versions.
Sean Smith "Christmas" (Tompkins Square)
Bay Area guitarist Sean Smith's solo acoustic recording harks back — favorably — to John Fahey's celebrated Christmas recordings. The spare arrangements and reverential performances quietly convey the humble spirit of the holiday's origin.
Ronnie Spector "Best Christmas Ever" (Bad Girl Sounds)
The former Ronettes singer's voice is inextricably linked with the holidays thanks to her prominent role on her ex's "A Christmas Gift for You" rock holiday classic collection. She's wisely opted not to try recreating Phil's signature wall of sound on this five-song EP, but blends vintage R&B, smooth jazz and easy listening on five modestly charming originals written for her. Her voice isn't the force of nature it once was, but it still oozes sincerity.
Various Artists "Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In" ( Warner Bros.)
A something-for-everyone grab bag like this virtually assures that hardly anyone will connect with everything. The 21 tracks span Devo's loopy Euro-dance original "Merry Something to You," David Foster's shopping-mall pop arrangement of "Carol of the Bells," Tegan and Sara's rodent-friendly update of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" and the Flaming Lips' work-in-progress live run-through of "Little Drummer Boy." Available as an iTunes download and a limited edition vinyl double-LP set.
Various Artists "Now That's What I Call Christmas! 4" (EMI/Universal/Sony)
The marquee number on this fourth edition of the cross-label compilation is Rihanna's new reggae-soaked original "A Child Is Born." The two-CD set of contemporary and classic holiday tracks also pulls in Lady Gaga's festive 2008 single "Christmas Tree," but the majority of the cuts on the disc billed as "superstars of today" have appeared previously, just as most tracks on the second disc featuring stars of "yesterday," including Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis et al., have been recycled endlessly, making this set relevant primarily to those who've never bought a holiday collection in their lives.
Various Artists "'Tis the Season to Be Fearless" (Fearless)
The indie rock/pop-punk label's first holiday collection is a brash collection of songs of the season, most of them originals, from eight acts from the roster including For All Those Sleeping, Sparks The Rescue, Go Radio and Breathe Carolina. A lively choice that could result in a discovery or two for the adventurous teen listener on your shopping list.
Various Artists "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (Capitol)
The title refers to Phyllis McGinley's charming 1956 Christmas poem, which Boris Karloff recorded in 1968 as a Capitol Records promotional item that's never previously been commercially available. It's a delight that will appeal to fans of his beloved interpretation of Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." It runs only about 16 minutes, so the disc is filled out with a half dozen Santa-related tracks by the Beach Boys, Alvin & the Chipmunks, Johnny Mercer and others pulled from the Capitol- EMI vaults.
Wilson Phillips "Christmas in Harmony" ( Sony Masterworks)
Sisters Wendy and Carnie Wilson and Chynna Phillips — the erstwhile hit-making offspring of Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Mamas & the Papas' John and Michele Phillips — are back with a Glen Ballard-produced collection that frothily tips a stockingcap to the grand-scale pop-rock of Phil Spector and the moody atmospherics of Chris Isaak. The general deficit of vocal character vanishes on their gorgeous album-closing reading of Brian Wilson's a cappella vocalese masterpiece "Our Prayer."