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The biggest holiday of them all has once again spawned dozens of recordings designed to celebrate, denigrate, or — how else to say it — capitalize on Christmas. From the near-sacred to the profane, and more or less in that order, here are some of the sounds of the holidays 2000: The smooth crooners on “‘Tis the Season” (Encoded Music) stay mostly in the spirit on a disc produced all warm and fuzzy by keyboardist/guru George Duke. The suave baritone of Jon Lucien takes Santa to Rio with a bossa nova “White Christmas,” and soul songstress Patti Austin’s catchy “This Christmas” is quiet-storm-radio, ready with a funky beat and her easy vocal grace. Granted, the compilation may be the audio version of the Fireplace Channel, but it benefits from singers with amazing voices such as Maurice White, the Whispers, and Brazilian seductress Maysa, who allows guest rapper Keith Cross to get away with this line on one of her cuts: “Christmas time to the max / Sit down, eat your turkey and relax / And be careful not to get no gravy on your slacks.” (Somewhere out there, Ice Cube is not sweating it.) A slightly more exotic platter comes from the flamenco guitar duo of Sergio Lara and Joe Reyes on “Navidad” (Higher Octave). No rambunctious Gypsy Kings, these two. They offer excellent musicianship and play off each other as intricately as the better-known Strunz and Farah, offering traditional-sounding flamenco holiday music — if that is not a double oxymoron — on songs from the familiar (“Let It Snow”) to the less so (“Angels We Have Heard on High”) and even a bluegrassy “Auld Lang Syne” for later in the week. Sometimes Djangoesque, sometimes pure mall Muzak, this one goes down mighty easy. North toward the pole, Canadian pop and folk star Sarah McLachlan is the leading lady on “Christmas Songs” (Nettwerk), a mellow and jangly collection of traditional tunes updated for modern rock ears. The CD opens with McLachlan and the Barenaked Ladies, the band behind mega-smash single “One Week,” doing an energetic round on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Blue-collar Pennsylvanian Matthew Ryan’s “Little Drummer Boy” lurches along like a harmless hobo, Ryan’s gravelly whisper and tossed-off lines reminiscent of Tom Waits. Several other tunes successfully balance delicacy and soul, notably young Maren Ord’s heartbroken take on “The Christmas Song” — you know, the one about chestnuts and frosty toes — and international electronic pop hit maker Dido’s fragile “Christmas Day.” Dido’s “Christmas Day” also surfaces on “Platinum Christmas” (Arista), where a cavalcade of million-sellers gather ’round the digital hearth. In one amazing CD, we’ve got all the reigning royalty of bubble gum pop: The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, as well as other overexposed acts including Whitney Houston and Santana. Frankly, a lot of this stuff washed over me so lightly that I could not have told you what it sounded like even a minute after I heard it. But among the least unmemorable tunes are soul singer Joe’s “This Christmas,” Toni Braxton’s torchy take on “The Christmas Song,” and Aguilera’s bilingual “Silent Night.” From Whitney to Britney and Dave Matthews to R. Kelly, there are some big talents engaged in amazing vocal gymnastics, and even if it is a somewhat empty exercise, nobody gets hurt. Moving away from pop territory, or at least contemporary pop turf, “Yule B’ Swingin’ Too” (Hip-O) is a nicely assembled collection of delights from years past, including contributions from the great jazz and pop vocalists and bands of their eras: Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Louises Armstrong and Prima, as well as the Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman bands. As with other collections, there are a few cuts that could be technically disqualified. Holiday’s tasty “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” takes place in December, but doesn’t invoke any of the reasons for the season. Nor does Ann Margret’s (!!) and Al Hirt’s duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Dean Martin, known to have a red nose of his own from time to time, casually refers to the world’s best-known flying, antlered animal as “Rudy” on his contribution. June Christy’s husky voice is rich and lovely on her holiday card to hep cats, “The Merriest.” Less accomplished but no less fervent revelers took to the airwaves on Christmas Day in 1957 and were captured for the BBC by eminent music folklorist Alan Lomax on “Sing Christmas and the Turn of the Year” (Rounder). Lomax has been hailed as a hero for his life of hunting wild folk music of all sorts, from blues and children’s songs to traditional balladry, and his radio broadcasts were a primary showcase for his valuable discoveries. Hymns, carols, the British pre-rock form known as skiffle, earthy folk songs about Jesus, mummers’ play excerpts — all populate this fascinating and very British document, hosted with illuminating explanations and introductions by the American-born Lomax and a few English colleagues. One may not otherwise have heard of the Ravenhill Temperance Flute Band or the Princess Louise Folksong Club, but that’s part of the glory of Lomax’s work, and this disc uncorks a memorable taste of radio that would have otherwise been forgotten. When people talk about the Christmas blues, they don’t mean guitarist Duke Robillard (a founder of Roomful of Blues who later became a Fabulous Thunderbird) knocking them dead with tasty solos behind veteran blues stars like Jimmy Witherspoon and Billy Boy Arnold. They’re talking holiday depression and all that. But there are two kinds of blue funk out there, and if you don’t believe me, then you should hear guitarist and growler Sonny Rhodes save the kids on “Christmas 9-1-1″ or Maria Muldaur swing on “No Money, No Honey.” Both are highlights of “Stony Plain’s Christmas Blues” (Stony Plain), where an eclectic bunch of stalwarts from the independent label’s blues and folk roster bypass holiday standards and come up with tales of their own. “Here Comes Frani Claus” (CMO Records) is the entry from the fine Atlanta-based singer Francine Reed, who is perhaps best known as the powerful, gospel-drenched foil for Lyle Lovett on several of his releases and tours. Reed is also a vibrant blues singer, and her little four-song Christmas sampler captures all of her considerable range, from a ballad to the pew-rocking “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and an up-tempo swinger where Reed lists the menu for “Grandma’s Cookin’ Christmas”: “Turkey, gravy and corn bread dressing, somebody hurry up and say the blessing!” For an example of sheer, unadulterated, crass Christmas selloutry, it would be difficult to top Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Christmas Time Again” (CMC International). Even with just 36 minutes of music, this CD is still padded by lots of useless fluff. Sure, there are predictable but sturdy good old boy variations on “Run Run Rudolph” and so forth, and the guitars of Gary Rossington and former Outlaw Hughie Thomasson roar and slice like brand new Skilsaws. But a twin-guitar attack that works so well on, say, “Give Me Back My Bullets” sounds kinda silly on “Santa Claus Wants Some Loving.” Charlie Daniels and .38 Special also fail to distinguish themselves on this musical sack of coal. But that’s not to say there is no place for loud, pointedly obnoxious Christmas music, especially when it has an uplifting theme relevant to today’s teens, as does Sonic Youth’s bent “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope.” That is one of several novelties on “Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas” (Hip-O), which also features songs from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Smithereens. Beck’s “The Little Drum Machine Boy” is an inspired piece of tape-loop weirdness where the famous loser drops “a little Hanukkah science” to a barump-a-bum-bum beat. Surprisingly, Spinal Tap’s faux metal classic “Christmas With the Devil” (“The sugar plums are rancid and the stockings are in flames … The rats ate all the presents and the reindeer ran away”) is not even close to the most offensive song here. For that, we turn to “You Ain’t Getting S*** for Christmas,” where Ma and Pa Hillbilly are forced to spend Christmas alone as one offspring heads for the corporate condo in Hilton Head, and the other takes advantage of a cheap Internet fare for a holiday luau on the islands. Naughty or nice? You decide. Bill Kisliuk is senior editor at Legal Times and author of the column “Aural Arguments.”

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