With Christmas about a week away, you still may have a few loose ends to tie up. You probably have to make a last-minute trip (or two) to the mall. The traffic, the crowds, the snippy clerks at the overpriced boutiques will grate your nerves before it's all over. But this is the season to be jolly. And what better way to lift your spirits than with merry music? Here, we listen to new Christmas albums - some fly; some falter. From heavy metal interpretations to gospel-soul renditions, there's a CD here to suit varied tastes and moods.
Brian Culbertson, A Soulful Christmas (GRP/Universal Records): Fluid on the trumpet, trombone and piano, Culbertson is one of the best musicians working in smooth jazz these days. On this easygoing holiday album, he invigorates tried-and-true holiday tunes. That is no easy feat, given that, over the years, songs such as "Jingle Bells," "The First Noel" and "Joy to the World" have been done many times in many ways. The melodies you know by heart. But with a combination of big but tasteful production and no-frills arrangements that smartly mingle elements of blues and gospel, Culbertson finds a way to make these songs sound fresh. "Some Children See Him" - featuring the classically trained vocals of Michelle Culbertson, Brian's wife - is beautifully meditative. Throughout the album, the musicianship is professional and tightly focused but never antiseptic. Unobtrusive, graceful and creative, A Soulful Christmas is ideal for an intimate dinner party or a cozy evening alone.
Bootsy Collins, Christmas is 4 Ever (Shout!/SonyBMG Music): Behind his cartoonish persona, Collins is a seriously gifted musician, one of the great bassists of the funk era. His fat, elastic lines anchored classic recordings by James Brown and Parliament. During the mid-'70s with such hits as "I'd Rather Be With You" and "Bootzilla," Collins also became a major R&B; star in his own right. On this, his first Christmas CD, the Ohio native funks up several seasonal evergreens such as "Silent Night" and "Merry Christmas, Baby." His "space bass" is still meaty and sinewy, backed by fun, horn-spiked arrangements. Highlights include "Happy Holidaze," featuring the swaggering rhymes of Snoop Dogg, and "Chestnutz (aka The Christmas Song)," a swinging, surprisingly affecting take of the Nat "King" Cole holiday favorite.
Aly & AJ, Acoustic Hearts of Winter (Hollywood Records): This album with the overreaching title is strictly for the kids, especially prepubescent girls. But it's bearable. Sisters Alyson and Amanda Joy Michalka are middling vocalists at best. But on Acoustic Hearts, their high, sugary harmonies are well-supported with simple, spacious arrangements. At times, though, the production sounds like karaoke. The sisters may not leave an indelible imprint on holiday tunes such as "Let It Snow" and "Little Drummer Boy," but they don't torture them either.
Twisted Sister, A Twisted Christmas (Razor & Tie): Now here's a band that succeeds at making a torturous holiday album. On this loud and ultimately boring CD, you get 10 overcooked versions of yuletide chestnuts, including "White Christmas," "Silver Bells" and "Deck the Halls." The arrangements are so cliched, the vocals so uninspired, you wonder if the album is one long joke. Unless you're a hardcore fan of this has-been metal hair band, there's no need to suffer through this album.
Israel & New Breed, A Timeless Christmas (Integrity Music): This set teems with full, dramatic arrangements and funky rhythms that, at times, recall vintage Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire. Glorious horns punctuate "O Come," an up-tempo highlight. Although the musical focus (at least lyrically) is gospel, the production smoothly blends in glints of R&B; and jazz. Several urban and smooth jazz artists - Gerald Albright, Lalah Hathaway, Jonathan Butler and Marcus Miller - make memorable appearances. "Silent Nocturne," with Albright on sax and Hathaway on vocals, is a haunting standout.
Christmas With Peggy Lee (Capitol Records): In her prime, Peggy Lee, who died in 2002 at age 81, could croon her grocery list and make it sound remarkably alluring and distinct. This new compilation collects lushly orchestrated holiday classics, the majority of which are from her 1960 album, Christmas Carousel. The 16 finely remastered cuts, including the previously unreleased "My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)," have aged well. The mood throughout is generally laid-back as Lee's sultry vocals pull in, shadowed by Billy May's wondrous orchestration. But on "Winter Wonderland" and "Happy Holiday," the singer swings out a bit. It's all plush, warm seasonal music to unwind to after a hectic day of last-minute Christmas shopping.