A look at music for the holiday season -- Check out Christmas albums from the Beach Boys, Shawn Colvin, and Brian McKnight

A look at music for the holiday season

There’s no chestnut quite like ”The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” which seems to have finally supplanted ”White Christmas” as the national anthem and hymn triumphant of holiday pop. Who’d dare issue a Christmas collection nowadays without it? Not Celine Dion, certainly, or ‘N Sync. A look through this season’s CD offerings finds at least two dozen other new versions of Mel Torme’s prize tinsel tune. Brian McKnight doesn’t cover ”The Christmas Song” on his new collection, but not because he’s above baiting traditionalists. Just a few tracks in, McKnight stops the proceedings cold in order to give a couple of random minutes of spoken-word time to…Mrs. Nat King Cole, widow of the song’s popularizer. Which is kind of like a preacher forgetting to lead the Lord’s Prayer but then bringing out, as a surprise guest, the Virgin Mary. Cheater.

Not that we’re averse to any talented revivalists out there who can bring new life to Torme — or handle Handel. To help sift the coal from the milk chocolate, and the King Cole wannabes from the mavericks, EW gifts you with our annual holiday music roundup. Buyer beware…and merry and bright!

Foster the Snowman
Among recent chart-toppers, Celine Dion is absolutely the high-C-climbing songbird you’d want to have tackling ”Ave Maria” or ”O Holy Night” — and absolutely the last person you want to hear braving the period idiosyncracies of John and Yoko’s ”Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The French-Canadian sensation sings the living daylights out of all of the above in These Are Special Times, a creditable right-of-center collection hampered by a few serious missteps. Dion’s earnest take on Vietnam-era Lennon is howler No. 1. No. 2 is her duet with R. Kelly, ”I’m Your Angel,” a slice of squishy-hearted pseudo gospel that might better be called ”Touched by a Marketing VP.” But in the half-dozen tracks where coproducer David Foster leads her gently back toward the classics, be they ”Blue Christmas” or ”Brahms’ Lullaby,” Dion makes a perfectly adequate successor to abdicated Christmas queen Streisand. B-

Vince Gill wants to be king of Christmas in a big way, so he’s eliminated the twang from Breath of Heaven, his second holiday collection in five years. His bid to go after the broader audience and pick up the Sands-era slack left in Sinatra’s wake involves borrowing big-band orchestrator Patrick Williams. Trouble is, we could really use a decent country Christmas album about now, and we already have roughly 5,000 holiday sides from the Chairman’s catalog, thanks. The Amy Grant-penned title ballad, an evocation of motherly pre-Nativity angst, is the only remotely left-field choice in a swing-easy set that’s finally more fiddlesticks than swizzle stick. C+

R&B Home for Christmas
At least Gill has the chops to chew on any standard he bites off. Not so R&B legend Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds, who plays directly to his weaknesses in Christmas With Babyface. We should be expecting a whole new batch of potential perennials, since he’s only the most prolific songwriter on earth, right? Nope: Only in the final track (a leftover theme from Simon Birch, at that) does the vaunted studio auteur nab himself a writing credit. Instead, ‘Face fancies himself a vocal stylist who can find new interpretive nuance in ”Rudolph” and ”Sleigh Ride.” Neigh! (And where are all his superstar pals? Partying at Puffy’s in the Hamptons?) Worst amid the thin MOR fare is a reggae-lite ”Little Drummer Boy,” wherein the overextended host keeps exclaiming ”Woo!” evidently not noticing that he’s the only one dipping into the eggnog. C

No need to worry about Brian McKnight’s ability to handle the standard demands of Bethlehem, an effective showcase for the balladeer’s Mary-don’t-you-weep-let-me approach to tremulous soul. In contrast to Babyface, he wrote quite a batch of (okay) new material, and has plenty of guests over for grog, too — foremost among them Boyz II Men, who share lady-killing duties on ”Let It Snow ’98” (not the Sammy Cahn classic), a barely there but percussively slinky piece that gently puts the blizzard back in ”quiet storm.” B-

White (Boy) Christmas
On the white R&B front, how harmless is boy group du jour ‘N Sync, as heard in Home for Christmas? Don’t worry, parents, ”Under My Tree” isn’t as racy as it sounds: First, they’re promising ”no one else but me and you” under the influence of the mistletoe and soft music, but then they’re adding, ”I wish that Santa could be here to see!” — a real seduction snuffer of a cry for a chaperone. At your own pace, lads, at your own pace. For anyone as sick of standards as we are, ‘N Sync does provide a Christmas album where 11 of 14 tracks are promisingly unfamiliar. But better they should stick with what works, as your grandma would say. Their writing stable simply strings together sentimental-sounding non sequiturs, an hour-plus of which ultimately renders their initially alluring, smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom harmonies vaguely robotic. C

For the real boys of winter, we refer you to the Beach Boys, whose Ultimate Christmas is this season’s best bet, even if the newest tracks do date back more than two decades. Capitol has repackaged the entirety of the highly regarded 1964 Beach Boys’ Christmas Album with 14 bonus tracks, seven of which derive from aborted 1977 sessions for a planned holiday-themed follow-up. The extremely rare ’74 single ”Child of Winter” makes its long-awaited legal CD bow, as does a gem heretofore known exclusively to bootleggers, ”Christmas Time Is Here Again,” a delightful garage rocker nominally set to the tune of ”Peggy Sue” that coulda been a Top 40 contender in ’77. ”She’s so pretty but I’m so young/But when I’m 16 I’m gonna have some fun!” sings Al Jardine, who, unlike those ‘snappers in ‘N Sync, knows exactly how pubescent he is; nervously awaiting a certain Nick at night, he excitedly adds, ”I wonder if I’ll ever get to sleep again!” Here, and in previously released sandbox classics like ”Little Saint Nick” and ”The Man With All the Toys,” we have a true child’s Christmas in wails. A

Squirrel Nuts Roasting
But there comes a time to put away childish things… and then to take them up again, in celebration of one’s own elfin charges. ”We will rock you, rock you, rock you,” sings not-so-rockin’ new mom Shawn Colvin in the very quiet Holiday Songs and Lullabies, recorded while she was pregnant with her first child. A babe in these woods couldn’t ask for a better birthday present than an album that offers props to both Maurice Sendak and Vince Guaraldi. Colvin’s already proven herself an interesting interpreter of other pop writers, but we’ll have to wait for another occasion to hear her ”Christmas Song”; the choices here tend toward ”In the Bleak Midwinter,” ”The Christ Child’s Lullaby,” and ”Close Your Eyes.” You don’t even have to be a junior-league insomniac to luxuriate in the sweet somnambulism; anyone needing a tonic for December shopping and bickering might take her up on it. A-

Colvin’s is one of the year’s two most eclectic major Christmas releases. The other would be the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Christmas Caravan, a highly likable, if not always especially memorable, set of mostly original material from the ”Hell”-raising revivalists. Their tastes run from a lively Dixie ”Sleigh Ride” to a bluegrass-ballad retelling of O. Henry’s ”Gift of the Magi” to the lonely, self-explanatory ”A Johnny Ace Christmas.” Best is one of only two covers on the disc, the sexy and all too rarely revived ”Winter Weather.” B

Wrappers’ Delight
On the compilation front, EMI’s Sounds of the Season is destined to be a top seller by virtue of its $5-6 price tag, available only in Target stores. Most of the tracks are either previously unreleased in the U.S. or freshly minted; new to us is the Spice Girls’ ”Sleigh Ride,” which plagiarizes the Phil Spector arrangement note for note except for substituting a depressingly metronomic beat. Biggest curiosity: Everclear’s seemingly homoerotic take on ”Santa Baby.” Please don’t tell us where you’re putting that ring you’re asking Saint Nick for, guys. C+

America’s never had a Christmas compendium as comprehensive as the CD collections that appear in Europe, probably due to rights difficulties. One of the closest yet is Ultimate Christmas (not to be confused with the Beach Boys’ disc of the same name), which rounds up Kings Nat and Elvis, sweater bearers Como and Mathis, Der Bingle, and Judy Garland’s original tragic version of ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Since the disc’s on Arista, though, Clive Davis will exact a price for offering such near completeness — namely, making you also suffer through Carly Simon’s and Kenny G’s holiday tuneage, which sounds like Ultimate Sacrifice, if you ask us. B