By Chris Willman
December 10, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Home for Christmas

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Oh, there’s no place like homogeneity for the holidays. Welcome back to the marshmallow world of Christmas music, where sleigh-riding friends perennially call ”yoo-hoo,” die-hard secularists find themselves approaching the manger with a little drum in hand, and every new version of ”Jingle Bell Rock” doesn’t. Almost needle-less to say, Nat’s and Bing’s evergreens are in no danger of being supplanted by the crop of ’99.

Jewelry for Christmas

You might figure a relative eccentric like Jewel would take some Christmas chances, but her heavily orchestrated Joy: A Holiday Collection (Atlantic) tends toward greatest public-domain hits…at least till heralding angels give way to a goofy ”Go Tell It on the Mountain”/”From a Distance”/ ”Life Uncommon” medley. She can hit the high notes in ”O Holy Night,” so the traditionalism could be worse. But beware incongruous moments when she starts scatting—Ella she ain’t—or yodeling. C+

There are no such whacked-out surprises in Amy Grant’s A Christmas to Remember (A&M). Grant cut one of the better contemporary Christmas albums in ’83, followed by an overorchestrated ham in ’92; this third X-capade falls in the middle. Avoiding romantic themes following her recent divorce, she grants fans her most religious album in eons, her unstrained voice providing balm for the post-mall jitters, even when the largely new material borders on banal. B-

A Very Special Christmas Live (A&M) aims to revive a fading various-artists franchise by reproducing a 1998 Washington charity concert. Santa’s got a very mixed bag: For the privilege of jolly-enough John Popper and Run-D.M.C. entries, and a no-hard-feelings Clapton/Crow pairing, you’re saddled with two lumps o’ Jon Bon Jovi. B-

Party host Rosie O’Donnell has a perverse sense of humor. She rounds up carolers as disparate as ‘N Sync and Rosemary Clooney on A Rosie Christmas (Columbia): There’s a happy-making, hip-hop ”Little Drummer Boy” from Lauryn Hill, and ”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” remade as a ”Believe” homage by Cher. A few of these might even shape up as creditable contributions to the Christmas canon…except for the fact that they’re all duets with Rosie O’Donnell. Who slipped crack in the eggnog? C+

As Boy Toys ”R” Us collections go, 98[degrees]’s This Christmas (Universal) improves on last year’s ‘N Sync holiday set. But if a resurrection of the Four Freshman with R&B pretensions isn’t your foremost fireside wish, you may enjoy this CD more at, say, 798[degrees]. C

Coventry & Western

The portentous cover of Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas (Capitol Nashville) has the artist formerly known as Gaines holding out a crystal ball, perhaps believing that a holiday mix of Christianity and occultism is the way to win back country’s core audience. If only the album itself were so nutty. With this dull Magic set, Brooks moves from the Western swing of 1993’s Beyond the Season to ersatz ’40s swing, adopting a quasi-big-band style so impersonal he could be any of a million Andy Williams wannabes. C-

Not every country star is squeezing into a figurative cardigan, à la Garth. On Secret of Giving (MCA Nashville), Reba McEntire goes heavy on the hymns, where as labelmate George Strait avoids the sacred altogether on Merry Christmas Wherever You Are. But both confidently mix standards and new material while staying true to twangy form. Her ironic post-divorce lament, ”Santa Claus Is Coming Back to Town,” and his wistful title ballad are just the tickets for blubbering in your ‘nog. B

Irreverence & Myrrh

Rockers might be expected to bring some less sober wrinkles to the genre, but be careful what you wish for. Ringo Starr’s I Wanna Be Santa Claus (Mercury) is cute in small doses and unendurable as a whole, notwithstanding a revival of the Fabs’ obscure ”Christmas Time Is Here Again.” Said band is evoked all too smirkily and self-consciously, as if Starr really wanted to create—and couldn’t, quite—the great lost Rutles Christmas album. C+

Devo leader Mark Mothersbaugh’s instrumental Joyeux Mutato (available from Rhino at offers a good soundtrack for an urgent bout of gift wrapping with its mechanical, Christmas-chimey beats and bleats. Be cautioned, though: With longer listenings, the Moog-iness might provoke post-Mannheim Steamroller stress syndrome. B-

The surest shot at a holiday burnout antidote should be South Park spin-off Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics (Columbia). Belly laughs start with the cover, where the titular poo assumes a Nat King Cole pose. A Neil Diamond impersonator’s cameo on ”The Lonely Jew on Christmas” is worth the price of admission, as is Satan’s litany of beloved, recently dead celebrities enjoying their first ”Christmas in Hell.” But by ”What the Hell Child Is This?” we’re just a bit far into the stuff Mr. Hankey is made of. B-

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Sanity Clause

If shock value isn’t the cure for the blah-la-la-la-las, then maybe traditionalism—real traditionalism—is. Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s Home for Christmas (Deutsche Grammophon) beautifully stirs classical, folk, and even a few 20th-century standards into a surprisingly workable stew. Half the 21 tracks are in Swedish, which has its benefits, like disinclining your in-laws to sing along. Her formalism doesn’t suit the requisite ”Chestnut” song, but you won’t find a more wonderful ”I Wonder as I Wander.” And the striking leadoff hymn, ”Koppangen,” will haunt you through December…even more than ”Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” You otter get it! A-

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