The 10 best and worst Christmas albums of 2002. Patty Loveless and Nicole C. Mullen make the season sing, but watch out -- as always -- for the saccharine Kenny G

By Chris Willman
Updated December 11, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
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The 10 best and worst Christmas albums of 2002

There aren’t many new releases that rank with the great holiday records put out in the distant past by the likes of Phil Spector, Elvis, and Ella Fitzgerald. But if you’re ready to put Bing Crosby and Nat ”King” Cole out to pasture for a while in favor of something fresh, here are the 10 best new Christmas releases — (and, as a warning, the 5 worst).

THE BEST

1. Patty Loveless Bluegrass & White Snow (Epic)
Not since Emmylou Harris’ “Light of the Stable” came out in the mid-’70s has there been such an outstanding mixture of traditional country and bluegrass. Loveless is a mainstream country star who started heading back toward her Appalachian roots even before “O Brother” made it cool, and she continues in that acoustic vein here, with lovely results. The traditional mandolin- and dobro-driven carols that make up the first two-thirds of the album are terrific, but it really gets going toward the end when she begins breaking out some new songs so tasty you wish the whole album had been made up of just of the original material penned by Loveless and her producer husband Paul Emory Jr.

2. Nicole C. Mullen Christmas in Black and White (Word)
Here’s a bet I’m willing to make: This has got to be the only album of 2002 that incorporates a lot of credible hip-hop beats AND has a number where the music stops and the singer breathily intones: “How can this be, since I have not been with a man?” Since Mullen is a gospel singer, it’s only fair, of course, that the Virgin Mary gets plenty of props here. But even if you’re not into contemporary Christian music, don’t let that scare you off, unless you’re disinclined toward spiritually centered carols altogether, because this is the most original and possibly most enjoyable of all the season’s new releases. “365” and “Sing Angels Song” are R&B party tunes that could fit in perfectly on Top 40 radio, but there are also unusual diversions like a version of “Away in a Manger” that suddenly turns from an acoustic ballad into a funky salsa celebration.

3. Various artists O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays (Rounder)
If seeing an album title that begins with an “O” reminds you of “O Brother,” that’s no accident. Indie Americana labels are busy issuing collections with like-minded names and sepia-toned covers to cash in on the bluegrass craze while the going is good. But if that means that we can get a Christmas compilation this good in a genre that’s been short on them, then let’s say “O boy.” Rounder’s holiday roundup consists of almost all newly recorded material, and has few letdowns after Rhonda Vincent lights a fire with the traditional “Christmas Time’s A-Coming.” You’ll definitely never hear a less blue-sounding “Blue Christmas” than Open Road’s lickety-split take.

4. The Gypsy Hombres Django Bells (Memphis International)
It sounds gimmicky: This instrumental combo has recorded an entire album in the style of jazz legend Django Reinhardt. But it’s a delight that works on its own terms, even if you’ve never heard — or heard of — the honoree. These Hombres cook up a terrific mixture of continental cool and acoustic Western swing. You’ll know you’re in the right hands when you hear “Blue Christmas” done up in the style of “Brazil.”

5. Various artists Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk America)
The one significant collection of new rock material this season is a mixed bag worth sifting through. One of the highlights, a Sarah McLachlan/Barenaked Ladies duet on ”God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” was previously released on another Nettwerk Christmas album, but now’s the time if you missed it before. The other is a bittersweet after-Christmas anthem, ”What a Year for a New Year,” from Supersonic frontman Dan Wilson. But there are only a few clinkers (from Vanessa Carlton and Bright Eyes) and some creditable attempts at both new compositions (by Ron Sexsmith and Jimmy Eat World) and covers (Coldplay, Phantom Planet, and more).

6. Various artists Swingin’ Christmas Party! (Bluebird/RCA Victor)
The best repackaging of swing-era jazz this year offers another chance to pick up Tommy Dorsey’s delighful take on ”Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” along with hot stuff from Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and more. There are also some incongruous inclusions — do Spike Jones’ ”…Two Front Teeth” and Guy Lombardo’s ”Auld Lang Syne” really belong in this company? — but most of it does legitimately swing.

7. Bob Rivers White Trash Christmas (Atlantic)
I’m not big on Christmas novelty records, but I have to admit emitting several unexpected guffaws over the surprisingly funny course of this guilty pleasure. It’s a morning jock’s dream, with dead-on parodies of almost every genre thinkable — from an imagination of how Eminem might cover ”Jingle Bells” to a spoof of the R&B adultery classic ”Me and Mrs. Jones” called ”Me and Mrs. Claus,” not to mention an outrageously dumb and hilarious satire of ”Because I Got High” that explains why the narrator still has a rotting pumpkin on the front porch at Christmas, among other holiday pothead slipups.

8. Brooks & Dunn It Won’t Be Christmas Without You (Arista Nashville)
Country stars Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, and Jo Dee Messina all have new Christmas albums out, and although I’ve enjoyed their work in the past, I didn’t care for these; all three of them eschew their core sounds in favor of fronting a big band. (In Jackson’s case, you’re far better off with his earlier effort, ”A Honky-Tonk Christmas.”) On the other hand, I’ve never been much of a Brooks & Dunn fan, but I found theirs to be by far the best of this year’s mainstream Christmas country albums, partly because they stick to what works for them, partly because they actually try out some original tunes. ”Hangin’ Round the Mistletoe” is a particularly fine piece of lusty country swing. (One interesting note: Whether this is a minus or a plus for you, B&D’s is one of the few Christmas albums out there to avoid religious material altogether.)

9. Various artists Christmas on the Mountain (Universal South)
Universal South’s bluegrass collection isn’t quite as good as Rounder’s (see above). But it does offer the THIRD new version this year of the great hillbilly holiday standard ”Christmas Time’s A-Comin”’ — as sung here by Doc Watson, Del McCoury, and Mac Wiseman — and for that we can only offer thanksgiving.

10. Various artists The Reindeer Room: A Christmas Chillout (Kriztal)
You can’t get much further away from bluegrass than this. Electronica fans finally get the Christmas full of bleeps and beats they’ve been waiting for with this collection of low-key dance music. It doesn’t all work — the occasional vocal numbers all sound like they’re sung by breathy 14-year-olds, a peculiarity seemingly inherent to the chillout genre — but at least it’s an interesting attempt to breath new life, albeit machine-generated life, into familiar holiday fare.

THE WORST

1. Kenny G Wishes: A Holiday Album (Arista)
He is the reason for the season… of dread. You don’t have to be a diabetic to get sugar shock from that unremittingly sweet soprano sax.

2. America Holiday Harmony (Rhino)
Poor Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell, always having to hear the pundits talk about how “the rest of the world hates America.” That dynamic isn’t likely to change with the venerable duo’s first Christmas album. If their rote takes on the usual standards don’t give you the runs, even more unbearable are three original numbers so mind-bogglingly banal they might as well have been whipped up via computer with a Christmas cliche-generating randomizer.

3. Barry Manilow A Christmas Gift of Love (Columbia)
“Gift”? Or threat? Sometimes the line is so fine. But when Manilow deigns to cover Joni Mitchell’s “River” amid the more typical seasonal material, we can only assume evil intent.

4. Carly Simon Christmas is Almost Here (Rhino)
Simon could almost be sued for false advertising, based on the cover art, which has her doing her sexpot schtick in a white miniskirt and red boots. Think you’re in for some romantic frolic and fun? Think again. This is a misguidedly “rootsy” effort that has Simon waxing serious about a secular reason for the season and croaking through any number of admirable but awful attempts at real emotionalism. The only bearable number is “Pretty Paper,” only because its writer, Willie Nelson, commandeers the song in a duet.

5. Cledus T. Judd Cledus Navidad (Monument)
All right — I’ll admit that I never got past the first number, “Cledus’ Christmas Ball,” which pretty much just (a) name-checks every extant country star and (b) plays off the title phrase in a risque way about 500 times. But maybe some of the followup ditties, like “Merry Christmas from the Whole Dam Family” and “Don’t Serve Beans,” are comic masterpieces. Check it out and report back, if you want; that can be your Christmas gift to ME.

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