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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

Sounds of the Season

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With perennial favorites Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra sitting out the season by not releasing any new music, it s not the usual Christmas crowd this year in music stores.

But there are some big names competing for a spot under your tree, including multi-million-selling singers George Strait, James Taylor, Johnny Mathis, and Lou Rawls in his final recording.

Cooking-show guru Rachel Ray lends her name to one of the finest holiday compilations to come along in years, and folk-pop singer Aimee Mann paints Christmas with a blue tinge.

But the biggest surprise of the year is the knockout disc by newcomers Aly & AJ, two sisters whose remarkable talent and infectious enthusiasm make even the most familiar holiday fare sound fresh and exciting.

Not all sister acts shine this holiday, however. Eighties glam/metal band Twisted Sister celebrated its 30th reunion by releasing a collection of screaming punk rock Christmas tunes. The good news is that Dee Snider and company say it will be Twisted Sister s final album.

Here s a roundup of some of the more notable Christmas discs of 2006:

• Acoustic Hearts of Winter, Aly & AJ (Hollywood). Aly & AJ seem to wrap every note they sing or play with enthusiasm, elevating their music above today s crowded field of pop music and, in this case, the rest of this year s holiday albums. The Michalka sisters play piano and guitar and blend their voices with the mystical grace unique to siblings. The opening cut, Greatest Time of Year, is a rollicking blast of holiday cheer that is featured in the new film Santa Clause 3. But Aly & AJ aren t one-dimensional artists. Another of their original tunes, Not This Year, acknowledges that not everyone is in the Christmas spirit and, for those who may be going through rough times, Christmas cards can seem so contrived and it s OK to say, I can t, I can t pull off the cheer, not this year.

• At Christmas, James Taylor (Columbia). The beloved folk-pop singer sounds like he s sitting in your living room, strumming his guitar and sipping eggnog with a few close friends on some of these delightfully simple arrangements, including The Christmas Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and a cover of Joni Mitchell s poignant River. Taylor cranks it up a few notches for a joyous romp on Go Tell It on the Mountain and a funky, literally offbeat spin on Jingle Bells. The album closes with a perfectly warm-and-fuzzy version of Auld Lang Syne a nice way to bring in the new year. Much of this disc was released in 2004 on a special-edition CD released by Hallmark.

• Beautiful Star: A Christmas Collection, Rhonda Vincent (Rounder). Bluegrass sensation Vincent starts off with the cheerful and upbeat original, Christmas at Home, capturing with enthusiasm the joy of spending the holidays with family. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Vincent s style of bluegrass is closer to the mainstream than most, and she and her superb backup band give holiday standards a refreshing new sound.

• Christmas Offerings, Third Day (Essential). Mac Powell s gritty, emotional baritone, set against Third Day s dual lead guitars, creates a fiery yet reverent collection of nine classic and four original Christmas tunes. This holiday disc is the third installment of Third Day s Offerings series, which features heartfelt worship songs set against energetic power chords. This is a strikingly original holiday album from one of the leading bands in Christian rock.

• Fresh Cut Christmas, George Strait (Hallmark). Take 10 perennial holiday favorites, add steel guitar and Strait s honky tonk vocals, and you ve got a can t-miss countrified Christmas disc. Strait obviously knows what he s doing he s recorded an astonishing 53 No. 1 singles and sold more than 70 million records. Fresh Cut highlights include Jingle Bells with a hint of western swing, and a slow and stirring rendition of O Come, All Ye Faithful. The CD is being sold at Hallmark stores for $7.95 with the purchase of three greeting cards, following the firm s previous holiday releases by Michael Buble, Michael McDonald, Martina McBride, and James Taylor.

• One More Drifter in the Snow, Aimee Mann (SuperEgo). The choice to open with Jimmy Webb s melancholy ballad, Whatever Happened to Christmas, is a good indication that Mann is not going to wrap her first holiday album in glitter and a bright red bow. This moody, mature collection of 10 tunes is marked by jazz-tinged guitar chords, shuffling beats, and vocals sung with the smoldering emotion of the best torch-song classics. A nice surprise is Mann s version of You re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, featuring Grant Lee Phillips exuberant narration.

• A Twisted Christmas, Twisted Sister (Razor & Tie). This has got to be the only heavy-metal holiday album that marks a band s reunion and a farewell at the same time. Inspired by the New York Dolls and KISS, Twisted Sister was formed in New York City in 1976 and had a fling with fame in the early 1980s, selling 10 million albums before fading into the footnotes. But Dee Snider and company reunite on their 30th anniversary to record this holiday CD as a final album. The 10 songs open with a parody of Snider crooning like an off-key lounge singer on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas before being interrupted and reminded that this ain t Twisted Sister. It s hard to tell, however, where the parody ends and the real Twisted Sister begins. Suffice to say this is a niche album for those who like their holiday classics performed with screaming vocals and slashing guitars. And that s got to be a very small niche.

• A Christmas Celebration, Celtic Woman (EMI). Oddly, most of these 15 tracks sound like any mainstream American pop album. The four singers are talented but the vocals are so steeped in reverb they sound like everyone is singing inside a giant cement pipe. The few highlights are the songs with a hefty Celtic touch, including Ding Dong Merrily on High with Mainead Nesbitt on fiddle and Christmas Pipes with David Downes adding low whistles and bodhran.

• Christmas, Lou Rawls (Time-Life). Rawls silky, soulful baritone voice was featured on more than 100 albums and this holiday disc is his final studio project, recorded shortly before his death in January at age 72. His uniquely blues-infused style and wide vocal range put the sizzle and swing into classics such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Deck the Halls.

• Gold: A 50th Anniversary Christmas Celebration, Johnny Mathis (Columbia). Mathis velvety vocals have earned him the nickname The King of Christmas, and this set shows why. The 15 songs span the decades, from Mathis first Christmas album, released in 1958 and recorded with Percy Faith s orchestra directed by Mitch Miller, to a 2004 performance of O Tannenbaum backed by Mannheim Steamroller. Mathis fans will enjoy a previously unreleased duet with Bette Midler on a classic medley.

• How Cool is That Christmas, Rachel Ray (Epic). Ray can cook, but can she sing? I don t know and I don t care, but I do know this kitchen glamour girl sure has great taste in music. It would be hard to find a more interesting and eclectic lineup than these 12 songs, from Elvis Presley kicking it off with Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) and moving on to such choice cuts as Billie Holiday s I ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Bing Crosby and David Bowie s unique duet on Little Drummer Boy, Aretha Franklin s dazzling Winter Wonderland, Frank Sinatra s inimitable White Christmas, and Jane Monheit s upbeat, jazzy The Man with the Bag. Fans of Ray s cooking show won t be disappointed, either: The liner notes include recipes for Christmas Pasta and Fabulous 5-Minute Fudge. Dig in!

• Christmastime Is Here, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Telarc). Cincinnati legend Kunzel leads the pops orchestra in a classy stroll through the classics, with lively yet nostalgic performances on such favorites as Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy, and It s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas. His lineup of vocalists lifts the disc to an even higher level, with Tony DeSare putting a cozy jazz touch on The Christmas Song, Tierney Sutton heating up the wistful ballad I ll Be Home for Christmas, and John Pizzarelli crooning gently on Silver Bells.

• Redneck Christmas, Various Artists (Time-Life). There is Christmas music for everyone, even the pickup-truck-with-a-gun-rack crowd. And despite the inclusion of Elmo and Patsy s well-worn favorite (yup, you guessed it), Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, most of these 14 songs are as fresh as new-fallen snow. Charlie Daniels shines on his folksy Christmas Time Down South and The Tractors light things up with the high-energy Santa Claus Is Comin (In a Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train ). Other standouts include the deep-country humor of Leroy the Redneck Reindeer by Joe Diffie, and Travis Tritt s tinkling-piano-and-horns-powered blues of Chistmas Just Ain t Christmas without You.

• Mr. Stinky Feet s Christmas, Jim Cosgrove (Warner Bros.). Kansas City kid rocker Cosgrove has a smooth baritone voice and writes original tunes that are musically and lyrically passable if you have yet to hit double digits in age. Songs like Hark! It s Harold the Angel and Santa, Hey Santa will keep the youngsters amused but lack the wit of some children s music that can keep grownups, or even sophisticated sixth graders, from ducking out of the room for some eggnog.

Contact David Yonke at dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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