The cotton crop hasn't been too good this year, hope you're not expecting a lot of Christmas presents. But Daddy killed a squirrel, Louise made bread, and Riva decorated the tree with popcorn strings before we went to bed. I whittled a whistle for my brother Jack. …
That's the backdrop Johnny Cash paints as he spins a heartwarming tale in the song "Christmas As I Knew It." The late country superstar's story describes a down-and-out Alabama family who are happy with the little that they have, yet still manage to give a jar of coal oil and some hickory nuts to brighten up the holiday of an even-worse-off neighbor.
Cash's 1980 album, "Christmas Classics," is one of 17 timeless holiday albums repackaged in DVD format for the "Yule Log Edition" from Sony's Legacy label. The series features the original albums on DVD with three video options that fill the screen while the music plays: a closeup of a wood-burning fireplace, a cozy room with Christmas tree, and an exterior shot of a snow-covered cabin with smoke drifting lazily from the chimney.
Included in the series are Mariah Carey's "Merry Christmas," Kenny Chesney's "All I Want for Christmas," Johnny Mathis' "A 50th Anniversary Christmas," Andy Williams' "The Andy Williams Christmas Album," Martina McBride's "White Christmas," Kenny G's "The Greatest Holiday Classics," and Bette Midler's "Cool Yule."
The Yule Log editions not only give new life to some of the greatest holiday albums ever released, but also give a lift to an otherwise sparse season for Christmas music.
All the DVDs come with the three different video backdrops and sell for about the same as a CD, with a list price of $14.99.
One of the few big names with a new holiday release this year is Neil Diamond, the gravelly voiced singer and songwriting legend.
Diamond has fun name-dropping through his treasure trove of hits on the title track of his Columbia Records compilation, "A Cherry Cherry Christmas."
Starting with the "Cherry, Cherry" that he tucks into the symphonic title track, Diamond interjects the names of such signature hits as "Sweet Caroline," "Holly Holy," "Song Sung Blue," "Red, Red Wine," and "Beautiful Noise."
There are a couple of other glittering new Diamonds in this collection, including the originals "Christmas Dream" and the gentle instrumental "Meditations on a Christmas Night," and the laugh-out-loud yuks of "The Chanukah Song" — written by Adam Sandler — in which Diamond, a Jew, rhymes Hanukkah with yarmulke, harmonica, and "marijuana-kah," and belts out the names of people "who light the menorah," including David Lee Roth, James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and "the late Dinah Shore-ah."
His stirring "Joy to the World," with Diamond backed by the Soul Children of Chicago choir, a rock quintet, and brass section, fires up this holiday classic with an irresistible energy and, yes, the kind of joy the song's title suggests but is rarely heard.
Another notable name with a new holiday release this season is David Archuleta, the boy wonder from American Idol, who sounds positively cherubic on "Christmas from the Heart" (19/Jive).
The teen idol and AI's season seven runner-up plays it straight down the middle, backed by symphonic strings, for a sugary holiday album with the fluffiness and sugary consistency of red-and-green cotton candy.
A few pleasant surprises are Archuleta's duet with Charice Pempengco on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and his two relatively rare holiday selections — "Pat-a-Pan" and "Riu Riu Chiu."
Archuleta is positively angelic on his soaring, reverent rendition of "Ave Maria," and he closes the disc with an upbeat original composition, "Melodies of Christmas."
Upstaging Archuleta in sheer youthfulness is Connie Talbot, an 8-year-old singer who soared to stardom on Britain's Got Talent.
Young Talbot displays impressive vocal skills on "Holiday Magic" (Rainbow Records), but it's little more than a novelty act because of the overly sappy backdrop. The little girl's earnestness is wasted on arrangements that sound as if they were ripped from a 1930s Shirley Temple songbook.
On the plus side, a portion of the proceeds from Talbot's album sales will go to the U.S. Marine Corps' 2009 Toys for Tots charity, for which she is serving as its official "child ambassador."
Sugarland takes a bold step with "Gold and Green," forgoing the usual holiday favorites for a winning blend of reinvented classics and catchy new tunes.
The disc starts off with three sparkling holiday gems, beginning with Jennifer Nettles' sweet lead vocals on the Manhattan-set ballad "City of Silver Dreams," then the crooning "Wintry Wonderland," and the nimble harmonies with Kristian Bush on the bouncy "Holly Jolly Christmas."
"Nuttin' for Christmas" is a playful tune with a brisk beat, twangy guitars, and some impressive bluegrass picking that will have Santa dancing the Texas two-step.
Charlie Daniels' new holiday release, "Joy to the World: A Bluegrass Christmas," on Blue Hat Records, is a spirited CD/DVD package in which the country star is joined by a cast of some very well-known friends — including Jewel, the Grascals, Aaron Tippin, Kathy Mattea, and Evelyn and Suzanne Cox.
The album kicks off in high gear with Daniels and the Grascals picking fast and furious on Bill Monroe's "Christmas Time's a Comin'," and ends with Daniels spinning a charming, countrified holiday yarn with the spoken-word "A Carolina Christmas Carol."
Daniels shows his spiritual side and reminds listeners of the meaning of Christmas when he reads "The Christmas Story" from the Book of Luke.
The DVD features videos of the musical performances along with some added interviews and commentary.
Chris Dawson puts his smooth piano touch to work on holiday carols and hymns with "Stridin' Through Christmas" (Astin Music). The 15 solo selections are given a fresh and classy new sound as Dawson interprets them in a range of ragtime, stride, swing, and bebop jazz styles. His joyful romp on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is a highlight.
Richie McDonald, former lead singer of Lonestar, launches his solo career with "If Every Day Could Be Christmas" (Stroudavarious).
The catchy country collection balances traditional Christmas fare ("The Christmas Song," "O Holy Night") with a sense of humor on such numbers as "Why Santa's Fat," with McDonald backed by a children's choir, and the honkytonk fun of "Peterbilt Sleigh."
REO Speedwagon pulls a little feint on their fans with "Not So Silent Night" (Sony Legacy) by opening with original lead singer Kevin Cronin singing a soft, reverent one-minute version of "The First Noel."
The tranquility is then shattered by the raucous guitar riff that opens "Winter Wonderland," setting the tone for a rollicking set of holiday favorites. Remarkably, this is the first Christmas album in Speedwagon's 41-year history.
The band has pledged all royalties from its version of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" to the John Lennon Foundation.
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