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Kitsch Meets Klassics

The sometimes bizarre but utterly soothing holiday music groove

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Welcome to the holiday season. Your family is gathering, your tree is shedding, and you're making the credit card company very happy.

If the holiday Muzak in the department stores isn't enough for you, Santa's Little Helper has been in the basement with the headphones on, sorting out the good Christmas music from the really, really bad. We've reviewed the best of the bunch, all of which are available from most music retailers, making your spirits bright and stocking-stuffer shopping easy.

Come, let us begin.

A definite holiday party must is the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan (Mammoth, $11.88). The Zippers' steamy Dixieland style applied to the holidays yields a rollicking Christmas excursion, easily danced to. The only traditional song is an instrumental version of "Sleigh Ride." The other nine tunes wax poetic about holiday love, holiday love lost, cold weather, trees and winter in typical warped SNZ style. "I'm Coming Home for Christmas" takes a turn toward old-style country, giving up the horns for simple harmonies, and "The Gift of the Magi" could have been recorded on Marty Robbins' back porch. "Hot Christmas" is more jump than jive, and "Johnny Ace" scraps the red and green for deep, pure blues. Spike the cider and listen for the hidden track.

I personally believe that the Chicken Soup for the Soul people are capitalizing on Nietzsche's 1882 announcement of God's death by taking it upon themselves to save everyone's soul through book sales. Soon we'll be giving 10 percent of our household incomes to the Church of Our Lady of Poultry Broth and Celery Slices, but until then, we can still give our money to the Chicken Soup people directly by purchasing Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas (Rhino, $11.98). The collection of 14 Christmas favorites (as opposed to those collections of holiday tunes that never made it to "favorite" status) promises that its "magnificent music will help you create a magnificent Christmas for yourself and others." The classics -- Bing's "White Christmas," Gene's "Rudolph," Perry's "Jingle Bells" -- make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, while little gems like Mahalia Jackson singing "Silent Night" keep you from getting bored. My only beef with the collection is the inclusion of Angela Lansbury singing in a crackly, insistent voice "We Need a Little Christmas." Hearing her caterwaul about slicing fruitcake and hanging tinsel ... If I were a 7-year-old, I'd be wetting the bed Christmas Eve out of holiday terror.

Said terror can be easily soothed by Touched by an Angel: The Christmas Album (Sony/Epic, $13.99). Like a whiskey-soaked rag to a teething baby, this CD completely soothed my frazzled holiday nerves. While the album features a mlange of contemporary Christian artists and Christian songs, it doesn't bombard the listener with the Word of the Lord. Amen. Instead, Jaci Velasquez's "One Silent Night" and Crystal Lewis and Kirk Franklin's "I Still Believe" are relaxing, uplifting, pop-y jazzy numbers. You can't go wrong with Della Reese, and her gospel "If I Can Dream" made me want to repent right then and there. The album also features Keb' Mo, Donna Summer and country artists Randy Travis and Colin Raye. The one truly annoying track was Charlotte Church's "Panis Angelicus," only because every time I picture that high-pitched little WonderWelsh with the emphatic plasticine smile, I get mad. Crazy mad. Mad enough to stop pledging to public TV if they show her special just one more time. Lotte aside, my 14-year-old sister said The Christmas Album was pretty cool, and my mother described it as nice, romantic music.

Another mellow musical option is the O'Neill Brothers' Coming Home, (Shamrock-n-Roll, $15). Tim and Ryan have already sold more than 250,000 of their 10 previous albums and still remain unsigned to a major record label. The new instrumental (piano) CD features traditional along with Irish-flavored numbers, including original compositions. This is the perfect album for lulling your hyper-excited kids to bed on Christmas Eve or for winding down and cleaning up on Christmas Day. The O'Neill Brothers will perform a free concert at JC Penney's at the Citadel mall on Monday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. Call 597-0050.

If you wrapped your outdoor Christmas lights around decorative wagon wheels and xeriscaped cactus gardens, you might appreciate Riders in the Sky's Christmas the Cowboy Way (Rounder, $12.99). Woody Paul, Too Slim and Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth) are joined by Joey the Cow-polka King on these 12 Western holiday songs. "Corn, Water and Wood," a western spin on the story of the Three Kings, is sung by Too Slim and is really quite touching. "The Last Christmas Medley You'll Ever Need to Hear" is a fine example of the Riders' Bob Hope-ish humor, contending that every Christmas song is actually based on "Let It Snow." Woody Paul does some amazing fiddle work, sliding from melody to melody. The Riders are like everyone's favorite kindhearted uncle, and their earnestness reminds you what Christmas is really all about. They make you feel holiday cheer instead of holiday stress.

I'm in a quandary about Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas (Rhino, $11.98). What exactly is a sensual Christmas? Are there people out there getting turned on by colored lights, toys, large hairy men in red velvet suits ... eh, never mind. Rhino, in their freaky little way, has compiled 12 tracks featuring such soulful performers as Issac Hayes, the Ohio Players, James Brown and the O'Jays. Smooth Grooves showcases the premier artists of the '70s soul wave, including the Emotions "Black Christmas." Funk has not been ignored, either. One of the best examples of the funkified holidays is Rufus Thomas' sexy "I'll Be Your Santa Baby." The sultry beat will surely get your bells a-jinglin'. The liner notes feature short bios and pictures on all of the artists included in the collection. Great gift for the pimpdaddy on your list.

Just as sensual is Jingle Blues (House of Blues, $16.98). The album features Amos Milburn's 1949 recording, "Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby" and Albert King's 1974 "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'." Never before have the phrases "slide down your chimney" and "fill your stockings" provoked such bizarre visuals. The album also features other rockin' selections, my personal favorite being Mabel Scott's 1955 "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," though it was a tossup between that and Bessie Smith's 1925 "At the Christmas Ball." This album features so many diverse blues artists and selections, you'll probably end up listening to it yearround.

The swingin' Ms. Jamesetta Hawkins', a.k.a. Etta James, 12 Songs of Christmas (Windham Hill, $16.98) is one of the best Christmas CDs around. Etta's voice needs no extended description; she is well-known for her sultry, smoky tones. The traditional numbers ("White Christmas," "Jingle Bells," "Joy to the World," etc.) are refreshed by bassist John Clayton, pianist Cedar Walton, guitarist Josh Sklair, trombone player George Bohanon and Red Holloway on tenor sax. The smooth jazz renditions feel warm and contemporary. I'm a big fan of all-purpose music -- Creedence and Mozart stay in my CD player at all times -- and 12 Songs is one of those anytime-is-a-good-time records. Family dinner, late-night present-wrapping, holiday traveling, post-shopping relaxation ... Etta James sets a sophisticated and seasonal mood with every track.

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