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Get into the spirit of the holidays by listening to some of these releases


If it's December, that means record stores everywhere have made room for one of the season's long-standing traditions — the release of dozens of holiday CDs.

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Alligator Records brought together 16 of the artists on its label to create this collection that lives up to its promise to provide a rocking good time.
Here is a look at the best holiday CDs that have crossed this writer's desk this season.

"Harry for the Holidays," by Harry Connick Jr. (Columbia Records) — "Harry for the Holidays" looks like the clear winner for 2003's most ambitious holiday CD by a solo artist. Connick goes the extra mile by recasting several holiday classics — such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — with imaginative New Orleans-accented jazz arrangements.

Then he ups the ante even further with several original tunes, including the playful, child-friendly tune, "The Happy Elf" and a duet with George Jones on the country-ish song "Nothin' New for New Year."

"The Best of George Strait: the Christmas Collection," by George Strait (MCA Chronicles Records) — Like virtually every CD by this enduring country superstar, this collection of holiday music is filled with easygoing, lightly swinging country tunes.

The refreshing twist with this collection is that Strait avoids Christmas standards, and instead draws on 12 songs written by some of the best songwriters Nashville's Music Row has to offer.

"My Christmas Prayer," by BeBe Winans (Hidden Beach Celebration Series/TMG Records) — One of the most popular male vocalists in gospel — and a member of the first family of gospel — Winans, not surprisingly, sings his share of spiritually based classics on this CD, including "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Holy Night.''

But he also makes a nod toward commercial viability, teaming with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty on the title song — a second version with Delores Winans is also included — and covering George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" — a song that never has been associated with Christmas.

Aside from those two songs, Winans sticks to often-performed classics and takes few liberties along the way.

But his heartfelt — even reverent — performances should suit Winans' audience just fine.

"Christmas With Johnny Cash," by Johnny Cash (Columbia Legacy Records) — Coming as it does shortly after the death of this great artist, the timing of "Christmas With Johnny Cash" could seem either most appropriate or an unfortunate attempt to capitalize on the renewed interest in Cash's music.

What's harder to debate is the sincerity and heart Cash brought to this collection of traditional and original tunes, which are drawn from three separate holiday albums Cash released over the course of his prolific career.

"What's It Gonna Be, Santa?" by Chicago (Rhino Records) — This reissue adds seven tracks to the 1998 release, "Chicago 25/The Christmas Album."

The new tracks, recorded with producer Phil Ramone, sweeten what was already an album that included inventive treatments of a dozen holiday favorites and one original track.

The worthy additions include a swinging, brassy take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and a take on "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" that rocks harder than just about anything Chicago has done since the group's earliest albums.

"The Best of Reba: the Christmas Collection," by Reba McEntire (MCA Chronicles Records) — This collection makes the grade by including several strong holiday originals — such as "This Is My Prayer for You" and "The Secret of Giving" — within a song set that also features a half-dozen traditional Christmas tunes.

While McEntire plays it straight on most of the countrified traditionals, her rocking cover of "Up on the Housetop" spices up this solid, if largely predictable collection.

"Toy," by Everett Bradley, (Big Black Booty Records) — If you're looking for a holiday CD with a bit of an irreverent attitude, "Toy" may be just what you're seeking.

Songs like "Dirty Snow," "Say Cheese" and "Funky Santa" highlight the more mundane and bothersome rituals of the holiday season.

But what really helps this CD's cause is a good number of entertaining songs, such as the jazzy "Christmas Is Kickin' In," the rocking "Funky Santa" — Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora guests on this song — the funky "Simple Wish" and the soulful balladry of the title song.

"Alligator Records' Genuine House-rockin' Christmas," by various artists (Alligator Records) — The respected Chicago-based blues label, Alligator Records, brought together 16 of the artists on its label to create this collection that lives up to its promise to provide a rocking good time.

Highlights include Shemekia Copeland's "Stay a Little Longer, Santa" — which finds Copeland in a relaxed, jazzy mode — the Holmes Brothers' funky and fun "Back Door Santa," Marcia Ball's loping Cajun-flavored "Christmas Fais Do Do" and Koko Taylor's gritty "Have You Heard the News?"

Clearly, there's nothing blue about Christmas when these Alligator artists get into the holiday spirit.

"Singers and Songwriters Christmas Songs," by various artists (Sony Legacy Records) — This 18-song collection mines the vaults of labels ranging from Warner Bros. to Elektra to Vanguard Records and beyond to assemble this collection of largely acoustic holiday tunes performed by such pop, folk and country stars as Emmylou Harris, Jim Croce, Willie Nelson and Dan Fogelberg.

It's a solid collection, albeit one that's ironically titled considering that only two songs — Nelson's "Pretty Paper" and Croce's "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way" — actually were written by the artists.

"The Best of Motown Christmas," by various artists (Motown Records) — Throughout the label's 40-year history, Motown and its artists have released plenty of holiday collections. This CD pulls together selections from several of the previous releases — including "A Motown Christmas Volume 2," not to mention Christmas albums from several of the label's most famous artists.

Whether this collection really represents the very cream of the crop from Motown's considerable storehouse of holiday tunes may be debatable. But fans of such artists as Stevie Wonder — who weighs in with "Someday at Christmas" — Smokey Robinson and the Miracles — who perform a tune written by Wonder, "It's Christmas Time" and the Four Tops — with a cameo from Aretha Franklin on "Christmas Here With You" — are sure to find plenty to like on this collection.

"Wonderland Series: Cool December," by various artists (Shout Factory/Astrolux Records); "Wonderland Series: Yulesville," by various artists (Shout Factory/Astrolux Records); and "Wonderland Series: Under the Mistletoe," by various artists (Shout Factory/Astrolux Records) — These three collections feature songs by stars from jazz, pre-60s pop and soul, all assembled under a different theme for each CD.

"Cool December" is centered around winter weather and keeping warm. So this collection features tunes like "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter, by the velvet-voiced Bing Crosby; "Snowbound," sung by the incomparable jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan; and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,'' sung by Billie Holiday in 1937 — early in her storied career.

Romance and holiday cheer take center stage on "Under the Mistletoe," a collection that includes a spirited take on "Merry Christmas Baby" from Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson delivering an inspired performance on "That's What I Want for Christmas" and Ella Fitzgerald making the most of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"Yulesville" probably is the most loosely connected of the three collections, with a general theme of Christmas being the common denominator for most of the songs.

But it's hard not to smile at tunes like "Jingle Bells Cha Cha Cha" — sung by Pearl Bailey — Duke Ellington's version of "Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)," and last but not least, Tiny Tim strumming his way through "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

With fun themes and some inspired song choices, any of these three CDs will create plenty of good cheer this season.

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