Holly, Jolly Mess

Who doesn't kid themselves nowadays they can pull off a Christmas album? Thankfully, a few of this year's offerings don't suck.

A little good news: It's not entirely a mess. Through the glut and relative embarrassments, a few albums from the 2003 pile do actually take a real shot toward being considered part of the Christmas canon.

Foster's "My Grown Up Christmas List" comes across as surprisingly and actually mature on Let It Snow!, a holiday EP by rising Canadian press darling Michael Buble. On his own Foster take and the other songs, Buble sounds like he strives to become the next Frank Sinatra -- even Rod Stewart's trying that five years after the Chairman's death. Buble, though, sees the profound Frank phrasing through the mythical schlock. With his smooth jazz vocals, Buble also covers the standards "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Buble follows in the throwback footsteps of Harry Connick Jr., the master at this type of hair-grease charm. On the 16-track Harry for the Holidays (Columbia), Connick swings his way through "Frosty the Snowman" (Jimmy Durante never could do that) as well as through four originals. Titles: "The Happy Elf" and "Nothing New for the New Year," the latter of which is an interesting collaboration with country legend George Jones. This is a true do-it-yourself effort. Connick, who played all of the album's piano, also arranged and orchestrated the music. He took the time to conduct the orchestra, too! Connick understands that Christmas music needs to ultimately be fun, not a burden.

The Blind Boys of Alabama's Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World) is definitely a classic in the making. The wizened gospel survivors' smooth, heartfelt delivery makes for a perfectly exciting Christmas album. The arrangements are simplistic yet addictive (ahem -- take note, American Idol). The Blind Boys of Alabama add gospel flavor to songs like "The Little Drummer Boy," and, of course, the title track. Perhaps the most interesting part of Go Tell It on the Mountain are the collaborations. These guys may be as old as the frankincense, but they're tuned in to the artistic fringe of today. Spearhead's self-styled prophet Michael Franti joins the Boys on "The Little Drummer Boy," while funkmaster George Clinton spouts "haas!" throughout "Away in a Manger." Plus, Tom Waits and his famously gruff boho voice pop up on "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Nothing like a healthy dose of weird to differentiate your holiday volley. For their moxie and instinctual singing gifts, the Blinds Boys get shiny new walking sticks from Mrs. Claus.

Ultimately, holiday music will continue to be seen by coming generations as mind-numbing wallpaper, devoid of its true sentimental meaning. But isn't it reassuring to know it doesn't all have to be as green and sour-berried as the mistletoe?

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