Christina Aguilera, or, as she's known on her new Christmas disc, X-tina. Either way, she's simply X-cruciating.
Christina Aguilera, or, as she's known on her new Christmas disc, X-tina. Either way, she's simply X-cruciating.

Candy Cane Mutiny

TV's Seinfeld may have shone an unflattering light on the notion of "regifting," but that shame doesn't seem to have rubbed off on the music industry. Every year the surviving major labels extract a dozen songs from previously released or newly deleted Christmas albums, slap them onto new "Various Artists" compilations and scratch that holiday obligation off the list. And in the magical world of regifters, there's none bigger than Universal Music -- the label that swallowed up MCA, A&M, Interscope, Geffen and PolyGram and gave us back "Millennium" collections of every artist it dropped off its roster. This year, the mega-conglomerate has stitched together no fewer than five Christmas compilations for under-the-tree consideration, each covering a different genre except for one -- new music.

And maybe that's a good thing. In a year in which pop music was so bad it made me consider being reassigned as a wine critic, the only thing that could be worse than an Eminem Christmas album is another Celine Dion one.

Outside of a very few unassailable favorites, the bulk of Christmas records contain one or two classic cuts with a bunch of empty stocking stuffers tossed in as filler. It's got me thinking like a major label -- maybe I should make one definitive "Various Artists" Yuletide tape to ensure that I don't have to hear a million versions of "Jingle Bells." Will anything in this year's gleaming stack of holiday offerings make the final cut? Or am I justified in turning in this article two weeks early just so I can trade in these CDs for last-minute shopping money? Use this handy key and you, too, can have a DIY Christmas!

Rating Key:
Keeper: Contains enough good songs to actually consider keeping.
Taper: Contains fewer than three tape-worthy songs.
Regifter: If I had a shrink-wrap machine, I'd regift this to a relative who has no musical taste.

Christina Aguilera
My Kind of Christmas (RCA)

In Jerry Butler's just-published autobiography, he writes of another soul great, Otis Redding: "The thing you marveled at about Otis was that he could take a two-syllable word like 'longing' and turn it into eight syllables." He might have added that the Big O didn't multiply every two-syllable word by its square root.

The thing you marvel at about Christina Aguilera (or "X-tina," as she's also known on this X-mess), is how she takes nearly every one-syllable word in "The Christmas Song" -- words like "way," "sleigh," "spy," "fly" and even "the" -- and stretches it to eight syllables, sometimes clumping two words together to go as high as 12 or 15 meaningless hiccups. If Grandma ever does get run over by a reindeer for real, this is not the person you want making the 911 call. While she's wringing every extra woe out of mistletoe, it's not hard to imagine Mel Tormé up in heaven with a clicker, grinding his teeth at every unnecessary embellishment.

A performance of "The Christmas Song" is also featured on the enhanced CD-ROM portion of the program, intercutting footage of X-tina recording with vintage home videos of a preschool Christina opening Christmas presents, then cutting back to a grown-up X-tina every time she decides it's vowel-stretching time. Simply put, it's X-cruciating!
Rating: It's a regifter!

Various Artists
Platinum Christmas (Arista/RCA /Jive)

'Tis the season of giving, but you didn't think Arista was gonna throw Patti Smith a promotional bone, did you? Not even to make sure that Britney, Christina, Backstreet Boys and 'N SYNC fans have no interest in midlife punk whatsoever? Naw, it's platinum pusses only at this brat banquet, but at least they're not serving leftovers like Universal. Seems like the teen pop pack is trying to woo the adults -- Britney does it by emulating "Baby Love"-era Supremes, while the Backstreets and 'N SYNC arm-wrestle over who gets to be more boring than the Lettermen. Balancing out the adolescent abundance is Dido's reflective "Christmas Day," not to be confused with Dave Matthews' reflective "Christmas Song." The latter moves a gurgling baby Jesus from the manger to Mary Magdalene in less than 30 seconds -- a Christmas carol first! Another surprise comes from U.K. dance outfit Steps, which turns in a hand-clapping, foot-stomping version of Slade's "Merry X-Mas Everybody." And maybe I'm overreacting here, but Santana's elegant instrumental "Posada (Pilgrimage to Bethlehem)" brought uncontrollable tears of joy to my eyes -- possibly because it was a relief to hear him play anything but that goddamned "Smooth" song.
Rating: It's a taper!

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Christmas Time Again (CMC International)

"Rudolph the Red Nosed Freebird," "Sleet Survivors," "What's Your Name, Little Elf," "Sweet Gnome Alabama" -- all your Skynyrd holiday favorites are here. Act now and get the recalled sleeve with Santa and his reindeers going up in flames.
Rating: It's a regifter!

Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters
A Merry Christmas (MCA)

They've stopped playing Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 2" at sporting events because he was caught downloading kiddy porn, yet we continue to blast Bing Crosby's holiday music even though we know he bub-bub-beat the tar out of his four sons, right around the time most of these sides were waxed. Too bad Rolling Stone's David Fricke didn't write the liner notes to this reissue of Bing with the Andrews Sisters -- then we'd get the real dope on Daddy Damnedest: "It is a striking measure of the crooner's blinding holiday pop artistry that he could lead the Andrews Sisters through a fire-crackling 'Twelve Days of Christmas' in the merry month of May and still be home in time to pummel the boys mercilessly with an 8 iron." Until MCA issues a karaoke version that allows us to substitute our own wobbly voices for B-I-N-G-oh!, this one jingles all the way to the resale counter.
Rating: It's a taper!

Vonda Shepard/Various Artists
Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas (Epic)

This is a roundup of Christmas music from the past five seasons of Ally McBeal, but, alas, "Gonna Starve Myself for Christmas" isn't on here. Too bad, because that would've definitely made it onto a "Cruel Yule" tape. Instead, we get Vonda Shepard doing to Christmas standards what she does to old girl group hits on the show, but without the welcome plot interruptions and plugs for other great Fox programming. The series' newest cast member is on hand to perform Joni Mitchell's "River," but when Robert Downey Jr. sings "I wish I had a river I could skate away on," it's clearly in violation of his parole.
Rating: It's a regifter!

Michael Ball
Christmas (Hip-O/Universal)

Sure, I could surf the Internet long enough to find who the hell Michael Ball is, but why bother? Judging by his clasped hands and goofy altar boy grin on the cover, he's gotta be one of them newfangled Christian singers, dueting with Brian Kennedy and Elaine Paige, other luminaries who register not a blip on the secular celebrity meter. When the Ball breaks from traditional fare, it's with yet another version of Joni Mitchell's "River," which is especially wimpy when sung by a guy. Skate away, weeping man! Even with that sobbin' on ice, this could've been used as innocuous gift-wrapping music, but then there's the eggnog-curdling "From a Distance" -- made even more heinous by the loud THX "The Audience Is Listening" synthesizer washes at the startup. If God is indeed watching us, he's got both fingers in his ears.
Rating: It's a regifter!

Linda Ronstadt
A Merry Little Christmas (Elektra)

Linda Ronstadt's familiar art deco logo tips you off that this will be an orchestrated holiday companion piece to her Lush Life collaborations with Nelson Riddle. It maintains that course for the first four numbers before paring down to choir and harp arrangements. Somehow Ronstadt's precise phrasing -- which was never right for Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly covers -- seems perfect for tackling "I Wonder As I Wander" or dueting on "White Christmas" with that movie's other star, Rosemary Clooney. We've got a third sighting of "River" here (what's everybody trying to do, starve the Johnny Marks estate by not recording "Rudolph"?). Still, it's great to hear Linda singing the Mitchell tune with a string quartet sawing away behind her like it's "Different Drum." All in all, a nice CD to throw on for background music. I know you hooligans out there were expecting to read more fat jokes at Linda's expense. Well, for your information, that's jolly St. Nicholas on the cover, not Lady Ron. You people are bad! Really, really bad!
Rating: It's a taper!

The Irish Rovers
Songs of Christmas (Rover/Hip-O/Universal)

"Holly-lew-yar," you crow with uncontrollable glee, "the Irish Rovers finally have themselves a Christmas album." Hold on, are these the same Irish Rovers who in 1968 battled it out on the charts with acid rock newcomers like Blue Cheer and the Balloon Farm to score a goofy Top 10 hit about "The Unicorn"? Aye, Jimmy boy, they're one and the same, and to prove that they still have that story-song touch, they've recorded "Miss Fogarty's Christmas Cake" ("Kelly came in with a hatchet and Murphy came in with a saw/But Miss Fogarty's cake had the power for to paralyze any man's jaw"). That one's a keeper, but unfortunately that's all I can take of this jiggery. Anyone else who wishes to hear everything from "Silent Night" to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" played like the same goddamned Lucky Charms commercial, by all means cut to the head of the line. Should this brogue fest become a holiday hit and force those spectacled Scotsmen the Proclaimers out of mothballs next year, don't come a-sobbin' to me.
Rating: It's a taper!

Various Artists
A Country Superstar Christmas III (Hip-O/Universal)

Maybe they should've called this Forgotten Country Superstars III. To ears attuned to the cosmopolitan pap that passes itself off as country these days, Alan Jackson and George Strait must sound like the Sons of the Pioneers. Universal goes as far back as 1982 for old middle school country like Alabama's "Christmas in Dixie," and 1986 for Randy Travis' cover of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper." A simpler time when fiddles and pedal steel weren't against the law on a Nashville recording, but still not enough to avoid the trade bin.
Rating: It's a taper!

Various Artists
Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas (Hip-O/Universal)

A collection of irreverent covers of traditional fare and new Noel songs like Spinal Tap's "Christmas With the Devil" ("There's someone up the chimney and Satan is his name . . . Silent night, violent night"), Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy," Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope" and Homegrown's "Christmas Crush," which relives the horror of finding Santa shagging a loved one ("Santa, get off of my girlfriend!"). Less Than Jake makes "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" funny again by racing through it in two minutes flat, and Red Peters turns in the novelty record sure to overtake it, "You Ain't Getting Shit for Christmas."
Rating: It's a keeper!

Rosie ODonnell/Various Artists
Another Rosie Christmas (Columbia)

Although there's nothing as grisly as her duets with Elmo and Cher (from last year's A Rosie Christmas), O'Donnell's pairing with the Dixie Chicks on the I'm-dreaming-of-a-white-trash-Christmas anthem "Merry Christmas From the Family" -- the first carol ever to mention tampons, unless you count the sheep in "Away in a Manger" -- comes awfully close. And, if any of you kiddies still believe the "alt-rock" tag still holds some allure, peek into Rosie's snow-covered window and watch Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray's street credibility grind to a halt.
Rating: It's a regifter!

The Looney Tunes
Kwazy Christmas (Kid Rhino)

Politically correct child advisers will note that the compilers here chose to highlight and exploit Sylvester's speech impediment by giving him "Frosty the Snowman" to sing. The rest of us are left with the uneasy feeling that the guy doing the voices of Ren and Stimpy is now controlling old Bugs' and Elmer's vocal cords.
Rating: It's a regifter!

Mark Mothersbaugh
Joyeux Mutato (Rhino)

The concept? The brain trust behind Devo melts down old Christmas records on the Yule log and then turns them into annoying holiday Muzak. You say "mu-TAY-to," I say "mu-TAH-to," let's call the whole thing off!
Rating: It's a regifter!

Various Artists
Yule b Swingin Too! (Hip-O/Universal)

"Fads may come and fads may go," say the liner notes to this swing set. Translation: Universal has enough "real" swing music in the vaults from Satchmo, Benny Goodman and Louie Prima to ensure that no one on the payroll ever signs a "daddy," "voodoo" or "cherry" band ever again!
Rating: It's a keeper!

Various Artists
Mambo Santa Mambo: Christmas From the Latin Lounge (Rhino)

Lou Bega's "Mambo Number Five" may have killed off any desire to take a cha-cha-cha-chance on this Rhino set, but if you haven't had your fill of old school Latin artists like Esquivel, Hugo Winterhalter and Celia Cruz trying to work Santa, mama and the compromising mambo dance into as many songs as possible, this disc is perfect holiday fare. The one new track is "December Twenty 5" -- a parody of Lou Bega's lone hit -- courtesy of the Flashcats, who wrap up this festive platter with "A little bit of Rudolph, all night long . . ."
Rating: It's a keeper!


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