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Ghosts of Christmas past

Surprising new holiday albums from Bette to Bootsy

It's a creepy, sometimes horrific, fall ritual: Just after All Hallow's Eve, the dead and long-forgotten rise from their graves and beg the living to again lend them their ears — and open their wallets. This march of restless souls has nothing to do with Halloween but is standard practice as the yearly bounty of new Christmas music lands. Think about it: Most of the holiday classics we hear on endless loop are sung by people long since departed. And oddly enough, the majority of new seasonal CDs released most years come from artists whose glory days are long behind them. Most, but not all.

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This year's crop of new arrivals includes the usual sort of has-beens and wannabes all hoping to score the next "White Christmas" — along with a few truly original (or flat-out bizarre) offerings from unexpected corners. Here's a look at both.

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Bette Midler, Cool Yule (Columbia)

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The once-divine Miss M. cracks all the usual chestnuts on her first holiday album, an upbeat but mostly predictable little project that'll make the over-50 set swoon. Its sins — a needlessly chatty Johnny Mathis duet and a few performances that sound phoned in between face lifts — may be forgiven, with one major exception: a "Christmas Version" of her Grammy-winning "From a Distance," with new yuletide lyrics by Julie Gold. Seriously, who gave this the green light?

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Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty)

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Indie-folk wunderkind Sufjan is, best I can figure, certifiably insane, what with his 50-states project and subversively Christian lyrics. He's also a musical genius whose stunning grasp on instrumentalism and flair for lyrical narrative can sometimes knock the smirk off your face. The folks at Asthmatic are also insane for waiting this long to release Sufjan's previously bootleg-only holiday CDs, but genius for putting out a deluxe boxed-set that includes five discs (!) of breathless beauties. Truly, it's the must-have Christmas collectible of the year.

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Wynonna, A Classic Christmas (Curb)

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If the sound of yuletide yearning from the single-named Judd sister seems familiar, it should: In 1987, Wynonna and her mama, Naomi, put out an unpredictably moving Christmas disc cradled in sweet bluegrass harmonies. Not so this time, as four of the same tracks get the solo treatment here with more by-the-book arrangements and mixed with traditional (read: boring) church songs such as "Ave Maria." Not that there's anything wrong with hymns, but I miss the downhome charm of the first effort.

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Bootsy Collins, Christmas is 4 Ever (Shout! Factory)

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God bless Bootsy. A true original, the Funkadelic bass master deserves props for bringing his zany sound to a baker's dozen of standards — not just content to change the arrangements, but also giving them Bootsy-licious names along the way. Rudolph becomes "Boot-Off" (the funky soul reindeer) while "Silent Night" schools Santa on breaking into ghetto homes: Come in through the window, of course. The Bootzilla's one-note — and overly sexual — babble eventually becomes annoying, making this surreal CD more of a novelty that a perennial crowd-pleaser. It's damn fun on first listen, though.

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James Taylor, At Christmas (Columbia)

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J.T. may not have done anything all that interesting in two decades, but his inevitable entry in the holiday canon turns out to be a jazzy (if sometimes lethargic) gem, the kind of disc that might make your mom stop taking her Prozac. Natalie Cole shows up on a lounge-ready rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside," one of those songs that has nothing to do with Christmas but that has been thoroughly appropriated by the holiday powers-that-be.

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Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong (Arista)

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Anyone who's closely followed McLachlan's career shouldn't be surprised at all to see her release a holiday CD: She's been sprinkling Christmas nuggets here and there for years. Her cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night" can warm even the coldest Grinch's heart, though her startling take on Joni Mitchell's "River" will cool it right back down again. The album may not be a breakthrough, with a lugubrious streak that sometimes borders on monotony, but Wintersong is the rare holiday offering that simply works.

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Dean Martin, Christmas With Dino (Capitol)

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Chauvinism knows no season, but Dino's smooth harassment warms the heart in this welcome reissue. His playful approach to "Jingle Bells" proves to be a retro delight, as is the alternative take on "Winter Wonderland," less a walk than a stagger through the snow, but whatever. There's even the requisite downer track, "The Christmas Blues," which belongs to the underrated subset of depressing holiday classics. No wonder so many people off themselves every December.

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Various Artists, Broadway's Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure Vol. 8 (Rock-It Science)

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The mind reels at the logistical acrobatics that must've gone into making the annual songbook, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Cast members from 26 musicals contribute songs split over two discs, dubbed "naughty" and "nice." The former proves more addictive, with the Altar Boyz exploring "Joseph's Dilemma" and Monty Python's Spamalot offering a twisted take on "O Little Town of Bethlehem." But how in the heck did they get newly opened shows such as Mary Poppins, Company and Les Miserables involved in time? When was this thing recorded, last weekend?

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Various Artists, New Orleans Christmas (Putuyamo)

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Let's have a moment of silence for post-Katrina N'awleans, followed by some spiked egg nog and this surprisingly tasty beignet of an album. Gumbo and mistletoe mix oddly well as 11 Big Easy jazz acts bring a certain joie de vivre to these sing-along songs, with only a few missteps. One quibble: I'm sad to see the compilation missing a cover of Brenda Lee's "Papa Noel," perhaps the quintessential Cajun Christmas carol.

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music@creativeloafing.com



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