- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2000

LINDA RONSTADTA Merry Little Christmas(Elektra)

Linda Ronstadt's Christmas offering is like two yule albums in one stylistically; or, perhaps more precisely, an LP and an EP.

The first four tracks — "The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "White Christmas" (a duet with Rosemary Clooney, with an unusual La-La Land preface) and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — are seasonal, secular chestnuts delivered in Miss Ronstadt's warm, clear vocals, backed by orchestral arrangements reminiscent of her Nelson Riddle phase. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is easily the best of the lot.

With Joni Mitchell's "River," a poignant tale of lost love at Christmastime, serving as a transition of sorts, the remaining nine tracks are completely different. They are well-known ("Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night"), not-as-well-known ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel") and heretofore unknown — at least to this reviewer — sacred offerings, most with rich accompaniment by choirs that would do any cathedral proud.

Among the latter are a pair of curiosities, "Xicochi, Xicochi," sung in Nahuatl (Aztec), perhaps a nod to Miss Ronstadt's Hispanic heritage like her Spanish-language albums of the 1980s, and "O Magnum Mysterium," as the title suggests, sung in Latin.

If "A Merry Little Christmas" were available on vinyl, the split personality of the album might be a little less off-putting, if only because the first five tracks could be placed on one side and the nine additional ones on the flip side. That aside, fans of Miss Ronstadt should nonetheless enjoy this Christmas stocking stuffer.— Peter Parisi

CYRUS CHESTNUTAND FRIENDSA Charlie Brown Christmas(Atlantic Records)

Jazz musician Cyrus Chestnut taps into his childhood and relives his memories of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy and the entire "Peanuts" gang.

He collaborates with musicians such as Michael Brecker, Jerry Goodman and Stefon Harris to bring the album to life. Track one, "Me and Charlie Brown," a piano solo, is Mr. Chestnut's tribute to the late Charles Schulz, who created the strip. The CD also has an ensemble version of this piece, but the piano solo is better. Track two is a jazz-influenced arrangement of "Skating."

Mr. Chestnut also manages to incorporate a little Latin sound in "Fur Elise" with his guitar and flute arrangements. The opening bars of track eight will get the listener's feet tapping to the familiar sounds of "Linus and Lucy." Mr. Chestnut makes this piece his own, with its jazz undertones, yet he never forgets why it is such a favorite.

The Grammy Award-winning group Manhattan Transfer provides a beautiful, airy vocal background on "What Child Is This?" and blends perfectly with the vibraphone. The best collaboration is between Vanessa Williams and the Boys Choir of Harlem on "Christmas Time Is Here."— Amy Baskerville

AVALONJoy (Sparrow Records)

The music isn't bad, but this is no snowflakes-and-carols Christmas CD. Basically, this album offers modern arrangements of classical hymns with the best parts (the melodies) changed.

It all feels a bit off-season until "Good News," a pretty selection midway through the CD that's a meditation on what the shepherds must have thought of the whole event. The cut has some nice harmonies with understated piano.

A soulful rendering of "Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire" (renamed "The Christmas Song," for some reason) isn't bad, either. "Manger Medley," a set of four hymns, also is pretty. Just to make sure you get the gospel message, the CD ends with "We Are the Reason," which sets out what happens after the Nativity.

I cannot fault the musicality of Avalon, a white group with a black gospel sound, but somehow this CD doesn't feel like Christmas.— Julia Duin

MICHAEL AND STORMIE OMARTIANChild of the Promise(Sparrow Records)

This newest of Christmas-themed musicals has a star-studded cast and a national travel schedule, including an appearance tonight at George Mason University's Patriot Center in Fairfax. The libretto, which follows the Nativity of Christ and was written by Stormie Omartian, has some interesting concepts, such as a female duet between Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and the Virgin Mary. Some of the lyrics are cloying, such as Mary's statement: "I'm just an ordinary girl with extraordinary circumstances." Its solemnity is falsely lightened by bongo drums, and the effect is of the two women dancing about a room.

Mary and Joseph's duet, sung while she is supposedly in labor with the baby Jesus, is a bit too sweet.

There are high spots, such as Donna Summer's role as Elizabeth and Russ Taff's rendition of the angel Gabriel. The recently hitched Amy Grant and Vince Gill as the prophets Anna and Simeon produce a nice duet — gentle and melodic. The evil King Herod, sung by Danny Gans, gets some great lines as the bloodthirsty royal who's out to destroy the mysterious child born in Bethlehem.

In too many places, however, the sound of this CD seems more California contemporary Christian than Middle Eastern drama. The best song in the lineup is "Nothing Ever Happens to a Shepherd," a genuinely funny rendition of the shepherds' thoughts on their boring lives tending sheep.— Julia Duin

OTTMAR LIEBERTChristmas + Santa Fe(Epic Records)

It's hard to say whether this is really what you would hear if shopping on the streets of Santa Fe, N.M., but this solo guitar album sounds pretty authentic to this reviewer, who lived in New Mexico from 1994 to 1995.

Several of the Spanish-sounding tunes are renamed Christmas carols. Thus, "Farolitos on Garcia" is really "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," "Snow Angel" is really "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "The Third Man" is really "O Tannenbaum." Other songs are named after famous byways such as Canyon Road, where the spiffiest art galleries are.

This quiet, meditative CD is occasionally spiced up by a jazzy number, but for the most part these are Christmas carols with a Latin beat.— Julia Duin

VARIOUS ARTISTSNBC Celebrity Christmas(NBC Records/EMI)

This album, which is available exclusively at Wal-Mart, pushes the listener's tolerance for mediocrity. Part of the proceeds from the album will benefit the Children's Miracle Network, which helps raise money for children's hospitals.

Track one essentially sets the tone for the entire album, which features celebrities from NBC shows. "Will & Grace's" Sean Hayes gives a lifeless rendition of "The Christmas Song." Track two features Tony Award-winning actress Bebe Neuwirth from the canceled "Deadline" and "Third Rock From the Sun's" John Lithgow performing "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The two stars lack any kind of chemistry, however. Wendie Malick from "Just Shoot Me" does not do justice to the fun tune "Santa Baby," either. What Martin Sheen, John Spencer and Stockard Channing from the "West Wing" were going for on "Wonderful Christmastime," I still have not figured out.

The few highlights include "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," performed by Katey Sagal from the canceled series "Tucker." Another outstanding performance comes from Emmy winner Megan Mullally of "Will & Grace." Miss Mullally's rendition of "Silent Night" is tender and displays the talents she showed on Broadway. Jane French, who sings the theme to the daytime drama "Passions," does well with "The First Noel." "The Tonight Show's" Jay Leno also does a dramatic reading of the children's favorite "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that will make you smile.— Amy Baskerville

BILLY GILMANClassic Christmas (Epic Records)

The strongest new voice you'll hear this holiday season belongs to 12-year-old Billy Gilman, the 4-foot-7 superstar who is topping country charts. But you don't have to be a fan of country music to enjoy his second album, "Classic Christmas."

Billy's style is perfect for music lovers who are sick of the digitized sound of other young singers. His renditions of holiday favorites, including "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland" and "Angels We Have Heard on High," present traditional notes and great singing. Nothing fancy.

A bonus on the album is "Sleigh Ride," a duet between Billy and 15-year-old Charlotte Church, the singing sensation from Wales. Also worth mentioning is "Warm and Fuzzy," a song for those sentimental at Christmastime.— Jenine Zimmers

BOB RIVERSChipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire (Atlantic)

Making a parody of a novelty song is tricky business at best, but that is the central concept of Bob Rivers' new Christmas novelty album.

"Chipmunks Roasting" is a lightweight collection of the Seattle disc jockey's comic yuletide piffle. The man made famous by the hilarious "Walkin' 'round in Women's Underwear" returns to the Christmas carol territory with highly uneven results.

Some of it is quite funny. "Decorations," to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," is drop-dead funny, and songs such as "Goin' Up to Bethlehem," to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Up Around the Bend," are better than clever.

But Mr. Rivers' brand of sound-bite humor, which works well in three-minute breaks on his wacky morning show, wears thin during a full album, even for slavish devotees of poo-poo jokes and other such fare.

The problem is well illustrated by the title song, a parody of the classic, but ultimately irritating Alvin and the Chipmunks, created by 1950s songwriter Ross Bagdasarian. It is a spot-on imitation of Nat King Cole's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," and is both clever and well-performed. But it is still nothing more than a novelty song based on a novelty song, a joke ripping off a 40-year-old joke.— Sean Scully

CHRISTINA AGUILERAMy Kind of Christmas(RCA Records)

Christina Aguilera has been compared to singing diva Mariah Carey, but you would not know it from her latest album.

Miss Aguilera's singing style doesn't mesh with holiday favorites. With the exception of a beautiful version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," this album is almost annoying. Listeners are waiting to hear their favorite lines from the best carols, but they are lost among Miss Aguilera's love of her own voice and elongated notes.

Even if you love Miss Aguilera's style on her pop albums, you won't necessarily enjoy her Christmas spirit.— Jenine Zimmers

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