Christmas Spanking (Bloodshot)
"Seems y'all been very naughty," Asylum St. Spankers percussionist Mike Henry says during the introduction to his group's live album, Christmas Spanking. "We think that's nice." So to reward its ruddy-faced, red-nosed hometown fans for their rowdy behavior, this completely acoustic (no microphones or amps) Austin-based outfit slaps its distinctive handprint on fifteen holiday-themed selections. Its most delightful present, a gleefully eclectic version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," veers from washboard-and-fiddle country to a spirited pairing of Spanish vocals and Flamenco guitar to a gruff, Tom Waits-style finale. This usually boisterous (and often racy) ensemble keeps it clear and clean through most of these carols. Singer/ukulele player Christina Marrs shines with her solo rendering of "Blue Christmas," and her vocal counterpart, Wammo, turns "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" into a low-key blues shuffle. But Christmas Spanking isn't without its hot spots, such as the toasty duet "Baby It's Cold Outside" and the chestnut-roasting "Trim Your Tree." One of the year's top seasonal offerings, Spanking appeases the Great Pumpkin by including both a Charlie Brown cover (well, Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas, Baby") and a revamping of Lucy and Linus' theme that evolves from Dukes of Hazzardous backwoods instrumentation to scat-driven jazz.
Christmas Memories (Columbia)
For a moment, at the beginning of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the track that opens Barbra Streisand's first holiday recording in 34 years, there is reason to believe that elves (high-powered agency elves) have somehow assembled a mature, sincere set of standards and respectable recent songs. But then someone flips on the little programmed drummer boy, and a chromatic harmonica trills along with Streisand as though the song -- or Streisand -- needed a touch of homespun warmth.
Humbug. It's nothing more genuine than the crackle of a burning Duraflame log that draws fans to Streisand's still-pretty, still-aloof voice, a sound that rarely conveys the depth of a song's lyrics, especially when the material is purely seasonal. We know she doesn't mean a word of it, but that's OK; everyone is in on it but Streisand, who still peddles with full audition-strength gusto. At the inorganic heart of this bland platter of giblets is a reverent, tepid "Ava Maria"; it should be redemptive, a moment to remember what used to be impressive about Streisand. But she can muster chemistry neither with the song nor the choir and soloists who join her. Still, as long as they celebrate the holidays in nail salons, this manicured set will have a home for Christmas.
8 Days of Christmas (Columbia)
Rumors of a split don't exactly constitute glad tidings of holiday cheer, especially when a group has the rare sense of harmony developed by Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. But if Destiny's Child breaks up, Knowles and Williams, both of whom could shine as soloists, shouldn't fret. Singing lead on "Silent Night," Knowles sounds as strong as she ever has, while Williams' vocals on "O' Holy Night" make the argument that she's the trio's best singer. Rowland doesn't fare as well on her solo shot, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and the group falters together with the clumsy title track, the flat "'DC' Christmas Medley" and the just-plain-goofy "Platinum Bells." The disc suffers from weak beats (did the producers get a Casio last Christmas?), but the girls manage to keep the album from freezing with some inspired vocals.
MTV: TRL Christmas (Atlantic)
Hey, Carson Daly, way to confuse the fat man -- your MTV TRL Christmas is both naughty and nice. On the naughty list, there's fourth-rate material girl Willa Ford cooing "Santa Baby (Gimme Gimme Gimme)," a paean to what Christmas is apparently all about: getting things. The good stuff comes from Weezer and Blink-182, both of whom do what they usually do as well as they usually do it, a rarity for tossed-off compilations. Still, the coal lumps outweigh the worthy gifts.