Judging from the sheer number of new holiday releases every year, artists can't wait to sing traditional carols and add their own twists -- sometimes for the better, occasionally for the worse. But hey, when else can you hear lyrics like: ''We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman," and ''We're snuggled up together like two birds of a feather should be"?
Of course, there are also songs about peace and good will toward men. Those themes never go out of fashion. Nor does the creativity required to make a good holiday record. More artists are adding their own original compositions to the mix, crossing over into every style imaginable. Read on for a selection of holiday offerings:
Blue Note Records
Baker is ultratalented, but she's so intent on reinterpreting Christmas carols in her own style that she loses the life in some of them. She enlists fine support in guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist George Duke, and bassist Nathan East, but they seem to be aiming for a Grammy rather than chilling for the holidays.
''A FAITHFUL CHRISTMAS"
A classy effort from Evans, as she brings soul-music flourishes to the likes of Charles Brown's ''Merry Christmas Baby," James Brown's ''Soulful Christmas" (complete with a ''good God!" shout a la James), and the Sinatra-identified ''Mistletoe and Holly." Evans co-wrote the opening track, ''Happy Holiday," a poignant ballad about caring for the less fortunate this time of year. A solid record.
''AMERICAN INDIAN CHRISTMAS"
Standing Stone Records
Jana has pop credentials -- her songs ''What I Am to You" and ''Ooh, Baby, Baby" have received radio play -- but this CD pays homage to her roots. It's the first time anyone has sung traditional Christmas songs from ''Silent Night" to ''Joy to the World" in 10 American Indian languages, including Navajo, Arapaho, Oneida,
To hear this jazz diva scatting freely on ''Jingle Bells" is enlightening -- and so are her versions of Irving Berlin's ''White Christmas" and ''Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." This is an adult Christmas album that still manages to be fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Elvis Costello, does not appear. A duet would have been nice.
''WINTER ROSE -- MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE HOLIDAYS"
Spiral Subway Records
Flamenco/new age guitar star (and former Bostonian) Liebert offers some heady instrumental meditations on the season. He touches on a few traditional carols (''O Little Town of Bethlehem" and a pretty ''O Holy Night"), but a lot of this is very serious, complex, original material that is sometimes just too dry. But it should appeal to people looking for something different.
''THROUGH THE MANY WINTERS, A CHRISTMAS ALBUM"
Last year, James Taylor put out an exclusive holiday disc for Hallmark's Gold Crown stores. This year it's McDonald, the former Doobie Brother, and his Christmas CD is spotty. Too many songs are s-l-o-w, which is not what good carols should be. The high point is ''Through the Many Winters," a Latin-spiced tune that he wrote with his wife, Amy.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
''THE McGARRIGLE CHRISTMAS HOUR"
This thrilling if sometimes quirky disc features the Canadian sisters and their offspring, as well as Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton. They perform a blend of original songs and traditional carols, arranged with the McGarrigles' trademark parlor-music restraint. There's spirituality to spare, and it's a joy to hear Kate's kids, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, adding emotion and elegance.
Monheit skillfully offers a jazz-pop reworking of holiday fare such as Donny Hathaway's ''This Christmas" (with a tasteful horn section) and David Foster's utopian ''My Grown Up Christmas List," which asks for an end to all wars. The album also smartly incorporates a vibes solo, a string section, and some text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on ''I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." A first-rate CD.
''GONNA LET IT SHINE"
In this holiday concert at Fordham University, Odetta opens by reading a Marianne Williamson poem, ''Our Deepest Fear." She then explodes by pressing her booming voice through carols, spirituals, freedom anthems, and even Leadbelly's ''Midnight Special." She's joined by the fervent Holmes Brothers on a few tracks, and though this CD is not limited to Christmas, it's impressive.
''THE REGIS PHILBIN CHRISTMAS ALBUM"
No one expects Caruso here, but this is cheesy beyond belief. There's not enough spiked eggnog in the fridge to justify a full listen to these off-key vocals and corny sentiments. Donald Trump even makes his recording debut. He tells Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he sees the New York Yankees: ''There's A-Rod and there's Jeter!" Red Sox fans will cringe.
Kitchen Table Records
Looking for a folkie take on the season? This is it. The beguiling Sexton, who is known for hypnotizing audiences with his acoustic sound and openhearted passion, applies his gifts to thoughtful versions of ''Silver Bells" and ''Little Drummer Boy," among others. He also successfully turns ''White Christmas" into a doo-wop number and shifts ''Let There Be Peace on Earth" into an a cappella gem.
Ricky Skaggs and Family
''A SKAGGS FAMILY CHRISTMAS"
Skaggs Family Records
Country-bluegrass luminary Skaggs does the family-affair thing with real hearthside spirit, though with mixed results. Some arrangements have the Appalachian feel that one would expect, but others are gussied up with orchestral strings. And, frankly, Skaggs defers too much to the family and doesn't do enough himself.
''WHAT I REALLY WANT FOR CHRISTMAS"
The Beach Boy's childlike innocence makes him a perfect candidate for a holiday record. Wilson adds sweet, angelic vocals to standards like ''The First Noel" and ''God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but also shines on tracks that he co-wrote, such as ''Little Saint Nick" and ''The Man With All the Toys."