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Musicians put new spin on holiday favorites

NEED A little Christmas, right this very minute? Many's the musician ready to help, with new holiday-themed album releases to take the chill off the coldest wintry night and occasionally remind us what the day's all about.

NEED A little Christmas, right this very minute?

Many's the musician ready to help, with new holiday-themed album releases to take the chill off the coldest wintry night and occasionally remind us what the day's all about.

This year's crop of seasonal sets (all available as downloads and most in CD form) started falling out of the skies as early as August from artists major (Rod Stewart, Lady Antebellum) ironically re-paired ("Grease" co-stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton John), and very much of the moment. Take, please,the gathering of teen pop favorites - Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lady Gaga - on "Now That's What I Call Today's Christmas."

Even cutting-edge artists like Sufjan Stevens or the mostly alt-folk crew proclaiming "Holidays Rule" fear no ridicule, feel no shame getting behind ye old holiday material - the only standards we all share today.

But the true hat trick - as Stevens and a few others manage - is bringing an authentically fresh "take" to the holiday theme, not just serving another twangy guitar rendering of "Rockin' Around the Chrstmas Tree" or a coyly seductive "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The latter was recently subjected to a brilliant parody by the Comedy Central duo Key and Peele.

The bravest of artists also make new contributions to the Christmas catalog hoping their efforts will last beyond Dec. 25. A thankless job. Ask a younger artist today what he or she likes in "contemporary" Christmas music and most will cite Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" - a song which debuted a mere 18 years ago!

Yeah, we need a new Christmas hit, right this very minute.

"A Christmas Story, The Musical" (Masterworks Broadway): Now on stage in New York, this whimsical confection is derived from a short story by Jean Shepherd - the Garrison Keillor of his day - and the 1983 film adaptation that still scores good cable ratings. Set in a small Indiana town of the 1940s, we meet a family down on their heels but full of love and hope for the holidays - with a would-be cowpoke who's dreaming of a "Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun" under the tree, an altogether perfect mom and a doofy dad looking for respect as a champion crossword puzzle-solver. The brassy Broadway score, winking good humor and strong emphasis on child performers evokes "Annie" and "The Music Man." Among several solid new holiday tunes is a funny bit of business conducted "Up on Santa's Lap."

Sufjan Stevens, "Silver and Gold" (Asthmatic Kitty): Here's my desert-island choice - actually a five-CD, 58-song box set that roams all over the musical map from pure church-choir devotionals to a tech-transformed "Good King Wenceslas." Stevens serves several weird and wondrously arranged originals - none more entrancing than his love it/hate it ode to myth-building "Christmas Unicorn," which ebbs and flows for a full 15 minutes. Obsession is a beautiful thing.

Rod Stewart, "Merry Christmas, Baby" (Verve): I came to admire this set after also watching the looser, more imperfectly perfect video concert version that PBS will screen as a fund-raiser in a couple of weeks. I used to believe Stewart was relying excessively on Pro Tools to fix major vocal damage. Watching the TV rendering as he emotes "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or brings a waggish wink to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" demonstrates the dude still owns an expressive upper register. And Stewart's spared no expense, spoiling us all on this variety show, arranged/conducted by David Foster with a bevy of 14 beautiful female string players, a blasting horn section, gospel and kids choirs, a bagpipe ensemble (for "Auld Lang Syne") special guests such as Cee Lo Green, Mary J. Blige, Michael Buble and the late Ella Fitzgerald(!), plus the ever popular partridge in the pear tree. And Stewart's breezy original "Red Suited Super Man" sends me like a Sam Cooke classic.

"Cee Lo's Magic Moment" (Elektra): The same rock 'n' soul duet with Stewart on "Merry Christmas Baby" does double service on this altogether fun and funky batch of southern fried soul celebration. We did feel a little flagging of interest midcourse, followed by a strong correction.

Bunny Sigler, "When You're In Love at Christmastime" (Bunzmusic/CD Baby): Philly soul vies with surprising European touches in this local legend's brave, bodacious bag of tricks. A grooving hot "Little Drummer Boy" and "Hark the Herald Angel" seem especially hometown, both with blessed vocal assists by Charlene Holloway. Meanwhile, the Italian waltz-flavored Sigler/Richie Rome original "Merry Christmas Happy Holiday" should play equally well in Rome, while Sigler's lofty "A Christmas Dream" of helping out Santa spins fancifully off a J.S. Bach staple.

Jason Paul Curtis with Swinglab & Swing Machine - "Lovers Holiday" ( If you like Buble/Frank Sinatra-styled jazzpop crooners, this is the 2012 holiday gift to you. Packs clever originals like the reluctant shopper's lament "Blue Friday" plus apt standards we don't usually associate with the season - "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To." Also ripe for jazz heads - the Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship's darkness into light, double-disc suite "Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey" (WSJF) and cabaret-toned "Many Times, Many Ways" (Justin Time Records) from singer Halie Loren and keyboardist Matt Treder - bested with a rarely heard "Grown Up Christmas List."

Lady Antebellum "On This Winter's Night" (Capitol): Country superstars deliver holiday standards in a poppy, twangy, light and totally forgettable fashion. Now playing in an elevator near you.

"Christmas With Scotty McCreery" (Mercury/19): The country-tuned "American Idol" season 10 winner does well by those deep, down-home baritone pipes. The old-timey string band jammed "Holly Jolly Christmas" jumps out. Ditto his forgiveness-themed original "Christmas Comin' Round Again."

Phil Vassar, "Noel" (Rodeowave): In the grand tradition of guitar-strumming cowpokes like Gene Autry and Willie Nelson, country cousin Phil Vassar uses Christmas music to reveal a passion for "western swing." His mostly original tunes - including the comical "Santa's Gone Hollywood" (check out the YouTube video) and the winking, euphemistic "Let's Make a Little Christmas Tonight" - are spritely and satisfying. South Jersey transplant Ray Benson helps out on "Big Old Texas Christmas." This set snapped me out of the seasonal doldrums.

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, "This Christmas" (Lime): We hardly recognized the new improved John and Olivia on the cover. But their cute attitude and interplay are just like in the glory days of "Grease." For a twist, the woman takes the seductive lead on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Class charts and guests (Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett), too.

Scala and Kolacny Brothers, "December" (Rhino): The crystal clear young female voices of this Belgian-based choir put a haunting chill on Joni Mitchell's "River," Damien Rice's "Eskimo" (barely fits the theme, though a gorgeous song) and "Last Christmas" (much more touching than the George Michael/Wham! origina).

"Holidays Rule" (Hear Music): Produced by Paul McCarney's MPL Communications, this offering surrounds his own, brittle ballad version of "The Christmas Song" with many an equally tastefu modern triller - from a fun. (the group) "Sleigh Ride" to Rufus Wainwright's swooning "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (give it up, Sharon Van Etten). Also with artsy, acoustic folk/rock airings - the Civil Wars (RIP), Punch Brothers, border-rocking Calexico, Andrew Bird, blues legend Irma Thomas and Eleanor Friedberger, the latter incanting a voodoo-rock "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me."

Tracey Thorn, "Tinsel and Lights" (Merge): Her innately melancholy vocal tones sometime lead Thorn to downbeat tunes like "Sister Winter" or the poignantly wrought Broadway extract "Hard Candy Christmas." But this mostly original and quite fine set from the Everything But the Girl singer also brings us around with much needed "Joy" to this world and a New York City-placed title track wherein a kiss in time puts everything right.

Colbie Caillat, "Christmas in the Sand" (Universal): Lots of this here music is written and recorded in sunny Southern California. Take, please, that aforementied Rod Stewart project and this pleasant, pop folk-rocking collection, that boldly underscores the point with a surf-style ode (the title track) to Santa and the all-season notion that "Everyday Is Christmas" for dear Caillat when she wakes up "with a present in my bed." (Insert joke, here.)

"That's What I Call Today's Christmas!" (EMI): This most ecumenical of label/talent-swapping projects is sure to make the kids happy with "buzz" acts like Carly Rae Jepsen, One Republic, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato plus more mature talents including Coldplay, Norah Jones and Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. You could do worse.