Noteworthy new Christmas music

The Berenstain Bears Save Christmas: The Musical! (Good Mood Records): Christmas has come to Bear Country, but instead of "peace on Earth, good will to men," there's "snatch and grab and how many bargains can you nab?" Mama Bear is disheartened by all the "wretched excess and vulgar display" – and so is Santa Bear, who promptly calls the whole thing off. This musical adaptation of the 2003 book teams writers Stan and Jan Berenstain with Tony Award-winning composer Elliot Lawrence and his son, Emmy Award-winning Jamie Broza. Parents will want to have a copy of the book on hand so that little ones can figure out what's going on. The message certainly is a timely one, but it lands with all the subtlety of a fruitcake dropped off the Empire State Building – and it's nothing Charles Schulz and Dr. Seuss haven't already pointed out more deftly. Grade: B–
Yvonne Zipp

The Manhattan Transfer – An Acapella Christmas (Rhino/Wea): Sometimes, overly familiar holiday songs need shaking up and retooling to make them fresh again. Clearly, that was the mission of the four talented singers that make up The Manhattan Transfer on their first all a capella album project. Most of the Yuletide canon is represented – a swingin' "Jingle Bells," a lovely, languid "Christmas Time Is Here," and the CD's inspired highlight, Victor Herbert's old chestnut, "Toyland." Unfortunately, for every moment of thrilling harmony and profound beauty, there's another of overreaching or simply showing off. I kept wishing they would just sing the songs. Bearing in mind that Christmas albums go into major repeat mode over the holidays, simple and sincere wears much better than complex and clever. Definitely a mixed bag of Christmas cheer. Grade: C+
John Kehe

Aimee Mann – One More Drifter in the Snow (SuperEgo Records): Tidings of comfort and joy? Not to start out with, no. On the opening track, "Whatever Happened to Christmas?," Mann seldom has sounded quite so forlorn – quite a feat given the songwriter's penchant for eloquent melancholy. But, just when you think you're in for the musical equivalent of a bleak midwinter, along comes the gentle sway of "Christmastime," with a chorus that sneaks into memory, penned by Mann's husband, Michael Penn, and her frequent production collaborator, Jon Brion. Even more delightful: "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch," a duet with Grant Lee Phillips that doesn't stint on Seussian playfulness. Mann, accompanied by rock 'n' roll chamber music, closes the album with "Calling on Mary," one of the catchiest tunes she's ever written. Grade: B+
Stephen Humphries

Sarah McLachlan – Wintersong (Arista): Any album that includes a version of Joni Mitchell's "River" is perfect for anyone who has been jilted under the mistletoe. Indeed, McLachlan sounds so downcast on this contemplative record that one just wants to give her a hug. It's unfailingly lovely, though, with McLachlan's pearly voice nestled in feathery instrumentation of acoustic guitar, delicate caresses of piano, and the occasional shiver of strings. The Canadian songstress is at her most ethereal on an inspired medley of "The First Noël/Mary Mary," while her rendition of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" pokes sadly at the embers of a torch song. Grade: B+
S.H.

Putumayo Presents – New Orleans Christmas (Putumayo): Music from the heart of New Orleans already is full of fun, soul, and joy – so what could be better for the holidays than a jolly collection of jazzy, bluesy, and zydeco-y versions of Yuletide classics, as well as a few new carols? Just try to sit still listening to " 'Zat You, Santa Claus?" from Ingrid Lucia, or "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by Big Al Carson with Lars Edegran & his Santa Claus Revelers. An added Christmas bonus: Putumayo gives a portion of the proceeds to the New Orleans Habitat for Humanity in support of the Musicians' Village Project. Grade: B+
Gloria Goodale

James Taylor – At Christmas (Columbia): If you're looking for a CD to set the holiday mood, search no further than this congenial collection, the aural equivalent of sipping egg nog in front of the fireplace. True, the mellow baritone gets just a little funky on "Jingle Bells" and puts a slyly urban twist on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." But otherwise, he delivers just as expected: warm, genial, no-frills singing on 12 tracks ranging from traditional carols ("Go Tell It On The Mountain") to secular standards ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"). "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a duet featuring smile-inducing banter with Natalie Cole, sparkles like new-fallen snow. Grade: A–
Gregory M. Lamb

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