Part of the magic of Christmas comes from surprises. Nothing beats an outlandish gift you never would have thought to get for yourself. This season, music listeners can expect the same rush of surprise from the eclectic mix of holiday releases.
Fewer pop artists than in previous years are producing entire albums of yuletide music on their own. But that's probably because so many were already contributing a song for someone else's album or a benefit album.
Spreading Christmas cheer by compiling songs from big-name artists and donating proceeds from the album to a needy cause is a huge trend. In return for their donation, listeners get a wide-ranging assortment of holiday fun. Some of these combined efforts work better than others, and they all require a willingness to sample sounds from across genres.
Although it doesn't have the superstars of some benefit albums, A Home for the Holidays (Mercury) is one of this year's more successful options. Profits go to Phoenix House, a haven for young people struggling with drug abuse.
Many of the traditional favorites show up here but are given a new twist from mostly familiar voices. Aaron Neville sings a truly plaintive "Please Come Home for Christmas." Boyz II Men will take your breath away with their a cappella "Silent Night." Bon Jovi raises Christmas spirits with a thoroughly modern rendition of "I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas."
A Very Special Christmas 3 (A&M) is the third in a series of all-star Christmas recordings benefiting the Special Olympics. This time around the cast of musicians includes Hootie & the Blowfish, the Smashing Pumpkins, Sheryl Crow, and Sting. There's nothing traditional about this album. Several of the contributors dug deep to come up with obscure offerings.
Steve Winwood sings "Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand," a haunting Gypsy song from the 16th century. Natalie Merchant brings to light an old gospel hymn, "Children, Go Where I Send Thee." Despite her distinctively secular voice, Merchant pulls the gospel sound together magnificently with backup help from the Metropolitan New Testament Missionary Baptist Church Choir in Albany, N.Y.
Tracy Chapman's "O Holy Night" works well despite the rather mournful tone, and Enya sings a luminous version of "Silent Night" in Gaelic. But overall, this album falls short of the spirited tone of the first two compilations in the series. Unless you're simply interested in donating to the Special Olympics, look to the first two albums to help create a truly festive atmosphere.
Beyond benefit albums, this season's most surprising collaboration comes from tenor Plcido Domingo and pop crooner Michael Bolton. They perform a Christmas concert from Vienna along with Chinese soprano Ying Huang, who played the lead in the film version of "Madame Butterfly."
Merry Christmas From Vienna (Sony Classical) is the fourth-annual Christmas concert recorded in Vienna with Domingo. The surprise here is how well the Domingo-Bolton team works together. They share the stage for performances of "Ave Maria" and "White Christmas." Domingo takes the spotlight for "I Wonder as I Wander," while Bolton takes over for "Silent Night." Huang, whose clear voice adds a light air to the festivities, joins Domingo for several selections.
All three singers get onstage for a medley of Christmas carols from around the world, which are guaranteed to get the scroogiest Scrooge into the Christmas spirit.
If you tire of the elegance of Vienna, Willie Nelson is ready to step in with his Hill Country Christmas (Finer Arts Records). Willie is joined by his sister Bonnie Nelson for a down-home, Texas celebration of the season.
Gene Autry's voice is featured on "Here Comes Santa Claus," and Nelson adds two of his own songs to the traditional classics. But the most fun comes in hearing Willie's trademark twang on favorites such as "Joy to the World" and "Deck the Halls."
Pianist Jim Brickman is offering The Gift (Windham Hill Records) this season. Dubbed the Kenny G of piano, Brickman sets a quiet tone for peaceful yuletide evenings. His smooth, light-fingered piano playing gives a different feel to instrumental versions of "Oh Christmas Tree" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."
The title track is a soulful duet featuring country star Collin Raye and Christian singer Susan Ashton. Kenny Loggins provides vocals for a twinkly variation on the childhood favorite "Starbright." And gospel group Point of Grace harmonizes on the slightly syrupy "Hope Is Born Again."
Warner Bros. fills the party niche with Jazz Christmas Party, bouncy tunes from a dozen contemporary jazz artists. Boney James breathes new life into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Al Jarreau gives us his signature style on "Celebrate Me Home." And Michael Franks has fun with "I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree."
While the season's musical selections are thinner than usual, there are some startling successes. Most of us would never have thought to blend the voices that are put together on this year's albums. But sometimes the best presents are the ones we never would have come up with on our own.