Picks and Pans Main: Song

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

GREATEST CHRISTMAS HITS

HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

CHRISTMAS ISLAND

CRESCENT CITY CHRISTMAS CARD

Rhino Records celebrates the season with a two-volume collection of Christmas favorites, issued under the auspices of Billboard magazine. The first album (1935-54) carries all the classics: Nat King Cole's silky "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."), Vaughn Monroe's jovial "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Der Bingle's voice, recorded in 1942, sounds as fluid but not as deep as memory suggests. And the guy was a hell of a whistler too.

One quibble: Many might prefer Burl Ives's rendition of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to Gene Autry's countrified 1949 version included here, but the Singing Cowboy's release charted higher. The wild card is Spike Jones's sibilant kazoo-filled slide through "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)."

The second volume (1955-present) is filled with novelty songs, proving that Christmas really hasn't been the same since the Eisenhower era. There's Bobby Helms's "Jingle Bell Rock," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and so on, right up to Elmo 'n Patsy's 1983 spoof "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." The hipsters' approach to the holidays just doesn't wear as well as the more traditional take, with one exception: "The Chipmunk Song." Those perky pipsqueaks sound as good today as they did in 1958, especially Theodore, whose genius for harmony should not be underestimated.

Among the more appealing tracks on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Rhino) is an elegant a cappella rendering of "Adeste Fidelis" by those singing sisters, the Roches; Dr. John's funky fling through "Silent Night" and a cacophonous, slam-dance reading of "Jingle Bells" by Eastern Bloc. One offbeat selection in the mix comes from Rob Mathes, who delivers "Good News" as if he were Sting backed by the Beach Boys.

Dr. John is heard again on the redoubtable Leon Redbone's Christmas Island (Private/August). Such yuletide standards as "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" get nifty string arrangements from John Gill. The highlight is a duet pairing Redbone, who resembles a bohemian Bing Crosby, with Dr. John on "Frosty the Snowman."

It seems that everyone is getting into the spirit of the season. Even trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has wrung some of the starch out of his act on Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia). "Carol of the Bells" kicks off with a dizzy, dipso horn refrain, before clarinetist Alvin Batiste and pianist Marcus Roberts jump into vibrant solos. Okay, so Marsalis is still stiff on "Silent Night," with guest soprano Kathleen Battle, but on much of side 1 the mood calls to mind a frolicking New Orleans brass band. Songs like "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" and "We Three Kings" come on like a warm breeze right out of the Big Easy.

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