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Noteworthy CDs

Notable CDs | Five new Christmas albums reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

Christmas Songs

Style: Seven lesser-known carols, two lesser-known pop songs, and five originals gently blended into an electronica-kissed soundscape.

Worldview: "Justice born and mercy shown. . . . / Angels sing in righteous envy, Kings of earth kneel by the throne, / born to push against the fall, / far as the curse is found" ("Peace Is Here").

Overall quality: Mystical, elegant, and moving, whether without words ("Evergreen," "The Gift of St. Cecilia") or with.

Christmas With The Rat Pack

Style: Twenty-one Christmas classics, both sacred and secular, by Frank Sinatra (eight), Dean Martin (eight), Sinatra and Martin (two), and Sammy Davis Jr. (three).

Worldview: "Please remember the moral of tonight's show: Put your troubles away till tomorrow. If you're lucky, someone will break into your house tonight and steal 'em" (Dean Martin's sign-off ).

Overall quality: A suave, genial, martini-hoisting celebration of Christmas' place in the mainstream of American culture.

Let It Snow Baby. . . Let It Reindeer

Style: 2003's punky Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand plus seven new, mostly less punky classics and originals.

Worldview: "It's always winter but never Christmas. . . . / But deep inside our hearts we know / that You are here and we will not lose hope."

Overall quality: The stylistically mature new songs so outshine the old that listeners will want to excise and homeburn the former into the EP they should've been.

Songs of the Season

Style: Ten classics (mostly sacred), two non-classic covers, and one Travis original, performed in various country settings.

Worldview: "[Joseph] held her and he prayed, shafts of moonlight on his face. / But the baby in her womb, he was the maker of the moon. / He was the author of the faith that could make the mountains move."

Overall quality: A dignified, relaxed celebration of Christ's place at the center of Christmas.

Christmas in Soulsville

Style: 1990's popsecular It's Christmas Time plus three additional songs by both the cream and the dregs of the Stax crop.

Worldview: "'Tis the season to be jolly, / but how can I be when I have nobody? / [. . .] Joy to the world, but it's gonna be sad for me" ("What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?," the Emotions).

Overall quality: A dozen sweet soul novelties; three sour, double-entendre-laden Santa songs.

Spotlight

Christmas Songs (Gray Matters/ Nettwerk), the latest album by the Christian-crossover band Jars of Clay, follows close on the heels of Live Monsters (Essential) and The Essential Jars of Clay (Essential/Legacy), a two-disc compilation of the quartet's decade-plus of meticulously produced studio recordings. The surprise is less that the Jars have risked oversaturating the market than that their Christmas album, rather than coming off like a seasonal novelty, is every bit as enjoyable and subtly pioneering as the rest of their work.

In the company of the relatively seldom-recorded "Love Came Down at Christmas" (Eleanor Garton's setting of a Christina Rossetti poem) and "Gabriel's Message," the frequently recorded "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,""I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and "In the Bleak Midwinter" (another Rossetti text) have their antique luster restored. In the company of the Jars' thoughtful originals and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," even Paul McCartney's giddy "Wonderful Christmastime" sounds charming.

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