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Bob Dylan, Sugarland, Archuelta among holiday CDs

The Associated Press, Monday, November 23, 2009, 9:24am (PST)

Here are reviews of recently released holiday CDs:

Bob Dylan, "Christmas In The Heart" (Columbia)

Do you hear what I hear? Bob Dylan singing Christmas carols?! Ho ho ho.

The first reaction is this must be a joke. At age 68, rock's greatest troubadour remains a formidable force, as several fine recent albums have shown. But Dylan's also a Jew who declared himself born again at one point but never recorded a Christmas album — until now.

And indeed, "Christmas In The Heart" is pretty funny, with the toll of braying "How does it feel?" for 45 years evident throughout. Dylan's vocals are wobbly, froggy, choppy, strained, strangled and off-key, making it easy to forget he might be the most influential, most imitated singer ever. Here his voice could clear a room, and it's even more jarring because he's backed by a chorus of Ray Conniff-style crooners.

Still, this is Bob Dylan, and fans will love it — at least some of it. The secular tunes are best, especially a trio of obscurities. "The Christmas Blues" swings in the style of Dylan's recent albums. The bouncy, accordion-driven "Must Be Santa" includes this classic Dylanesque couplet: "Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen; Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon." And the Hawaiian tune "Christmas Island" is sung with ardor appropriate for someone from Minnesota.

— Steven Wine, AP Writer

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Neil Diamond, "A Cherry Cherry Christmas" (Columbia Records)

For anyone who's ever turned on their heart light, drank red, red wine or sang along to "Sweet Caroline," Neil Diamond's voice is like that of an old friend, so he brings a natural warmth to holiday music.

On his third Christmas CD, "A Cherry Cherry Christmas," Diamond sprinkles a few original songs into a new collection of classics.

He cleverly works the names of his past hits into the hopeful title track. But holiday party guests — and anyone who spent time in the 1960s, '70s or '80s — will find themselves singing along with Diamond on Christmas classics such as "Sleigh Ride" and "The Christmas Song."

He gets jazzy on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and adds '50s-style harmonies to "White Christmas." "Winter Wonderland" becomes a rock song. "Deck the Halls/We Wish You a Merry Christmas" gets a capella, Christmas-carol treatment.

He even covers Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song" and inserts a real rock 'n' roll guitar solo into the silly ditty about famous Jews (like Diamond himself).

Diamond sounds like Americana, and his holiday CD is like Christmas dinner: Warm, comforting and just what you expect.

— Sandy Cohen, Entertainment Writer

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Sugarland, "Gold and Green" (Mercury)

Knocking out a Christmas album should have been a lock for the consummately affable country duo Sugarland with their new yuletide release, "Gold and Green." Sugarland is the George Foreman grill of country music. No rough edges. Just solid performance for the price.

But they have a hard time convincing they listener they really care here. It sounds like they did this album for no other reason than, well, they were expected to.

Take their rendition of "Holly Jolly Christmas." Not an ounce of Sugarland breaks through the Johnny Marks classic. Guitarist Kristian Bush takes the lead vocals on this one, but shouldn't have. I found myself straining to hear the real lead singer Jennifer Nettles' gorgeous back-up voice instead.

There is barely a Sugarland stamp of style to be found on "Gold and Green." There is a way to do a Christmas album and have it feel relevant. Sugarland elected not to make that album.

The only bright spot here is "Coming Home," and original Sugarland tune that steals the show. It has some country church revival-styled stops and starts, and a beautifully slow pace that gives Nettles room to tug at your heart with her voice.

— Ron Harris, AP Writer

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David Archuleta, "Christmas from the Heart" (Jive)

David Archuleta may be a teenager but he's well suited for classic holiday songs like "Silent Night" and "Ave Maria."

The former "American Idol" runner-up sings those songs and more on his new holiday CD "Christmas from the Heart."

There's a plethora of holiday music out there with musicians recording holiday music just because, but Archuleta's recording makes sense. He's got a powerful, soulful voice that's beyond his years.

If you're looking to add to your holiday music collection or get into the spirit of the season, this CD is a good choice.

— Alicia Rancilio, AP Writer

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Tori Amos, "Midwinter Graces" (Universal Republic)

Tori Amos' seasonal collection, "Midwinter Graces," strikes the right blend of originality and heart, without compromising her artistic soul.

While she includes carols that embrace Jesus and Christmas season, this is not a religious album. Instead, Amos calls it a celebration of the Winter Solstice. It touches on mythology and empowerment, and in her eyes, provides the perfect blend of spirituality and nature.

Amos penned five of the albums dozen songs, and changed others to reflect a modern touch.

The album's first track "What Child, Nowell" is a restructuring of the holiday favorite, "What Child is This?" but without the "Greensleeves" melody most listeners are familiar with. Amos wanted to present the 19th-century classic in its original form.

Throughout the album, Amos tinkers with these traditional carols. "We Three Kings" becomes "Star of Wonder," and adds a rich arrangement, replete with her sultry, breathy vocals. She modifies the 16th-century "Coventry Carol," to "Candle: Coventry Carol," and includes an added introduction.

While the covers are well thought out, it's the originals that balance the record. "Pink and Glitter" has the glitz and feel of a Christmas show tune. "Winter's Carol" captures the spirit of nature in the season, and "Our New Year" closes with the emotional barometer of a traditional Amos record.

Not only is it refreshing to hear a record that doesn't draw from the same pool of overplayed songs, but this one is also rich with spirituality.

— By John Carucci, AP Writer

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Kathy Griffin, "Suckin It For the Holidays" (Music With A Twist)

Kathy Griffin's comedy CD "Suckin' It for the Holidays" sticks to the format that's made her successful by serving up a number of jokes at the expense of celebrities.

Just don't expect her act to be very festive. The CD may be released in time for the holiday season but there are no real holiday jokes in the act.

The real problem with the CD is if you're a big Kathy Griffin fan and have seen her perform more than once, you may already be familiar with some of the jokes (like about the "Real Housewives" and Suze Orman).

The best jokes are about Justin Timberlake, T.I., and Gayle King.

While the CD is entertaining, it's not Griffin's best work. If you're looking to get a gift for a Griffin fan, get her recently released memoir instead.

— Alicia Rancilio, AP Writer

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REO Speedwagon, "Not So Silent Night" (Sony Legacy)

This is a solid Christmas album from the midwest rockers best known for their early '80s power ballads like "Take it On The Run" and "Keep On Lovin' You." Lead singer Kevin Cronin gives many of these holiday classics a surprisingly tender touch, from the short opener "The First Noel" to the delicately paced "Silent Night."

They ramp things up on a frenetic version of "Deck The Halls," and lay down a fast-paced gospel vibe on "Children Go Where I Send Thee," which is probably the best track on the album.

"Winter Wonderland" is set to a jaunty, strutting pace, and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" offers up the trademark Speedwagon sound nearly 40 years after this band first burst out of Illinois.

— Wayne Parry, AP Writer

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Halford, "Halford III: Winter Songs" (Metal God)

Rob Halford is about the last heavy metal artist you'd expect to cut a Christmas album. The Judas Priest singer's career is replete with tracks about hell, the Devil and such. But he offers up one of the best metal Christmas albums in years.

It kicks off with a Priest-worthy roar in "Get Into The Spirit," with its double-bass drum thrash and guitar frenzy guaranteed to scorch the needles off even a fake Christmas tree.

"I Don't Care" is about a guy who has too much to drink on Christmas Eve and misses his train, then tries to get back home, knowing he's about to catch hell from his girlfriend.

But it's the overtly religious songs on which Halford truly shines, using his dramatic multi-octave voice to great effect on tracks like "Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel," "What Child Is This?" "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," and the album's tour de force, "Oh Holy Night," where Halford's powerful pipes are put to their best use on the soaring breaks. You're almost waiting for the part where he screams, "Until SATAN arrives!" But it never comes. And that, boys and girls, is a true Christmas miracle.

— Wayne Parry, AP Writer

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