by Randy Matin

It's holiday time again, and with it comes the latest spate of new Christmas CDs. This year, B.B. King tops the list with a long-awaited disc full of blues surprises. Also kicking up a lot of dust are a pair of female artists -- Deana Carter and Suzy Bogguss --known for their commercial country work on Nashville labels, who have now gone indie and come up so much the better. Also on the racks are a few great surprises, including an album from the Sincere Ramblers that veers off into Brubeckian improv. And, in keeping up with technology, both major label and total unknowns are making special holiday work available on the net for free. So, after scouring the bins at your favorite record shop or putting that new CD-ROM burner to work, kick back with a warm mug of organic, Canadian apple cider that goes so well with everything from wild boar to pizza, and get ready for some auditory ecstasy.

B.B. King - A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA) -- At the age when most of his peers began to slow down, B.B. King keeps right on working. And unless King is as good an actor as he is a singer and guitarist, he still appears to be having the time of his life. Seen recently in concert at Calgary's Jubilee Theater, King, 76, divides his show into three segments. First there's the warm-up, where King comes on as showman and host with a large, tight band. Next comes King the singer with amazing pipes -- now sweet and soulful, now down deep with bass notes and mighty growls. Then comes the serious music segment where, seated, King shows why he is respected as one of the living masters of the blues guitar-picking, stretching and stinging with delicious sustain.

King's new album, A Christmas Celebration of Hope is much like his shows. There are warm and homey moments on chestnuts such as Merry Christmas Baby, a bit of raunchy blues on Back Door Santa, and some fine instrumentals to boot.

The Sincere Ramblers - Christmas (Sincere Ramblers) -- Mississippi's Sincere Ramblers may look like your ordinary bluegrass quartet, but they pack a few more surprises. Bluegrass is just the launch pad for this collection of acoustic tunes that draws from such disparate sources as 9th-century Latin texts, 18th-century German carols and a version of "Blue Christmas" that would make Hank Williams proud. With 11 musical stops along its way, the Ramblers -- Wendell Haag (guitar), Bryan Ledford (banjo/guitar/mandolin), Dave Woolworth (bass) and guitarist/mandolinst Caroline Herring -- split up the vocals. Musically, the Sincere Ramblers know few bounds, drawing from bluegrass, folk and country. And while this approach merely serves as backing on some numbers, others, such as the instrumental "We Three Kings Of Orient Are," start out sounding traditional and then blast off into "Take Five" territory.

38 Special - A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night (CMC International) -- What a letdown it is to find that 38 Special sleepwalks its way through more than two-thirds of this new release, especially following the band's spirited guest spots on label-mate Lynyrd Skynyrd's Y2K Christmas album. With that disclaimer, it's best to program your CD player to skip right to track #4, "Hallelujah, It's Christmas," where the band cranks up a southern boogie barrage for a brief, three-song stretch that peters out after the lively title track on #6. Oh well, guess it's back to the county fair circuit for this lot.

Suzy Bogguss - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Loyal Dutchess) -- Long ousted from the ranks of the major country labels, Suzy Bogguss goes indie with her own Loyal Dutchess label and turns in what is probably the best release of her career. How can a mediocre, squeaky clean, fashion plate such as Bogguss come back with such a gem? Hard to say. But one could speculate that the pressure to produce hits on a major label caused her to turn in made-by-committee volumes that didn't represent her true talents. That's not the case here, with the first surprise being that Bogguss can really sing -- and that she does so with a supple, beguiling, finesse. Sure, this disc is packed full of the usual suspects, from the title track to "Rudolph" and "Jingle Bells." But for the first time, Bogguss proves to be the piper in charge, putting a unexpected lift into "Two-Step 'Round The Christmas Tree," with a smile here and a dab of her own stylistic magic in just the right place. And, of course, the duet with country blues belter Delbert McClinton on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" don't hurt none neither.

Deana Carter - Father Christmas (Deanatone/Rounder) -- Having already proved legitimacy with multi-platinum sales, Deana Carter, like Suzy Bogguss, goes indie with her own Deanatone label and a first Christmas album, Father Christmas. It's an entirely different soundscape than either of Carter's best-selling albums for Capitol Nashville and features just her voice (often multi-tracked) with the wonderfully crafted acoustic-guitar playing of her father Fred Carter, Jr., a long-time Nashville session musician.

The songs are at once familiar, if overly so: "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Silent Night," etc. The simple contexts the Carters put them in, however, make everything fresh, from the little girl quality of Deana's voice to her father's stylings that range from silky string stroking to songs with rip-it-up, rockabilly underpinnings. Both are showcased at their finest on the sole Fred Carter-penned tune, "Johnny's Snowman." With this album as a teaser, one can only hope there's a volume two or a solo album from Fred in the offing.

Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Placido Domingo, Vanessa Williams- Our Favorite Things (Sony Classical) -- Four famous faces on the CD cover should get the registers ringing, but what a weird combination of talents this project draws together. Domingo attempting to "go cabaret" doesn't work, so skip his "Jesus De Nazareth." Likewise whenever screechy Church comes on it's best to skip forward a track. Pairing Domingo with Williams, who fights him for control on "I Saw Three Ships" is simply ludicrous: she sounds soulful while he huffs and bellows. This should remind everyone involved that opera singers, in accordance with their training, need fewer words and more space to sing them. Make them sing ostensibly pop lyrics and the operatic technique of hop-scotching the consonants and rounding out all the vowels implodes into an embarrassing mess.

But before you use this silvery disc for target practice, bounce around to the Bennett and Williams solo stuff and their duets. There, backed by Bennett's venerable Ralph Sharon Quartet and the Vienna Symphony, is where the good stuff, and our favorite things on this disc are.

Slaid Cleaves' Holiday Sampler (Philo) -- Somewhere between the pumpkin patch and the Christmas tree, Austin-based singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves has cooked up a five-song EP with autumnal sentiments. He presents these to us, from the cover, as a box of chocolate creams. But that's a bit deceptive as the fillings found inside are more somber. Things start out with a rousing twist on "Monster In Law" and Dr. Seuss's bouncy "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." But the real Cleaves is much more contemplative, quickly surfacing on the melancholy "November Skies," and the simple "You Don't Have To Tell Me," which says enough with just voice and steel.

Fred Hammond - Christmas... Just Remember (Verity) -- Pure gospel is singer Fred Hammond's goal on this most pious of holiday releases. A large man with a large, rough voice, Hammond sounds best when his songs are fleshed out with a full band and choir. Would that there were more of it on this record that tries too casts its net too far into R & amp;B, new age and hip hop. Those tracks sound overly processed and void of the spirit that jumps out when Hammond lets loose on the straight-ahead stuff such as "Go Gabriel" and "We Sing Glory."

Freebies: James Taylor and others -- Here's a twist: free Christmas music on the web from James Taylor. Simply surf on over to to hear Taylor sing a streaming version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It's a listen-only situation that cannot be downloaded, recorded by Taylor with guitarist John Pizzarelli and drummer Steve Gadd last spring.

Even more generous are the folks at who are making the entire album "My New England Town" free to all for downloading.

It's not the hippest thing on the net, but Orange County musicians Glenn Scott Lacey and Rick Juethe, joined by singers Brooke Ramel and Jason Joseph, at least have their supper club and studio hearts in the right places. So burn a copy, give one to friend, or spin it at a Christmas party because, if nothing else, "My New England Town" makes for some innocuous background music.

Let It Not Happen Again: Lessons of the Japanese American Exclusion

Fri., Jan. 15, 6:30 p.m. and Mon., Feb. 8, 12 p.m.
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