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Jingle Decibels

The Christmas season is upon us again, and that means your local record store is stuffed with "holiday" music. A mini-industry that pulls in a half-billion dollars each year, the Christmas music boomlet sees the release of more than 2000 holiday-theme albums. Among the artists going Yule this season are the usual suspects (lounge legend Dean Martin, silky soulman Brian McKnight, R&B belter Etta James, gospel great Shirley Caesar) and others who are, well, less usual.

Who, for example, was the marketing genius who cooked up Natty and Nice: A Reggae Christmas? And who should die for The Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan, a record that transfuses used blood into the already moribund neo-swing movement?

This season's Sargasso of Christmas music ranges from inspired outings (Cyndi Lauper's wonderful Merry Christmas ... Have a Nice Life) to truly awful botch-jobs (anything by the execrable Mannheim Steamroller or the insipid Canadian Brass). To ensure your winter nights aren't silent nights, therefore, we've picked out some of the more rewarding off-center offerings of this holiday season.

A mere two weeks after Celine Dion made her bid for Christmas immortality with These Are Special Times, the pipe-cleaner-thin French- Canadian thrush has released a second Yuletide record, Dreaming of Winter. In keeping with Dion's blitzkrieg approach to the pop charts, this record seems made from the same (holiday) cookie-cutter as its predecessor. That one had "O Holy Night." This one has "Silent Night." That one had a duet with R. Kelly. This one has a duet with Brian McKnight. That one covered the rock classic "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," originally done by John Lennon. This one covers the rock classic "Father Christmas," originally done by the Kinks. Dion seems desperate to dominate the world. Let's let her.

How many years will it be before the appearance of the first drum and bass Christmas album? None. It's already here. Beats Per Season showcases the talents of the hottest DJs and producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Fatboy Slim checks in with "Bethlehem/Mayhem." The Crystal Method contributes the big-beat spectacular "Jingle Hole." And finally, Roni Size & Reprasent come to the party with the mind-bending "Santa's Got a Brand New Brown Paper Bag," a turntable menage a trois that combines James Brown's original hit, his cheesy Christmas remake, and the DJ's own dancefloor breakthrough "Brown Paper Bag."

The lords of everything stupid, also known as Spin¬al Tap, haven't released a record for a decade. But the wait has been well worth it, if only because Satan ClaYs is such a delightful exercise in idiotic arena-metal bombast. The opener, "I'll Be Coming Down Your Chimney Every Night," rollicks along with a faux-Zeppelin crunch. "Rock the Halls," complete with a chorus of fa-la-las, has a couple of couplets that could have been written by a reindeer, including "Rock the halls until they're shakin'/Presents are there for the takin." And the scorcher "Jingle Balls"? It's too horrible for words, and too good to miss.

Vince Gill has a Christmas album (Breath of Heaven). So does Martina McBride (White Christmas). And so does country superstar Willie Nelson, who checks in with the imaginatively titled Willie Nelson's Christmas Album. Here's the weird part: Willie's record doesn't contain a single holiday-theme song. Instead there are spooky murder ballads ("She Went Asleep"), plaintive portraits of small-town losers ("Billy's Broke"), and one nine-minute abstract epic that plays like a tennis match between Sun Ra and Hank Williams ("Went to Hawaii with a Woman I Tried to Own"). Does anyone suspect that it's not a Yule log that Willie's lighting?

Somewhat adorable, somewhat insane, the cannon-voiced Icelandic pixie Bjsrk has been absent from the pop scene most of the year. But now she's back, and back in style, with Vetur, a collection of traditional carols and Yuletide standards sung in Icelandic and available only as an import. The album, whose title means "winter" in Bjsrk's native tongue, showcases a side of her most fans don't get to see, the side of her that can deliver a sweeping ballad in the style of Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler. With retro pop arrangements somewhat reminiscent of the Sixties recordings of Dusty Springfield and lyrics that will be incomprehensible to almost everyone, this is a strange and beautiful record.

Now that Axl Rose has transformed Guns N' Roses into an unholy dance/metal hybrid, what's a former GnR guitarist like Izzy Stradlin supposed to do for the holidays? Release another low-key, Keith-Richards-manque effort, of course. Snow Blower contains heartfelt versions of "Run, Run, Rudolph" "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," tasteful originals ("Christmas Shuffle," the slyly titled "December Rain"), as well as a title song that somehow manages to be about both lost love and a hard-to-break coke habit.

Christmas compilation albums are an effective way for a label to showcase its entire roster, but there's something a little suspect about the practice when the label is punk homestead Epitaph. Still, the execution of Gen Xmas is better than its conception, as Rancid turns in a surprisingly heartfelt version of "Merry Christmas, Baby," the Cramps check in with the flame-throwing original "Santa Claus Is Making Me Sick," and a new band with the rather unwieldy name of Dexter Sinister and the Oxymorons summons up the spirit of Ian Dury on "Sex & Drugs & Christmas Eve."

Two years ago Beck recorded "The Little Drum-Machine Boy," which appeared on a Geffen holiday compilation and allowed its creator to bill himself, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as "the Hanukkah pimp" (Yes, he's Jewish). This year the alterna-folk legend-in-the-making has released the Internet-only single "Santa Claus Is Coming to Death Valley '69," a wildly morose quasi cover of an old Sonic Youth composition that makes such cryptic pronouncements as "God rode shotgun while I drove fast" and "I am the tree beneath the tree/Ornamental happenings are happening to me." Eastern instrumentation (sitar, gamelan) and percussion that can only be described as unorthodox (no pun intended) add to the aggressively enigmatic atmosphere.

With the first volume of his War & Peace comeback record just in stores and the second due in February, rap kingpin Ice Cube hardly has time to breathe, let alone time to record his first Christmas album. Still, here it is: Holiday on Ice, perhaps the only album in history with cover art that depicts jolly old St. Nick pulling off a drive-by shooting from his sleigh. Cube kicks things off with "The Wrong Santa to F--- With," a remake of his thuggish classic "The Wrong Nigga to F--- With" that finds Santa robbing the houses he visits ("I'll come down the chimney dressed in red/The only thing that's in a stocking is my motherfucking head"). After "Black Christmas," a gangsta tale that samples the Emotions' classic, and "Let It Snow," another rock-hard tune that has nothing to do with the Sammy Cahn original, Cube caps things off by hilariously reupholstering "Check Yo'Self" as "Check Yo' Elf." If your idea of holiday spirits is a forty of St. Ides, this is the place to start.

A few years ago, in the thick of the Antichrist Superstar sessions, Marilyn Manson took a break to record a batch of holiday favorites for the Chicago indie Red Moon Records. But the glam-cum-shock-rocker wasn't happy with the results, and he sought an injunction to prevent the tracks from ever seeing the light of day. Red Moon fought the good fight, and finally got relief. Now, Manson fans can enjoy the twelve tracks collected on Anti-Christmas Superstar. Well, "enjoy" might overstate the case. While the cover art (Manson, decked out in bondage gear, pulling a sleigh) has a cartoonishly menacing appeal, most of the songs here are strident, sub-NIN remakes of standard carols ("The Little Drummer Boy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"). The album's one high point, a Mansonic remake of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," demonstrates what kind of irreverent delight this project could have been.

And finally there's Bob Dylan himself. Way back in 1980, when his born-again-Christian fever was breaking and his rediscovery of Judaism was in force, the spiritually restless rock legend recorded Divided Soul, a defiant act of split spirituality that included seven Christmas tunes, mostly hymns, and seven Hebrew prayers. Rumors of the record and a few stray songs have circulated among collectors for years, but now a perfervid German Dylan fan named has Dieter Lsgner has finally pieced the whole thing together, retitled it Wanting It Both Ways, and started burning his own CDs of the project.

The sound quality isn't fantastic, but the songs are. On the Christian side, Dylan reveals his disillusionment with a bitter "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," a funereal "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and a naked "In the Bleak Midwinter." The Jewish side is equally strange, with Dylan turning in solo acoustic versions of songs like "Maoz Tzur," "Mi Yemalel," and "Hava Negila." The oddest selection of the whole bunch? A croaked-out of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," stretched over an original melody Dylan fans will recognize as the stately "Not Dark Yet," from 1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind.

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