Kristin Hersh
The Holy Single

On this four-song EP, Throwing Muses singer/songwriter/guitarist Kristin Hersh goes solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar with little additional instrumentation, much as she did on her fine -- and overlooked -- 1994 album Hips and Makers. Here she applies her clear, unaffected voice to a quartet of songs that share a loose religious orientation. Hersh brings a hard-strumming, coffeehouse feel to her version of the traditional hymn/folksong "Amazing Grace," and dives headlong into the Carter Family's oft-recorded "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," convincingly conveying that song's theme of maintaining faith in the face of acute personal loss. Likewise she maneuvers her way comfortably -- if a tad too reverently -- through "Jesus Christ," written by Alex Chilton for the final Big Star album. But she's most at home -- and most effective -- charging through her father's "Sinkhole," an amusing parable about how sin has contributed to the physical degradation of the planet itself, as manifested in the mother of all sinkholes ("It's summer in Winter Haven/And the Earth's she's cavin' in . . . Satan stole the landscape/It was gone with the morning light"). Nice.

-- Michael Yockel

Various Artists
Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

No, this is not an attempt by the Musical Moral Majority to put the "Christ" back in Christmas. Instead, this sleazy little collection offers a bunch of trashed-up holiday standards and new N”el nuggets from the punk-rock underbelly, with a splattering of garage junk thrown in for variety. An expanded and digitalized version of two previously issued vinyl-only EPs on the Los Angeles-based Sympathy label, the 28-track Happy Birthday has something for nearly every holiday celebrant: the pissed-off shoppers and bummed-out loners, the pie-eyed romantics and frost-bitten cynics, and the eggnog-addled fanatics who just can't hear too many versions of "Little Drummer Boy."

For the most part, the cynics and loners steal the set (although the Bomboras' surfed-up "Drummer Boy" is a lot of fun). Rocket from the Crypt's "Cancel Christmas" and Fireworks' "Last on Santa's List" are both heart-ripping slices of melancholy, and El Vez's "Feliz Navi-nada" is the so-called Mexican Elvis's only worthwhile song. (Yes, Virginia, it's even better than his "You Ain't Nothin' but a Chihuahua.") Even dullards such as the Supersuckers rise to the occasion, with the nicely raving "We'll Call It Christmas." Elsewhere, the spacy-surf collective Man or Astro-Man? twangs out on "Frosty the Snowman," the New Bomb Turks steamroll over the Darlene Love chestnut "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and the Mono Men drag the season through the gutter on the appropriately grimy "Christmastime Is for Sinners."

The diamond at the bottom of the stocking is the Devil Dogs' breakneck version of Roy Wood's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," which balances unabashed sentimentality with the kind of sloppy, bar-band irreverence missing from the ex-Move man's 1977 original. And if you want to add a touch of Halloween to your Christmas celebration, cue up the AMF's "Mr. Blue Xmas (Cut Your Head on Christmas)," a lovely aural essay on holiday loneliness and murder compliments of this ragtag Memphis ensemble.

-- John Floyd

Various Artists
You Sleigh Me!

Various Artists
It's Finally Christmas

Christmas cheer knows no boundaries, and neither does Christmas marketing, which helps explain why everyone from Wayne Newton to Tibetan Buddhist monks has put out a Christmas album. So if something as odd as Hawaiian ukulele music can be peddled as an acceptable soundtrack for decorating trees and praying for snow, why not open up the holiday to the ultra-hip sounds of today's so-called alternative rockers? At least two new compilations take aim at this new Generation X-mas demographic: You Sleigh Me!, a spotty pseudo-alternative set on Atlantic, and It's Finally Christmas, released on the noted indie label Tim/Kerr Records.

The former is riddled with unimaginative covers such as Tori Amos's "Little Drummer Boy" and Victoria Williams's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," either of which will make you nod off like a babe in a manger; originals by Juliana Hatfield and Collective Soul are no more enlivening. Fortunately the set brightens up during jazzman James Carter's out-of-place but very welcome bebop rendition of "White Christmas," then warms us with the minor-chord melancholy of Everything But the Girl's "25th December." You Sleigh Me!'s most entertaining track, however, comes via Jill Sobule, whose "Merry Christmas from the Family" paints a hilariously detailed home-for-the-holiday sketch, complete with drunken white-trash kin and trips to the convenience store for bean dip, tampons, and Diet Rite soda.

It's Finally Christmas boasts a decidedly more underground feel, with a cast of mostly Pacific Northwestern indie-label bands. Featured are two versions of the ubiquitous "Little Drummer Boy" (from Dandy Warhols and Hitting Birth) and "The Grinch," rendered by both the Whirlees and Caveman Shoestore, along with guitar-distorted carols by Pond ("Gloria in Excelsis Deo") and Sugarboom ("Ave Maria"). The remaining tracks offer original and defiantly skewed season's greetings. Dead Moon's tribute to frantic preparations ("Christmas Rush"), Ray & Glover's twelve-bar blues threat to Santa ("I'm Mad at the Fatman"), Iceburg Slim's holiday-in-prison lament ("Christmas Dressed in Blue"), and New Bad Thing's ode to penniless ingenuity ("Shoplifting You Something for Christmas") are all great yuletide fun. And for Christmastime, how much more alternative can you get than Calamity Jane's klezmer-a-billy "Hanukkah Song"?

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Steven Almond
John Floyd
Jeffery Kennedy
Roni Sarig
Raymond Tuttle
Bob Weinberg
Michael Yockel