Killers Vie With Lady Gaga, Rod Stewart for Christmas CDs

'Merry Christmas, Baby'
The cover of "Merry Christmas, Baby" by Rod Stewart. The U.K. singer's 2012 album of seasonal standards has topped charts around the world. Source: Verve via Bloomberg

Rod Stewart, the subject of music industry derision for decades, was greeted with predictable guffaws when he released “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

The star’s coolness rating has never recovered from the self-mocking “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” in 1978. Festive albums are usually about as sophisticated as party hats and mistletoe kisses and this is no exception.

As the critics take pot shots, Rod is crying all the way to the bank. The CD has joined his American Songbook releases as among his bestselling on both sides of the Atlantic.

You’ll probably only want to hear it for about a week of the year, though the title track, featuring Stewart’s husky voice, Cee Lo Green’s soulful crooning and Trombone Shorty, is fun. Rating: **

The same song shows up on “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment.” Green’s collection has more imaginative material, including a powerful reworking of one of Joni Mitchell’s best laments, “River.”

Green retains Mitchell’s sad instrumental take on “Jingle Bells” at the start and his vocal soars on the words “teach my feet to fly.” Rating: ****

Tracey Thorn has a horn-led version of “River” on a rather more somber seasonal release, “Tinsel and Lights.” It’s not a barrel of laughs, though it sounds classy. Rating: ***.

The Killers have released their seventh Christmas single in aid of the Product Red charity. The band put out an EP of the previous ones last year. At this rate, it will soon have enough for a whole album. The latest song, “I Feel It in My Bones,” is catchier than some of the material on “Battle Born.”

It’s not especially Christmassy, with only a Santa “ho ho ho” and a snatch of “Silent Night” tacked on the end.

Rating: ****

Seasonal songs are often best when musicians realize that jolly sleigh bells aren’t absolutely obligatory. That’s good reason to admire the Pogues and the re-released “Fairytale of New York.” As they say, “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay,’ and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.” Rating: ****

Country stars Lady Antebellum have jumped on the festive bandwagon (or should that be sledge). “On This Winter’s Night” runs over much the same snowy ground. Rating: **

It seems Christmas comes earlier every year. Back in August, Warner Brothers was advertising tree ornaments designed by indie band the Flaming Lips, a little premature for the festive season.

On Sept. 25, Andy Williams -- who had turned Christmas into gold for decades -- died at the age of 84.

The same day, “Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas” hit the shelves. My review copy arrived with a press release saying it “brims with yuletide cheer” and “18 holiday classics and originals by superstars” including Justin Bieber and Coldplay.

I needed to get closer to holiday time to get in the mood to play this. Lady Gaga’s live take on “White Christmas” with dinner-jazz backing is amusing. Rating: ***

Also in September, a load more CDs turned up from Legacy records, all called “The Classic Christmas Album.” On his, Luther Vandross has a spirited duet with Darlene Love in “I Listen to the Bells” (rating **).

The Elvis Presley title is boosted by THAT voice on “Blue Christmas” (rating: ****). The Kenny G., John Denver and Barry Manilow releases are for fans only (rating * at best).

Kenny G. also shows up on “This Christmas” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, back together for the first time since 1978. This record’s only redeeming feature is that its proceeds go to charity. Rating: *.

They compete with Bob Dylan’s similarly charity-inspired “Christmas in the Heart” in the worst-of stakes. I gave Dylan’s a stinking review when it first came out. With a few years’ perspective I smile more at his gruff “Must Be Santa.” Maybe it’s meant to be a joke. Rating: **.

For the best of holiday rock, try “Christmas With the Rat Pack,” featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Rating: ****.

“Phil Spector’s Christmas Album” is outstanding. The producer’s reputation is in tatters given his later conviction for second-degree murder. He still produced some of the finest pop music of his time.

He worked on the LP obsessively for months. His epic studio sound perfectly suits “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

It’s best heard as the last disc of the “Back to Mono” set which combines all his hits: “Be My Baby,” “River Deep -- Mountain High,” “To Know Him Is to Love Him” and more. Now that really does make a perfect Christmas present.

Rating: *****

The CDs are priced from $9.99 and download prices vary across services.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on film, James Russell on architecture and John Mariani on wine.

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