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Just Say Noel

Music fans have come to dread December. Few bands are on tour, all of the year's good records have already been released, and the sounds of the season are inescapable. But fear not, for I bring unto you good tidings of great joy: your guide to this season's musical offerings. This year, the sugarplums outweigh the lumps of coal. The albums below will offer a reprieve from that godforsaken "Jingle Bell Rock."

Marah wins top honors this year for its audio Christmas pageant, a rousing Christmas party committed to tape. Arguably the only act on this list that's still at its creative peak, the Philly-based five-piece gets into the spirit with a handful of charming originals, a couple of rounds of wassailing, and an album-closing Christmas polka. The starry-eyed "New York Is a Christmas Kind of Town" joins "Fairytale of New York" and "Christmas in Hollis" in the Big Apple-Christmas Song triumvirate.

The lights are turned way down low for most of Christmas Songs as one of jazz's best slinks through the season's secular favorites. The Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra provides elegant, often muted backing to Krall's husky tone. She thanks Rosemary Clooney in the liner notes for teaching her "the joy of Christmas," and she further honors the White Christmas star with a lush take on that movie's "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."

We Three Kings is every bit the rockabilly rave-up you'd expect from the Rev. Swimming in reverb, Heat and company dash through some easy ones; "Run Run Rudolph" and "Frosty the Snowman" didn't need another reading, but the band makes it work. Every so often, Heat straightens up his bolo tie and goes into crooner mode, like on Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper."

Remember when the Brian Setzer Orchestra gave the swing revival a dose of credibility and class? Setzer may be a caricature of his former self, but that won't stop him from spreading good cheer to the tattoo-and-pompadour set. The good thing about Setzer's second (second!) Christmas album is that you know exactly how it sounds before you hear it: rockabilly guitar runs and big-band horn charts alongside hot-rodding Santas and martini-sipping vixens.

Do mall punks know it's Christmas after all? They soon will, now that their heroes in Plain White T's, the Used, and Gatsby's American Dream have offered up soon-to-be-classics. Most bands stick with the spirit of the season (Funeral for a Friend's tender "Miracle of Christmas"), though a few of these songs are barely discernable as Christmas songs apart from the title (From First to Last's "Christmassacre" for instance — which includes some obligatory sleigh bells amid the double kick-drum).

We'll make this quick: If the concept alone doesn't keep you away, note that Donald Trump guests on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Trump hires Rudolph and fires Blitzen, while Regis gives a baffling shoutout to the entire Yankees starting lineup. A "Battle of the Network Egos" ensues.

This year, Santa's beard has been trimmed back to a pencil-thin mustache as the filmmaker collects his holiday kitsch. Waters' legendary bad taste pops up here and there; Rudolph and Gang's curse-strewn "Here Comes Fatty Claus" is Jeff Foxworthy-worthy, and Tiny Tim's quavering "Rudolph" is worth approximately one listen. From there, hodge-podge rules the day. For starters, Chicago's belated avant-lounge all-stars Coctails nestle up against doo-wop and maudlin country. But the highlight comes at the end, with AKIM's "Santa Claus Is a Black Man," which is sort of like "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" sung by a 7-year-old. Can you dig it?

If you mixed John Fahey's Christmas album with Otis Redding's "Merry Christmas Baby," you would end up with Camp Holiday. Martin Sexton's mix of simple, syncopated strumming and his sweet, soulful voice make this Christmas offering a real delight. Camp Holiday is a relaxed affair, a nice break from the frantic energy of so many holiday hits.

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Christian Schaeffer

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