Beliefnet
Several years ago, sent out on a clear, cold Christmas morning to fetch some overlooked ingredient for dinner, I turned on the radio in my wife's car to hear a delicious version of "Blue Christmas": a high, wan woman's voice warbling the tune, while behind her, an electric guitar occasionally fizzed to life like a neon bar light. It was raw and sad, and terribly hip, a bit of fresh air between bouts of family togetherness and overeating. Needing to get home, I ran into the store, never to hear the DJ say who sang it. To this day, the perfect Christmas tune remains my Holy Grail.

As John Tesh points out in our Beliefnet interview, everyone seems to put out a holiday album these days. The giddy pleasure of hearing a crooner like Johnny Mathis (whose "The Christmas Album" was re-released this year on CD) taking on our familiar favorites has lost its kick. The trick nowadays is to find the albums that give us the treasured tunes with enough originality to make them fresh, without killing them with gimmicks. What follows is a selection of the pop albums that pulled it off in 2002.

Nicole C. Mullen, "Christmas in Black and White" An R&B star in the Contemporary Christian world, Mullen combines original compositions with gospel-infused carols and hymns, like her "O Come Emmanuel," that show off her estimable pipes. With songs like "Gifts from You," full of happy children's voices, and appearances by David Mullen, the album has the spontaneous feeling of a family Christmas at home. Buy it on Amazon

The Gypsy Hombres, "Django Bells" The Gypsy Hombres deconstruct both the sacred and profane with their jazzy violin and Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar. The unorthodox interpretations-"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a tango or "Let It Snow" as "The Mexican Hat Dance"--are charming without falling prey to cuteness. The perfect disc to keep your spirits bouyant and the kids busy identifying the tunes as you negotiate the mall parking lot. Buy it on Amazon

Chris Botti, "December" Former Sting sideman Botti, on trumpet, plays 13 Yuletide standards in a reflective, after-hours mood. The album nearly teeters into smooth jazz at points, but with the help of Grammy-winning Billy Childs on keyboards, there's enough emotion and imagination--including a bossa nova "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"--to keep things real. Put this one on after you've spiked the egg nog and put the kids to bed. Buy it on Amazon

City on a Hill, "It's Christmas Time" Another entrant from the Christian music scene, this country-flavored compilation delivers straightforward, mostly acoustic versions of creche-centered carols, including a purely beautiful "Silent Night" from Sixpence None the Richer and "Babe in the Straw," which pleads to the Christ child, "Shine like Bethlehem's star/Lead us to where you are/Show us who you are." Buy it on Amazon

Ellen Kushner and Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, "The Golden Dreydl: A Klezmer Nutcracker" Okay, strictly this is a Hanukkah album and Hanukkah's over. But this delightful translation of the story and music of Tchaikovsky's ballet into the Jewish dance tradition is worth keeping around for its wry humor and infectious, toe-tapping music. If nothing else, the album is a handy antidote when countless loudspeaker versions of "The Sugar Plum Fairy" have knocked out your sweet tooth. Buy it on Amazon

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