Do you hear what I hear? Well, it could be the sound of Kenny Chesney caroling in the tropics or John Michael Montgomery recounting a special Christmas during World War II or Kelly Willis putting the hussy moves on Santa.
As the title cut suggests, Chesney's All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan (BNA) is more infused with sun than snow -- from the customized lyrics to the Caribbean rhythms. But Chesney also gives a nod to such wintry texts as "Jingle Bells" and "Silver Bells." Alabama's Randy Owen duets on "Christmas in Dixie" (which he cowrote), while Willie Nelson adds suitable gravitas to "Pretty Paper" (which he wrote). Chesney's mother and aunt, billed as "the Grigsby Twins," harmonize with him on "Silent Night."
John Michael Montgomery pretty much sticks to the standards in Mr. Snowman (Warner Bros.) with such tunes as "Winter Wonderland," "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But his distinctive voice serves him best in interpreting the newer songs. "December 1943" imagines an incident in which Allied soldiers wandering in a forest come across a house in the woods. The woman of the house welcomes them in but with the proviso that their rifles be left outside. "You can't bring in your war," she admonishes. Then two German soldiers arrive. You take it from there. Montgomery is equally effective in the thoughtful "A Daddy's Prayer/Jesus Loves Me."
Sixteen different artists contribute to A Very Special Acoustic Christmas (Lost Highway), an album created to raise funds for Special Olympics. Among the performers are Reba McEntire (who sings "Silent Night"), Alan Jackson ("Just Put a Ribbon in Your Hair"), Wynonna ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow") and Norah Jones ("Peace"). Alison Krauss contributes a fine original, "Only You Can Bring Me Cheer (Gentlemen's Lady)."
It's a real gift to hear the vibrant voice of Suzy Bogguss again. Her Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Compadre) sparkles with the likes of "Sleigh Ride," Winter Wonderland" and "Two Step 'Round the Christmas Tree." She and Delbert McClinton turn up the heat with "Baby It's Cold Outside" -- but not quite to the torrid level that Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison reach with the song on their album, Happy Holidays (Boars Nest). For overall coolness, Willis and Robison's collection is the best of the bunch. Willis practically crawls into the old man's ear for "Santa Baby," a bit of mistletoe mischief first made lurid by the steamy Eartha Kitt. Robison is magnificent in the starkly told "A Winter's Tale," and he artfully balances the mawkish and the tragic in "Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas."
Kathy Mattea's Joy For Christmas Day (Narada) is rich with contemporary carols, the most vivid of which is Bob Franke's "Straw Against the Chill." There are new takes on the old Christmas story via Marc Cohn's "Baby King," Rob Mathes' "When the Baby Grew Up" and Jennifer Knapp's "Sing, Mary, Sing." Traditionalists can take comfort in such familiars as "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful."
For leaning back with a warm drink after the shopping's all done, you can't do better than Steve Wariner's all-instrumental Guitar Christmas (Selectone). Using a variety of guitars -- and a dulcimer -- Wariner brings a breezy, jazzy, sometimes wistful sound to old favorites, including "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "I Saw Three Ships," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and 12 others.
Finally, there's the delightful bluegrass anthology A Pinecastle Christmas Gatherin' (Pinecastle), which boasts 18 songs by 16 different acts. Most of the selections are of recent vintage, notably Michelle Nixon and Drive's "When It's Christmas In Virginia," Eddie and Martha Adcock's "One Starry Night" and Wildfire's version of the Keith Whitley/Don Cook/Curly Putman carol, "There's a New Kid in Town." Charlie Waller, one of the smoothest voices in bluegrass, makes "White Christmas" sound fresh again, and Larry Stephenson works similar magic on "Away in a Manger."
Joyous Noel, y'all.