Calendar offers our annual rundown — sorry, Grandma — of the best, and not, of the fresh crop, which, as always, range from deeply reverential to outright cynical. Let the ride down Santa Claus Lane begin — with 1 star being an inessential release, and 4 stars indicating a classic-in-the-making:
The Nashville singer with pipes of steel, who first earned plaudits for her star turn in the musical "Always … Patsy Cline," avoids sounding generically country thanks to hard-swinging backing from such instrumental greats as guitarist Harold Bradley, steel player Lloyd Green and drummer Gene Chrisman. Her big, brassy voice and vintage-sounding arrangements still echo Cline at times, but as she employs them in "All I Want for Christmas Is You," what a glorious echo it is.
Susan Boyle "The Gift" (Columbia)
The " Britain's Got Talent" sensation sidesteps an utterly predictable (if faultlessly sung) session of unrelentingly ethereal yuletide traditionals by sprinkling in a few offbeat song choices, including Lou Reed's deceptively sunny "Perfect Day" and Crowded House's melancholy "Don't Dream It's Over." Sonically beautiful but a bit lacking in real spirit.
Jackie Evancho "O Holy Night" (Columbia)
The 10-year-old "America's Got Talent" prodigy wraps her preternaturally mature-sounding soprano around a quartet of classically minded seasonal/religious numbers on the first disc of this budget-priced CD/DVD package. The DVD includes her AGT audition and some performances from the show. And, yes, she nails the money note in "O Holy Night."
Jimi Hendrix "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" (Experience Hendrix)
This abbreviated session includes two passes at his 1969 medley of "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne," featuring Hendrix's Band of Gypsys. "Three Little Bears," a playful original, is an "Electric Ladyland" outtake that's been out of circulation for a quarter century and captures him in 1968 with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. It's 16 minutes of guitar-shredding fun, largely for Hendrix die-hards.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks "Crazy for Christmas" (Surfdog)
The Bay Area hipster goes off the map for most of the smart songs on this elegantly swinging outing. The perfect accompaniment to a holiday martini gathering. A stocking bonus: Hicks plays McCabe's in Santa Monica on Dec. 11.
Annie Lennox "A Christmas Cornucopia" (Decca)
One miracle of the modern holiday season is that anyone can find fresh takes on this music, yet the former Eurythmics singer seems to hear, and thus sing, the songs she's chosen as if for the first time. Unexpected harmonic, melodic and rhythmic choices buoy such stalwarts as "The First Noel," "The Holly and the Ivy" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and she brightens the mix further with lesser-known tunes including "See Amid the Winter's Snow."
Shelby Lynne "Merry Christmas" (Everso)
The wild child of alt-country singer-songwriters plays it pretty straight on her holiday outing, contributing two blues originals to her touchingly spare, intimate performances of seasonal standards ("O Holy Night," "Silent Night") and pop and country chestnuts ("Christmas Time's A-Comin'" and the Peanuts gang's "Christmas Time Is Here").
Sean Smith "Christmas" (Tompkins Square)
Bay Area guitarist Sean Smith's solo acoustic recording harks back — favorably — to John Fahey's celebrated Christmas recordings. The spare arrangements and reverential performances quietly convey the humble spirit of the holiday's origin.
Various Artists "Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In" ( Warner Bros.)
A something-for-everyone grab bag like this virtually assures that hardly anyone will connect with everything. The 21 tracks span Devo's loopy Euro-dance original "Merry Something to You," Tegan and Sara's rodent-friendly update of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" and the Flaming Lips' work-in-progress live run-through of "Little Drummer Boy." Available as an iTunes download and a limited edition vinyl double-LP set.
Various Artists "Now That's What I Call Christmas! 4" (EMI/Universal/Sony)
The marquee number on this fourth edition of the cross-label compilation is Rihanna's new reggae-soaked original "A Child Is Born." The two-CD set of contemporary and classic holiday tracks also pulls in Lady Gaga's festive 2008 single "Christmas Tree," but the majority of the cuts on the disc billed as "superstars of today" have appeared previously, just as most tracks on the second disc featuring stars of "yesterday," including Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis et al., have been recycled endlessly.