For every cool Christmas disc like El Vez's Si El Vez No -- A Christmas Album (Poptones) released during the holiday season run-up, there are at least 20 schmaltzy rack-fillers with the same old yuletide yawners. After some diligent digging, however, it's possible to uncover the lesser-known holiday classics of the past digitally remastered for those who can't stomach the thought of Garth Brooks doing Silver Bells.
MAS! A Caribbean Christmas Party (ARChive/Ryko) An intoxicating Island jaunt of a Christmas record with stops for Lord Nelson in Trinidad, Carlene Davis in Jamaica, El Gran Combo in Puerto Rico, Claudette et Ti Pierre in Haiti and Joseph Spence in the Bahamas. It may be difficult to find, but well worth your effort.
HAVE YOURSELF A JAZZY LITTLE CHRISTMAS (Verve) When you're at home with the folks and they ask to hear something a little more traditional, they'll be satisfied with Mel Tormé roasting chestnuts on The Christmas Song. But stick around for Roland Kirk's We Free Kings, Billie Holiday's I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, and Jimmy Smith's God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY (King/Highland) This set, drawn from the immense King archives, doesn't have the best fidelity and has no liner notes, but you can't fault the selection of swingin' golden-era R&B Christmas classics from Charles Brown, Billy Ward, Freddy King, Lowell Fulson and Mabel Scott.
CHRISTMAS BLUES (Savoy) Don't be fooled by the title -- this Savoy collection is slanted more to doo-wop, R&B, jazz and early rock and roll than blues, with great hard-to-find tracks by Little Esther, the Ravens, Big Maybelle and Slam Stewart -- highlighted by Charlie Parker's White Christmas and Debbie Dabney's charming I Want To Spend Christmas With Elvis.
NATTY AND NICE (Rhino) If you're down for an irie holiday, grab Natty And Nice, which touches on dub, ska, dancehall and rock steady, including Ernest Ranglin's rare scorcher Santa Claus Is Skaing To Town, John Holt's unique take on John and Yoko's Happy X-mas (War Is Over) and Jacob Miller's killer Wish You A Merry Christmas.
SOUL CHRISTMAS (Rhino) Split between Atlantic and Stax recordings, Soul Christmas delivers the goods. Otis Redding's Merry Christmas Baby, Clarence Carter's funky Back Door Santa and William Bell's transcendent Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday lead the way, followed by heart-warming moments from Ray Charles, Joe Tex, King Curtis and Solomon Burke. Righteous.