Holiday CDs for every musical taste
This year's bountyof new holiday releases offers thoughts of the season from a slew of musicians, including a pair of singers who've officially "Got Talent," an "American Idol" alumnus, a neo-rockabilly hipster, a former member of an influential British pop-rock duo, a key voice from one of the most beloved Christmas albums of the rock era and a trio classic rockers' offspring with hits of their own.

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:

11 Acorn Lane "Happy Holy Days" (Wooden Hat Records)

✭✭ ½

11 Acorn Lane is the moniker of nom de accomplished musical whimsy used by New York-based duo featuring of Neal Pawley and Thomas Foyer, who play all the instruments on this expansive, whimsical big-band-lounge workout inspired heavily by the retro stylings of Esquivel. Along with loopy arrangements of familiar carols, there's one original holiday-ish march and a couple of mazinkas traditionally played at Jewish weddings. Novelty-ish for sure, but often entertainingly out of the box.

Mandy Barnett "Winter Wonderland" (Rounder)


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)

✭✭ ½

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 (for which she credits Simon Cowell and Nick Raymonde in the liner notes), 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.

Mariah Carey "Merry Christmas II You" (Island/HSN)


The R&B diva's 1994 "Merry Christmas" collection is a perennial bestseller, and she's followed it another exhibition of her signature ADD vocals on a new batch of tunes, the only holdover being a reprise of the song she co-wrote that's become a contemporary holiday standard, "All I Want For Christmas is You." Her unrelenting melisma will leave many in awe, others exhausted. The Home Shopping Network's package includes an exclusive DVD with 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage on the making of the album.

Dr. Elmo "Bluegrass Christmas" (Time Life)


It's hard to imagine just who's been clamoring for a full-length follow-up to Elmo & Patsy's inescapable 1979 Christmas novelty classic "Grandma Got Run Over By a Raindeer," reprised here as an instrumental. Banjo player Elmo Shropshire's vocal rasp is perfectly suited to this Appalachia-rooted music, and he's at his best when he plays it straightest. There are, however, many, many more accomplished bluegrass-soaked holiday collections already in circulation.

Jason Michael Carroll "Christmas on the Farm" (Arista)