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Musically gifted This holiday season has been greeted by a strong crop of new releases

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it comes round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." -- Charles Dickens

It's a tall order, but to be emotionally engaging, winter holiday music should conjure the ethos Charles Dickens evokes with the above quote. What makes a holiday tune a timeless classic? It's a blend of the corny and the incisive, the melodramatic and the reality-grounded, the stiff and traditional and the modern and playful, the wild and Bacchanalian and the warm, pure and sedate.

Since the winter solstice season is at heart an acknowledgment of some sort of religious belief -- although it is also, like most holidays, based on changing seasons and placating the gods that make crops grow, carry tribes through the unbearable cold, or to simply appease chosen deities so they don't come and strike us down in our sleep -- the best music must at once celebrate the sacred and profane. If you're a Christian, that means acknowledging the birth of a savior and spiking the eggnog with equal conviction.

Since the holiday season means different things to different folks, the best holiday music needs to cross religious, racial, geographical and even generational lines. The best way to do that is to, as Dickens suggests, acknowledge and celebrate our common humanity, regardless of the particular minutiae of our various belief systems. A great holiday song should make you want to invite the neighbor you normally avoid like the plague over for a beer in front of the fire.

Every year, new "Christmas" albums arrive by the truckload, and it's easy to greet their arrival with cynicism. After all, how many different crooners or pop divas do we need to hear warble their way through "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"? Doesn't it all seem a bit cheesy after a while?

Well, yeah, it does. But on occasion, a new holiday music release comes along and puts you in touch with your inner child again -- which is really what it's all about anyway.

This year, more high-quality, pop-related holiday song collections have hit the bins than any year in recent memory. Who knows why? Perhaps the stars aligned. Or maybe all the really annoying and cloying pop tarts have already released their bid for Christmas immortality. Whatever the reason, here are a few of the finest 2005 holiday releases.

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*Marah, "A Christmas Kind of Town" (Yep Roc Records): Philadelphia's own version of the E Street Band makes merry and mirthful with a blend of soul and wit.

*Brian Wilson, "What I Really Want for Christmas" (Arista): Wilson brings childish joy and heavenly harmonies to the holiday feast. Sublime.

*Martin Sexton, "Camp Holiday" (Kitchen Table Records): A rustic folk take on holiday music delivered with heart by Sexton and his mighty guitar.

*The Brian Setzer Orchestra, "Dig That Crazy Christmas" (Surfdog/Warner Bros.): Hot licks to chase off the cold from Setzer, blending rockabilly and big-band swing. Even Scrooge wants to get down to this.

*Brave Combo, "Holidays" (Rounder): A wholly brilliant collection of holiday tunes of various stripes, composed by this brilliantly eclectic ensemble.

*Various artists, "Elton John's Christmas Party" (Universal): Sir Elton knows a great Christmas tune when he hears one. Everything from Outkast to U2, the Flaming Lips to Bruce Springsteen.

*Diana Krall, "Christmas Songs" (Verve): Krall is brilliant here, her sensuous vocals and elegant piano playing buoyed by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra's astute playing and crafty arrangements.

*Blackmore's Night, "Christmas Eve" (SPV): OK, so it's tough to believe that the man responsible for some of the most sinister riffs in heavy rock has a sensitive side. But Ritchie Blackmore and his wife, Candace Night, have been fully immersed in Renaissance music for more than a decade now. On these folk minstrel beauties, both Blackmore and Night shine.

*Jana, "American Indian Christmas" (Standing Stone Records): Tender interpretations of traditional holiday songs delivered in various Native American tongues. Touching stuff.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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