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Stuck on finding the best holiday mixes? We'll help you out

The Christmas season would not be the same without a soundtrack.

From "Winter Wonderland" to "White Christmas," holiday music is everywhere, whether it's playing in our homes, our cars or blaring from speakers at the shopping malls. We have to have it.

It's one reason that stores not known for music sales carry compilation Christmas CDs. The little square shape catches your eye. You pick it up and check out the song titles and artists. Why not plop it down on the sales counter along with your gift of body lotion or a picture frame? Or why not just buy it for yourself?

To help you choose, we compare a sample of store- branded compilation CDs by using "Now That's What I Call Christmas!" from 2001 as the gold standard. It's a two-disc, 36-song yuletide feast that includes an eclectic mix of artists such as Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Celine Dion, Diana Krall and -- I can't believe I'm writing this -- Britney Spears.

The disc offers an admirable cross-section of old and modern classics, from Crosby's "White Christmas" to Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." And you can get it probably for a price around $15 or so. How do these store- branded discs compare? We'll rate them on a scale of one to five Christmas ornaments.

Title: "Once Upon a Holiday," with 14 songs

Store: Nordstrom (available at Nordstrom Rack)

Cost: $9.95

Artists include: Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Lou Rawls, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald

High points: This CD is a jazzy, swingy affair. Peggy Lee offers an upbeat version of "Happy Holiday." Lena Horne sings a playful "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," backed by sassy horns. Jazz aficionados will groove to Chet Baker's sped-up take on "Winter Wonderland." Louis Armstrong and the Duke Ellington Orchestra team up on "I'm Beginning to See the Light" -- OK, it's not a Christmas song but how can you resist this pairing of musical legends?

Low points: Bill Hailey & His Comets' "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" sounds tired and strained. Nat King Cole's "The Happiest Christmas Tree" has too many "a hey and a hee and a ho ho" lines (and variations thereof), like a high school cheer.

Score: 41/2 ornaments

Title: "Holiday Splendor," with 12 songs

Store: Pier 1 Imports

Cost: $10

Artists include: Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Aaron Neville and Donna Summer

High points: Eclectic mix of old and modern. The Brian Setzer Orchestra swings on "Jingle Bell Rock." Vanessa Williams does a lovely rendition of "I Wonder as I Wander," with its soft start and lush ending. Lee Ann Womack sings "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Harry Connick Jr. -- it's a cute version, like they're cuddling in a blanket in front of a fireplace. The CD finale is Johnny Mathis' happy take on "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

Low point: Rocker Bryan Adams taking a stab at "Christmas Time," a typical plodding Adams concoction sung in his painful-to-listen-to raspy voice.

Score: 4 ornaments

Title: "Holiday Cocktails," with 12 songs

Store: Pottery Barn

Cost: $15

Artists include: The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Kay Starr and Ferrante & Teicher

High points: This CD goes for the "cool" quotient. Dean Martin sings a smooth, easy version of "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." B.B. King performs "Christmas Celebration" with its bluesy tones, piano, horns and King, of course, on guitar. Kurt Elling delivers a hip "Cool Yule" with lines such as "From Coney Island to Sunset Strip, somebody's going to make a happy trip."

Low points: Again, it's Bill Haley & His Comets. This time, they sing "Jingle Bell Rock" like they're singing it for the 50th time in a row. Dave's True Story does a take on "Baby It's Cold Outside" that has no solo male vocal to bounce off the female's flirtatious reluctance to leave.

Score: 31/2 ornaments (could have rated higher, except the price is a tad much for a store-branded package)

Title: "Songs for Greater Good," with 10 songs

Store: Target

Cost: $5.99 ($2 of the proceeds go to support The Salvation Army)

Artists include: Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson

High points: This one is more eccentric than eclectic, but highlights include Tony Bennett's impeccable voice and phrasing on "Winter Wonderland." There's also Luther Vandross' "Every Year, Every Christmas" -- the song is not exceptional but his voice is soulfully sweet. And Five For Fighting, with its lead singer sounding a lot like Coldplay's Chris Martin, delivers a soft, modern take on "Silent Night."

Low points: Harry Connick Jr.'s version of "O Holy Night" is an over-the-top, overly dramatic production that clocks in at almost seven minutes. Alicia Keys does a song called "Little Drummer Girl" that is just dreadful.

Score: 3 1/2 ornaments (could have been lower, but the price is attractive and $2 does go to a charity)

Title: "Seasons Greetings," with 12 songs

Store: Kohl's (under its Kohl's Cares for Kids program)

Cost: $5; the inside cover says that "100% of the net profits from the sale of this CD will be donated to support health and education opportunities for children."

Artists include: It's just Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

High points: This CD evokes nostalgia with a capital N. It may appeal more to older listeners, but this also could be a prime opportunity to introduce youngsters to the importance of Sinatra and Crosby in American music history.

This package includes Crosby singing "White Christmas"; it's not the original, but it still sounds good. A particularly fine Sinatra track is "Have Your- self a Merry Little Christmas." His voice has a tinge of weariness, like a man who's been through some tough spots and appreciates his family.

Low points: Zippo. We're talking Sinatra and Crosby here.

Score: 41/2 ornaments (especially since a portion of sales goes to children's programs)

Favorite songs span the years

What songs would be on your personalized Christmas CD? Look for my playlist blog on fresnobeehive.com today, and let me know your picks.

Here's are songs I would include on my holiday CD:

"White Christmas": Bing Crosby's original 1942 version. Simply the best.

"All I Want for Christmas": not Mariah Carey's rendition but the one sung by Olivia Olson in the 2003 movie "Love, Actually."

"The Christmas Song": any rendition by Tony Bennett.

"Christmas Time Is Here": from the 1965 TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Pure genius: jazz, "Peanuts" and Christmas.

"St. Patrick's Day": from John Mayer. Christmas is part of this slow, easy 2001 song about a potential relationship.

"Feliz Navidad": Jose Feliciano's 1970 joyous ode to the season.

"We Need a Little Christmas": from the musical "Mame."

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year": Andy Williams' 1963 version. It's sparkly, lushly produced and full of zest.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas": the moving, original version sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 classic "Meet Me in St. Louis."

"Winter Wonderland": the fast-paced 1950s' version by "cool jazz" trumpeter Chet Baker. It's a whirlwind.

"Jingle Bells?" and "I Wonder as I Wonder": from Barbra Streisand's 1967 "A Christmas Album." The former takes the familiar holiday song and turns it on its ear; the latter is a beautiful showcase for Streisand's exquisite voice.

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