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MANDY BARNETT, Winter WonderlandDespite a boatload of critical acclaim over the years, the expected breakthrough commercial smash has eluded Mandy Barnett. It’s unlikely a Christmas album will do what her two studio albums from the ‘90s could not do, but if one could, Winter Wonderland would be it. It is, quite simply, a virtuoso performance of sensitive, nuanced vocalizing, as good as it gets, in service and bringing fresh energy to a clutch of beloved seasonal standards.

DORIS DAY, Complete Christmas CollectionWonderful technique is at work in all of Doris Day’s recordings, but what she wrought in her Christmas material is something beyond technique, something abiding in the exalted realm of the heart, where pure feeling produces the peace that passes all understanding. This is beautiful.

THE HEPCATS, Christmas With The HepcatsA clever ruse this is, but could it have been more perfectly executed? One thinks not. The Hepcats are billed as a guitar trio: Johnny Paulcat, “Son” Hepjohn and Paul Catson. Which sounds suspiciously like the group is really a single human being, one Paul Johnson, famed in surf music circles as the leader of the Bel-Airs and composer of the group’s classic 1961 hit, “Mr. Moto.” Any way you cut it, Johnson is a monster of a guitar picker, and his multitracked excursions into Christmas fare are as beautifullyrendered as they are arresting as they are fun.

THE ISAACS, ChristmasIn its diverse themes, in its execution, and especially in the voices’ conviction and beauty, The Isaacs’ Christmas has the feel of a seasonal classic by a group whose every new album exceeds its own high standards.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Let It Snow: A Holiday Musical CollectionEveryone needs stamps at Christmas time, and this year the U.S. Postal Service is making it easy to pick up some musical holiday cheer while tending to those mailing duties. The USPS and Concord Records have teamed up on a tasty 11-song festival of holiday songs, some drawn from artists in the Concord Records Group family, a handful of others licensed from other sources, and the whole working wonderfully as a pleasant, stylistically diverse overview of holiday performances both vintage and contemporary.

SCOTT MILLER, Christmas GiftFormer V-Roy Scott Miller was heard from earlier this year, on one of 2010’s finest albums, For Crying Out Loud, and now he returns, unassumingly, with a stirring seven-song EP for the holiday season available at his website. Christmas Gift may be slight in terms of its tunestack, but it is bountiful indeed in profound spirituality—unspoken, but felt in the unstudied beauty of these original songs and interesting covers—and bone-deep honesty of the entire endeavor.

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY, Acoustic Christmas Carols: Cowboy Christmas IIWhat can you say? At every step Murph makes all the right moves and delivers a Christmas message in a style all his own, intimate in its presentation, expansive in its larger meaning. This is a big-time album, in a quiet way.

DAVID PHELPS, Christmas With David PhelpsFor his joyous holiday celebration, David Phelps pulls out all the stops. This is not to suggest a lack of reverence on the artist’s part but rather an overflowing spirit that needs not only a full band but also an orchestra and choir as well to support his expressive, emotional tenor in its dynamic explorations of Yuletide fare both new and traditional.

STEVE WARINER, Guitar Christmas— Unassuming as it is, Guitar Christmas is one of those Yuletide albums that won’t get the attention of more grandiose, overblown, superstar-driven efforts but will in fact occupy the special place for holiday discs that simply endure when others have been blessedly forgotten. In spirit, in mood, in heart, this one gets it right all the way through.

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