We round up the best and the worst of the festive albums on offer this year. WORDS: Will Fulford-Jones

Tori Amos – Midwinter Graces  **

Tori Amos avoids Christmas jollity on Midwinter Graces, instead she takes a pared-back, toned-down approach to the season.

While it’s a more enticing listen than her last non-festive album – the painfully named Abnormally Attracted To Sun – it’s still not much of a record.

Her own songs, and there are too many of them, are plodding, forgettable affairs, and the traditional stuff doesn’t fare much better, with the Coventry Carol in particular stripped of all its haunting beauty. 

Kate Rusby – Sweet Bells  ***

Originally released last year, but reissued for 2009, Kate Rusby’s Sweet Bells is exactly what you might expect a Christmas album from the tender-voiced Yorkshire folkie to sound: delicate, pretty and, yes, sweet.

Trad-arr folk songs are mixed with a little of Rusby’s own tunesmithery and some other bits and pieces, with the usual array of acoustic guitars and accordions occasionally coloured by a brass band.

Very, very English, and none the worse for it.

Various – It’s Christmas time  ** 

The Waitresses’ peerless Christmas Wrapping sits next to Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews’ brutalisation of Baby, It’s Cold Outside; Michael Ball turns Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas into
a motorway pile-up; and Fairytale Of New York is sung by Ronan Keating.

Still, this compilation finds room for both Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’ and Judy Garland’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Bob Dylan – Christmas in the heart  ****

It’s unlikely Bob Dylan meant Christmas In The Heart as a two-fingered salute to some of his more serious-minded fans, but judging by some reactions to his first festive album, you’d think he’d come round to all their houses on Christmas morning and hurled a brick through the window.

Granted, Dylan’s glass-gargling take on O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark The Herald Angels Sing aren’t among his finest recordings, but you’d have to be a pretty joyless soul not to be tickled by his winking-but-genuine readings of Here Comes Santa Claus and The Christmas Song

Sting – if on a winter’s night **

Speaking of admirably bloody-minded behaviour, Sting continues his increasingly odd recent career – an album of 17th-century lute music, followed by the money-grabbing Police reunion tour he always said he wouldn’t do – with If On A Winter’s Night.

Less a Christmas album than a winter one, the record is largely made up of traditional tunes, with a couple of originals and a reworking of a Schubert composition thrown in.

It could be lovely, but is ultimately a mess, not least because Sting’s vocals are an uncomfortable no-man’s-land blend of unimpressive attempts at classical singing with unsuitable pop mannerisms. 

Neil Diamond – A Cherry Cherry Christmas **

Neil Diamond is an old hand at Christmas records, and it shows here.

Unfortunately, a little too clearly: the majority of the singer’s third Christmas disc is simply recycled from his first two.

Diamond’s problem has always been that even when he’s genuine and sincere, he never quite sounds it, a situation amplified by the shopping-mall arrangements 
that back up his practised croon.