Album reviews: Andrea Boccelli | Kate Rusby | Tori Amos | Michael McDonald | Sugarland | Hue And Cry | Slow Club | Thea Gilmore

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'FEATURING The Muppets" – three words to gladden any heart this Christmas. In this case, they are printed on the sleeve of Andrea Bocelli's new Christmas album.

A puppet-enhanced version of Jingle Bells aside, My Christmas (Decca Records, 12.72) ** is a thoroughly conventional Yuletide offering from the Italian tenor, who sports the regulation white cable-knit jumper on the CD sleeve and dutifully delivers an easy listening mix of orchestrated carols and standards with the odd flourish of Italian and French and the chime of tubular bells.

While Bocelli ticks all the predictable festive boxes, there are also a number of unusual suspects releasing Christmas albums this year. None will be troubling Susan Boyle for the top spot come 25 December but this mini-avalanche (OK, snowdrift) of seasonal songwriting and alternative versions of carols makes a change from wall-to-wall Wizzard.

Kate Rusby's Sweet Bells (Pure Records, 13.70) *** was first released last Christmas, but has been repackaged and sent out into the cold air once again with its woolly scarf on to celebrate the enduring South Yorkshire tradition of communal carol singing in pubs. Rusby and her band cannot quite communicate the heartiness of these sessions – her wassailing sounds quite timid – but the album still evokes a certain cosy spirit with regional ditties such as Serving Girl's Holiday (with a simple accordion backing) and The Miner's Dream Of Home and sensitive use of the county's brass band tradition.

Tori Amos wins points on her Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic, 12.72) *** for choosing the sublime Coventry Carol over the regulation Silent Night. A solemn O Come O Come Emmanuel and an appropriately pagan arrangement of The Holly and The Ivy nuzzle up beside her own seasonal compositions about harps and snow angels which float along in the vein of Kate Bush's December Will Be Magic Again.

There is no denying that Michael McDonald has one of the great blue-eyed soul voices. He is also one of the most loyal advocates of that naff, over-produced soul funk sound which should have died a death with the passing of the 80s but is, instead, all over This Christmas (Proper Records, 12.72) ** like that horrible bloated feeling when you've made room for another helping of Christmas pud. If he's not making a meal of Children Go Where I Send Thee along with his wailing backing singer, he is overcooking O Come O Come Emmanuel, then snoozing thro-ugh God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. At least his affecting vocals have the space to shine through on the relatively stripped back ballad Peace and his junkyard blues take on I'll Be Home For Christmas.

O Come O Come Emmanuel must be the carol of choice this year, as it crops up again on Gold And Green (Mercury, 10.76) ** by slick Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland, this time with a mournful banjo arrangement. Winter Wonderland, meanwhile, is dispatched with some subtle pedal steel embellishment. And then marred by Jennifer Nettles's overbearing vocals. On the plus side, they embrace festive cheesiness (with sleigh bells on) by covering Burl Ives's Holly Jolly Christmas and the 1950s novelty song Nuttin' For Christmas in which a naughty child complains that "somebody snitched on me".

Hue And Cry's Xmasday (Blairhill Records, 10.76) ** is also a mixed stocking (and a limited edition Christmas gift box including DVD, Christmas card, calendar and Christmas tree decoration), purporting to follow the trajectory of a typical Christmas Day.

The cheesy lounge versions of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and Rockin' Robin are outweirded by their downbeat jazz rendition of Rolf Harris's heart-tugging saga Two Little Boys – did they do that one for a bet? The original songs are better, though several sound like they have been in Yuletide limbo since the 80s. We Free Kings is a fond portrait of overdoing it with the liquid festive cheer, while All Men Kind puts forward a humanitarian Christmas meditation, calling for a revolution in compassion.

If you're looking for a very indie Christmas, then the Christmas, Thanks For Nothing EP (Moshi Moshi, 8.80) **** by Sheffield duo Slow Club (sample number: It's Christmas And You're Boring Me) is short but bittersweet.

The other pick of the bunch is Thea Gilmore's Strange Communion (Rykodisc, 10.76) **** which works on just about every level.

The Oxford singer/songwriter opens with a winter solstice number, encapsulates the everyday spirit of Christmas – "peace and goodwill to men, me missing you again" – on That'll Be Christmas and exhibits more imagination than anyone else in choosing to cover Yoko Ono's fragile Listen The Snow Is Falling and Elvis Costello's The St Stephen's Day Murders. The latter boasts a Kirsty MacColl/Shane MacGowan-style duet with Radio 2's Mark Radcliffe and contains the only seasonal reference to Tia Maria and Irn Bru you will ever need.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO

QUEEN'S HALL, EDINBURGH, 2 DECEMBER

THE respected Japanese composer and electronica pioneer, best known for his scores for the films Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and The Last Emperor, is now committed to carbon neutral touring. On his first UK jaunt in 15 years, he presents a selection of his diverse work in this "concert for two pianos".

&#149 Tel: 0131-668 2019

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