Various artists “A Very Special Christmas 3” (A&M;) ***
Christmas being the one time of the rock ‘n’ roll year when it’s cool to check the cynicism at the door, the third holiday compilation in 10 years benefiting Special Olympics finds the participants respecting the spirit of the season and their cause. The high point is Patti Smith’s concluding “We Three Kings,” which she turns into a characteristically harrowing spiritual quest. It’s nice to hear the Smashing Pumpkins get downright tender in “Christmastime,” one of six original tunes here that complement the 10 Yuletide classics by these joy-filled rockers, rappers and balladeers.
- Randy Lewis
Various artists “Gang Related” soundtrack (Death Row/Priority) ***
Like most of this year’s many gangsta-rap double albums, this collection could have been whittled down to one disc. It would include such gems as Daz’s “Way Too Major,” a double-barreled blast of pure flavor, and “Life’s So Hard,” one of the best 2Pac tracks to hit the street since “California Love.” Two other 2Pac entries, the chilling “Staring Through My Rearview Mirror” and the closing “Lost Souls,” would also easily make the cut.
- Cheo Hodari Coker
The Deftones “Around the Fur” (Maverick/Warner Bros.) ***
Despite impressive technical refinements in their furious rock assault, the stylistic experiments on the Deftones’ second effort make more of an impact. A touch of warped western twang creeps into the brooding “Mascara,” and the group’s latent pop penchant surfaces now and again with an acrid, Pixies-esque melodic flair. Rather than dampening the music’s anxiety level, these mellower twists actually enhance the band’s angst appeal.
- Sandy Masuo
KISS “Carnival of Souls” (Mercury) * 1/2
KISS’ strong suit is stage spectacle, not musical substance, and these tracks, recorded and shelved prior to the group’s 1996 reunion mega-tour, offer no evidence to the contrary. The strongest borrow heavily from early Black Sabbath; the worst are attempts at Beatle-esque pop and Zeppelin-ish folk rock that clunk along awkwardly. These ghastly apparitions should have stayed in the vault.
- Sandy Masuo