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Never mind the mistletoe: the finest hits of the Festival of Lights

by Philip Brasor

If you’re sick of songs about reindeer with red noses and jolly, bearded fat guys coming to town, here are some Hanukkah albums worth digging for.

The Klezmatics: “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (2006)

America’s premier folk-music icon was born in Oklahoma from Scots-Irish stock, but he married a Jewish woman and, while raising a family in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, composed lyrics to eight Hanukkah songs, which America’s greatest homegrown klezmer ensemble has set to truly great music.

Guthrie seemed less interested in the genre’s cultural aspects than in the way it appealed to children. He peppers his lines with Yiddish alliterations and wholesale silliness, and vocalist Lorin Sklamberg delivers it all with great humor and warmth. If this kind of thing appeals to you, don’t forget to also pick up “Wonder Wheel,” where the Klezmatics tackle a batch of non-Jewish-themed Guthrie songs. For that matter, buy any Klezmatics record you can get your hands on.

The LeeVees: “Hanukkah Rocks” (2005)

The LeeVees are Adam Gardner of the rock band Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis. “Hanukkah Rocks” could be considered a novelty record, since all the original songs have a humorous bent and survey a wide range of pop styles, from white doo-wop to punk. The overarching theme is modern Jewish life, with subjects such as the Jewish exodus to Florida and whether or not Jewish girls are worth the effort.

For the purposes of this article, the song “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” is certainly relevant. “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream” has its holiday relevance also, but it’s too complicated to explain here. The album’s good for a laugh, and, as the title indicates, it rocks, too.

Barenaked Ladies: “Barenaked for Hanukkah” (2005)

This Canadian band are known for their humorous between-song stage patter as well as their tongue-in- cheek folk and pop songs, but this holiday EP is relatively straightforward.

The group play three Hanukkah standbys in a boisterous campfire singalong style, which is probably how most people heard them in the first place at school. For nonsectarian bargain-hunters, all three cuts can also be found on the group’s 2004 album “Barenaked for the Holidays,” which lends the same treatment to 17 Christmas and New Year songs.

Various Artists: “Festival of Light Vols. 1 & 2″ (2000 & 2002)

This two-volume compilation of Hanukkah songs, from the sacred to the secular, is probably the best overview on the subject, though some reviews claim that only a few of the songs are actually related to Hanukkah.

No matter. You get some absolutely gorgeous spirituals, such as Le’Eyla’s “Haneros Halallu” and Neshama Carlebach’s “A Love Transcending”; The Frank London Big Band’s truly swinging “Oh Hanukkah Groove”; The Klezmatics’ soulful “I’m Going To Take Off My Shoes”; Peter Himmelman’s bluesy “Lighting Up the World”; Jane Siberry’s modern take on the traditional “Shir Amamiand”; the smooth jazz of Dave Koz’s “Memories of a Winter’s Night”; an electronic-and-trance version of “Kiddush Le-Shabbat,” complete with cantor; and “Feast of Lights,” a great pop song by the indie-rock pair They Might be Giants.

Related story: Rocking around the Hanukkah menorah