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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of our own staff members recently tested himself. It wasn't a drug test. It was a test of endurance.

During Thanksgiving week, NPR's Stephen Thompson took an 18-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to Gresham, Wisconsin. That was tough but wasn't really the test. The test was the music that he chose to play for the entire trip.

STEPHEN THOMPSON: I've always enjoyed hearing new Christmas music, but there's just so much of it. Every fall, I receive dozens of new holiday CDs - countless hours of music to sift through in the long, agonizing buildup to Christmas.

This year, I decided to save them all for one epic binge during a long road trip to see family, to be captivated by the holiday spirit while held literally captive.

Pulling out of the driveway, I started, as one does, with "A Swingin' Christmas," by Michael Bolton.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Wonderland")

Mr. MICHAEL BOLTON (Singer): (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening.

THOMPSON: Thus began 18 of the longest hours of my life. Michael Bolton's "Swingin' Christmas" was my plodding(ph) Christmas, a tensely endured soundtrack for a holiday hell ride through D.C. traffic.

Still, I would get through 21 CDs before the journey's end. Some actually evoked to the joy of the season. The Staple Singers made a glorious gospel record back in 1962. Now on CD after years out of print, it exudes grace and reverence.

(Soundbite of song, "25th Day of December")

THE STAPLE SINGERS (Singing Group): (Singing) Tell me, what month Jesus was born.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Last month of the year.

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Well, what month Jesus was born?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Last month of the year.

THOMPSON: That wasn't the only treat. Over the Rhine and Mindy Smith each played songs of gentle beauty. Rock bands Reliant K and Sister Hazel tried out new songs that were sincere, lighthearted, or both.

But at times, my voyage seemed like an exercise in punishing gonzo journalism. In my worst moments, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," but with Josh Groban songs instead of mescaline.

Someone had sent me a new version of "A Twismas Story," a 1983 album on which the late country singer Conway Twitty performs holiday favorites alongside a character called Twitty Bird.

Unidentified Man: (As Twitty Bird) What's he doing, Conway?

Mr. CONWAY TWITTY (Singer): Well, he's making sure the old snow witch doesn't steal any of the presents Santa has for everyone.

Unidentified Man: (As Twitty Bird) I'm sure glad he has snow ball to watch out for everything. Hey, it's starting to snow again.

THOMPSON: Nine hundred miles into my trip, I may have hallucinated this album into existence. But suddenly, during its final track, I found myself loving the oddball sincerity of "A Twismas Story."

Just then, as Conway Twitty told Twitty Bird the story of Jesus' birth, a gentle snowfall graced the skies over Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of song, "Silent Night")

Mr. TWITTY: (Singing) Silent night…

THOMPSON: In that moment, surreal as it was, I felt the season arrive in a literal flurry, a moment as beautiful as it was bizarre.

(Soundbite of song, "Silent Night")

Mr. TWITTY: (Singing) All is calm, all is bright…

INSKEEP: You can reach Stephen Thompson's reviews of all 21 holiday albums and even hear the music itself at npr.org/music. Cheer someone.

(Soundbite of song, "Silent Night")

Mr. TWITTY: (Singing) Virgin mother and child. Holy infant…

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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