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YULE'S GOLD

THE GOOD, THE BAND AND THE UGLY CHRISTMAS ALBUMS FOR 1994.

Every year sees the release of new Christmas albums, but 1994 has witnessed an avalanche of them. And they're flying out of the stores--really flying. At this writing, Miracles: The Holiday Album, by that epitome of evil in the late twentieth century, Kenny G, is the biggest-selling CD in the country. The only thing likely to slow its momentum is the arrival of January.

I can't offer a critical opinion of Miracles for a very simple reason: I haven't heard it. You see, Arista, the label for which Mr. G records, never sent me a copy, nor did I call to request one. And I didn't purchase the disc from a local music retailer. It's not that I didn't want to. Then again, I guess it is because I didn't want to.

Besides, I did receive nearly forty seasonal recordings, which are categorized and reviewed below. Some of them are exceptional by any standards, some are listenable but lack inspiration, and some are so dreadful that they could cause Saint Nick to contemplate retirement.

So listen up, Fat Man. These songs are for you.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING To the performers, that is. Because holiday numbers stay in fashion far longer than the latest hot pop trend, Christmas CDs can keep a musician's wallet filled for years to come. It's both an insurance policy against a sudden career collapse and a cash cow outfitted in red long johns with white fringe.

That's no cow on the cover of the Columbia Records platter Merry Christmas, though. That's Mariah Carey, whose new offering is slicker than Sixth Avenue during a blizzard. Yep, the gross national product of Liechtenstein no doubt pales in comparison to the dough spent to bring Carey's latest to the marketplace--but for all that, the songs themselves are only intermittently diverting. The hit single "All I Want for Christmas Is You" gets by mainly because it rips off Phil Spector more overtly than Carey's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which Spector actually co-wrote. Elsewhere, unfortunately, Carey feels compelled to wail at the top of her lungs in an effort to convince listeners what a unique talent she is. "O Holy Night" finds her zipping up and down her vocal register with the too-enthusiastic mien of a hyperactive poodle even PETA members would enjoy smacking across the nose with a newspaper. Woof.

Neil Diamond may not have Carey's pipes, but his approach to Christmas classics is similar: Belt until you're exhausted, then belt some more. The Christmas Album: Volume II, the Columbia Records sequel to 1993's mega-success, finds this Christian of convenience lowering the boom on those yuletide ditties he didn't bludgeon last time around. Even so, this has its enjoyable moments, especially for anyone thrilled by excess. Diamond's "Joy to the World" and "Winter Wonderland" are over-the-top throat strainers, and "Hallelujah Chorus" is utterly absurd--but in a good way. Alleged tearjerkers such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas" fare less well, however. And whoever convinced Neil to do a reggae version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" should be permanently installed in an asylum. Immediately.

There are no such faux pas on Holly and Ivy, Natalie Cole's new one for Elektra--it's tight and polished, with no room for gaffes. As expected, Cole continues to present herself as the female reincarnation of her dead papa, but she does so expertly: Backed by creamy Fifties-vintage arrangements, she sounds like a reincarnation of Jo Stafford on numbers such as "Caroling, Caroling" and "A Song for Christmas." She doesn't do anything startling with this material, but neither does she wreck it. A thoroughly professional piece of product that you can play when relatives come to visit.

The same can be said of Harmony, the latest from the Scotti Bros. act the Nylons, but it's far less tolerable than the Cole disc. Rather than pumping out mock-rock jive, these vocalists go for sentimentality. "O Holy Night" exemplifies the collection: It's slow and churchy, with a lachrymose solo vocal by Gavin Mosbaugh layered atop lush keyboards. Talk about your rough sledding.

The Sinatra Christmas Album, on the Reprise imprint, is also a relatively saccharine affair, but it's not without its fascinations. Sinatra's versions of these thirteen songs, recorded during the Sixties and Seventies and available for the first time on CD, don't compare with the Christmas recordings he made in prior years largely because tracks such as "An Old Fashioned Christmas," featuring Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, are drowned in strings so thick that Sinatra has problems giving them life. "Whatever Happened to Christmas," a Jimmy Webb tune, is a real curio (the Jimmy Joyce singers ooh and aah through the number like extras in a religious pageant), while "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is wackier; on it, Tina, Nancy and Frank Sinatra Jr. croon new lyrics about gifts they've given to Dad--three golf clubs, two silken scarves and a lavender tie among them. If Ol' Blue Eyes wasn't delivering these tunes, they'd be catastrophes. As it is, they're interesting catastrophes.

Leave it to Tony Bennett, then, to make a seasonal collection that's stood the test of time. Snowfall: The Christmas Album, on Columbia, certainly has proven its mettle; it was originally recorded in 1969 but sounds as vibrant as Bennett's more recent work. Of course, the singer's newfound fame has inspired this rerelease, which is packaged to make it seem fresh off the presses (a contemporary photo of Bennett is on the cover, and its liner notes don't mention when the disc was cut). But why complain? Bennett, who is backed by a semi-full orchestra for most of the album, treats the songs with equal measures of good humor and respect, and he seems to be enjoying himself: His chuckle during "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" seems genuine. So is Bennett himself.

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