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JUST SAY NOEL

THIS YEAR'S CHRISTMAS DISCS PROVIDE SOME ROUGH SLEDDING.

It's not easy to make creative holiday music. Writing a seasonal classic is all but impossible; besides, it takes years to know if you've succeeded. And while it's a snap to cover old favorites, the extraordinary familiarity of the material prevents all but the most innovative performers from doing anything new with it. Consequently, most don't.

That's certainly the case this year. The Nineties have borne witness to plenty of yule's gold--discs that sound good with or without an eggnog chaser. But in 1995, a period marked by the VH1-ing of American popular music, the treasures are few and far between. The majority of new Christmas platters settle for imitation (especially pointless in this saturated genre) and a quietly reassuring tone that champions inoffensiveness over quality. There are some nuggets amid these lumps of coal, separated below into handy categories, but you'll have to dig to find them.

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS TWO GOLD DISCS Here's where the big money is made: At present, seven of the first eight listings (and thirty-two of the initial fifty) on Billboard's Top Pop Catalog Albums chart are Christmas discs--and most of them are by famous people (Mariah (S)Carey, Kenny "G, I'm a Terrible Saxophone Player," two from John "Satan's Little Helper" Tesh). So you can't blame Luther Vandross for throwing his stocking cap into the ring, with the Epic Records CD This Is Christmas. Too bad Vandross tossed the project off, too: He's a studio wizard, but the creamy sound that's his trademark only makes his readings of "My Favorite Things" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" more lachrymose. Still, there are a couple of standouts: "Listen to the Bells," a duet with Darlene Love, and "The MistleTOE Jam (Everybody Kiss Somebody)," in which background vocalist Brenda White-King alleges that the last time she was under the mistletoe with Luther, she was impregnated with twins. If you believe that, Santa would like to sell you a half-interest in the Whitewater housing development.

Like the Vandross package, All-4-One's An All-4-One Christmas (on Blitzz/Atlantic) is built on soothing beats and mid-range vocalizing unlikely to give listeners that Christmas morning feeling. "What Child Is This?" is typical: The Cloroxed Boyz II Men impressions employed throughout it display about as much R&B soul as Jeff Foxworthy. An exception is the comparatively frolicking exercise "This Christmas," in which one member's plea for peace on Earth is followed by another singer's admission that he'd rather have a bag filled with expensive presents. Honesty is the best policy.

The Cross Three Records disc Scenes of Christmas, by B.J. Thomas doesn't even display this much life. Thomas pulls together the usual musical suspects ("Christmas Song," "Away in a Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful") and performs them in perfunctory fashion accompanied by orchestration clearly emanating from a single synthesizer. A bigger budget wouldn't have made Scenes into a work of genius, but it might have rendered it more tolerable.

The oodles of cash that went into Mother & Child: A Christmas Celebration of Motherhood, on I.R.S. Records, clearly went for naught; this is as hard to plow through as anything in your local Blockbuster Christmas bin. The names here are fairly big--Martina McBride ("Oh Holy Night"), Suzy Bogguss ("Through Your Eyes"), Olivia Newton-John ("Christmas Never Felt Like This"), Belinda Carlisle ("Christmas Lullaby")--but the mood is unrelievedly gushy and putrid. Housewife pop at its worst, Mother & Child is like an advertisement for the Lifetime cable network that goes on for an hour.

Kristin Hersh's The Holy Single doesn't overstay its welcome; the four cuts here are an improvement over her much-ballyhooed solo album of a couple of years ago. "Jesus Christ," with its juxtaposition of simple melody and ominous timpani, is a fragmentary charmer, and the neo-folkie renditions of "Amazing Grace" and "Can the Circle Be Unbroken" sparkle with new life. David Bowie and Bing Crosby worked the same magic with "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" back in the Seventies, but the tiny Oglio imprint has come up with an interesting way of remarketing it for the Nineties: on a CD rom. If you've got a Macintosh, you can listen to the tune while watching the television clip from whence it sprang. Included is the hoary banter that originally preceded it; at one point, Bowie says that he and his family like listening to "old" artists such as John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. Oh, that timeless show-biz humor.

James Brown's Funky Christmas, on Polydor, actually is timeless. James Brown cut these tracks in 1966 and 1970 for long-players that have been deleted for years, but they sound fresher and more vibrant than practically any other Christmas fare out there right now. The CD intermingles "Please Come Home for Christmas"-era cuts with Brownian positivity ("Go Power at Christmas Time," "Let's Unite the Whole World at Christmas," "Christmas in Heaven") and that special brand of kookiness at which the Hardest Working Man in Show Business excels. The most memorable example of the last quality occurs in "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," during which the singer advises the title character, "Tell them James Brown sent you!" That way, Mr. Claus, no one will accuse you of trying to break into their house.

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