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JUST SAY NOEL

THIS YEAR'S CHRISTMAS DISCS PROVIDE SOME ROUGH SLEDDING.

CHRISTMAS STARS, COUNTRY STYLE C&W marquee idols have made loads of dough off the season, too: Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson are still reaping profits from previous harvests of Christmas corn. Hoping to score just as big are the Oak Ridge Boys, with Country Christmas Eve (Capitol Nashville). Instead of hayseed authenticity, the Boys offer up "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Mrs. Santa Claus," sprightly airs that they weigh down with their wet-blanket harmonies, and excursions to the Land of Dreck like the inexcusably sentimental "Thank God for Kids." Lord, I'd really be grateful if these guys came down with a decade-long case of laryngitis.

New-breed strummer John Berry takes a straightforwardly religious angle on O Holy Night (Capitol Nashville). The focus is on hymns like "Joy to the World," rendered so bombastically that they could be mistaken for something by Englebert Humperdinck. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is better, but the light touch Berry exhibits on it is the exception to the rule. The perfect gift for any clergyman with lip cancer from chewing tobacco. Considerably preferable is An Americana Christmas (Winter Harvest), an instrumental showcase featuring Norman & Nancy Blake and Vassar Clements. Given players this fiery, it's something of a disappointment that tunes like "Angels From the Realms of Glory" are handled in such a sedate manner. But Clements and the Blakes manage to put a charge into "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Blissful Meadows" and, especially, "Star of Bethlehem," which is transformed into a bouncy ho-ho-hoedown.

Finally, there's "Merry Christmas From the Family," a CD single from singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen (Sugar Hill). Recorded live at the John T. Floores Country Store in Helotes, Texas, the song (about a drunken clan that barely manages to survive the big day) is an ebullient skewering of holiday customs that fans of John Prine, and of good country music, will appreciate. Hallelujah--and pass the cornbread.

HORNING IN ON THE HOLIDAYS The newest Christmas jazz platters aren't all that jazzy. Forget improvisation: Most of the playing on the following can be classified as tasteful noodling. The discs won't distract your dinner guests, but neither will they prevent them from nodding off into their plum pudding.

The Blue Note compilation Jazz to the World is a prime example. Rather than choosing artists capable of shaking up chestnuts, the CD's producers employed middle-of-the-road shlockmeisters: Herb Alpert and Jeff Lorber ("Winter Wonderland"), Fourplay ("It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"), Michael Franks ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"), Anita Baker ("The Christmas Song") and the like. More disappointing, intriguing performers such as John McLaughlin ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel") and the triumvirate of Stanley Clarke, George Duke and Everette Harp ("O Tannenbaum") also shoot for the lowest common denominator. If it weren't for relatively strong efforts by Cassandra Wilson ("The Little Drummer Boy"), Herbie Hancock and Eliane Elias ("I'll Be Home for Christmas") and Dr. John ("Il est Ne, Le Divin Enfant," which is pretty much the only jaunty tune here), this would be a complete washout.

However, Jazz to the World is a landmark of twentieth-century popular culture compared to the Discovery release It's a Wonderful Life: Sax at the Movies for Christmas, credited to the cleverly named Jazz at the Movies Band. As if you couldn't guess from that moniker, the act is made up of studio pros (supplemented by trumpeter Bobby Shew and saxophonists Gary Foster and Nino Tempo) who play the usual ditties ("White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Song") with all the vim and vigor of Strom Thurmond after a ten-mile forced march.

I Want a Smile for Christmas, by Freddie Cole (brother of Nat "King" Cole), isn't what you'd call a groundbreaker, either, but at least it's fairly pleasant. The album, on the Fantasy imprint, supplements swinging versions of predictable tunes ("Blue Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," etc.) with oddball offerings like (I swear I'm not making this up) "Jingles, the Christmas Cat." The resemblance to the work of Nat is purely intentional, and those of you who already own something from the elder Cole certainly don't need this. Still, Smile should occasionally put one on you.

THE GOOD OLD DAYS A lot of people between the ages of 25 and 50 get disturbingly nostalgic at the sound of bad Christmas music--particularly the melodramatic, chest-thumping stuff in which crooners, belters and chanteuses from the Fifties and early Sixties specialized. Recognizing this, the folks at Epic Records made a contractual agreement with the cable-TV service Nick at Nite to satisfy these impulses. The two discs below accomplish this goal, although they could have been considerably more entertaining had someone put a bit more effort into them.

Christmas in TV Land: Classic Favorites From Holiday Specials serves up a generous helping of oddities (like Johnny Cash's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day") and you-had-to-be-there dreck ("Happy Holidays/The Holiday Season" by Andy Williams). But although these numbers allegedly were part of old broadcasts, none of them sound like they came from these sources. Worse, the liner notes provide next to no information about their origins. In place of background is page after page of an alleged interview with fictional television producer Manny Rich. Imagine the hilarity.

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