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JUST SAY NOEL

THIS YEAR'S CHRISTMAS DISCS PROVIDE SOME ROUGH SLEDDING.

The notes for Yules of Yore: TV Land Tunes From Christmas Past consist of something even worse--a second phony interview with Manny Rich. But the tracks on hand are stranger, and therefore more diverting. On Yules, you can find Jim Nabor's horrifying "Christmas Eve in My Hometown," Bobby Vinton's fey "Peppermint Stick Parade," the ear-wrecking "Mele Kalikimaka" by Arthur Godfrey and All the Little Godfreys and, most notably of all, "Merry Christmas, Neighbor" by Lorne Green, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon, in character as the Cartwrights (the family at the center of the TV Western Bonanza, for all of you who have a life). It's laughably gruesome--which is the point, isn't it?

ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE Most rock-and-rollers sneer at Christmas traditions, which may be why rock-based holiday songs are often so amusing. At their finest, they skirt the stereotypes that swamp many of their peers. But not always, as this year's pop compilations demonstrate.

To be fair, Winter, Fire & Snow: Songs for the Holiday Season (Atlantic) isn't anybody's idea of a rock showcase; although Robbie Robertson and Jane Siberry check in with colorless donations, the overall feel suggests that the Triple A radio listener is being targeted. B-Tribe's "Peace on Earth," Ottmar Liebert's "Shepherd's Nite Watch" and Tuck & Patti's "Christmas Wish" are yawners, leaving only "Passage to Promise," a relaxed groove from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Manu Dibango's brisk "Mouna Loba" to distinguish the collection.

Another Atlantic compilation, You Sleigh Me!, has a smudgy cover that hints at a more alternative approach, but that's not what's inside the jewel box. Tori Amos ("Little Drummer Boy"), Juliana Hatfield ("Make It Home") and Everything but the Girl ("25th December") indulge in boring mellowness, leaving Mary Karlzen's "Run Rudolph Run" and Daniel Johnston's "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" to pick up the slack. Fortunately, they put off a nice glow, as does Victoria Williams's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a staple of last year's Atlantic disc that makes a welcome return here.

So, too, do a lot of other faves, which have been repackaged for maximum profitability. Christmas of Hope (Columbia), a benefit CD, is ultra-scattershot and thematically suspect (since when was U2's "New Year's Day" a holiday anthem?), but it incorporates Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," Aretha Franklin's ecstatic "Joy to the World" and other nice work. Superstars of Christmas 1995 (Capitol) covers even more of the map: The producer must have been screening Reefer Madness when he decided to put songs by Richard Marx and Peggy Lee on the same album. But anyone who doesn't already have a copy of the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" and Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" can find them here.

Leave it to the Oglio company, then, to put together a Christmas compilation that hangs together. The Edge of Christmas isn't all that edgy, but it doesn't need to be with performances like "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight)," the Pretenders' "2000 Miles," Kate Bush's "December Will Be Magic Again," the Payolas' "Christmas Is Coming" and the expected contributions from Queen, Dave Edmunds and the Waitresses. These tracks have been around, but not as part of such a convenient package. Put a bow on it.

NEW-AGE DISCRIMINATION The person responsible for more bad Christmas music than any other single individual is Chip Davis, the man behind Mannheim Steamroller. The Steamroller is well-named: It flattens potentially good music until it's thin enough to slide under a door. Yet this sound is unaccountably popular. Two previous Steamroller Christmas collections are among the top-ten catalogue sellers, and this year's In the Aire (American Gramaphone) is the fourth most popular disc in stores today, trailing only the Beatles, Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey. Oh, and in case you're curious, it's no more tolerable than the rest of Davis's synth-Muzak creations. It may be good for demo-ing stereo components, but that's about it.

When it comes to tepid Christmas music, the folks at the Windham Hill label share Davis's guilt; the company has turned irritatingly flowery holiday mush into a success story that's led to far too many imitations. So it pains me to admit that two out of the three Windham Hill Christmas releases for 1995 have their moments.

The one that doesn't is A Winter's Solstice V, a compilation that features Will Ackerman, Alex de Grassi, Liz Story, George Winston and practically every other performer who's helped propagate the Windham Hill sound. A Sweet 'n Low factory has less saccharine than is on display here. But another collection, Celtic Christmas, hits for a considerably higher average. Not that this is all that authentic: "When the Snow Melts" by Phil Cunningham & Manus Lunny has more in common with fattening Vermont folk music than it does with the sounds of the Emerald Isle. But Celtic also sports efforts by genuinely interesting artists like Luka Bloom ("Ciara") and Loreena McKennitt ("Snow") and enough Irish touches to prevent it from sinking to anticipated depths.

As for By the Fireside, by the Turtle Island String Quartet, it's a neoclassical piece that's as light as Karen Carpenter after regurgitating Christmas dinner. The Quartet's way with originals ("Row, Brothers, Row"), passages from the pens of Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Bach, and pop compositions--"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"--will placate those who actually like the artists smacked around above while giving everyone else a welcome respite from the threat of sugar shock.

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