IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS Each year brings a handful of Christmas recordings that defy categorization, and simply because of this quality, they're often better than their more standardized competition. But not this time around. Only one of 1995's long shots hits home.

Anthony Arizaga's Christmas, on Thunderbird Records, is a miss. Arizaga is a flamenco guitarist, but he avoids indulging in the spiciest, most thrilling aspects of the style. He arranges "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "The Christmas Song" and eleven more compositions so delicately that you'd think he was on Windham Hill (see previous section). Snooze. By contrast, the original cast recording of A Christmas Carol is a relatively boisterous affair, thanks to the efforts of composer Alan Mencken (responsible for the music in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas). But while singer-actor Walter Charles and his supporting thespians give their all, the musical doesn't really stand up on its own. Part of the problem is the subject matter--the world hasn't been waiting for yet another new version of A Christmas Carol. But blame must also be laid at the doorstep of lyricist Lynn Aherns, who embalms the narrative elements rather than enlivening them.

Santa P. and the Elves are plenty lively, as is their CD, a self-titled affair available through Elf Records (P.O. Box 6934, Lawrenceville, New Jersey 08648). It's a novelty on which the Elves (including the aptly named Doug Gentile) disgrace "O Holy Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the originals "Personal Hells" and "O Holy Thrash" in cheerful fashion. Santa P. seems dopey and good-humored the first time through, but you'd have to be a glutton for punishment to spin it again.

The Blue Hawaiians hold up better; their Christmas on Big Island (Restless) is groovier than a date with Jack Lord. "We Four Kings (Little Drummer Boy)" is a swell surf variation on the oft-heard carols, while "Christmas Time Is Here" (written by Vince Guaraldi) and "Jingle Jangle" get the neo-lounge treatment. Hang ten, Rudolph.

OH, CHRIST At a time when contemporary Christian acts are assaulting the mainstream more energetically than ever before, it only makes sense that record companies would see the holidays as a golden opportunity to spread the word. After all, even secular artists sing about God during the Christmas season. Unfortunately, the efforts grouped under this umbrella are safe and samey: adult-contemporary twaddle that could cure insomnia faster than a bottle full of Sominex and a Kathy Lee Gifford album.

First Call's Beyond December (Warner Alliance) is a case in point. Plenty of guest vocalists, including Amy Grant and Ashley Cleveland, are on hand, but they don't add much to staid, somnambulant takes on "Child in the Manger" and "The Little Road to Bethlehem." Another Warner Alliance LP, Christmas at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Singers, at least manages a little majesty: On "O Come Emmanuel," the enthusiasm of the singers gives it a needed boost above commonplace church-music fodder. But rather than concentrating on gospel, the Tabernacle also engages in lukewarm pop and soul such as "First Day of the Son," marked by a faux-reggae rhythm and the kind of melody that belongs on an episode of Barney. No thanks.

A pair of compilations on the Sparrow imprint also go the AC route. Christmas Carols of the Young Messiah brings together some of the Christian genre's best-known voices, but Twila Paris, Point of Grace and Wes King are too busy acting reverent to have the slightest bit of fun. Bebe and Cece Winans slowly build up some momentum during a lengthy "The First Noel," and "For Unto You" holds your attention, but mainly because the man singing it (Carman) is completely nuts. A slightly better offering is A Christmas Collection, a two-disc set subtitled 30 Treasured Carols By Your Favorite Artists. Yep, there's an ark-load of sanctity here, exemplified by two selections from arguably the most frightening woman on the planet: Debby Boone. But Phil Keaggy presents a couple of decent songs ("And On That Day" and "We Three Kings"), Cece Winans's "Silver Bells" comes off well, and Geoff Moore gives us a "Jingle Bell Rock" that actually does. Will wonders never cease.

The biggest name in contemporary Christian music, Steven Curtis Chapman, also enters the Christmas sweepstakes, with Sparrow's The Music of Christmas. The production throughout is lavish, as befits a project with this high a profile, and Chapman gives his all to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/The Music of Christmas," "Going Home for Christmas" and the rest. No doubt fans of Michael Bolton and Bryan Adams will find the results enchanting. As for me, I'd rather eat five pounds of holly than carry Music within ten yards of my CD player again.

BLUE CHRISTMAS The blues are associated with depression--the type a lot of people suffer from around this time of the year. And the two best roundups of 1995 mention this color in their titles.

First up is Even Santa Gets the Blues, on Pointblank. The big names here acquit themselves well: witness B.B. King's "Christmas Celebration," Johnny Winter's "Please Come Home for Christmas," Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" and Isaac Hayes's eccentric "Only If You Were Here" and "So Glad You Were Born." But the most pleasant surprise is Hadda Brooks, who checks in with three first-rate tracks: "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "White Christmas" and "L.A. Christmas Blue." Christmas in California could get anyone feeling glum, but with Brooks at the piano, even this prospect doesn't seem so bad.

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