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.

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.

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.

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.

Equally enjoyable is Blues, Mistletoe, & Santa's Little Helper, on the Black Top label. This roadhouse-friendly collection (complete with cover art capable of making Gloria Steinem heave up her cranberries) draws on the work of well-known veterans such as Earl King ("Santa, Don't Let Me Down"), worthy scenesters like Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets ("Sam's Christmas Blues," "Lonesome Christmas") and off-kilter participants along the lines of Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff and the Well-Hung Ornaments ("Blue Christmas"). Some of what's here is merely workmanlike, but it's worth the price of admission to own "Sandy Claw Stole My Woman," in which singer Bobby Parker laments, "I thought Sandy was a good man/ But I guess you can't trust nobody."

Now there's a lesson you can use all year long.

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