Christmas Seasoning

Hark! The Herald Angels are practically the only group without a holiday CD this year.

It's a wicked truth that the country acts most apt to make holiday records are the very ones you wish wouldn't. Shenandoah's Christmas (Capitol) is proof of that. These Oak Ridge Boys for the Nineties harmonize through the expected tracks ("White Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem") in the expected manner. Wake me when it's over. Tinsel Tunes: More Holiday Treats From Sugar Hill (Sugar Hill) is infinitely more satisfying because it's much closer to the country tradition. "Blue Christmas Lights," by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, kicks things off in suitably melodramatic style; it's followed by "In the Bleak Midwinter," by a mournful Mollie O'Brien, a charming "Christmas Is Coming to Town," by the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, an unexpectedly gruff swing through "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday," by Don Dixon and Marti Jones, and Robert Earl Keen's wonderful "Christmas From the Family." This is one long-player that will start the season with a twang.

If you come to Merry Soulful Christmas (MCA) expecting to hear talents like Otis Redding, you're bound to be disappointed. What you get instead is a couple of cuts from the aforementioned Patti LaBelle album, plus swill from the Jets ("I'm Home for Christmas," "This Christmas, This Year") and Stephanie Mills ("Merry Christmas," "Christmas With You," "Silent Night"). You know a disc's in trouble when the top offering is "All I Need for Christmas Is My Girl," an eleven-year-old New Edition single in which Bobby Brown and company sound for all the world like New Kids on the Block. Speaking of teen dreams, there are plenty of them on 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas, Part 1 (Columbia). X-Scape does its female Boyz II Men thing on "Christmas Without You," Alicia Keys finally gets around to purring "Little Drummer Girl" (her spoken intro lasts more than a minute), and K-Ci and JoJo of Jodeci transform "In Love at Christmas" into an under-the-Christmas-tree boinkfest. Oldsters such as Chaka Khan and Gerald Levert also are present and accounted for--and their contributions help make Soulful a decent dabble in ultra-commercial R&B. Perfect for those who think that the phrase "Santa's coming" has at least two meanings.

And now for the items that don't fit into any category--such as Blame It on Christmas!: Volume 1, a compilation of novelty numbers by folks with names like the Three Weissmen. (The trio presents "Jingle Bells of the Ages" and "Schlepp the Halls With Loaves of Hallah.") As with most recordings of this type, Blame is exceedingly erratic. But while "12 Arabian Nights" (by Abu-Habib el Sa'ad Jr.) and "Real Merry Gents Don't Rest" (from the Border Patrol) aren't exactly scintillating, Mr. Bob Francis's "That Swingin' Manger" and "We Three Bings," which sends up the late Bing Crosby, are good for a yuk. But probably not two. Equally unusual is Quad City All Star Christmas, in which various practitioners of the spare, thumping dance music associated with the Quad City production team give their sound a seasonal twist. Those of you who insist upon reverence probably won't dig the rapped delivery of lines such as "Christmas day/The birth of Christ/No doubt/That's what it's all about" (from "What You Want for Christmas" by the 69 Boyz, Quad City DJ's and K-nock) or "All I want for Christmas/Is a man who ain't got three or four babies" (from "Where Dey at YO!" by K-nock featuring 24K). But if you're hungry for holiday music that's not afraid to be either cheeky or silly, you could do a lot worse than these hip-hoppy excursions.

Michael Powers takes a lazier tack on Frosty the Bluesman (Miramar). Rather than digging into the blues tradition, Powers and his comrades stay on the surface, delivering instrumental versions of seasonal faves with only a slightly bluesy touch. (They also delve into reggae territory on the ill-advised "Deck de Halls Mon.") A snooze. Also somewhat lethargic is Festival of Light (Six Degrees/Island), a compilation of numbers associated with Hanukkah, a celebration generally ignored by major labels. Too bad the producers here are so cautious about tinkering with traditionals; even "Dybbuk Shers," by the normally audacious Klezmatics, is on the safe side--although it gets more interesting as it goes along. The other top-drawer items are "Bikkurim," by Masada String Trio, a John Zorn project; Jane Siberry's eccentric "Shir Amami"; Don Byron's jaunty "Oi Tata"; and the Covenant's "Kiddush Le-Shabbat," which sports something of a dance beat. Because if it's a festival, it should be festive.

Far worse is Christmas Morning (Miramar),an instrumental disc in which "The First Noel," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Green-sleeves" are performed slowly and quietly--oh, so slowly! Oh, so quietly!--by anonymous studio hacks. That's not entertainment--and neither is Christmas Eve and Other Stories, by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Lava/Atlantic). No, it's something much more frightening. The cover sticker--"File Under Symphonic Rock"--should stand as a warning to those with weak hearts that the Orchestra's versions of "O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" make the work of Meat Loaf seem understated by comparison. As bombastic as it is banal, Christmas Eve is so bad that's it's actually sort of amusing. But be careful: Play it too loud, and Grandma may have to spend Christmas in the emergency room.

Then again, that would make it a Christmas to remember, wouldn't it?

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