Time of the Season

This year's holiday CDs alternately inspire joy, nausea and terror. Which would you prefer?

Perhaps it's the strong economy or a severe case of pre-millennial anxiety. But whatever the reason, the approaching end of 1999 brings with it a veritable blizzard of seasonal albums -- as many or more than any year this decade. Of course, quantity doesn't always equate to quality, so consider the following look at forty of these discs to be a road map through a yuletide minefield. Step off the path anytime you'd like -- but if you lose a limb or two in the process, don't blame me.

THE STAR SYSTEM

The formula goes like this: Become famous, then record a Christmas platter to generate a gusher of royalties that will, with luck, continue to flow year after year -- or cut a disc during a career downturn in order to get back into the public eye.

In the former category, the chief offender is Jewel, whose Atlantic Records effort Joy: A Holiday Collection is the laziest kind of disc -- one that rips off her fans even as it reveals her to be about as hip as Nancy Reagan. Jewel's defenders insist that she's (giggle) a noteworthy songwriter and (chortle) a gifted poetess, but instead of attempting to prove them right, she juxtaposes imagination-free interpretations of "O Holy Night," "Ave Maria" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" with a "Christmas version" of "Hands," included to gruesome effect on her previous album and two other songs from her pen ("Face of Love" and "Gloria") that are goopy paeans to God in general, not the holiday season in particular. How could she already need money this badly? Is there a financial advisor in the house? More honest in comparison is Universal's 98° This Christmas, by (you guessed it) 98°. These guys know that by the time their average booster celebrates her fourteenth birthday, they'll be left behind, so they've wisely cranked out a thoroughly predictable blend of Christmas covers and swoony contemporary smoochers designed to weaken the knees without bothering the brain in the slightest. There's nothing much to it, but, boy, do Drew, Nick, Jeff and Justin look dreamy on the cover!

Among the offerings by the revivalists, the most turgid is the Straight Way/EMI release Best of the Season, by Anne Murray, an artist who makes easy-listening music that's anything but easy to hear. Best contains 25 selections dominated by predictable selections ("Silver Bells," "White Christmas," "O Holy Night") that she warbles at tempos so slow, the CD seems to take until next spring to finally, blessedly end. The First Christmas Morning, by Dan Fogelberg(Morning Sky) is no prizewinner, either, but Fogelberg deserves credit for a bit more ambition. Rather than simply regurgitate the same old seasonal material, he stirs up a stew of centuries-old airs ("This Endris Night"), original guitar instrumentals ("Winterskøl") and Fogelberg compositions such as the title cut, which he boastfully refers to in his liner notes as "one of the most beautiful melodies I've written." It's also one of the soupiest, but people who still fondly recall the Seventies singer- songwriter era probably won't care. As for the rest of you, run for your lives -- and be cautious, too, about Michael Crawford's A Christmas Album (Atlantic). Still attempting to ride the ebbing wave of popularity that came his way after Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, Crawford trudges through the likes of "The Very Best Time of the Year/It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "A Journey to Bethlehem (A Christmas Medley)" and "Candlelight Carol," all of which are burdened with syrupy strings and cloying choruses. After listening to this album, take a long, hot shower; otherwise, this music may clog up your pores and lead to infections.

Considerably more pleasing is the Reprise Records presentation We Wish You a Merry Christmas, by Take 6, a male harmony combo fallen on hard times; the vocalists manage to imbue "Let it Snow," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and, especially, "Go Tell it on the Mountain" with a swinging R&B essence that will divert the younger set without sending Grandma into cardiac arrest. Too bad the recording's becoming modesty isn't duplicated by Natalie Cole on The Magic of Christmas (Elektra). Having headlined Holly and Ivy in 1994 and contributed to A Celebration of Christmas two years later, Cole is a veteran of this game, but her pairing here with the London Symphony Orchestra is hardly an ideal match. The arrangements of "O Tanenbaum," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and "Mary, Did You Know" are as overstuffed as Santa's belly, and while the jazzy "Carol of the Bells" and "Twelve Days of Christmas" actually earn Cole points by using overproduction to their advantage, they're outweighed by "The Christmas Song," in which she duets yet again with her dead father, Nat "King" Cole. The first time it was unique, Natalie; by now it's necrophilia.

THE DAYS OF YESTERYEAR

As marketers know, everything old can be made to seem new again -- as long as the timing is right. That's certainly the case with Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, a teeny-tiny EP by Jimi Hendrix on the Experience Hendrix/ MCA imprint. Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys cohorts, drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, cut the sloppy medley "Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne" during a 1969 jam session, and thirty years later, the flawed but vivid result cuts through most Christmas pap like a chainsaw. The disc is slender, indeed; aside from a short and long version of the medley, the only other tune on hand is "Three Little Bears," a 1968 curio recorded with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell that has nothing to do with the holidays at all. Still, Hendrix-philes and rock lovers in general probably won't mind a bit.

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