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Time of the Season

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

Martina McBride's White Christmas (RCA) is a similar journey to a place most people have been many, many times before, McBride included; the disc duplicates one she put out last year, with the exception of new artwork and a couple of extra tunes ("Do You Hear What I Hear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful.") Worse, it lacks a real country feel: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has a C&W backbeat, but otherwise generic strings and background vocals predominate. Now that she's seen the big city, there's no keeping her down on the farm. New hat Paul Brandt scores higher on A Paul Brandt Christmas: Shall I Play for You?(Reprise), mainly because of his expanded repertoire. In addition to predictable choices like "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night," he and guest star Terri Clark do justice to the Buck Owens/Don Rich chestnut "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy"; a duet with Kim Richey on "Run Run Rudolph" and a jaunty revival of Dave Dudley's obscure "Six Tons of Toys" also make hay. As an added bonus, there's actually some fiddling and pedal-steel playing on the disc. Yee-haw.

Adoptive Coloradan Michael Martin Murphey takes a far gentler tack on Acoustic Christmas Carols: Cowboy Christmas II (Valley Entertainment); with the help of folks such as John McEuen, he treats "The First Noel" and "We Three Kings" so gingerly that they barely register a pulse. Things get a bit livelier on "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and "Joy to the World," sparked by McEuen's peppy banjo, but on the whole, Cowboy Christmas IIwon't stir any but the lightest sleeper from a long winter's nap. Acousticians looking for more vivacious stuff should turn to the latest from Riders in the Sky, Christmas the Cowboy Way (Rounder). The foursome regularly straddles the fence between Western swing homage and novelty, and when the players move too far in the goofy direction, as on "Side Meat's Christmas Stew," their charms wear very thin very quickly. But "The Christmas Yodel" strikes the right balance, and "The Friendly Beasts," a highlight of the Louvin Brothers' fine late-Fifties Christmas LP, shows that they're capable of playing it straight when the mood strikes them.

Finally, consider country musician/comic Bill Engvall's inexcusable Here's Your Christmas Album (Warner Bros.), a cache full of failed thigh-slappers typified by "I'm Getting Sued by Santa Claus," "Rudolph Got a DUI" and not one but two versions of "Fruitcake Makes Me Puke," which will likely do to you what the aforementioned dessert does to him. Even people who regarded Junior Samples as a comedic genius will probably listen to this only once. I wish I hadn't.

VARIETY PACKS

There are certain collections whose titles alone are capable of striking fear into the hearts of most mortals -- and Touched by an Angel: The Christmas Album (on Epic/550) is certainly one of them. And yet I must confess to liking "If I Can Dream," by series co-star Della Reese, who infuses the composition with a soul/gospel flair that serves as a reminder that she was a nightclub chanteuse long before she was an actress. But aside from Crystal Lewis's spirited "I Still Believe," co-starring neo-gospel figure Kirk Franklin, and the Keb' Mo' blues workout "Jingle Bell Jamboree," the CD is an assortment of mediocrity capped by "An Irish Blessing" as spoken by Roma Downey, who was a nightclub chanteuse only in my nightmares. Before it was halfway done, I felt as if I'd been touched by an aneurysm. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas sports a mighty scary moniker as well, but its main transgression is predictability: Songs include Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Judy Garland's oft-compiled "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," plus well-traveled tunes by Perry Como, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and (eesh) Anita Bryant. The best things about it are its beginning (Mahalia Jackson's "Silent Night, Holy Night") and its conclusion ("The Hallelujah Chorus" by the Roches). If only the middle could stack up.

More horror: A Rosie Christmas (Columbia), a charity disc on which talk-show hostess Rosie O'Donnell inserts herself into songs alongside Celine Dion ("The Magic of Christmas Day [God Bless Us Everyone]"), Trisha Yearwood ("Santa on the Rooftop"), Elton John ("White Christmas") and more. O'Donnell isn't an awful singer, and it is kinda funny to hear her voice given the robot-distortion treatment from Cher's "Believe" on the ultra-silly techno reworking of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," featuring the former Mrs. Bono herself. But what's mildly amusing on her program promptly becomes irritating and intrusive on disc; the only reason Lauryn Hill's "Little Drummer Boy" works is because O'Donnell is so deeply buried in the mix, with the unhappy exception of her noxious spoken intro. And that's not to mention her turns with Elmo from Sesame Street ("Do You Hear What I Hear") and Angelica Pickles from Rugrats ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"). I'd describe that last pair in more detail, but my co-workers don't really need to see a grown reviewer cry. Again.

Fortunately, two R&B workouts managed to turn my tears to joy. My Christmas Album (MCA) kicks off with Rahsaan Patterson's smokin' "Christmas at My House," which recalls prime Stevie Wonder, before segueing into first-rate groovers such as K-Ci & JoJo's "Merry Christmas Baby," Avant's smoldering "Christmas Came to the Ghetto," Mary J. Blige's "Someday at Christmas" and the fiery Youth Edition amalgam "Go Tell It on the Mountain w/Jesus Is Lord." Furthermore, the lesser selections slide by rather than stopping you cold. And while Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas (Rhino) does more looking back than looking forward, its eyes land on plenty of prizes: the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," Isaac Hayes's ludicrously lugubrious "The Mistletoe and Me," the Emotions' cheerfully dated "Black Christmas," James Brown's "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay" and, especially, Rufus Thomas's overtly horny "I'll Be Your Santa Baby," highlighted by the inspirational couplet "What I got for you, mama/It ain't just a toy." To paraphrase the last line from The World Is Not Enough, it'll make you wish that Christmas came more than once a year.

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