The Latest Noels

'Tis the season to rate another avalanche of holiday discs.

This year, in particular, many of us can use the sort of reassurance that traditional music offers, which is why seasonal CDs will likely appeal to more people than ever. But all Christmas platters aren't created equal. Several of the newest albums deserve a spot under practically anyone's tree, whereas plenty of others would be more valuable under the rear tires of cars unable to get traction on snowy days.

In the following look at 33 recent Christmas packages, you shouldn't have difficulty telling the good from the bad -- or the ugly. We listened to them all, so you don't have to.

THE STARS COME OUT

Making Christmas CDs is a way for celebrity performers to keep their bank accounts brimming with good cheer well after the holidays are over -- and no one understands that better than Barbra Streisand, whose 1967 long-player, A Christmas Album, is among the genre's most popular entries. Unfortunately, Christmas Memories (Columbia) isn't bound for landmark status, at least from a quality standpoint. Babs is in fine voice, but the production, by a bevy of heavyweights including genius-of-shlock David Foster, is so soupy that listeners should keep a ladle close by. By the middle of the lachrymose "One God," I was praying to the title deity to have mercy on me. It didn't work, though -- maybe because Streisand was singing about herself.

Jane Olivor's Songs of the Season (Varèse Sarabande) finds the veteran cabaret singer giving Barbra a run for her money. The album delivers full-on melodrama via such bravura turns as an entirely unaccompanied "Little Drummer Boy" and a medley dubbed "Christmas Potpourri" whose theatrical conclusion is all the more impressive for its spareness. Sometimes instrumentation gets in the way -- although you couldn't prove that by Mannheim Steamroller, whose sodden, synthesized brand of holiday hokum has been racking up big numbers for what seems like a lifetime. The combo's latest, Christmas Extraordinaire (American Gramaphone), goes where previous Steamroller discs have gone many times before, opening with a blaring "Hallelujah" and following up with dopey run-throughs of "Winter Wonderland," "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and so on. "O Tannenbaum," featuring the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club and a lead vocal by Johnny Mathis, breaks up the monotony somewhat, but "Faeries," from The Nutcracker, sports an arrangement that recalls the pre-programmed keys on Grandma's Wurlitzer. Enya has better luck with machines: "Oíche Chiún (Silent Night)," featured on her new maxi-single of "Only Time" (Reprise), floats along on synthesized washes that are blessedly understated.

Predictably, Our Favorite Things (Sony Classical), featuring Tony Bennett, Charlotte Church, Plácido Domingo and Vanessa Williams, is more of a mixed bag. Bennett brings an understated, swingy charm to "The Christmas Song," and Church places prettiness before power on "Silent Night." But Domingo insists on rattling the rafters even on the Bennett duet "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- not everything's an aria, pal -- and Williams's "Through the Eyes of a Child" is thoroughly pedestrian. Likewise, B.B. King walks through A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA), his first full-length foray into the seasonal realm. Although King's rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" is jaunty and spirited, "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" are well played but ordinary. Worse, he fails to bring the requisite dirtiness to "Back Door Santa"; when Clarence Carter sang it, he took a lot more delight in noting that Santa "doesn't come but once a year."

That wouldn't be nearly often enough for tarty Toni Braxton. Most seductresses lower the temperature when they're singing about the holidays, but on Snowflakes (Arista), the least-dressed woman at most award shows keeps the heat on. "Christmas in Jamaica" is a real pant-a-thon, with lines like "'Cause we both grown/And we can do whatever, see?" and suggestive grunts from guest star Shaggy, while "Snowflakes of Love" -- there's a messy image -- finds Braxton cooing about "winter bliss when we kiss." Most amusing of all is "Santa Please...," a flat-out seducer featuring the couplet "Santa, please, please help me/'Cause I'm all alone and I need, I neeeeed." I guess that's why St. Nick's cheeks are so rosy.

Considerably more wholesome is 8 Days of Christmas (Columbia), by Destiny's Child: On the wacky title cut, Beyoncé Knowles gets "quality T-I-M-E" from her lover, not sweaty monkey love. The album as a whole seems like a classic cash-in, loaded as it is with predictable versions of the usual carols -- "White Christmas," "Little Drummer Boy," etc. But it does establish the business acumen of Ms. Knowles, who goes so far as to claim songwriting credit on "Silent Night." Whoever wrote it is dead, so he won't mind, right?

OFF THE TRACK

A good Christmas movie is rarer than a Jackson family member who couldn't benefit from psychiatric treatment -- but on occasion, a lame flick can spawn a good seasonal disc. Take the soundtrack to Jingle All the Way, which is roughly a thousand times more enjoyable than the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sinbad abomination of the same name.

If the inverse is true, Prancer Returns, a USA Network TV movie, must be better than Miracle on 34th Street. After all, its soundtrack, on MCA, is a combination of predictability (Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"), filler (two forgettable excerpts from The Nutcracker) and severe punishment (Alecia Elliott's "If You Believe," which makes my teeth ache just thinking about it). Now that you're back, Prancer, please go away. Stranger still was the decision by A&M Records to reissue the soundtrack to 1988's Scrooged, a not-very-good Bill Murray project. The album has a couple decent non-holiday songs, like the Annie Lennox/Al Green-voiced "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," plus forgettable Christmas forays by Natalie Cole ("The Christmas Song") and Robbie Robertson ("Christmas Must Be Tonight"). But it's most notable for the presence of "We Three Kings of Orient Are," which brings together deceased trumpet divinity Miles Davis and Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer -- a meeting that didn't go down in jazz history for more reasons than can fit onto any top-ten list.

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