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The Latest Noels

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

A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night, a CMC International release by second-tier Southern rockers .38 Special, promises a higher weirdness quotient, but it doesn't deliver. The title cut cranks along fairly well, despite its lyrical lifelessness, but those triple-guitar duels I was hoping would enliven "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" never materialize, and "Hallelujah! It's Christmas" is introduced by jingle bells, for Christ's sake. Send these guys a couple cases of Jack Daniel's, stat. Heart Presents a Lovemongers' Christmas, a Beyond Music CD by Lovemongers, the moniker assumed by ex-Heart siblings Ann and Nancy Wilson, is even tamer -- nothing but pristine translations of "Ave Maria" and "Oh Holy Night!" Where the hell's the rock, sisters? Like, say, "Santa Is a Magic Man"? Or "Reindeer & Butterfly"? And how about "All I Want for Christmas Is a Barracuda"?

In other flashback news, Leon Russell's Hymns of Christmas (Navarre), a reissue of a disc first put out in 1995, is apt to underwhelm even the handful of fans who still remember who Leon Russell is. The ten obvious selections on hand (like "Away in a Manger") are entirely vocals-free; it's just Russell keeping company with a bank of keyboards. Wake me when it's over. A lot more effort went into former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald's In the Spirit: A Christmas Album (MCA), and some of the toil pays off: "Children Go Where I Send Thee," complete with funky horns and a gospel choir, can actually be described as righteous. But McDonald's voice has gotten so smoky that the disc should come with a gas mask, and there are far too many samey-sounding ballads. Typical is "Christmas Morning," which was co-written by the ubiquitous Kenny Loggins, who also rears his thickly maned head during Olivia Newton-John's The Christmas Collection, on Hip-O. (Shouldn't somebody lock that guy in the House on Pooh Corner once and for all?) Loggins contributes to not one, not two, but three songs lifted from a 1999 TNN Christmas special, adding salt to a wound opened by Olivia's treacly interpretations of "What Child Is This?" and other numbers performed with the backing of the London Symphony Orchestra. By the time the CD had run its course, I'd chewed my tongue to a bloody pulp -- but then again, I have never been mellow.

After sitting through something like that, a little humor is an absolute necessity, and that's precisely what Leon Redbone's Christmas Island (Blue Thumb) delivers -- emphasis on "little." This novelty performer has portrayed a slightly seedy 1920s-style vaudevillian for a quarter of a century, so it's no surprise that he remains in character throughout this album, originally released in 1989. "Toyland," "Christmas Island" and the rest are likable but adamantly low-key. When it comes to laughs, then, the only place to turn is to Holidayland (Restless), from They Might Be Giants, an EP that assembles a quintet of curios from co-conspirators John Linnell and John Flansburgh. The cuts range from an accordion-laden "O Tannenbaum" to "Santa Claus," a cover of a garage workout by the Sonics, and the disc as a whole clocks in at just over eleven minutes. Brevity is the soul of wit.

ROUND 'EM UP

The biggest pre-holiday marketing sensation is Now That's What I Call Christmas! (Universal), a compilation whose name recognition has helped push it into Billboard's top five -- an astonishing performance for a recording that's got just three new songs on it: Kathy Mattea's passable "Christmas Collage," Michael Bolton's egregious "Our Love Is Like a Holiday," and "All We Need Is Love (Christmas in the Yard)," by the Big Yard Family, featuring that new king of Christmas, Shaggy. But these two discs also contain most of the contemporary Christmas classics, from der Bingle's oft-heard chestnut to Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," and it's a decent way for someone who owns little or no Christmas music to catch up all at once. Season's Greetings: 20th Century Masters -- The Millennium Collection (Hip-O) employs the same all-inclusive approach, moving from Mr. Crosby (again!) to Dru Hill over the course of three CDs. The set encompasses more Motown than Christmas!, trotting out the Temptations, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, but it generally spreads around the styles in the hopes of appealing to the sort of consumers who might pick up a holiday album once a decade. If folks who fit this description buy both of these collections, they won't have to repeat the procedure until 2021.

For buyers who aren't wondering when this pop life is gonna fade out, MTV: TRL Christmas (Lava/Atlantic) is just the ticket -- a time-capsule-ready document of this moment in musical time. Willa Ford's "Santa Baby (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme)" isn't a tribute to Eartha Kitt, but rather the ultra-dumb wish list of a greedy hoochie mama set to a percolating beat; P.O.D.'s "Rock the Party (RTP Remix)" is watered-down punk funk as filtered through the oeuvre of Gary Numan; and LFO's "Red Letter Day" sounds like every other song on Radio Disney. Weezer's "The Christmas Song" holds up better, and "Snowball," by Jimmy Fallon, of Saturday Night Live fame, rocks harder than the Bif Naked song it follows. Is that a pig I see flying?

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