POP MUSIC STARS DELIVER THE HOLIDAH CHEER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So this is Christmas, and what have they done? Why, those wonderful folks in the record industry have sent forth yet another wave of glad tidings and seasonal cheer! And what a wonderful time it is, full of Santas and snowmen and mangers and mistletoe and ho ho ho ho oh, shut up.

Sorry.

Really, I am. I'm usually not this short-tempered. It's just that I've been listening to a lot of Christmas music lately -- 30 albums in four days -- and, well, it just takes its toll. Frankly, I'm about jingle-belled out.

Why? For one thing, nobody needs to add 30 new albums to his collection of Christmas music. (I sure didn't.) Even if you celebrate all 12 days of Christmas, it's still likely to be more than you want to hear, particularly since so many of these albums are just plain lousy.

It's bad enough that musicians feel obliged to jazz up the traditional tunes, as if those dissatisfied with a big-band "Jingle Bells" would somehow be mollified by a country "Bells," a zydeco rendition or even one in the style of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."

But what really adds a sour note to the season's caroling are those performers who actually have the gall to attempt new Christmas songs. That's not to say Christmas songs have to be old, of course; Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," for instance, is certainly a standard in the making.

But "I'm All Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree"? "Mule Size Yuletide"? "Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas"?

I think not.

Enough griping, though. Things aren't completely awful this Christmas. Granted, the year's biggest superstar seasonal album comes from Barry Manilow, but it could be worse. After all, Manilow's "Because It's Christmas" (Arista 8644) is quite a decent effort. Apart from a swing-style "Jingle Bells" (what is it about that song?) with Expose, Manilow plays things straight, offering familiar carols decked out in lush, old-school arrangements.

It's an approach remarkably similar to the Christmas albums of the '50s and '60s, and it succeeds for the same reason -- because it emphasizes the song above all. It's the same approach taken on "Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas" (Capitol 94452) 23 years ago, and works just as well. (Although with Fitzgerald back in print, you may not need Manilow). But don't assume that a vintage recording guarantees an old-fashioned warmth. Nat King Cole's newly reissued "Cole, Christmas & Kids" (Capitol 94685) is unseasonably cool, even if it does include the best-ever version of "The Christmas Song."

Those wanting a truly traditional set of carols have several new choices this year. "On Christmas Day" (Ryko 30129), by the American Boychoir, does an admirable job of emulating the austere, churchy sound of David Willcox's recordings with the Kings College Choir, while the Roger Wagner Chorale's classic "Joy to the World" (Capitol 94688) hardly seems to have aged in the 34 years since its initial release. And the pan flute-and-violin carols heard on Valeriu Apan and Miamon Miller's "Star Song" (Dargason 109) are surely the find of the season.

But beware the Roches' "We Three Kings" (MCA 10020), an album that is often unbearable in execution; honestly, "Frosty the Snowman" sung in honking Brooklyn accents? "Acoustic Christmas" (Columbia 46880), on the other hand, is surprisingly gimmickless, from Art Garfunkel's angelic "O Come All Ye Faithful" to the Hooters' "Silent Night."

Patti LaBelle's "This Christmas" (MCA 10113) is another disappointment -- good singing, sure, but lumbered by wooden arrangements and forgettable songs. One song, "I'm RTC Christmassing with You," can also be found on "A Starlight Christmas" (MCA 10066), an album that should be avoided at all costs; somewhere in the production credits, I was sure I'd find the words "Copyright 1990, Grinch Enterprises."

If it's a gospel soul Christmas you want, you're better off with Vanessa Bell Armstrong's "The Truth About Christmas" (Jive 1372). Armstrong may not have LaBelle's vocal ability, but she does have the Christmas spirit (and sneaks her family in besides). Similar in spirit, though broader in style, is "A Christmas Message" (Lection 847 310), a gospel-cum-R&B; collection that includes Edwin Hawkins, Vanessa Williams and Tony! Toni! Tone! Also worth resurrecting is "Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!" (Capitol 94703), a soulful oldie from Lou Rawls that turns "Little Drummer Boy" into believable blues.

For a truly funky Christmas, the connoisseur's choice would definitely be "Christmas Party with Eddie G." (Columbia 46919), a thoroughly loopy assemblage of rock, R&B;, comedy and madness. But any album that includes both Rufus Thomas' "I'll Be Your Santa Baby" and Augie Rios' "Donde Esta Santa Claus" is all right by me. Not so "Christmas Kisses" (Capitol 94701), a from-the-vaults anthology that is simply too wide-ranging -- from Bing Crosby to Faron Young to Leadbelly to Stan Freberg -- to be endured.

Christmas carols don't generally swing, but jazz musicians love them nonetheless -- must be the chord changes. Of course, jazz Christmas albums are almost always collections, like the diverse-yet-delightful "Yule Struttin' " (Blue Note 94857), which runs from Count Basie to Bobby Watson, or the uneven "A Jazzy Wonderland" (Columbia 46805), a neo-traditionalist collection highlighted by Harry Connick's "This Christmas." But Joe Williams' quietly delightful "That Holiday Feeling" (Verve 843956) is the jazz fan's only must-hear this year.

Interested in an ethnic Christmas? Too bad the industry isn't -- all this year serves is a choice between Latin hip-hop and Creole soul. "Christmas in the City" (WTG 46927) is the Latino offering, and features Louie Louie singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and a killer "Feliz Navidad" with Brenda K. Starr and George LaMond. But "A Creole Christmas" (Epic 47045) is a letdown, with only the Zion Harmonizers' scorching "Go Tell It on the Mountain" to recommend it.

While we're on the subject of disappointments, here's a question about rock and roll Christmas albums: Why do they almost always stink? Is it that rockers don't really care about Christmas? Or are they just saving themselves for the pop charts?

Whatever the reason, neither of the newest Christmas rockers are worth hearing twice. Evan Johns and the H-Bombs' "Please Mr. Santa Claus" (Ryko 30169) isn't even worth hearing once, seeing as it's mostly mediocre instrumentals with seasonal titles tacked on. But you may want to give "Just in Time for Christmas" (IRS 13052) a second spin, if only to hear Dread Zeppelin's "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," an absolutely insane rendition that somehow ends up in a parody of "Viva Las Vegas."

At this point, of course, most rock critics make their annual genuflection toward "A Christmas Gift for You" (Spector 4005), Phil Spector's legendary (and recently remastered) collection of rock carols. For my money, though, you're just as well off with "The Ventures' Christmas Album" (EMI 94994), a slapback-happy collection that decks its songs in rock and roll arrangements. You haven't lived till you've heard "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" played as if it were "Woolly Bully."

You'll never hear that sort of irreverence in a country Christmas album -- which may be why they're generally so boring. Dolly Parton's "Home for Christmas" (Columbia 46796), for instance, is beset with arrangements featuring more treacle than an English candy store.

Fortunately, Steve Wariner's "Christmas Memories" (MCA 10067)is a country Christmas album that does everything right -- great songs, classy settings and a genuinely heartfelt performance. Hearing it is almost like a trip home.

Fans of folk and old-timey music ought to enjoy Ed Sweeney's all-instrumental "It's Christmas Time in the City" (Kicking Mule 188), though personally I would have preferred less guitar and more banjo. It has also been a bumper year for hammered dulcimer, with two Christmas albums to choose from: Maggie Sansone's "Sounds of the Season II" (Maggie's Music 105) is the livelier of the two, although Joemy Wilson's "Gifts III" (Dargason 108) has more novel arrangements. (Ladies, isn't it time for some new titles, though? This isn't "Rocky," y'know.)

Finally, there's new age Christmas music -- excuse me, "winter solstice" songs -- for you "All I Want for Christmas Is Aural Wallpaper" types. Once again, it's hard to top the folks at Windham Hill, whose "Winter Solstice III" (Windham Hill 11098) does a great job of masking the familiar in the forgettable.

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