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In the days before Christmas, seasonal CDs come into play

'Twas a month before Christmas, and all through the house

Echoed vile imprecations as the critic did grouse.

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"Why, just look at these Christmas CDs piling higher --

"I wish I could just throw them all in the fire!

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"It isn't as if I dislike Christmas cheer,

"But when playing these albums, that's not quite what I hear.

"Instead, there's such bad taste, calculation and greed

"That it makes my review seem a seasonal screed.

"People think I'm a grouse or a grinch, and what's worse

"Now I'm so wound up that I'm writing bad verse!" So he took the CDs, and he grouped them by style

'Til he had several clumps instead of one great big pile

Then listened and listened, for he knew he would hear it

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@4 If any of these discs had true Christmas spirit.

Superstar Christmas albums

Though it's hardly unusual to find big-name artists releasing Christmas albums, the pop action this year is exceptionally heavy.

Not only are there new Christmas albums from Mariah Carey, Kenny G, Natalie Cole and Neil Diamond, but they're being greeted with the same sort of enthusiasm non-seasonal albums by these artists would inspire. MTV gave Carey's first video, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," a high-profile send-off (including a Carey Christmas special), while Kenny G's Christmas album recently nudged the Eagles and Boyz II Men aside to top the Billboard album charts.

But the truly astonishing thing about this burst of superstar activity is that some of the albums are really quite good. Perhaps the most surprising of the bunch is Kenny G's "Miracles: The Holiday Album" (Arista 18767), which channels the saxophonist's straightforward melodic approach into a series of tastefully soulful instrumentals that update the standards without ever getting too jazzy. Though, to be honest, it does seem a bit odd that he ends the album with a rendition of "Brahms' Lullaby." Then there's Mariah Carey's "Merry Christmas" (Columbia 64222), which may look like just another attempt to cash in on Christmas cheer, but is actually the work of someone who genuinely loves this music. Granted, Carey's gospel inclinations come through a lot stronger than might be expected on traditional tunes like "Silent Night," but that hardly diminishes the effect of her performance; in fact, her soulful ornamentation adds oomph to the reading of "O Holy Night." But the album's real strength is the conviction she brings to otherwise corny fare like "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," while the way she augments "Joy to the World" with a bit of the Three Dog Night hit is pure genius.

Too bad Donna Summer's "Christmas Spirit" (Mercury 314 522694) doesn't have that kind of flair; though earnest and well-intentioned, it manages to make Summer's diligent performances seem deadly dull. But deciding just how much style to bring to a Christmas album isn't easy. Natalie Cole is all over the map musically with "Holly & Ivy" (Elektra 61704), an album that can't seem to decide whether it wants to play it straight or jazz things up. As a result, it's hard to follow the thread as the album moves from the big band pizazz of "Jingle Bells" to the cutesy "Caroling, Caroling," to the bluesy "Merry Christmas Baby."

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Even Neil Diamond seems to have learned the value of consistency, as "The Christmas Album, Volume II" (Columbia 66465) largely avoids the stylistic quirks that hobbled its predecessor. Apart from a reggae version of "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (!), the arrangements here are big and lush, delivering the sort of orchestral opulence associated with Christmas albums of the '50s and '60s.

Then again, if that's the sound you want, why not go to the source? Many of Frank Sinatra's best Christmas performances from the '60s have been collected in "The Sinatra Christmas Album" (Reprise 45743), including a version of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" sung with Bing Crosby, and a 1968 rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" done with Tina, Nancy and Frank Sinatra Jr.

But if what you want is an album that looks as good as it sounds, the only possible choice is the collector's edition of Elvis Presley's "If Every Day Was Like Christmas" (RCA 66506), which packs 24 Christmas classics into a sleeve that folds open to reveal a pop-up picture of Graceland at Christmas.

Traditional

For some listeners, though, Christmas means choirs, organs and maybe an occasional orchestral arrangement. Something, in other words, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's "This Is Christmas" (Bonneville Classics 9402). A brand-new recording, it presents the venerable choir precisely as we've come to expect them -- big sound, semi-classical settings, perfect diction -- but with a selection that brings a few surprises, including an arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that serves as a brief tour through six centuries of music history.

On the opposite end of the choral spectrum is "A Waverly Consort Christmas: Christmas from East Anglia to Appalachia" (Virgin Veritas 55193). An example of "old-timey" music, this album blends the medieval with Early American so deftly you'd think they really did go caroling with banjos in Merry Old England.

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Providing a balance between the two is "Christmas with Choral Arts"(BCAS 110988) by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, a beautifully low-key recording that mixes traditional carols and hymns with a well-chosen selection of classical Christmas pieces.

Brass choirs are always a big favorite around Christmas time, but the Canadian Brass could easily put an end to that. "Noel" (RCA62683) is the quintet's newest and most irritating seasonal offering, a bloated, cutesy, over-arranged collection that could turn even the most faithful Cratchit into a sneering Scrooge.

Much better is "Pops Christmas Party" (RCA 61685), with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. In addition to a wide array of tastefully presented favorites, it boasts perhaps the best rendition of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" on album. It's also a remarkably lively album, which is more than can be said for the determinedly bland "A Family Christmas" (GTS 4575) by John Tesh and the Christmas Orchestra. Unless you plan to spend Christmas in an elevator, give this a wide berth.

But if all you want is tuneful simplicity, it's hard to beat "Noel: A Traditional Christmas Songbook" (November 111). Between the affectless charm of Deirdre Jenkins' voice and the understated power of Paul Jason Smith's piano accompaniment, it's the next best thing to singing the carols yourself.

Country

It used to be that you could always count on country singers to crank out a couple of dozen cornball Christmas albums every season, but as the new Nashville begins to change the way business is done in Music City, what we're seeing is less quantity and more quality in the seasonal offerings.

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Take Trisha Yearwood's "The Sweetest Gift" (MCA 10912) as an example. Although the album is clearly Christmas-oriented, it makes a point of maintaining Yearwood's musical identity throughout. So, in addition to seasonal chestnuts like "Away in a Manger" and "The Christmas Song," we also get spirited Western swing like "Reindeer Boogie" and the heart-tugging balladry of "It Wasn't His Child."

Sammy Kershaw tends more toward traditional tunes on "Christmas Time's A Comin' " (Mercury 314 522 638), but still makes it all sound like a Sammy Kershaw album, from the honky-tonk take on "Winter Wonderland" to the Cajun-spiced title tune. You might expect similar irreverence from "Christmas Gonzo Style" (Ryko 10312), but despite the title, Jerry Jeff Walker turns in some surprisingly tender performances here, though his jovial Western-swing reading of "Jingle Bells" is easily the album's highlight.

Perhaps the surprise of the season for country and folk fans, though, is "Christmas at Mountain Stage" (Blue Plate 303). Culled from the fascinatingly eclectic public radio show "Mountain Stage," this collection includes everything from the progressive country of Kathy Mattea's "Christ Child Lullaby" to the wry beauty of the Roches' witty, a cappella rendering of "Winter Wonderland."

New Age

Never mind that true New Agers prefer to celebrate the winter solstice; New Age is quickly becoming one of the season's most popular musical genres. It's low-key, tuneful and wonderfully atmospheric, adding to the holiday spirit without seeming to force itself on listeners.

Some of it is also strikingly beautiful. Liz Story's "The Gift" (Windham Hill 11151) may be the most enjoyable instrumental album of the season, offering rich, tuneful treatments of familiar carols in lithe, lyrical piano (with occasional double bass) arrangements. It's not often that an album without singing brings such a vocal quality to the music.

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Story isn't the only pianist with a new Christmas album in the stores, though. David Lanz brings a light, lean touch to "Christmas Eve" (Narada Lotus 61046), making it the sort of album that's perfect for a quiet evening in front of the fireplace. Butch Thompson, by contrast, opts for a rather more rollicking sound on "Yulestride" (Daring 3010), a collection of carols that at its most raucous harks back to the glory days of James P. Johnson.

Those looking for a slightly larger sound may prefer "Star of Wonder" (Narada Lotus 61043) by Tingstad and Rumbel, which offers older carols in instrumental settings that evoke the richness of a full orchestra without the sonic excess. (Rumbel's oboe playing is particularly affecting.) Or, if more of a chamber ensemble sound is in order, there's always the piano/cello/guitar sound of Luna Moon and "Spirit of the Holidays" (North Star 40066), an album that's almost too soft-focus for its own good.

Gregorian chant

Christmas being a rather well-known Christian holiday, it's no surprise that it would turn up as the subject of Gregorian chants. And after the platinum-plus sales of "Chant" by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, it was inevitable that we'd see them return with "Chant Noel" (Angel 55206). Not exactly an album of carols, its seasonal content lies mainly with the lyrics -- -- meaning that unless you speak Latin, these chants will sound like pretty much any other.

The Benedictines may not be the only monks on the market, but they remain the most listenable. "Chants of the Season" (RCA 68007), by the Choir of Mount Angel Abbey is also nicely sung, though the recording lacks the deep resonance that makes the Benedictines so memorable, but "Gregorian Chant, Christmas Chants" (Milan 35668) is more interesting for its programming than the performances themselves.

HEAR THE MUSIC

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To hear selections from these Christmas albums, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the code 6124 after you hear the greeting.


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