It's a Wonderfull CD Like or lump it, it's Christmas album show-and-tell, and our intrepid pop music critic must earn his wings. But it's his fantasy, and he's got something up his sleeve.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"This is not a topic for debate," Christine said firmly. "If you're finally going to be in New York the day I have my Christmas party, you are definitely going to be there."

I knew better than to argue. Once Christine has her mind set on something, she is as immovable as the Rock of Gibraltar. So when she said I was going to be at her annual Rock Critics Christmas Party, then, by God, I had a party to attend.

"Now, you know the rules," she said. "Come dressed as a genre of Christmas music, and bring up to three new CDs to represent that style. When it's your turn, you'll tell everyone about your discs, and, as Santa, I'll decide whether you get a sugar plum or a lump of coal. So, I'll see you at 8, right?"

Crosstown traffic being typically impossible, it was closer to 8: 30 when I rang the buzzer at her building.

"We're just getting started," she said, letting me in. "And that better be an actual costume you're wearing."

"Trust me," I said. "Would I dare risk the wrath of St. Nick?"

"That's St. Nicky to you," she said, leading me into the living room. Then, taking her position by the fireplace, she took a handbell off the mantle and rang it in classic Salvation Army style. "OK, do I have your attention?" she asked. "Then let's begin. I've put everyone's name on a piece of paper, and placed them in this Santa hat. Now, let's see who goes first."

She drew a name. "All right, Bill. You're up."

But as Bill took his place by the tree, I couldn't help but wonder what he was doing in a leprechaun outfit. Nor was I the only one. "Hey, Bill," teased Amy. "You sure you got the right holiday?"

"Sure and you're not going to mock the traditional dress of me people?" said Bill, in a bad brogue. "Faith and begorra, I'm representing the Celtic Christmas Tradition."

"Isn't that when Santa slam-dunks your presents down the chimney?" I joked.

"Only in Boston," he answered, dropping the accent. "But I'm talking Celtic music, not Celtics basketball.

"Like this album, 'A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas' (Celtic Heartbeat 82929). Now, I know that these selections aren't your usual let's-go-caroling tunes, and that not everyone associates jigs and reels with Christmas. But few things suggest the calm beauty of a snowy Christmas Eve as well as Clannad's 'A Dream in the Night,' or the warmth of a fireplace as well as Cormac Breatnach's 'Oiche Nollaig.'

"If you want something truly traditional, though, I'd suggest you go with 'Midwinter Night's Dream' (Blix Street 10033) by the Boys of the Lough. It's mostly pipes, tin whistle, fiddle and concertina, and has the homespun feel of a bunch of friends sitting around the kitchen and having a few tunes. If any CD is going to have you dancing a jig around your Christmas tree, this is it.

"But I'd stay away from this album," he said, holding up a copy of Peter Buffett's "Star of Wonder" (Hollywood 20732). "It's a nice enough idea, presenting a dozen well-known carols in the airy, atmospheric style of Enya. But where Enya seems angelic and ethereal, the best singer Kim Robertson can do is sound breathy. I'd give this album a big lump of coal."

"And I'll give you a nice green candy cane," said Christine. "Very good. OK, Amy, it's your turn."

Back to the '70s

Amy's outfit was almost as startling as Bill's, though not quite as green. It was classic '70s retro regalia -- platform shoes, elephant bell-bottoms and a garish rayon blouse. Topping it all off was a big, floppy hat and sunglasses the size of drink coasters.

"Like Bill, I'm here to represent people of my ethnicity," she said, taking her place by the tree. "That's right -- funky people. And if you want to get down with The Big Man this season, you could do a lot worse than 'Quad City All Star Christmas' (Atlantic/Big Beat 82970).

"OK, it's a bass record, so we're not talking an Andy Williams Christmas here. But it isn't all just shake-dat-booty, either. Some tunes actually have more than three notes in them, and you can more or less recognize the melody to 'White Xmas.'

"Besides, even if 'Da Jam' sounds about as Christmassy as 'Whoot, There It Is,' at least you can dance to it," she said. "That's more than can be said for '12 Soulful Nights of Christmas' (SoSoDef 67755). I mean, any album that has both Chaka Khan and Faith on it ought to make you want to get up and shake it. But I only got up to take it out of the CD player. A good album if you want to make sure your kid gets to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Parental Advisory sticker

"Which brings me to 'Christmas on Death Row' (Death Row 90108). Now, I'm sure I speak for most parents when I say that the one thing I most want for the holidays is a Christmas album with a Parental Advisory sticker on it. But once you get past the obligatory gangsta stuff, this isn't too bad. It's too long -- 16 tracks? Hello? -- but Nate Dogg's 'Be Thankful' and Danny Boy's 'This Christmas' are actually kinda nice. Just don't play Snoop Doggy Dogg's 'Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto' for junior."

"Well, thank you, Amy," said Christine. "For that you get a holiday Mallomar. Now, get down with your bad self, and make room for our next genre, which -- because some people didn't get back to me until the last minute -- is being represented by Evelyn and Dave."

It was hard to guess from Evelyn's attire what specific style she was trying to represent, since in her baggy jeans and Guided By Voices T-shirt she looked like pretty much any other New York rock critic. But Dave, in his Bermuda shorts and flannel shirt with a copy of Maximum Rock 'N' Roll stapled to the back, looked like a burlesque of alternarock chic.

Which, as it turned out, was the intent.

"As you can see, Evelyn is here to uphold the hegemony of rock critic cool," said Dave. "I'm here to represent the alternative."

"Yeah, the alternative to good taste," said Evelyn, pulling a CD from her duffel bag. "OK, we all know that rock and roll Christmas albums are, by definition, bogus. I mean, nobody ever buys these things expecting them to be any good; the best we ever get is one or two songs we can put on our annual compilation tape.

"So in that sense, 'Just Say Noel' (Geffen 24107) is a pretty good deal, because it's got at least three good tunes. Beck's 'The Little Drum Machine Boy' is incredible, an incisive admixture of deadpan wit and hip-hop methodology. I also love the way he works a Hanukkah rhyme into the track. Sonic Youth's 'Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope' is classic, a brilliant sendup of hollow, just-say-no morality. And I love the way Elastica evokes both traditional carols and Patti Smith on 'Gloria.'

"I don't have as much enthusiasm for the Rock for Choice benefit collection 'O Come All Ye Faithful' (Columbia 67367)," she continued. "I mean, Bush doing 'Good King Somethingorother'? I don't think so. Personally, I like Luscious Jackson's 'Queen of Bliss' or Shudder to Think rampaging through 'El Hanisim.' But since it's for a good cause, it's worth owning even if you don't ever play it."

"I don't play most of the records you recommend," said Dave, at which point Evelyn whacked him with a jewel box. "But I've got something we can all feel safe avoiding: 'Tiny Tim's Christmas Album' (Rounder 9054). Not to speak ill of the dead or anything, but jeez -- some of these tracks sound like rehearsals. I mean, couldn't they at least have taught him the chords to 'O Holy Night'?"

"And how, exactly, is Tiny Tim an alternative artist?" asked Evelyn.

"It's certainly an alternative to music," answered Dave.

Critic in a suit

"Thank you, and a lump of coal for you both," said Christine, ushering them off. "J.D., why don't you go next? And please explain how that suit of yours counts as a costume."

"Actually, I'm dressed as a suit, because my genre is Corporate Christmas music," I said, assuming a spot by the tree. "As anyone in the recording industry will tell you, Christmas isn't about carols and mistletoe -- it's about shifting product. And considering that Kenny G's 'Miracles: The Holiday Album' has moved some 7 million units over the past two Christmases, that can be a quite a motivation.

"So I'd imagine the folks up in the executive suites at Sony had visions of holiday bonuses dancing in their heads when Michael Bolton delivered 'This Is the Time: The Christmas Album' (Columbia 67621). After all, Bolton appeals to much of the same audience as Kenny G, right? But where Kenny G comes off all soft and fuzzy -- a perfect fit for Christmas -- Bolton's he-man sensitivity is a little too over-the-top for Christmas carols. What people want is a singer as homey as Bing Crosby, not the vocal equivalent of Ah-nuld coming through the speakers.

"Another album that must've seemed a sure winner in the marketing meetings is Jimmy Buffett's 'Christmas Island' (Margaritaville 14892). Think about it. Most Americans spend Christmas in the South, where the time you see snow is if your TV is acting up. But Buffett can't decide whether to go for tropical camp (as with 'Mele Kalikimaka') or frat boy exuberance (as with 'Run Rudolf Run'), so the album ends up a total hash.

"Frankly, I'd expected something similar with the Vanessa Williams album, 'Star Bright' (Mercury 314 532 827). Not that she'd go tropical on us, but that the music would be all over the map. What Williams delivers, though, is more like an old-fashioned variety show -- a wide range of styles, from jazz to gospel to pop, but with a consistency of tone. If any of this year's superstar albums deserves to be a hit, it's this one."

"Well, a chocolate Santa for you!" said Christine. "And on to our last critic. Ann?"

"Perhaps I should start by explaining the outfit," said Ann, who at first glance appeared decked out in a very eccentric Girl Scout uniform. "I wanted to represent the larger, global experience of Christmas. So I've got a green dress, to symbolize the Earth itself, and this sash with buttons and pins, to represent the diversity of its people."

"That's a relief," said Bill. "For a minute there, I thought you were going to try and sell us cookies."

"No, no," laughed Ann. "But you know, Christmas isn't the only religious holiday celebrated in December. Hanukkah, in fact, was being celebrated long before Christmas. So why not an album of Hanukkah music?

"That's the idea behind 'Festival of Light' (Six Degrees 162 531 169). It's an amazing piece of work, too. Naturally, it draws from quite a range of traditions, but the performances themselves are just as varied -- there's everything from the arty rock of Jane Siberry to the avant jazz of Don Byron to the contemporary folk of Peter Himmelman and David Broza. And, as the saying goes, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

"There's an even broader range of material on 'Kwanzaa Party!' (Rounder 2153), but that's almost be expected. Because the album is billed as 'a celebration of black cultures in song,' it includes everything from calypso to soukous to blues. A cynic might think this is just Rounder's way of exploiting its existing catalog of African and African-derived music, but the song selection is much smarter than that -- the album really gives a sense of how these different styles are connected. Plus, it's fun, which makes Kwanzaa feel all the more like a true celebration.

Kwanzaa music

"The music on 'Kwanzaa Party!' isn't very self-conscious, either. That ought to make it a more genuine experience than the clearly Western-oriented 'World Christmas' (Metro Blue 36928). But even though my mind looks at Papa Wemba singing 'Angels We Have Heard on High' or Yomo Toro and Ruben Blades doing 'Cascabel (Jingle Bells)' and sees commercial calculation, what my ear hears is, well, pretty marvelous. And though I'm not enough of a worldbeat fan to get excited at the mere thought of performances by Angelique Kidjo, Gilberto Gil and Cesaria Evora, the music is so unassumingly beautiful that expertise is beside the point."

"What a lovely description," said Christine. "You get a nice piece of Belgian chocolate. And now that we're done talking, why don't we play some of these CDs?"

Suddenly, the room fell silent. A couple of critics slid discreetly away from the stereo, until Christine laughed. "Just kidding!" she said. "You know there's only one Christmas record for me."

With that, she picked up the remote and hit play. Soon the room was awash with "Jingle Bells," as several dogs barked, "Arf-arf-arf! Arf-arf-arf! Arf-arf-woof-woof-arf!"

"Gosh, I love this season," said Christine, smiling beatifically.

The characters and situation described above are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual critics or their opinions is entirely coincidental.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from the Christmas albums reviewed here, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6150. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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