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A MERRY MIX From 'N Sync to Bing Crosby, there's a CD out there with sounds of the season to put you in the Christmas spirit.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Christmas carols, in a sense, are the original mood music.

Think about it. However much the lyrics might talk about babes born in mangers and angels heard on high, the music in those classic carols conjures up the whole majesty of Christmas. No sooner do we hear the refrain from "We Three Kings" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful" than we're flooded with thoughts of snowy nights, twinkling trees and happy times.

Even contemporary Christmas songs work that magic. Whether as sentimental as "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ... ") or as silly as "Frosty the Snowman," these tunes play to our sense of what Christmas could -- and should -- be. And so we listen to them year after year, using the music to get us into that holiday spirit.

But buying a Christmas album isn't quite as simple as looking for one that has all our favorite titles. Just as Christmas decorations appeal to every taste, from Kmart kitsch to Martha Stewart quaint, so too do Christmas albums evoke a range of moods. Choosing seasonal CDs, then, becomes a matter of matching your mood with that of the music.

Trouble is, some Christmas albums are more about the stars than the season. While 'N Sync's "Home for Christmas" (RCA 67726) makes some nods to the hallowed holiday sounds -- hushed strings, churchy chimes and a few familiar titles -- its emphasis is on mildly funky beats and soulful vocal harmony.

In other words, the CD's sound is pretty close to that of 'N Sync's pop material (which no doubt explains why the album is selling so well), and that's the problem. Although the album's showpiece, a jazzy, a cappella rendition of "O Holy Night," is a stunning bit of singing, there's absolutely nothing Christmasy about it. Basically, this disc is mostly for those fervid young fans who hope Santa will leave one of these lads under the tree for them.

Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting a funky Christmas. It just takes some effort to balance getting down with getting into the spirit. Jermaine Dupri's "12 Soulful Nights of Christmas" (So So Def 69674) misses that mark most of the time, in large part because his A-list singers (Brian McKnight, Faith Evans, K-Ci and JoJo) are saddled with grade-D material. Only Gerald Levert's pleading "Christmas Without My Girl" comes close to realizing the album's soulful intent.

Fortunately, "Christmas with Babyface" (Epic 69617) succeeds almost as completely as Dupri's "12 Nights" fails. It isn't just that Babyface sticks with the classics ("White Christmas," "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and such); he also takes care that the groove doesn't distort the melody. So even hackneyed fare like "The Little Drummer Boy" -- heard here in a reggae-style arrangement -- seems fresh and fun.

Shirley Caesar also recognizes the value of a good rhythm arrangement, and as such fills "Christmas with Shirley Caesar" (Word/Epic 69614) with thumping bass lines and fatback drums. But the beat really isn't her primary focus. A big believer in keeping the "Christ" in Christmas, she augments her singing with sermonizing, giving this album the feel of a Sunday revival meeting.

R&B-oriented; Christmas albums tend to be upbeat and energetic, and not every listener associates Christmas with that sort of exertion. That's why, on the other end of the pop spectrum, we have albums that emphasize hushed balladry, reminding us of the quiet, candlelit side of the season.

Shawn Colvin's "Holiday Songs and Lullabies" (Columbia 68550) takes that approach to its logical extreme. As far as the material goes, the title says it all; from "Silent Night" to "Now the Day Is Over," the album is the perfect thing to play when lighting up the Christmas tree before heading to bed. Colvin's cooing delivery adds to the music's nocturnal aura, giving the album all the sweetness and warmth of hot cocoa.

Celine Dion's "These Are Special Times" (Epic 69523) also starts out quietly, as Dion breathily murmurs "O Holy Night." Don't be fooled, though -- this diva didn't get where she is by playing down the strength of her voice. By the time she gets to "Adeste Fideles," not only have the hushed strings been replaced by a brassy orchestra, but Dion is doing her best to raise the roof.

Despite the occasional vocal overkill, Dion does her Christmas songs right -- mainly because none of the arrangements sound especially modern. If anything, the album seems almost a throwback to the days of Perry Como and Bing Crosby, when Christmas carols were made to seem as big as a Broadway production number.

Nor is Dion alone in trying to recapture the past. Vince Gill's "Breath of Heaven" (MCA 70038) is so fraught with '40s-style sounds, you'd think it was recorded with a time machine. To his credit, Gill sounds completely at home with the jazzy sophistication of Patrick Williams' settings, bringing a crooning confidence to "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." Only his underpowered performance of "O Holy Night" keeps the album from perfection.

Gill is not the only Nashville-based singer taking a nostalgic turn, either. Michael W. Smith's "Christmastime" (Reunion 02341 0015) has an even bigger sound than Gill's album, verging at times on a Boston Pops-style opulence. Too bad the song selection is so heavy on unfamiliar fare, for Smith is at his best when easing through such oldies as "We Three Kings" and "O Christmas Tree."

Song selection isn't everything, though. Martina McBride's "White Christmas" (RCA 07863-67654) is also classic carols in vintage settings, larded with swelling strings and ooh-ing choirs. But instead of reminding us of what made those old Christmas albums great, her bland, overly theatrical delivery merely reinforces the notion that they don't make 'em like that anymore.

Then again, they don't have to, for the old Christmas recordings keep getting reissued. "Ultimate Christmas" (Arista 19019) is typical of these classic compilations, offering everything from Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Song for song, it's quite a collection, but having to go from Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass to Sarah McLa- chlan to Judy Garland doesn't make for the smoothest of segues.

It's easy to avoid such problems. Just buy a single-artist collection like Bing Crosby's "The Voice of Christmas" (MCA 2-11840). Offering "the complete Decca Christmas songbook," this 44-song set goes well beyond a few choruses of "White Christmas," but that's OK. If you're in the mood for a true Crosby Christmas, even the likes of "Christmas In Killarney" will leave your (not necessarily Irish) eyes smiling.

The funny thing about nostalgia is that even listeners who weren't around when Crosby was current still feel an emotional attachment to the well-worn recordings. That sort of faux-nostalgia isn't limited to old albums, either, as the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Christmas Caravan" (Mammoth 354 980 192) makes plain.

Done largely in the quasi-hot jazz style of the group's instrumentals, "Christmas Caravan" has the ragged, what-the-hey! feel of a jam session, and that gives the disc more of a genuine party feel than most Christmas albums. So even if the Zippers' version of "Sleigh Ride" isn't note-perfect (learn the real chords, lads), it's still a lot of fun.

There's a lot of Christmas swing out there this year, and that's to be expected, given how hot the swing revival has become.But the best Christmas swing CDs tend to be true oldies but goodies, like "Yule B' Swingin'" (Hip-O 40117). Drawing from such genuine hepcats as Louis Prima, Lionel Hampton and Dean Martin, it's the one pop Christmas CD that college kids and their grandparents will agree on.

But if it's a jazzy Christmas you want, there's only one real choice this season, and that's the Vince Guaraldi Trio's "Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits" (Fantasy 9682). Drawn from the various animated "Peanuts" specials, it isn't strictly a Christmas album -- we also get "Thanksgiving Theme" and "The Great Pumpkin Waltz" -- but the overall feel, combined with classics like "Christmas Time Is Here," is close enough for jazz.

Perhaps the most unexpected craze in Christmas CDs is Celtic music. Admittedly, Celtic music is enjoying quite a boom right now, what with the combined momentum of "Riverdance," the "Titanic" soundtrack and Enya's albums. There's something wonderfully earthy and warm about the feel of Celtic music, emotions that connect nicely with the home-and-heart aspects of Christmas.

All Celtic Christmas albums lack, really, are some recognizable songs. The Celtic Heartbeat collection "A Winter's Tale" (Celtic Heartbeat 53214) is typical, offering great performances (by Altan, Solas, Dolores Keane and other Celtic stars) of essentially unknown tunes. Can you hum "The Snow Falls Away"? "Hunting the Wren"? "Sliabh Sneachta"?

Didn't think so.

"Noels Celtiques" (Green Linnet 3124) is no more blessed with recognizable titles, but its sound, at least, is closer to American notions of Christmas. As performed by the Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde, these carols from Brittany are blessed with a soft solemnity, giving the album the reverent feel of a midnight mass.

Perhaps the most appealing of this season's Celtic offerings is "Winter's Crossing" (RCA 09026-63245). A collaboration between flutist James Galway and pianist/arranger Phil Coulter, it brings a rich, orchestral opulence to the mournful melodicism of Celtic music, enhancing the tunes the way snow makes landscapes prettier. Again, the album doesn't offer much in the way of commonplace carols, but its sound is so evocative of the season, it'll create a Christmas mood anyway.

Christmas music To hear selections from some of these Christmas albums, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6156.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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