In the wonderland of crass commercialism, Christmas always means tinsel galore, Ronco products and greatest-hits albums.
It's a tradition as old as Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," and this year dozens of hits packages, many of them first-rate, have been released. Here are some of the best.
Lou Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground (the bank that practically invented the punk/New Wave style in the late '60s), is the subject of an excellent two-record compendium, "Rock'n'Roll Diary, 1967-1980" (Arista A2L8603). Compiled with good taste (and including expressive liner notes by rock critic Ellen Willis), the anthology delicately traces Reed's career -- from the dark version of the Velvets ("Herion") through the even darker despair of his early solo period ("Berlin") to his present-day romanticism ("All Through the Night"). This formidable presentation gives a sense of continuity and an implication of passionate genius to a rock personality who often seemed merely off-center and narcissistic. Although not complete in its selection (that would require a 10-record box), the package is complete as a map -- on the prodigious level of Elvis Presley's "A Legendary Performer, Vol. 1."
Also definitive are two quintessential albums of traditional Southern music -- Clifton Chenier's "Classic Clifton" (Arhoolie 1082) and the Sir Douglas Quintet's "Best of" (Takoma TAK 7086). From Louisiana, Chenier is an accordionist renowned as the master of Zydeco, the dance music for the French-speaking Creole population of Louisiana's Cajun country. "Classic Clifton" collects 12 of his hottest sides from his eight albums -- wild, down-home music guaranteed to warm the coldest nights. Equally raw is the new collection from the Sir Doug Quintet, a Texas band that in the mid-'60s was conceived as America's answer to the British Invasion (although they were obviously playing Tax-Mex rhythms). "Best of" doesn't attempt to assemble the band's early English-imitation hits; it catalogues their funky Texas beat, a tough sound that has greatly influenced artists such as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. The album superbly conveys the deceptively simple soulfulness of Sir Doug -- a style so naively informal that, 10 years later, Elvis Costello would borrow from it and figure nobody would notice.
The mainstream greatest-hits offerings this holiday season are relatively unambitious, but well-programmed and conveniently inoffensive. For example, although it doesn't supplant her "Retrospective" anthology on Capitol, Linda Ronstadt's "Greatest Hits, Volume Two (Asylum 5E-516) is an elegant condensation of her last three albums ("Simple Dreams," "Living in the U.S.A." and "Mad Love.") Similarly, Boz Scagg's "Hits!" (Columbia FC 36841), by opting for concision and simplicity, elevates his image and status: With his great moments enshrined, he's no longer a mediocre balladeer but a thoughtful, sober crooner. More endearing are those special collections that make previous albums seem dispensable. Aerosmith's "Greatest Hits" (Columbia FC 36865) contains every major wicked riff of this heavy-metal monster. Deep Purple's "Deepest Purple" (Warner Bros. PRK 3486) is a perfect index to the cliches of the most atrocious arena-rock group of all time, and ABBA's "The Magic of ABBA" (K-tel NU 9510), as artificially polished as the band itself, smothers with 16 hugs and kisses.
For those fond of the smooth and the suave, there's the Manhattan's harmonious "Greatest Hits" (Columbia JC 36861), loaded with old-fashioned soul and the modest slickness of the Philadelphia sound. Equally impressive is the flashy funk found on Rose Royce's "Greatest Hits" (Whitfield WHK 3457). This band actually had the smarts to divide their album into "dancing" and "romancing" sides. For the sophisticated rap, the best anthology is still "The Great Rap Hits" (Sugar Hill SH-246), featuring every fast-talker from Super Wolf to the Sugar Hill Gang. In addition, the king of the Rap, Barry White, has just released a hits double-album, "The Best of Our Love" (Unlimited Gold Z2X 36957), on which, as usual, he reveals his undying devotion to himself, his beloved and the Love Unlimited Orchestra.