Good Christmas records are like tree decorations, ready each year to jazz up the holiday season.
Among the hundreds of seasonal records currently in print, you'll find offerings from traditionalists like Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand and Al Green to the more esoteric Smokey Robinson, The Muppets, Beachboys and Elvis Presley. And chances are that at least one of your favorite artists has made a Christmas recording.
With all that to choose from, you may have overlooked some especially fine ones. So here are some popular-music albums that should be readily available in most record stores, and will certainly stand up longer than your tree:
BLUEGRASS -- "Christmas Time Back Home" (Rebel 1600); old-fashioned bluegrass from the Country Gentlemen, Larry Sparks and other traditionalists.
JOHN FAHEY -- "Christmas Guitar, Volume One" (Varrick 002) and "Popular Songs of Christmas and New Year" (Varrick 012); intensely introspective, often energetic interpretations from Takoma Park's acoustic guitar innovator.
FIFTIES & SIXTIES ROCK -- "Rockin' Christmas -- The '50s" (Rhino 066) and "Rockin' Christmas -- The '60s" (Rhino 067); more than two dozen novelty Christmas singles lovingly compiled with an ear toward zaniness and high spirits.
DAVID GRISMAN -- "Acoustic Christmas" (Rounder 0190); the founding father of Dawg music lends his superb mandolin skills and sprightly spirits to a vangauard string band romp that mixes swing, bluegrass and Celtic flavors into a delightful rhythmic unity.
EMMYLOU HARRIS -- "Light of the Stable" (Warner Bros.); Washington's favorite country daughter couches her crystalline voice in supple arrangements and softly focused harmonies for a compelling acoustic Christmas.
JAZZ GREATS -- "The Stash Christmas Album" (Stash 125); classic yule jazz from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Lightning Hopkins and a half dozen swing bands from the '30s and '40s.
MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER -- "Christmas" (American Grammaphone 1984); gorgeous and transcendent New Age arrangements that rely more on the group's acoustic graces than its subtle electronics.
JOHN McCUTCHEON -- "Winter Solstice" (Rounder 0192); lovely and engaging seasonal music performed on the hammer dulcimer with marvelous string band arrangements from Trapezoid.
REVELS -- If you missed the Washington Revels at Lisner Auditorium two weeks ago, you can find their wonderfully researched and lovingly rendered work on two albums, "The Christmas Revels" (Revel 1078) and "Wassail! Wassail!" (Revel 1082). The first is geared toward traditional English material, the second toward the multi-cultured American experience.
JOHN ROBERTS & TONY BARRAND -- "Nowell Sing We Clear" (Front Hall 013) and "Tond Nowell: A Pageant of Christmas Carols" (Front Hall 026); robust singing and zesty celebration of carols and customs drawn from Anglo-American folk traditions.
SIXTIES POP -- "Phil Spector's Christmas Album" (Pavilion PZ37686); the classic from 1963, with Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, the Ronettes and Crystals.
SOUL -- "Soul Christmas" (Atco); Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas and Joe Tex.
GEORGE WINSTON -- "December" (Windham Hill C1025); meditative folk piano featuring supple originals and elegant versions of carols and classical pieces like the Canon in D by Pachelbel. A year-round treasure that carries extra weight at this time of the year.