WITH CHRISTMAS comes the rush of yuletide albums. This year the stocking is full of intriguing additions to the Christmas catalogue, with songs encompassing everything from traditional carols and sentimental ballads to wacky novelty numbers. Among more than two dozen new albums, there are some gems that will stand longterm listening: Ray Charles and collections from Windham Hill and Savoy Jazz.
RAY CHARLES -- "The Spirit of Christmas" (Columbia FC40125). A great record, not only because Charles is in great voice, but also because he can transform any old chestnut into something new and intriguing, which he does ten times on this album. Rudolph, Santa Claus and the Drummer Boy have been waiting for Brother Ray.
OLDIES -- "Mr. Santa's Boogie" (Savoy Jazz 1157). This year's most intriguing collection of '40s and '50s reissues, it includes the Ravens' "White Christmas" (the very first r&b version), as well as a Charlie Parker-Kenny Dorham Quintet reading of that tune; "Little Esther" Phillips' hurtin' "Far Away Christmas Blues"; Big Maybelle's languid take of "Silent Night"; Jimmy Butler's raunchy, raucous "Trim Your Tree"; Debbie Dabney's "I Want to Spend Christmas With Elvis," with lots of hilarious musical quotation; Washboard Pete's gutbucket "Christmas Blues"; and Johnny Guarneri's previously unissued "Santa's Secret," a slice of reefer madness.
OTHER OLDIES -- "Merry Christmas, Baby" (Jewel 5014). This solid offering of vintage r&b takes on the season, with Charles Brown (three cuts, including the classic "Please Come Home for Christmas"), the Violinaires, Uniques and Bobby Powell. Most intriguing is Lowell Fulsom's raucous blues on "Lonesome Christmas."
ELVIS PRESLEY -- "Elvis' Christmas Album" (RCA AFM1-5486). Long out of print, this 1957 item is now restored to its original mono, digitally remastered and pressed on green vinyl. One side is uptempo and light, the other reflective and spiritual. Included are Presley's definitive "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Back in Town."
JON ANDERSON -- "Three Ships" (Elektra 9 60469-1). Yes's keening vocalist is ideally suited for this 13-track rock-influenced celebration of the spirit of Christmas and world peace. Roy Thomas Baker provides lush, high-tech textures for the varied pieces -- a roiling, percussive "Forest of Fire," the rococo title cut; the Vangelis-penned ballad "Easier Said Than Done"; and a lovely anthem, "Save All Your Love." Anderson uses gospel and children's choirs, the USC orchestra and Yes-style dynamics.
NRBQ -- "Christmas Wish" (Rounder 2501). Joey Stompinato's genial title tune sounds as though it could have come from the pen of Brian Wilson, and the rest of this album is typical NRBQ: eclectic and engaging takes on several familiar tunes (with a toy train solo and the Whole Wheat Horns sounding like a soused Salvation Army band), as well as its version of "Here Comes Santa Claus."
NEW EDITION -- "Christmas All Over the World" (MCA 39040). A flashback to the light, sentimental Christmas projects from Motown, this showcases these five teen heartthrobs in upbeat, engaging tunes such as "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)," "Happy Holidays to You" and "Give Love on Christmas Day," complete with personalized greetings.
HOLLYWOOD AND TANGO -- "Got the Beat For Christmas" (A&M SP-12156). Christmas rapping with a sly socio-political edge, but also with the correct spirit: "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the city / Not a soul was jammin, what a pity . . ." and so on. Comes in single, extended-play and dub versions.
CHRIS STAMEY GROUP -- "Christmas Time" (Twin Tone 109). The former db's guitarist and songwriter comes up with an intriguing blend of buoyant '60s pop (the title cut and "You're What I Want for Christmas"), neo-Western parable ("The Only Law That Santa Claus Understood") and two instrumental mood pieces, "Snow Is Falling" and "It's a Wonderful Life."
JAZZY TOUCH -- "More Mistletoe Magic" (Palo Alto 8047). An all-jazz affair, though a little topheavy with vocals, the best coming from the quartet Rare Silk -- its a cappella "Little Drummer Boy" meets at the corner of Swingle and Do Wop. Phil Woods is heard twice, McCoy Tyner once, but honors go to tenor sax man Chico Freeman, whose duet rendition of "The Christmas Song" is sweet and lazy, and whose "God Rest Ye Swingin' Gentlemen" lives up to its name.
THE PLUNKETTS -- "Jazz Christmas" (Noran 001). These California jazzmen produce a tasty jazz outing featuring spirits jaunty ("Winter Wonderland" and "Rudolph"), bluesy ("We Three Kings of Orient Are") and introspective ("O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night").
NEW AMERICAN GUITAR ENSEMBLE -- "Songs, Hymns and Carols" (Revere 842). Thanks to multi-tracking, Lewis Ross is the American Guitar Ensemble, which performs nine traditional carols and hymns: Ross and Rick Ruskin also team up for five more contemporary Christmas songs.
ERIC TINGSTAD & NANCY RUMBEL -- "The Gift" (Cheshire 103). Entrancing and supple arrangements featuring various layers of Tingstad's guitars (classical and steel string) and Rumbel's oboe, ocarina, piano and English horn.
SYLVIA WOODS -- "3 Harps For Christmas" (Tonnmeister 1225). Woods, a key figure in the current renaissance of the folk and celtic harp, performs 28 traditional carols on one, two or three of her nylon-, including the resonant 83-string triple-strung harp. Her playing is delicate and entrancing, a perfect match of season, style and instrument.
JOEMY WILSON -- "Gifts" (Dargason Music 103). Traditional carols performed in a very genteel manner on hammered dulcimer, in varied folk chamber settings (flute, violin, harp, guitar).
FOLK ARTISTS -- "On This Day Earth Shall Ring" (Hogeye 007). Seasonal folk tunes, medieval to modern, from England, France, Germany, Wales and Spain, performed in a variety of settings by such Illinois folk veterans as Anne Hills and Stuart Rosenberg.
GOLDEN BOUGH -- "Winter's Dance" (Kicking Mule 332). These chamber-folk arrangements are built around various strings plucked and bowed (from harp to viola and mandola). The vocals are genial but mediocre; the delicate arrangements are exquisite.
PASTORAL SOUNDS -- "A Winter's Solstice" (Windham Hill 1045). The New Age/Pastoral Jazz specialists supplement George Winston's classic "December" album with a roster compilation that shows how diverse its artists are. The common thread is the pastoral beauty of the playing, with the best moments provided by guitarists Will Ackerman and David Qualey, pianist Philip Aaberg, hammered dulcimer player Malcolm Dalglish and film composer Mark Isham, who knows how to use a small ensemble.
SANDY OWEN -- "Carols" (Ivory 9185). Pastoral solo piano in the manner of Winston's "December" album, but more tightly focused on well- known carols. Owen's meditative arrangements are lovely and evocative; the music falls like a gentle snow.
VARIOUS COUNTRY ARTISTS -- "Tennessee Christmas" (MCA5620). The MCA stable of country artists is represented by Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, John Schneider, Jimmy Buffett, Nicolette Larsen and others. The Oak Ridge Boys and Barbara Mandrell cuts are from their previously issued seasonal albums. Best cuts: Ray Stevens' hoedownish "Greatest Little Christmas Ever Wuz," and Brenda Lee's expressive reading of "The Christmas Song."
MORE COUNTRY ARTISTS -- "The Best of Christmas" (RCA CPL1-7013). An uneven eight- song compilation from previous RCA packages, highlighted by Dolly Parton's moving "Hard Candy Christmas" (from "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"), Alabama's "Christmas in Dixie" and the Judds' lovely "Light in the Stable."
AND STILL MORE COUNTRY -- "A Country Christmas, Vol. 4" (RCA CPL1-7012). RCA's latest roster compendium. The best voices are the newest, Keith Whitley's "Christmas Letter" and Pake McEntire's roadhouse frolic, "Santa Are You Comin to Atlanta." Ed Bruce heads the veteran honors with the moral fable "Christmas Started With a Child."
LEE GREENWOOD -- "Christmas to Christmas" (MCA 5623). Greenwood's great voice, with just a hint of r&b graininess and emotion, compensates for some maudlin material. His pop instincts serve him well on "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," but from "Lone Star Christmas" to "Bring Christmas Home," this is a typically glossy Nashville production.
ALABAMA -- "Christmas" (RCA ASL1-7014). The biggest group in country-rock turns in a delightful set dominated by Randy Owens' virile lead vocals. Songs range from the maudlin "Santa Claus (I Still Believe in You") to the cute children's tune, "Thistlehair the Christmas Bear" to the wistful "Christmas Memories" and a lovely "Candle in the Window."
THE STATLER BROTHERS -"Christmas Present" (Mercury 824-785-1 M-1). Harold and Don Reid are among the best songwriters in country music and they've come up with eight originals defined by their trademark easygoing melodies and warm harmonies. As always, the Reids explore traditions, familial and religious; best cuts are "An Old Fashioned Christmas," "For Momma" and the parable, "Whose Birthday Is Christmas."
B.J. THOMAS -- "All Is Calm, All Is Bright" (Columbia PC40148). Also, all is dreadfully straightforward as Thomas' adequate voice is overwhelmed by Pete Drake's uninspired Nashville arrangements.
DR. DEMENTO -- "The Greatest Novelty Records of All Time, Vol. VI, Christmas" (Rhino 825). Christmas is the single greatest inspiration for novelty songs, and there are 12 vintage dazzlers here, from Spike Jones' 1947 rendition of "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" to the new perennial, Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Also represented are Stan Freberg (twice), Yogi Yorgesson, Dickie Goodman, Tom Leher, Allan Sherman, The Three Stooges and Cheech and Chong.
COMEDY CAPERS -- "Christmas Comedy Classics" (PR1-9306). A dozen yuletide yucks (with three repeats from the Demento set). This one includes two Chipmunk songs, two daffy Mel Blancs ("I Tan't Wait Till Quithmuth Day" and "The Hat I Got for Christmas Is Too Beeg"), and "Monster Holiday" from the one and only Lon Chaney.
VOICES ALONE -- "An Evening in December" (A&M WR8308). Lovely a cappella arrangements of new and old songs of the season, by an ensemble of Christian pop performers (guests include David Meece and Cynthia Clawson). The arrangements are lush and interesting without trying to be clever; the resulting warm textures envelop the listener.
KEITH FOLEY -- "Music for Christmas" (Digital Music Products CD-452, CD only). Foley arranges, programs and performs an hour's worth of carols and hymns drawn from British, German, French and Italian classical sources on a variety of synthesizers. Using digital sequencers to store and play back performances, he creates a multi-timbral ensemble that is bright and sassy on five suites of traditional carols, delicate and entrancing on several noels from Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) and two brief Bach passages.
ROCKIN' SIDNEY -- "A Holiday Celebration With . . . " (ZBC-100). Somebody must have messed with his toot toot, because these songs are lethargic, the last thing you'd expect from this normally ebullient zydeco accordionist. At least the tunes aren't familiar.
RICHARD CLAYDERMAN -- "A Romantic Christmas" (Columbia PC 40190). More sweetness from Switzerland in the form of unrelentingly glossy readings of 10 popular favorites. Clayderman's piano playing is dull and unimaginative, sunk in lush arrangements that would embarrass an elevator.