IT'S GETTING TO sound a lot like Christmas.
This year, more than 40 new Christmas- centered albums have come out, some good, some bad and some worthy of becoming seasonal perennials. Most are available in all three formats -- vinyl, cassette or CD. And away we go on a sonic sleigh ride . . .
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "A Very Special Christmas" (A&M). This logical successor to Phil Spector's classic collection from 1963 features 15 platinum all-stars interpreting mostly familiar songs for the benefit of the Special Olympics. There are no bad cuts, but great cuts include the Pretenders' blue "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the Pointer Sister's rollicking "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Alison Moyet's shimmering "Coventry Carol," Madonna's playfully kittenish reading of Eartha Kitt's '50s tune, "Santa Baby," and the one original offering, Run-D.M.C.'s rapping "Christmas in Hollis." With impassioned performances and a unity of purpose, this is a new classic for a worthy cause.
PHIL SPECTOR AND VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "A Christmas Gift For You" (Rhino). The quintessential yule-rock album, reissued in its original cover and available for the first time on CD. Spector's Wall of Sound approach and the distinctive girl group vocals from Darlene Love, the Ronettes, Crystals and the Blue Jeans have made this album deservedly legendary.
FOUR SEASONS -- "The Four Seasons Christmas Album, Featuring the Sound of Frankie Vallie" (Rhino). Out of print for two decades, this had become a collector's item. On Rhino's newly remastered reissue, there are many falsettoed notes, but no false ones as Vallie and the boys tackle traditional and contemporary favorites.
AIR SUPPLY -- "The Christmas Album" (Arista). Lush, overproduced ear candy built around Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock's overwrought, high-pitched vocals. Two new songs sound like they'd make better Christmas cards. Unrelenting shlock.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Christmas Rap" (Profile). Party down, because according to Sweet Tee, "What? You didn't know Christmas went hip-hop/Check the clock and let the jingle bells rock." Also, the mock boisterous "Dana Dane Is Coming To Town," while various other parties -- including Derek B, the Disco 4, Spyder-D and King Sun-D Moet -- are chillin' and coolin' with "Ghetto Santa," whose upscale gift items crowd his Mercedes Sled. The Showboys also do some sampling of sounds, the Surf M.C.s mix metal and melody and Run-D.M.C. repeats their homeboy celebration from the Special Olympics album.
FISHBONE -- "It's a Wonderful Life (Gonna Have a Party)"(CBS). An EP from the rock/funk group featuring the title tune, a tribute to the Frank Capra film, "Slick Nick, You Devil You" and two other songs.
FRANK SINATRA -- "Christmas Dreaming" (Columbia). Part of the label's ongoing Sinatra retrospective, this digitally remastered album collects 11 tunes recorded between 1944 and 1950 when Young Blue Eyes still sounded sweet and innocent. The lush arrangements sound dated, but Sinatra sounds immortal.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "It's Midnight Xmess, Part III" (Midnight). A "13-course menu, cooked in heaven, brewed in hell" by a similar number of "independent" bands, including the Iguanas' "Reindeer'n'Whiskey," the Sterilles "Mrs. Claus Has Menopause," the Woofing Cookies' "Staring in the Eye of God" and Frank Yankovic's "The Last Noel." Not for the faint of heart.
BOB RIVERS COMEDY GROUP -- "Twisted Christmas" (Critique). Even Santa might be forced to go Ha! Ha! Ha! at much of this project by Baltimore deejay Rivers. Included are "Wreck the Malls" (where the Bangles meet Mettalica), "O Come All ye Grateful Dead-Heads", "The Chimney Songs" (a Santa decomposition), "A Message From the King" (the one who ate too much and apparently still does in Heaven) and "The Twelve Pains of Christmas," which are all-too familiar.
THE SCROOGE BROTHERS -- "Commercial Christmas" (Rhino). Songs about horny Santas, flatulence and killing yourself at Christmas. This is funny? No.
CAPITOL STEPS -- "Ronald the Red-Faced Reagan" (Capitol Steps Productions). What's better than one Mark Russell? The dozen who make up Washington's favorite political cabaret troupe. These 19 parodies are short, pithy and dead-right-on, and as fresh as yesterday's headlines. Targets include the White House (the title tune), telepreachers ("God Tested Reverend Robertson"), the NFL Strike ("The Dumber Boy"), congressional perks ("'Twas the Night Before Recess") and the perils of bureaucracy ("The Twelve Days of Business").
JEAN RITCHIE -- "Kentucky Christmas Old and New" (Greenhays). Ritchie, who will perform at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church on Saturday, has long been exploring the richness and diversity of Appalachian culture. From the plainsong of "Brightest and Best" and the roots/Rennaissance mix of "The World Is Old" to the engaging retelling of "The Carol of the Cherry Tree," Ritchie and friends (including the local consort Hesperus, who join her at Bradley Hills) sound like the kind of folks you'd like to be snowed in with, especially if the electricity went out.
LINDA RUSSELL AND COMPANY -- "Sing We All Merrily" (Flying Fish). This colonial Christmas pageant focuses on assorted ethnic contributions to the American melting pot in songs drawn from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and from England, France, Germany. The arrangements are an eclectic blend of folk and chamber music, and you also get 10 colonial recipes with the album.
MADELEINE MacNEIL -- "Christmas Comes Anew" (Kicking Mule). Dulcimers are the focus instruments, and the singing is lovely, but it's the wonderful, lesser-known carols and songs MacNeil has searched out and arranged that make this an outstanding album. Four discoveries -- "Maria Wanders Amid the Thorn," "Judah's Land," "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head" and the title tune -- should be sought out by choral directors and folk artists alike.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "A Folk Era Christmas" (Folk Era). Have yourself a Hootenanny Christmas with a Kingston solo (Nick Reynolds) and three groups that sound like that venerable Trio reborn, the best of which is The Shaw Brothers.
JOEMY WILSON -- "Gifts, Vol. 2" (Dargason Music). These beautiful chamber folk arrangements of traditional carols are built around Wilson's hammered dulcimer, Valarie King's flute and Sylvia Woods' Celtic Harp.
KIM ROBERTSON -- "Celtic Christmas" (Invincible). Robertson's crystalline harp sounds like a mountain brook coursing through a cathedral; the most peaceful, and perhaps the most beautiful, of this year's albums in lovely, elegiac arrangements.
STEVAN PASERO -- "Christmas Classics for Guitar" and "Nutcracker Suite for Guitar" (Sugo). Exquisite arrangements of traditional carols and outstanding transcriptions of classical pieces by Handel, Schubert, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and others by a West Coast guitarist whose work is just becoming more widely available and who should appeal to both new age and classical fans.
JOHN DAVID -- "The Christmas Guitar" (Folk Era). The guitarist for the Limeliters offers straightforward, and fairly pedestrian, instrumental readings of 14 favorite carols.
SCHOONER FARE -- "Home for the Holidays" (Outer Green). Maine's updating on the Limeliters offers carols in English, French, German, Yiddish and Spanish, as well as Ron Carlson's lovely "Peaceable Kingdom," a Gordon Lightfoot cover and two generic originals.
CLANCY BROTHERS -- "Christmas with the Clancy Brothers" (Shanachie). Alternately boisterous and maudlin, this album sounds a marketing afterthought with an Irish accent.
ROBIN WILLIAMSON -- "Winter's Turning" (Flying Fish). A true Celtic celebration, mostly folk rooted but with some classical presence via Corelli and Vivaldi. The jigs and reels are sprightly and danceable, the ballads are touching and the album's overriding spirit is evident in two song titles, "Pastime With Good Company" and "Drive the Cold Winter Away."
BIM AND CONNIE KALDOR -- "A Christmas Album" (Vancouver Folk Festival Recordings). New songs for an old celebration, it says, and the fine new songs from this very up folk and blues collection include a sprightly calypso, "Island Santa," an exuberant stomp, "Mincemeat Tart" and a Western Swing "Cowboy Chirstmas," which reminds us that the shepherds were the cowboys of Galilee.
SOUL, GOSPEL, R&B
THE WHISPERS -- "Happy Holidays To You" (Solar). Forget the sappy originals and enjoy this veteran vocal group's smooth and silky interpretations, the best of which is Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."
JOHNNY ADAMS -- "Christmas in New Orleans" (Maison de Soul). Adam's classic R&B vocals override the lousy arrangements and he shines on the bluesy "Lonesome Christmas" and the wailing "Please Come Home For Christmas," while his gospel roots are evident on a powerful "Lord's Prayer."
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Gospel at Christmas" (CTC Music). Shirley Caesar, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Swan Silvertones and other venerable groups get into the season's spirit, but none as fervently as Solomon Burke, whose "Silent Night" absolutely rocks the church it was recorded in.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Gospel at Christmastime" (Malaco). Similar title, different groups, including the Jackson Southernaires, the Sensational Nightingales, the Gospel Keynotes and eight others; the songs are excellent, the singing even better.
CHET BAKER/CHRISTOPHER MASON -- "Silent Nights" (GSR). Veteran trumpeter Baker treats the title tune and "The First Noel" as the most introspective and gentle of blues ballads, which of course they are. Elsewhere he and altoist Mason swing a few carols and expand on spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "The Sackville All Star Christmas Record" (Sackville). Bright and ebulient readings featuring soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, pianist Ralph Sutton, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Gus Johnson. "We Three Kings" swings gaily, and so does most of this album.
GLENN ZOTTOLA -- "Christmas in Jazztime" (Dreamstreet). Trumpeter Zottola's hot septet sounds like a mini-Tonight Show band as it swings hard through a half dozen secular tunes, with the late Maxine Sullivan's vocals spicing up three of them.
ART HODES -- "Joy to the Jazz World" (Parkwood). Solo piano excursions from a legendary jazz man, with much delightful expansion and ornamentation, from the delicate and introspective balladry of "Silent Night" and the bluesy fills of "White Christmas" to the lively, stride-filled accents of "Jingle Bells" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" (or was that "Swing"?).
LATIN SPICE BAND -- "Feliz Navidad" (CBS). "Non-stop merengue" it says, but it's just Stars on 45 with a seasonal theme and a Latin beat. One side is sung in Spanish, one side is instrumental and the whole thing is dreadfully robotic, managing to make 13 songs sound like one.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "Merry Cajun Christmas, Vol. 2" (Swallow). Spicy arrangements keep the feet tapping, but the gems here are the hilarious fables from Tee Jules, "Cajun Night Before Christmas" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" counted down with such regional fare as voodoo dolls, crawfish and stuffed shrimp. Gumbo soup should be this thick and delicious.
BOBBY VINTON -- "Santa Claus Must Be Polish" (Tapestry). The title song, a polka sung in both English and Polish, should be big in Detroit and Chicago, but the rest is dreck aimed at other special markets including big band, traditional contemporary and country (which, oddly enough, sounds just like the polka).
COUNTRYREBA McENTIRE -- "Merry Christmas To You" (MCA). All too polite readings by the current Queen of Country, redeemed only by a Western Swing version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and Grandpa Jones' rural tale, "The Christmas Guest."THE JUDDS -- "Christmas Time" (RCA). Forget the chorus and children's choir that make side one so sappy and stick to more familial side two, in which country's favorite mother and daughter duo revive old-fashioned country singing in simple, acoustic settings.THE FORRESTER SISTERS -- "A Christmas Card" (Warner Bros.). The four Forresters have obvious choral implications but they seldom rise above their safe arrangements; even "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which should, doesn't.VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "A Christmas Tradition" (Warner Bros.). One more country anthology, redeemed only by Randy Travis' aching "White Christmas Makes Me Blue," the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's loping "Colorado Christmas" and fiddler Mark O'Connor's scintillating "Sleigh Ride."BOB WILLS' ORIGINAL TEXAS PLAYBOYS -- "A Western Swing Christmas" (Delta). Recorded in 1985 with a half-dozen of the surviving Playboys, this collection is fueled by Leon McAuliffe's sinuous steel guitar, Al Stricklin's poppin' piano and Leo Rausch's keening vocals. Best cuts: "Cotton-Eyed Jingle Bells" and "Cowboy Christmas."
Alexandria's Time-Life Records has released four Yule collections. (For details about ordering, call 800/445-TIME.)JINGLE BELL ROCK -- Part of the recent "Rock'n'Roll Era" series, this two record/one CD set contains 25 cuts, most of them overly familiar, and more than half from the Motown and Atlantic catalogues. Very little in the novelty arena (Rhino has that pretty much sewed up), but a good starter set.TIME-LIFE TREASURY OF CHRISTMAS VOLUMES 1 & 2 -- Each volume contains three records. Volume 1 contains 45 selections, its followup 48 and a more curious hodge-podge of familiar tunes and assorted singers you couldn't hope to find, as on one side that segues from Sergio Franchi to Perry Como to the Beach Boys to Alabama to Morton Gould and the RCA Symphony Orchestra to the Choir of King's College to Roger Whittaker and finally to Luciano Pavarotti. The recordings start in the early '40s and run well into the '80s, represent just about every song style imaginable and, in good ecumenical spirit, come from dozens of different labels. All in all, it's a fascinating overview.THE MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION -- Fifty-three selections from the legendary and many-hundred-voiced Choir -- some of it a cappella, some with the huge tabernacle organ, and the rest with assistance from, variously, the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, the New York and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The emphasis is on traditional carols and classical offerings.