Silent Night? Fuggetaboutit!

Not with close to 100 new holiday-themed albums being released every year and who knows how many thousand more titles packed up and buried in music retailers' back rooms, only to be hauled out every Thanksgiving in hopes not only that St. Nick would be there, but that he might carry some of that old stock away on his sled.

On the other hand, seasonal albums are right up there with mistletoe, eggnog and fruitcake as essential to any holiday celebration. Can you imagine this time of year without music? If you can, you must be a Grinch, and you might want to remember what happened to him.


Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song" (Capitol). This is the classic album by a man synonymous with seasonal music since he first recorded the Mel Torme/Robert Wells soon-to-be-chestnut "The Christmas Song." Three versions appear on this reissue of Cole's classic album, including the original 1946 recording (a hidden track here), the more familiar 1961 album version and a new digital duet in the style of "Unforgettable" with daughter Natalie and the London Symphony Orchestra. Includes several tracks left off the original, all delivered in Cole's warm, relaxed, embraceable style.

Natalie Cole with the London Symphony Orchestra, "The Magic of Christmas" (Elektra). The Cole/Cole duet also appears on Natalie's second seasonal offering, which is sometimes overwhelmed by thick orchestrations. Best tracks are the stately "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," the melancholy "My Grown-Up Christmas List" and a charming "Christmas Waltz."

Dan Fogelberg, "The First Christmas Morning" (Morning Sky). The sweet-voiced singer mixes seven originals (including "Christ the King" and "Feast of Fools") with some classic carols, all in a style more suggestive of medieval or Renaissance music than the folk/country pop Fogelberg is best known for. Best reading: "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," augmented by Hugh Marsh's violin.

Jewel, "Joy: A Holiday Collection" (Atlantic). Jewel's certainly got the crystalline voice perfect for this material: If only she'd be a little joyful using it, and if only producer Arif Mardin didn't weigh her down with lugubrious arrangements. Jewel's best on the cool classicism of "Ave Maria," "O Holy Night" and "Gloria" (by way of Bach's Mass in B Minor), weakest on an uninspiring gospel medley that joins "Go Tell It on the Mountain" with her own "Life Uncommon" and "From a Distance," and a Christmas-themed "Hands."

The Sinatra Family, "Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Artanis/DCC Compact Classics). A late '60s family affair in which Frank Sinatra outshines his offspring Frank Jr., Nancy and Tina. He lends not only his voice but some fine arrangements by Nelson Riddle, who also conducts the orchestra. The Family (Sinatra must have cringed at that name) performs three tracks, the senior Sinatra two (including a melancholy "Whatever Happened to Christmas?"), the children five.

Ringo Starr, "I Wanna Be Santa Claus" (Uni/Island). Sadly, the first-ever seasonal album by a Beatle falls apart after starting off promisingly with the Slade-like chant of "Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On" and the Harry Nilsson-like title track. Most of the new songs, co-written with co-producer Mark Hudson, are awful, as are Starr's dispirited vocals.

98 Degrees, "This Christmas" (Universal). Earnest, lush harmonies from this second-tier boy group whose teen-pop audience is targeted on the slick "This Gift" and "Christmas Wish." Their a cappella skills, reminiscent of the Beach Boys, Four Freshmen and Boyz II Men, are well displayed on a richly-nuanced "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and lovely "Ave Maria."

Rosie O'Donnell, "A Rosie Christmas" (Columbia). Who knew that this talk-show hostess could sing (unlike the embarrassing Kathie Lee Gifford). O'Donnell's no diva, but her voice is both passable and pleasant, and on this collection of duets, she wisely avoids competing with such big-voiced partners as Celine Dion ("The Magic of Christmas Day"), Elton John (a turgid "White Christmas"), Gloria Estefan (a very silly "Gonna Eat for Christmas") and Cher, whose cover of Phil Spector's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is recast in the echo-laden disco style of "Believe." Other guests include Rosemary Clooney, Trisha Yearwood, Billy Joel, 'N Sync (a lush "Love's in Our Hearts on Christmas Day") and Lauryn Hill (a hip-hop soul take on "The Little Drummer Boy").

Johnny Mathis, CeCe Winans, "Listen! It's Christmas" (Hallmark). The cardmaker's 15th holiday collection features the ever-smooth Mathis and gospel's Winans on four tracks each as well as a pair of duets. Mathis shines on a gliding "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and an icy "Silent Night," while Winans delivers a graceful "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Away in a Manger."

Julie Andrews, "Christmas With Julie Andrews" (Columbia Legacy). Andrews's 1982 album, with Ian Fraser's orchestral arrangements, features her clear, clean vocals and nuanced readings of familiar fare, best on the icy-cool "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "I Wonder As I Wander" and less familiar songs like "The Holy Boy," "See Amid the Winter Snow" and the gentle "Rocking."

Burl Ives, "The Very Best of Burl Ives Christmas" (MCA/Decca). This Kris Kringle look-alike owns one seasonal classic--"A Holly Jolly Christmas," from the 1964 "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" television special in which he was the voice of Sam the Snowman. The former folk-pop balladeer is thoroughly pleasant on a mostly familiar repertoire.

Bing Crosby, "The Very Best of Bing Crosby Christmas" (Decca/UMG). An 18-track collection of material recorded between 1942 and 1956, including, of course, "White Christmas," one of the best/longest-selling singles in music history, four other holiday hits and three lively teamings with the Andrews Sisters.

Anne Murray, "Best of the Season" (EMI). Murray's ultra-soothing alto is featured on 25 soft-spun favorites drawn from two previous seasonal albums.

Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree: The Decca Christmas Recordings" (MCA Nashville/Decca). Precocious Brenda Lee--the original LeAnn Rimes--recorded her first seasonal tracks at 11--"Christy Christmas" and the proactive "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus"--before hitting in 1960 (two years after its recording) with this album's classic title track at age 14. This 18-track compilation covers both the early recordings and more country-pop seasonal fare recorded with producer Owen Bradley.

Mitch Miller and the Gang, "Holiday Sing Along With Mitch" (Columbia/Legacy). Personally, we prefer Kool and the Gang, but, as is proving in its current commercials, there will always be a market for the bizarre sing-along chorales that made Miller a rich man. Lyrics included but, sorry, no bouncing balls.

Kathy Troccoli, "Have Yourself ... A Sentimental Christmas" (Provident). One of contemporary Christian music's top names revisits her roots at the Berkeley School of Music with a jazz/pop outing featuring some fine big band charts with members of the Navy Jazz Band on "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow/Sleigh Ride" and several mellower seasonal standards, including a duet with Andy Williams on "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."


Bobby Womack, "Traditions" (The Right Stuff). The veteran soulman tackles a surprisingly middle-of-the-road repertoire, exceptions being Gamble and Huff's "Christmas Ain't Christmas" and his own "Dear Santa Claus," a sweetly-sung ballad performed by Womack, and later as a duet with daughter Cheyenne (the difference: the first time around, Womack wants someone for Christmas, while Cheyenne's willing to settle for something).

The Supremes, "Merry Christmas" (Motown). Long out of print, this is a pretty standard pop-Motown outing first released in 1965, with four bonus tracks added.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, "Our Very Best Christmas" (Motown). A new compilation drawn from the group's Christmas albums released in 1963 and 1970, plus one bonus track. The pop arrangements are slack, and the group is at its best when slipping into a genuine Motown groove, as it does on a quartet of originals by Robinson and label-mate Stevie Wonder.

Various Artists, "A Motown Christmas" (Motown). 25 digitally remastered tracks of yuletide cheer first released in 1973, including six exuberant offerings by the Jackson 5 and one by Michael Jackson, four each by Stevie Wonder (three of them originals), the Temptations, Miracles and Supremes, plus "I Want to Come Home for Christmas," a track by Marvin Gaye, the one Motown superstar not invited to the original party.

Various Artists, "Silent Night, Soulful Night" (Hip-O). Aside from a 1970 Temptations track and Al Green's 1983 cover of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," this is mostly seasonal fare recorded in the '90s by the likes of Brian McKnight, Stephanie Mills, Vanessa Williams (a sly duet with Bobby Caldwell on "Baby, It's Cold Outside") and regional favorites like Dru Hill (a resonant "This Christmas") and Johnny Gill (an earthy "Give Love on Christmas Day").

Various Artists, "Smooth Grooves: A Sensual Christmas" (Rhino). Classy compilation ranging from the terse gospel of the Staple Singers on "Who Took the Merry Out of Merry Christmas" to the sweet funk of Isaac Hayes on "The Mistletoe and Me" and Bill Withers on "The Gift of Giving" to the melancholy grit of the O'Jays on "Christmas Ain't Christmas, New Year's Ain't New Year's Without the One You Love" and James Brown's bluesy take on "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay."

Various Artists, "My Christmas Album" (MCA). A new collection that ranges from the sinewy R&B of Rahsaan Patterson on "Christmas at My House" and Avant's "Christmas Came to the Ghetto" to K-Ci and JoJo's old-fashioned soul grit on the R&B chestnut "Merry Christmas Baby." Chante Moore and Jesse Powell bring a sweet grace to "Christmas Morn" and "O Holy Night," respectively. While Mary J. Blige is uninspired on "Someday at Christmas," Cherokee brings some hip-hop soul to "Little Drummer Boy" and producer Darryl "Day" Pearson transforms himself into a multi-track chorale on a supple "Silent Night."

Country Riders in the Sky, "Christmas the Cowboy Way" (Rounder). Those three wise men come bearing gifts of "Corn, Water and Wood" in a marvelous collection that includes Ranger Doug's "The Christmas Yodel" and fiddler Woody Paul's lively evocations on "Let It Snow/The Last Christmas Medley You'll Ever Need to Hear" (with Paul making one-degree-of-separation connections with a dozen other seasonal favorites). The Riders' warm cowboy harmonies soften the Louvin Brothers' classic, "The Friendly Beasts," shift to sophisticated cowboy jazz on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and provide a hilarious catalog of Western-style sound effects on "The Twelve Days of Cowboy Christmas."

Bryan White, "Dreaming of Christmas" (Asylum). A six-song offering from the sweet-voiced country heartthrob. He's solid on "Holiday Inn," a plaintive on-the-road blues with a seasonal twist, less so on the big band-style swing of "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town."

Martina McBride, "White Christmas" (BMG). Pure pop outing with nothing in the choice of material, slick arrangements or flat delivery to suggest that McBride was, until recently, one of Nashville's bright new hopes.

Bill Engvall, "Here's Your Christmas Album" (Warner Bros). The comedian takes varied approaches on this mostly musical outing. There's the pure comedy of "I'm Getting Sued by Santa Claus," "Fruitcake Makes Me Puke" (in matching country and rock versions) and "Rudolph Got a DUI," the common dilemmas of "Gift Emergency" and "A Gift That She Don't Want" and the inevitable variation of Engvall's signature bit, "Here's Your Sign Christmas." But the album also features sentimental fare like "Christmas in the Country Holiday," "The Christmas Sign" and "The Bike" (a letter-to-Santa cliche that should play well on country radio).

George Strait, "Merry Christmas Wherever You Are" (MCA). Strait is his usual genial, easy-going self on lightly swinging tracks like "I Know What I Want for Christmas" and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and sentimental songs like "Old Time Christmas," the melancholy title track and the story-song "Noel Leon," but the album can't quite overcome the safe, dull backing of the Nashville String Machine.

Reba McEntire, "Secret of Giving" (MCA). McEntire's second seasonal collection is a mixed bag: She coasts through familiar songs, only to come alive on new ones like the charming "This Is My Prayer For You" and the title track (also the title of her recent television movie). Best track: "Santa Claus Is Coming Back to Town," the poignant meditation of a divorced mom who has to welcome her ex-husband home for the holiday for the sake of her young daughter.

Paul Brandt, "Shall I Play For You? A Paul Brandt Christmas" (Reprise). The honky-tonk singer is best covering Buck Owens's "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" and Dave Dudley's "Six Tons of Toys," as well as a pair of originals, but he wastes Kim Richey's support on a plodding "Run Run Rudolph" and Union Station's subtle strengths on two other tracks.

Garth Brooks, "Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas" (Capitol). Maybe Chris Gaines could have livened up this dull second seasonal offering, drawn from a holiday television special. The only life comes in a lightly swinging "White Christmas" and the jubilant gospel-inflected "Baby Jesus Is Born."

Michael Martin Murphey, "Acoustic Christmas Carols, Cowboy Christmas II" (Valley Entertainment). Classic carols simply arranged for sparse vocals and guitars, mostly Murphey's and, on "Home Sweet Home," that of special guest John McEuen, who also frails the banjo on an eerie "Joy to the World." Best cuts include a haunted "In the Bleak Midwinter," the gospel-flavored "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and the shimmering Huron carol, "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime."

Various Artists, "All-Star Country Christmas" (Hip-O). An anthology of mostly '90s superstars. The best performances are Randy Travis's richly nuanced "Where My Heart Lives", Alan Jackson's melancholy "Merry Christmas to Me" and Vince Gill's soaring tenor on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

Jazz The Ray Brown Trio with guest singers, "Christmas Songs" (Telarc). There are some wonderfully spry trio outings here, but the focus is on the guest vocalists. Highlights include warm readings by Kevin Mahogany and Vanessa Rubin on, respectively, "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas," Dee Dee Bridgewater's expansive reading of "Away in a Manger" and lively appearances by Etta Jones and Marlena Shaw.

Various Artists, "A Jazz Noel" (Windham Hill). The Braxton Brothers' sinewy "This Christmas" and singer Michael Franks's airy "Island Christmas" stand out in a collection of slick fusion fare from the likes of Hiroshima, Special EFX, Tom Grant, Spyro Gyra and Tom Scott (whose "Gift of Love" features fine vocals by Maysa).

Fourplay, "Snowbound" (Warner Bros.). Smooth funky jazz, both acoustic and electric, built around tight ensemble interplay and solid leadership from keyboardist Bob James and guitarist Larry Carlton. Highlights include a taut "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," Eric Benet's rich vocals on "The Christmas Song" and a sly, finger-snapping "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Along with traditional material, Fourplay addresses Steely Dan's title track and Joni Mitchell's "River."

Boney James, "Boney's Funky Christmas" (Warner Bros.). Smooth tenor sax tracks--and one soprano outing on Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven"--supported by smooth arrangement (among the best: the Vince Guaraldi classic, "Christmas Time Is Here"), sometimes undermined by weak vocals. Charmer track: a spry duet with percussionist Paulinho Da Costa on "Jingle Bells."

Kenny G, "Faith: A Holiday Album" (Arista). G's follow-up to "Miracles," the best-selling seasonal album of all time. The soprano saxophonist is at his best and warmest when he's playing standards with a small ensemble; he's lugubrious when he works in lushly programmed settings with co-producer Walter Afanasieff. The two do come up with a lovely original, "Eternal Light (A Chanukah Song)," though it's eventually swallowed up by over-orchestration. G sounds manly on his tenor outing, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and he concludes with a searing "Auld Lang Syne," which comes with a special audio-mix looking at a century of history.

Al DiMeola, "Winter Nights" (Telarc). Working with both acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin, DiMeola turns in some beautifully nuanced, multi-track readings of familiar carols, originals and oddities (Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street"). Features evocative duets with Roman Hrynkiv, a virtuoso on bandura (a Ukrainian string instrument), and several lightly tropical encounters with percussionist Hernan Romero.

Various Artists, "Jingle Bell Swing" (Columbia Legacy). A fine classic jazz collection that includes "Sugar Rum Cherry," Duke Ellington's quirky take on "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"; a 1969 duet with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on "Deck the Halls"; and the silly vocalese of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie." The liveliest cuts belong to wildman Louis Prima ("What Will Santa Claus Say When He Finds Everybody Swinging?" and "Shake Hands With Santa Claus"), while Art Carney does a weird speed rap on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Also featured: Benny Goodman with Peggy Lee and Bob Dorough with Miles Davis.

Various Artists, "The Night Before Christmas" (Citylights). No major names here, just smooth jazz instrumentals that are as much sensually romantic as they are seasonally focused.

Various Artists, "Santa Swings" (Louisiana Red Hot). Historian/archivist Robert Parker uncovers goodies from the jazz age and swing era, including such hot tracks as Fats Waller's "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells" from 1936, Bessie Smith's bluesy "At the Christmas Ball" and Louis Armstrong and the Red Onion Jazz Babies' New Orleans-styled "Santa Claus Blues" from 1924. There are also some big band offerings (some more swinging than others) from Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton (a wry "Gin for Christmas") and Paul Whiteman's jungle-style "Christmas Night in Harlem."

THE Beegie Adair Trio, "Jazz Piano Christmas" (Green Hill). Familiar melodies are smartly stated, followed by spry improvisations featuring Adair's lively right hand expansions. Mostly mundane material, except a languid "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

Gospel Various Artists, "The Real Meaning of Christmas, Vol. 3" (Verity). A fine collection ranging from the jubilance of John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir on "Last Always," the hip-hop gospel of Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Tabernacle Choir on "Do You Know Like I Know (The Real Meaning of Christmas)?," the smooth sound of Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ on "We Sing Glory" and Commissioned's richly nuanced "God's Greatest Gift." Washington's Richard Smallwood and Vision contribute a resonant "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

Daryl Coley & Beloved, "Christmas Is Here" (Verity). Coley and his 10-voice ensemble shine on originals like "God's Only Son" and "Reason for the Season," as well as sharp medleys that showcase several fine soloists.

Andrae Crouch, "The Gift of Christmas" (Qwest/Warner Bros.). One of modern gospel's pioneers returns with a resplendent choir and stellar guests like Yolanda Adams ("Oh Come All Ye Faithful"), Chaka Khan ("This Christmas [I'll Be Thinking of You]") and twin sister Sandra Crouch (the excellent "Bethlehem [The World Is Gonna Hear About You]"). Tata Vega shines on the tropical "Mary's Boy Child," and the snippets of energized Christmas chants make you long for more.

A Cappella Take 6, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Reprise). The great a cappella sextet shines in this collection featuring their outstanding vocal blend and lush, complex, often astounding arrangements. Highlights include a supple, spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and a doo-wop flavored "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and several tracks with subdued instrumental backing by Brian McKnight on "The Christmas Song" and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. on "What Child Is This."

M-Pact, "The Carol Commission" (Hot Lips). Another outstanding vocal group turns to guest arrangers, including Take 6's Cedric Dent on "Away in a Manger," Michelle Weir on a jazzy "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and Roger Treece on a nine-minute glide through "Christmas Time Is Here." Also nice: the island feel of "De King Is Born Today" and the vocalese trip-hop of "As December Fades Away."

Five O'Clock Shadow, "Misfit Toys" (Hot Lips). It's all voices, all the time, though you'll swear you hear drums and guitar on the power rock anthem, "Santa Says Rock." Also strong are the percussive "Little Drummer Boy" and a gorgeous "Silent Night."

A Cappella Angels, "An A Cappella Christmas" (Wall Street). Dull outing by a trio of Broadway and Las Vegas showfolk who would clearly benefit from more imaginative arrangements of over-played material. They get a little help here and there from harpist Lisa Lynne Franco and percussionist Steve Reid.

Various Artists, "English Village Carols" (Smithsonian Folkways). This is as earthy and traditional as it gets: centuries old carols--some banished from English churches for being too secular or too boisterous--performed by informal choirs at pubs in the Sheffield region. There is occasional fiddle or electric organ accompaniment, but it's mostly robust, rough-hewn community singing out of 18th century psalmody. You'll appreciate the high spirits, genial conversation and the percussive sound of ale glasses chiming in.

Hanukah Shirim, "Klezmer Nutcracker" (Newport Classic). This Boston-based Klezmer band tranforms Tchaikovsky's Russian folk-rooted perennial to an Eastern European-style festival with wonderfully quirky adaptations--the fabled Cossack dance becomes "Kozatsky 'Til You Dropsky," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" becomes "Dance of the Latke Queens." The album is filled out with klezmer adaptations of pieces by Mahler, Chopin, Brahms and Satie. Shirim performs "Klezmer Nutcracker" Saturday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

Various Artists, "A Taste of Chanukah featuring Theodore Bikel and Hankus Netsky" (Rounder). Recorded at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, this is a grand overview of Chanukah music, ritual and folklore, performed by the always eloquent Bikel with help from the NEC Orchestra and Chorus, the Boston Community Gospel Choir, Cantor Morton Shames and humorist Chasia Segal ("Latke Cooking Demonstration"). The music ranges from bracing klezmer to rousing gospel ("Psalm 27"), from the playful doo-wop of "I Have a Little Dreydl" to the full community singing on "Maoz Tsur."

Various Artists, "Festival of Light 2" (Six Degrees). A follow-up to the 1996 Hanukah release featuring Peter Himmelman, Dave Koz (an elegant "Memories of a Winter's Night"), They Might Be Giants and the Frank London Big Band performing original compositions, as well as new arrangements of traditional works like the ancient Sephardic song "La Mujer de Terah" and the Klezmatics with Chava Alberstein on "I'm Going to Take Off My Shoes." Highlights include Himmelman's beautiful "A Love Transcending," performed by Neshama Carlebach; his own folk-rockish meditation, "In the Embryo of Silence"; and Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb's reflective "Mah L'kha Ha-yam Variation."

Local Chuck Brown, "The Spirit of Christmas" (Liaison). The godfather works his go-go swing to great effect on "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Silent Night," and turns in some bluesy balladry on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" showcases Brown's nimble guitar work, but two duets with the late Eva Cassidy, "The Christmas Song" and "That Spirit of Christmas," are at best average.

Helicon, "A Winter Solstice With Helicon" (Dorian). This Baltimore instrumental trio--Chris Norman on flutes, pipes and piccolo; Ken Kolodner on hammer dulcimer and fiddle; and Robin Bullock on guitar, cittern, fiddle and piano--comes together every year for a series of concerts at their hometown Meyerhoff Auditorium. This studio album preserves their seasonal offerings with music that ranges from graceful classical chamber music to spry Appalachian fiddle tunes. The repertoire embraces carols, hymns, folk songs and dance music from Kenya, China, Ireland, Mexico, France, Denmark and other nations, all in seamless arrangements.

Various Artists, "Hungry for Music Holiday '99" (Hungry for Music). A fund-raising effort featuring local bands with mostly original material. Of note: the Towering Beehive's breaking-down dramas at "The Office Christmas Bash," Blue Moon Cowgirls' high, lonesome plea to "Call Collect on Christmas," Honky Tonk Confidential's Hank Williams-style "Santa's Got That Ol' T.B.," June Star's fatalistic "Merry Christmas From Antietam" and Colleen Shanley and the Bloodhounds' torchy "Christmas in the Rain." Among the surf, blues, zydeco and assorted roots rockers, a soft-spun jazz duet version of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" by guitarist Rick Whitehead and bassist John Previti stands out. Available at some local music stores, or 703/237-9500. Performers from the album will appear at Iota on Dec. 17.

"The Santa Cause II: DC Bands for Children's Hospital" (Santa Cause Inc.) Another local fund-raiser also proves a mixed bag, with some mediocre offerings and some with promise. The latter include The Huge's "Senor Santa Claus" with a very Dave Matthews Band-edge, Mercy Creek's airy "Little Town of Bethlehem," as well as tracks by Cravin' Dogs,60 Acres, Bang Crosby and the World Class Beauties' caustic take on materialism, "Takin' a Bath on Christmas." At Tower, Olsson's and

Collections Various Artists, "A Very Special Christmas Live From Washington, D.C." (A&M). Taken from last year's White House concert, this fourth fund-raiser for Special Olympics is a mini-Eric Clapton festival. He backs harpist/vocalist John Popper on "Christmas Blues," Tracy Chapman on a Delta-blues styled "Give Me One Reason" and former girlfriend Sheryl Crow on "Merry Christmas Baby" and does a solo turn on "Christmas Tears." He then backs up the entire cast on the rocking finale, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Also aboard: rappers Run-D.M.C. remembering "Christmas in Hollis," rocker Jon Bon Jovi and hip-hop soul star Mary J. Blige.

Original Cast Recording, "Nuncrackers" (DRG). Those "Nunsense" folks have come up with a seasonal musical full of their patented theatrical silliness, ranging from the steamed celebration of "Santa's Little Teapot" to the convoluted travails of "Twelve Days Prior to Christmas" and the faux-country song, "Santa Ain't Comin' to Our House." There's the requisite sincerity ("The Christmas Box"), warnings about shopping procrastination ("364 Days"), theatrical ambition absent nun-like humility ("All I Want for Christmas") and other wry observations about the season and the responses it provokes, even among the zany nuns of Mount Saint Helen's Convent.

Various Artists, "Touched by an Angel: The Christmas Album" (Epic/Sony). Della Reese brings some warm, expressive soul to "If I Can Dream," an engaging track produced by gospel great Fred Hammond, but co-star Roma Downey comes slightly a cropper with harpist Phil Coulter on the maudlin, heavy-handed "Irish Blessing." Solid tracks include Crystal Lewis's gospel-soul collaboration with Kirk Franklin, "I Still Believe," Kenny Lattimore's inspirational "Miracles," Ashley Robles' somber "God's With Us" and, among the older tracks, Keb' Mo's original folk blues "Jingle Bell Jamboree."

Various Artists, "Winter Solstice on Ice" (Windham Hill). A two-CD companion to an A&E special featuring world champion ice skaters filmed on location at Kemi, Finland's fabled ice castle. The first CD is mostly instrumental, highlighted by the harp-driven Angels of Venice ("O Holy Night"), pastoral pianist George Winston (appropriately covering Vince Guardaldi's "Skating"), "X-Files" scorer Mark Snow (a charming, not spooky, "Snow Ride") and the L.A. Guitar Quartet offering a supple "Variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." The second CD is a bit slicker, with vocals from Jeffrey Osborne, Phil Perry, Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson and slick fusion from Hiroshima, the Rippingtons and Yanni. Relief comes with Tuck and Patti's elegant "Christmas Wish" and kalimba-player Samite's Peter Gabriel-like offering "Esawayo."

Various Artists, "ASCAP Presents . . . Holiday" (Disc Marketing). The performing rights organization presents the 25 most performed seasonal selections from its historic catalog, mostly in classic performances that include Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." Proceeds benefit ASCAPS's Music Scholarship and Music Literacy in Schools programs. Available from or 1-877/282-7227.

Various Artists, "Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas" (Rhino). Too many of the usual suspects. The highlights: majestic Mahalia Jackson on "Silent Night, Holy Night," charming Harry Belanfonte on the lilting "Mary's Boy Child," Jackie Wilson's stately "O Holy Night/Cantique de Noel," and a cast wide enough to embrace Gene Autry, Anita Bryant and the Roches.

Various Artists, "Santa's Greatest Hits" (Hip-O), More of the usual suspects, including classics from Mel Torme, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Gene Autry, the Chipmunks, Burl Ives and Eartha Kitt purring "Santa Baby."

Various Artists, "A Midnight Clear" (Forefront). An eclectic collection that brings together older recordings by such pop classicists as Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Lena Horne and tracks by edgier contemporary Christian music acts like Eli, Big Tent Revival and Rebecca St. James.

Irish Various Artists, "A Celtic Christmas: Peace on Earth" (Windham Hill). Celtic chamber folk with cinematic New Age edges. Best tracks feature fiddlers Paddy Glackin and Zoe Conway on "The Green Fields of Amerikay" and "An Clar Bog Deil," respectively, James Blennerhassett's chilly cello on a stately "The Heron" and harpist Laoise Kelly's graceful "Carolan's Farewell."

The Chieftains With the Vatican Orchestra, "Silent Night: A Christmas in Rome" (BMG/Wicklow). Featuring Ireland's musical ambassadors in a gorgeous mix of classical and traditional folk music with special guests like Sissel (the astounding vocalist from the "Titanic" soundtrack), the haunting Bulgarian Voices Angelite choir, recorder virtuoso Carlos Nunez, the Harlem Gospel Choir and the Glenstall Abbey Monks. This album emphasizes the spirituality and mystery of the season.

The Irish Tenors, "Home for Christmas" (Point). The hot tenor trio--John McDermott, Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan--perform folk and classical carols and hymns supported by a 78-piece orchestra. They sing together, often with great drama, on seven of the album's 17 tracks, but the best moments are the subtlest: McDermott's soft-spun "Suo Gan" and Kearns's "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."

Various Artists, "A Real Irish Christmas" (Atlantic). Drawn from the fabled Claddagh catalog--a major force in the preservation and promotion of traditional Irish music--this is mostly folk-rooted music embracing moods from jubilance to melancholy, played by master Irish instrumentalists. They include flautists Paul McGrattan and Paddy Taylor, fiddlers Tommy Potts and John Doherty, Chieftains harpist Derek Bell (on an elegant "Reminiscences of Sean O Riada"), concertina player Michael Tubridy, uilleann pipers Leo Rowsome and Willie Clancy and the Murphy family, which does amazing things with harmonicas.

Children's "Dr. Seuss: How the Grinch Stole Christmas/Horton Hears a Who!" (TCM Music/Rhino). Here are the soundtracks, with all dialogue included, from two classic television specials: 1966's "Grinch," narrated by Boris Karloff as the mean creature transformed by the true meaning of Christmas, and 1969's "Horton," featuring Hans Conreid. If the voice singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" sounds familiar, that's because it belongs to Thurl Ravenscroft, aka Tony the Tiger. Booklet includes a great interview with the shows' animator, Chuck Jones.

"Mary-Kate & Ashley's Cool Yule: A Christmas Party With Friends" (Kid Rhino). The twins are now 13 and apparenlty fearless: They open by rapping "I Do Believe It's Christmas Eve," serve up a salsa version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and try to swing through "Swingle Bells" before badly reciting "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Only for the die-hard devotees.

Various Artists, "First Christmas Record for Children" (Columbia/Legacy). Available for the first time on CD, this 1954 collection features familiar songs performed by Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Arthur Godfrey and others, as well as Captain Kangaroo's recitation of "The Littlest Snowman" (in which he sounds remarkably like Robert Aubrey Davis!). Bonus tracks include Gene Autry's 1949 classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and two miserable Mitch Miller sing-alongs.

Instrumental Paul Cardall, "The Christmas Box" (Narada). This companion album to Richard Paul Evans's best-selling seasonal story features delicate, ruminative piano that effectively captures the book's sentimental spirit and melancholy undertone. It mixes traditional carols and hymns with original meditations, some solo, some in small ensembles.

David Lanz, "The Christmas Album" (Narada). Drawn from the New Age pianist's five albums, including four tracks from his previous Christmas collection and three unreleased live tracks from a 1989 Christmas concert. Lanz's florid piano is the sonic equivalent of pretty paper and ornamental bows.

Various Artists, "Latino Christmas" (Narada). New Age meets worldbeat fusion with lite Latin flavoring: Such spice works best in the supple rumba of Cuba L.A.'s "Deck the Halls," the nuevo flamenco of Oscar Lopez on "Happy Christmas" and the Brazilian sway of Nando Lauria.

Desert Wind, "Christmas: Rhythms of the Holy Land" (Desert Wind). This is standard New Age/seasonal fare made somewhat interesting by the incorporation of Middle Eastern rhythms and instruments such as tablas, dumbeks and tars. It gives the keyboard and flute-focused music a tinge of exotica, but little else.

Phil Keaggy With the London Festival Orchestra, "Majesty & Wonder" (Myrrh). Though best known in the Christian music community, Keaggy is a world-class guitarist whose stylistic range and skills are well-displayed on this instrumental collection. Keaggy plays acoustic and electric guitar and mandolin in a program mixing seven holiday classics, including "O Holy Night" with six multi-tracked guitars and four original compositions, the best being "For Hearth and Home" and "Flight Into Egypt."

Raunchy "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" (Columbia). From the talking doo-doo's wicked Mel Torme album cover parody to the rude, gross, foul and funny songs inside, this is pure "South Park" madness. Highlights include "Merry [Expletive] Christmas," Mr. Garrison's combative challenge to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists around the world; Kyle's maudlin "The Lonely Jew on Christmas"; and several of Cartman's wailing wassails, as well as Satan cheerfully celebrating "Christmas Time in Hell" and Chef's paternity suite, "What the Hell Child Is This?"

Blowfly, "Blowfly Does XXX-Mas" (Pandisc). The veteran sex comic puts the XXX in XXX-mas with songs that may make fans of Luther Campbell and Howard Stern laugh but are otherwise lame and obvious takeoffs on well-known seasonal standards with new, lewd lyrics (only quotable example: "The 12 Lays of Christmas"). As the cover warns, these are "Explicit lyrics not suitable for airplay."

"Christmas in the Air" (Gastrocity Music). This year, the animals sleep, but stomachs rumble and built-in wind instruments produce a cornucopia of gas leaks, duly recorded and incorporated into such songs as "Jingle Belch," "O Can of Beans," "The 12 Days of Sickness" and "Belchers We Have Heard on High." Flatulence rules on this novelty collection, which is funnier in concept than execution. Thankfully, no accompanying scratch-and-sniff card.

Seasonal Soundbites

To hear a free Soundbite of the following songs, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press the corresponding number for each song. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

The Chieftains, "Silent Night: A Christmas in Rome" -- "Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker (My Heart Is Always With Jesus)" 8101

Helicon, "A Winter Solstice" -- "Kenyan Christmas Carol" 8102

The Ray Brown Trio, "Christmas Songs" -- "Away in a Manger" 8103

"A Taste of Chanukah" -- "Ocho Kandelikas" 8104

Riders in the Sky, "Christmas the Cowboy Way"-- "Corn, Water and Wood" 8105

Al DiMeola, "Winter Nights" -- "Zima" 8106

Fourplay, "Snowbound" -- "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" 8107

We Wish You a Merry Christmas" -- "Let It Snow" 8108

Andrae Crouch, "The Gift of Christmas" -- "Bethlehem" 8109

M-Pact, "The Carol Commission" -- "As December Fades Away" 8110

Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song" -- "The Christmas Song" 8111

From "A Real Irish Christmas" -- "Christmas Eve" 8112

Paul Cardall, "The Christmas Box" -- "The Stone Angel" 8113