The opener, Tom Petty's new "Christmas All Over Again," is, despite a huge band, poisoned by the presence of today's most ubiquitous musical mediocrity: Jeff Lynne. This album does, however, include what is perhaps the latest Christmas classic, with Bonnie Raitt and Charles Brown redoing Brown's classic "Merry Christmas Baby." There is also Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas Is," the best new Christmas rap of the season. The best cut here, however, isn't a Christmas song at all. And it's by the woman Sinatra wants to "kick in the ass." It's Sin‚ad O'Connor's little-girl-voice cover of Dylan's love, lust and the Lord tribute, "I Believe in You." To do what comes naturally to all real Americans, I have to bash this bald bigmouth and say that there's more than a hint of self-serving irony in her singing a tune whose first verse ends with, "They'd like to drive me from this town/They don't want me around." But she also adds, as she always has when properly inspired, real emotion to her performance. And along with offbeat artists or material, emotion is what this recording needs more of.

Lost in the sea of controversial products Time Warner Inc. has marketed in the past year is the potentially explosive Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. As disconcerting as it may be to hear a longhaired, drug-doin' rocker tear into "Jingle Bells," that's nothing compared to what Quincy Jones, Sounds of Blackness, Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau have done here to Handel's most-remembered work.

If you're a purist with a family history of strokes or acts of passion, this recording probably isn't for you. Adding drum machines, gospel arrangements, samples and a dash of Arethalike screeching to one of the most beloved pieces of music in all of Western civilization is, for some, a heinous act. In the third cut, "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted," Lizz Lee and Chris Willis even use a sample of the English Chamber Orchestra's traditional version. It's provocation enough to make classical-music fans mount recoilless rifles on their Volvos and ride around like Somali gunmen.

Of course, that's half the fun. For those with an open mind--and no expectation of hearing an imposing Messiah--this recording is a refreshing exercise in iconoclasm. And while part of the plan here is to loosen, contemporize and poke a little fun at this big, serious work, there is also a serious side to this project. It's the reverse of the old rock n' roll phenomenon where white folks stole black music and made it their own. While Messiah may never become an enduring part of the Afro-American musical experience, the effort to graft black musical forms such as spirituals, jazz and hip-hop to it is a bold move that pays interesting dividends. In "Glory to God," for example, the serious Boys Choir of Harlem joins with a rap group, Leaders of the New School, for a religious street funk that is unlike anything I've heard.

To pose the ultimate value judgment-rhetorical question: What would Handel have thought? He'd have covered his ears and hated it. No question. But he might have been flattered by the guiding principle here: that Messiah's musical essence and religious fervor are powerful enough to transcend any stylistic concerns. Plus, there's the idea of building a new audience. The "Hallelujah" chorus here has the flavor of a revival meeting. And while that won't win any fans among Messiah devotees, it may convince a new generation to listen.

Two of the groups on Soulful Celebration also have new Christmas albums of their own. On Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs, the Boys Choir of Harlem is joined by jazz vocalist Diane Reeves and pianist James Williams for a jazzy program of Christmas favorites. This is not choral music … la the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Harlem choir is one of the most dynamic forces in choral music today, capable of everything from Mozart's Requiem to "A Night in Tunisia."

The choir has always had a strong connection to jazz, and here it shows in the swinging arrangements, punchy, hornlike vocal parts and the group's sensitive accompaniment to Reeves. Like Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, this disc will shock fans of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's plodding way with a carol. Old classics like "O Holy Night," "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" are given new life. That's the beauty of this album. Even farther out is the Sounds of Blackness Christmas recording, The Night Before Christmas--A Musical Fantasy. This unprecedented vocal ensemble mixes outright pop-funk numbers like its own "Soul Holidays" with nearly indistinguishable covers of standards like "Away in a Manger."

Although the voices burn brightly throughout, many of the arrangements here are too sweet or try too hard to be different. Most of these problems can be explained in two words: Jimmy Jam. He produced this album and it shows. This recording is so dance-beat heavy it needs a handle and carrying case to lighten the load. Worst of all, rather than something slow and sexy or noisy and industrial, the dancetrax here are saccharine, relying on overlapping rhythms and overproduced vocal arrangements that overpower the melodies and often strangle the Sounds' vocal might. Exploring the limits of vocal music is admirable. But Jimmy Jam ain't the one to lead that voyage of discovery. Overall, though, the three new African-American albums--Soulful Celebration, Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs and The Night Before Christmas--constitute the most exciting infusion of new energy that Christmas music has had in a long time. Under the utterly demented category (which can also be tedious and boring) comes Mojo Nixon's first Christmas outing, Horny Holidays. One listen will evoke that eternal question: What would Mary and Joseph, not to mention Mrs. Claus, say about a Christmas carol containing words like "fuck"?

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