The other new blues CD this season is Ichiban Blues at Christmas. The product of the growing Atlanta-based rap and blues indie, Ichiban, this one is actually more a soul recording than a straight blues disc. Crooners like William Bell and Kip Anderson do an excellent job belting out new originals like Bell's "Everyday Will Be a Holiday." The blues on this disc are supplied by Chick Willis and the Legendary Blues Band, who do a solid acoustic version of "One Day Before Christmas." If nothing else, this disc proves that Ichiban is moving up, talentwise, on the more established blues independents like Alligator and Blacktop.

@subhed:One-Cut Wonders
@body:To some, the somnambular strains of new-age music are the perfect tonic for the hectic holidays. My mother, for example, feels passionately that it's a nice change from what she deems "all the screaming you hear on the radio." In a world full of Nirvanas, I guess there's room for a little soothing, nonthreatening, barely alive music. It does have a way of lulling you into a peaceful slumber. But is that a recommendation for music or Valium?

Anyway, in the ever-expanding musical empire that is Tucson's new-age success story, Soundings of the Planet, there are three Christmas discs: What Child Is This, Joy to the World and Magic in December. I put these three under "One-Cut Wonders" because that's all I ever get to hear before I nod off. The best of the three is Magic in December, which features pianist Tom Barabas. It's full of ultradreamy piano renditions of "Silent Night," "What Child Is This?" and other favorites. Barabas also includes two originals. Surrounding his piano with wispy puffs of lush, synthesized string sounds, Barabas concocts just the thing for those post-Christmas dinner naps. Turn off the mediocre bowl game and tune in the new age--it helps you get your z's.

A little more lively on the new-age scale--a gauge whose most rambunctious moments register just above having a pulse--is Narada's Christmas Collection Volume 2. The only difference between this and the Soundings recordings is that this sampler includes all kinds of instruments and 15 different artists. The best of the crop, pianists Spencer Brewer, Ira Stein and David Lanz, are all undeniably talented musicians. And to be fair about the material, Lanz and guitarist Paul Speer do get up a head of synthesized steam in their version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (they substitute "rock" for "hark"). As with all Narada albums, the CD booklet here is superb, illustrated with photos and paintings, and includes brief but informative notes on each piece. In the long history of Christmas music, no one genre has contributed more--good and bad--than country music. Over time, many of those singles and album masters have been packaged and repackaged until it is now possible to find identical versions on several CDs at once. One new compilation from Laserlight, Christmas in Nashville, is worth having only for the digitally remastered version of Donna Fargo's sweeping version of "O Holy Night." @subhed:For Skeet-Shooters Only

@body:One of the enduring mysteries of Christmas is why crooners feel obliged to make Christmas recordings. Outside of Sinatra, Elvis and a few others, most end up as unmitigated disasters. Neil Diamond's The Christmas Album is that and less. Even great personnel like guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Russ Kunkel and several fine children's choirs can't save this ill-conceived mess. One listen and you'll be digging out Hot August Night to clear your head. It's a natural that the season's most nauseating female-crooner recording would come from that champion of family values, Amy Grant. Looking ever so thoughtful in the cover shot, decked out in red cape and white lace, Grant shows again that when it comes to emotional and intellectual depth, she and Dan Quayle are alone at the bottom. But like Quayle, Grant knows the value of doing anything for money. A Christmas recording completes her transition from low-paid Christian singer to megabankable pop star. It doesn't really matter that nothing here rises above mediocre. Her devoted fans would buy an entire recording of her banging on a tambourine. Perhaps next year Mojo Nixon will turn his energies to an Amy Grant paean. This woman has to be stopped.

Remember when medical science dubbed refined sugar "white death"? Well, you could eat a Roadmaster full of white death and feel less sweetened than you will after one listen to Manhattan Transfer's innovatively titled The Christmas Album. I guess you can portray this as sophisticated vocal jazz for city dwellers. But it sounds like the kind of sweet nonsense GE used to dub in behind its December shaver commercials. Remember to brush after every listen.

@subhed:Ghosts of Christmas Past
@body:Along with this season's bountiful harvest, there are several older discs that no well-outfitted Christmas-music collection can be without. Because Christmas music has an infinite shelf life, most of these discs are still readily available. In country music, Warner Bros. finally got around to remastering and reissuing 1975's Light of the Stable by Emmylou Harris. The other country CD worth looking for is Sugar Plums, a Sugar Hill Records compilation featuring Peter Rowan, Doc Watson and John Starling.

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