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JAMS TO THE WORLD

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Knowing that it makes me an easy target for a Stetson-topped gunman, I still have to say that Garth Brooks' Beyond the Season is not my favorite country Christmas album. Although Travis Tritt's Loving Time of the Year and Riders in the Sky's Merry Christmas From Harmony Ranch are tied for second, my choice is Tish Hinojosa's Memorabilia Navidea on the tiny Watermelon Records label. Not a straight country recording by any means, Memorabilia is a half-Spanish, half-English celebration of Hinojosa's San Antonio childhood. An acquired taste, to be sure, this folky, quiet recording has an appealing emotional immediacy and displays one of the great undiscovered voices in American music.

Cajun and zydeco music have always had a strong connection to Christmas. The reason is simple: Louisianians are inveterate vultures for even the remotest excuse to eat, imbibe and play music.

In 1985, Louisiana's most infectious Cajun-music fan, Michael Doucet, put out his Christmas Bayou recording. One cut from that album helps lift the spirit of the latest installment in Rhino Records' Alligator Stomp Cajun-zydeco series, Cajun Christmas. Besides songs by Doucet and Beausoleil, this 17-cut CD features covers and original music by the Jambalaya Cajun Band, Harry Fontenot, Cajun Gold and Johnnie Allan. All of it is listenable, and standouts include swamp-pop star Allan's rendition of "It's Christmastime in Louisiana" and Doucet's own "Bonne Anne," which features guitarist Sonny Landreth.

When it comes to Christmas blues CDs, the discussion can really begin and end with the singles that vocalist-pianist Charles Brown made for King Records in the 50s. His versions of "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby" will never be equaled. This year, though, Chicago's Alligator Records decided to take the plunge and coax its artists into a Christmas collection. Most of Alligator's current artists are here. The only problem is that whether a blues tune is about losin' your baby, losin' your mind or waitin' for Santa, it all sounds the same. Every tune here is basic 12-bar blues with lyrics about Christmas. Most are textbook examples of electric Chicago blues. The only exceptions are Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica version of "Silent Night," Elvin Bishop's forgettable botch of "The Little Drummer Boy" and Katie Webster's stilted "Deck the Halls." This doesn't make the album bad, but it doesn't make it much of a Christmas recording, either. Worth having for the talent alone, this recording makes you wish for New Year's Eve rather than Christmas.

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

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Robert Baird