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@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.

When it comes to rock recordings, there are two that may never be topped. From 1990 comes the IRS Records compilation, Just in Time for Christmas, which includes the dB's "Home for the Holidays." A year later, First Warning Records released Lump of Coal, which includes Rollins' search-and-destroy "Twas the Night Before Christmas" as well as cuts by Drunken Boat, the Odds and Young Fresh Fellows.

Rhino Records may well be the king of Christmas-music companies, offering some 20 discs of the stuff. Its best, though, is the incomparable Blue Yule, a survey of Christmas blues numbers by 18 different artists including Lightnin' Hopkins, Louis Jordan and John Lee Hooker. Filled with nothing but essential cuts, this bargain-priced disc will always be the standard against which Christmas blues CDs are measured.

The other Rhino collection worth having is the two-CD Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits compilation. Every Christmas-music hit is here, from Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" to "The Chipmunk Song." Fans of soul and R&B music will want to ferret out Atlantic's Soul Christmas compilation. There you can find Otis Redding's cover of "White Christmas," Solomon Burke's "Presents for Christmas" and King Curtis blowin' "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?".

No matter what happens in this or any other Christmas season, the ultimate in Christmas-music albums was made in 1963. That's when boy genius/wall-of-sound guru Phil Spector (like Henry Rollins, another completely unlikely candidate) rounded up Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and cut A Christmas Gift for You. The good news is that this long-out-of-print recording has been digitally remastered for CD by the sunglass-encrusted master himself. Until this year, the only way to get this album was to buy an inferior, nonremastered copy or to purchase the Spector boxed set, Back to Mono. This year, though, both the cassette and CD are available individually. There is no higher Christmas-music pleasure than hearing Darlene Love do "White Christmas" or the Ronettes belt out "Frosty the Snowman.

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Robert Baird