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Perhaps it came upon a midnight unclear, but somewhere along the way, I became a Christmas-music fan. Everyone, even those responsible for it, admits it's the most annoying genre of pop music ever. Individual Christmas tunes have been known to routinely engender as much pop revulsion as "Billy Don't Be a Hero" or "The Night Chicago Died." Most of my fascination lies in the fact that despite its reputation for bubblegum, so many different kinds of musicians get inspired by, even respectful of, Christmas music. One can understand why Sinatra or Elvis wanted to do Christmas songs, but what could possibly have inspired Henry Rollins to do "Twas the Night Before Christmas"? And why do musicians who would never cover well-known rock or pop tunes think nothing of wading into "Jingle Bells" or "White Christmas"?

And who actually buys the stuff? Go to any record store after Halloween and you'll find racks of it. It's unreasonable to think that record labels large and small consider Christmas albums to be loss leaders. There is obviously a market--so much so that in Christmases past, Billboard magazine has intermittently instituted a Christmas-music chart. After many hot-toddy-sodden years of listening, it's clear to me now that Christmas recordings come in three basic varieties: those that are wholly listenable, those that are listenable for one cut and those better utilized as coasters or Frisbees. That is how I've organized this, the 1992 installment of New Times' annual survey of Tunes de Tannenbaum.

@subhed:Certain Survivors
@body:A Christmas tune season is only successful if a single with staying power emerges. This year, unlike the last few, there is a song that will unquestionably live on. The funny part is that it comes from the most unlikely source, the soundtrack album of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Twenty-nine years ago, Darlene Love sang the opening cut on Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, easily the best Christmas recording ever made. This year, with the help of the E Street Band (sans Springsteen and Roy Bittan), she opens this soundtrack with another classic called "All Alone on Christmas." Written by Little Steven Van Zandt, who also produces, "All Alone on Christmas" is a typical E Street romp complete with Clarence Clemons' sax licks and lyrical references to New Jersey. The only thing missing is an overdub of Macaulay Culkin being strangled.

Both of this season's most promising rock entries failed to make it into the stores. Portland, Oregon's T/K Records had its juicy Christmas compilation--featuring cuts by Nirvana, Sonic Youth and others--run into last-minute legal problems. T/K hopes it will be out next Christmas. And Sub Pop's promising Christmas single by Jon Spencer, "Big Yule Log Boogie," had problems with misprinted labels. Its fate is unknown.

Two surprising additions to the listenable category are benefit albums. Now in its fourth year, A Gift of Life, the Christmas album conceived by the San Diego Children's Hospital, is finally getting national attention. Produced by Michael Lloyd and sold exclusively by mail order or through Nordstrom stores, this annual project benefits the San Diego hospital and 30 other children's hospitals across the country. A Gift of Life Volume IV is a wide-ranging collection of new and old Christmas tunes done by everyone from Mickey Dolenz to Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Along with the expected mainstream dreck by the likes of Debby Boone, Natalie Cole, Tanya Tucker and Tony Orlando, there are several oddball cuts here that make this disc worth having. Jon Anderson (his name is misspelled "John" on the CD) uses his recognizable voice and shimmery keyboard sensibility for a very Yes-like rendition of "Where Were You." The album's lone hard-rock cut is a great one. Mouldy Michael Des Barres (best known as the voice in Led Zep clone Detective) trots out a rockin' band and his still-rowdy pipes for a surprisingly reverent "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

What's impressive here is that many of these cuts were done exclusively for this album. And in the album's best performance, John Jorgenson and Carlene Carter belt out "A 55 Telecaster Under My Tree," a new tune they co-wrote and a bona fide keeper.

But the main reason--aside from aiding a good cause--to own A Gift of Life Volume IV is to hear Frank Sinatra and what's left of his voice slowly, painfully wend his way through "Silent Night." The fact that Sinatra went back into the studio speaks reams about this project's prestige. Throughout his career, Sinatra has always shown a remarkable aptitude for Christmas music. His mid-'50s Christmas records remain some of the best ever made. Here with Frank Jr. at the keys, Old Blue Eyes shows he can still summon a scrap of the muse when he has to. Call me sentimental, but hearing the shadow of the world's most famous pipes brings a tear and a smile. Overall, this is the season's best compilation. To order this disc, call 1-800-858-8998.