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Silver and Gold (and Green)

Some artists make holiday records for the beauty, not the bucks

Jewel, Kenny G, Ringo Starr, the Beach Boys, Bill Engvall, Celine Dion, Take 6, The Irish Tenors, Paul Brandt, 98š and Natalie Cole with her deceased father (again). These are just some of the artists who are releasing Christmas records this year. And they are all so utterly worthless that even the local used CD store won't take them.

Every year store racks are hit by a blizzard of holiday records, most filled with a certain spirit, all right. The spirit of commerce. But nearly everybody likes Christmas music, a feeling no doubt instilled by family memories and tours of duty as choristers. And if there's one thing that brings the true spirit of Christmas into our hearts, it's the music of the season.

But you have to despise most Christmas albums. The self-serving dreck dished up, almost perfunctorily, by popular artists grows more irksome every year. Of the artists who record seasonal music, 99 percent see it as a way to cash in on the holidays, rarely as a serious attempt to address and explore a body of music with the potential for truly touching results.

The country music industry is a particularly bad offender. It is de rigeuer for country artists to make Christmas albums at some point in their careers. And most of these records sound like quick-take afterthoughts, which is what most commercial country sounds like anyway. The big hitter this year from Nashvegas is Garth Brooks & the Magic of Christmas, offered in typical Brooksian fashion as a "limited edition."

Fellow superstars Reba McEntire and George Strait also have released Christmas discs, neither much more than a come-on to devoted fans.

Frankly, this seasonal shelling is enough to make even the hippest Gen-Xer appreciate Fred Waring & The Pennsylvanians and the Vienna Boys Choir. But take hope, those of you who truly enjoy holiday spirit, good cheer and creative, quality music. There are at least a few pop Christmas albums, most of them holdovers from years past, still considered must-haves, each highly individual, all musically worthy.

The Bells of Dublin by the eminent Irish folk group the Chieftains is masterful. "O Come All Ye Faithful," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and obligatory Irish jigs are all delivered with faithful yet inventive care. The bonuses are the guest stars: Elvis Costello, who sings a droll tune he wrote with chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney; Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who deliver two lovely French-Canadian seasonal songs; Jackson Browne, who brings to life "The Rebel Jesus"; Marianne Faithfull, who sings a dusky "I Saw Three Ships A Sailing"; and Rickie Lee Jones, who sings "O Holy Night."

At 23 tracks strong, this 1991 record offers variety. And this year Moloney releases A Christmas in Rome for the devout.

Almost equally winning if not heartwarming is Seven Gates: A Christmas Album by Ben Keith & Friends. This 1994 country-folk set of mainly traditional tunes boasts a banner list of players: Ben Keith, who's one of the most inventive steel guitar and Dobro players; Neil Young, who plays alongside Keith and is one of the album's co-producers, lends his distinctive voice to a quaint take of "Greensleeves" (and also shares vocals with Johnny Cash on "The Little Drummer Boy"); and Rusty Kershaw and Pat McLaughlin, who perform a back-porch Cajun version of "Christmas Time's A Comin'." The bulk of this collection features atmospheric and evocative instrumentals in which Keith's steel and Dobro shine.

Instrumentals may be great, but to most revelers, Christmastime is about caroling. So who better to serenade egg-noggins than the masters of country harmony, the Louvin Brothers. On the 1997 rerelease of their Christmas with the Louvin Brothers album of decades ago, siblings Charlie and Ira eschew their Southern gothic sense of heartbreak and tragedy and play it straight. With simple, old-school Nashville backing and rustic yet rich vocals from the Louvin Brothers, this set is particularly affecting, marred only by occasionally sappy chorus singing directly out of Music City's hit factory.

Like a fine piece of folk art, this Louvin Brothers holiday set is simple and sincere in the best ways. Also of note from the world of classic country is a recent rerelease of the 1965 gem Christmas with Buck Owens & His Buckaroos, which contains the delightful Owens chestnut "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy (Daddy Looked a Lot Like Him)."

Returning to the racks from that era is A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, an album on which the famous Wall of Sound is scaled by such noted Spectorites as Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. The final track, "Silent Night," with a spoken message from Spector himself, provides a bizarre coda, especially since Spector happens to be Jewish. But for all the collections of carols the pop music world has given us over the years, this collection, which covers everything from "White Christmas" (with a Los Angeles reference) to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," gets the seasonal spirit right while never sacrificing pop élan and sassiness. And take note: The disc, reissued in 1989, is included in the Spector boxed set, Back to Mono (1958-1969), which makes an ideal gift for any serious fan of rock's best moments.

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