It was never a surprise what hid inside those flat, square packages under the Christmas tree, although exactly which record album awaited under the bow

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Chestnuts toasted

Judging from this year's Christmas releases, it's best to stick with the classics.

It was never a surprise what hid inside those flat, square packages under the Christmas tree, although exactly which record album awaited under the bow built excitement until the 25th. Either Bing or Nat "King" would be crooning carols as presents were opened, instantly creating holiday cheer. Joy sprang forth as the disc was revealed to be the Beatles—not the Chipmunks' version of "Jingle Bells."

The jewelbox may be as obvious a giveaway as vinyl jackets were in Christmases past, but these days, if an artist doesn't release a new CD for fourth-quarter consum-erism, he or she strings together favorite Yuletide fare, then says, "I've always wanted to do a Christmas album—and now seemed to be the right time."

There's another sleighful on the shelves this December, without a single future standard among them. It's generally only classic carols or the classical Nutcracker that can invoke enough spirit to crush shopping-mall mayhem. Yet hope springs eternal with each new holiday musical crop.

In case a palm tree replaces the evergreen, your desert island seasonal survival kit should begin with few basic ingredients:

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (featuring the Ronettes & Crystals)

Elvis' Christmas Album (with his essential "Blue Christmas")

A Motown Christmas (for soulful classics by the Supremes, the Temptations, and others)

1998 offers several possible additions to this collection—and even more CDs that might as well be a bag of coal. However, if you can overlook a certain cornball element and the limited material (must everyone sing the same 25 songs?), at least one of the new releases of traditional carols, hymns, and new and vintage pop tunes should appeal.

Perennial favorites conjure the rich flavor of eggnog, the fresh scent of pine needles, and the warmth of a crackling fire. Ultimate Christmas (from the elves who brought you the Ultimate Dance Party albums) spans genres from the '40s to the '90s—including primary fare like Nat "King" Cole's "Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Johnny Mathis' "Sleigh Ride," and Judy Garland's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," as well as Pavarotti and Aretha.

Bing Crosby, The Voice of Christmas, the Complete Decca Christmas Songbook covers years 1935-56 with Mr. "White Christmas" himself, who made the Irving Berlin song the star of the movie Holiday Inn. Of the 44 songs culled from rare radio shows, highlights include the Hawaiian carol "Mele Kalikimaka."

Croon & Swoon collects 18 standards from a batch of perennials like Andy Williams (whose obligatory Christmas TV specials gave voice to "the most wonderful time of the year"), his predecessor Perry Como, and the velvet-toned Tony Bennett. Starbucks adds its own seasonal cocktail, Hi-Fidelity Holiday, including El Vez, Esquivel, James Brown, Bobby Darin, and Dean Martin. Those hitched to the swing bandwagon can return to the immortals with Yule B' Swingin', a "seriously delirious" Big Band compilation with Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Ella, and the like doing amusing, snazzy-styled originals such as "Cool Yule" and "(Everybody's Waitin' for) the Man with the Bag."

In the nostalgic bent, a seasonal bright light is the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Christmas Caravan. "The inevitable pounding of Christmas songs begins," proclaims Tom Maxwell on the CD insert, but the hip Zips provide a charming retro musical alternative that's almost all original.

Another record full of original songs comes from pop songstress Cyndi Lauper. Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life! features seven of her own songs, including the playful "Minnie & Santa." Cyndi also does Cajun and conga renditions of the new and old, such as Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Shawn Colvin's Holiday Songs and Lullabies offers poems, pretty lyrics, and Maurice Sendak cover art with the kiddies in mind. The Lovemongers' Here Is Christmas has Seattle's own Ann and Nancy Wilson performing their version of "Ave Maria" and several self-penned songs. A Very Special Christmas 3, the latest entry in the charity-oriented compilations, includes artists from Sheryl Crow to Dave Matthews.

Amid this year's many genre reinterpretations, there are a couple of reggae efforts: Natty and Nice, a collection of rasta stars' seasonal fare, and Yellowman's tongue-in-cheek A Very, Very Yellow Christmas. The rock arena offers Merry Axemas Vol. 2., a sequel to Steve Vai's guitar-god versions of tried-and-true classics (you haven't celebrated Christmas until you've caroled to Ted Nugent's "Deck the Halls"). In an R&B groove, Etta James' 12 Songs of Christmas rips and roars. In the spiritual vein, Christmas with Shirley Caesar provides appropriate reverence with the first lady of gospel, as does the Irish holiday music on the fourth edition of A Celtic Christmas.

Solo pianist Michael Chertock captures Christmas at the Movies with music from such seasonal celluloid classics as Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, plus the TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. To re-create the holiday-shopping mood of a department-story elevator in your living room, try The Best of Narada Christmas, a 28-track double-CD with David Lanz, Tingstad & Rumbel, and other "soothing" instrumentalists.

While we're on the topic of things you don't want to find under the tree (or on your stereo), at the top of the list for December 26 returns is Celine Dion's These Are Special Times. Aside from her schmaltzy oversinging and the fact that she throws in a duet with Andrea Bocelli (on "The Prayer"), Dion has the nerve to remake not just "Blue Christmas" but also John and Yoko's "Merry Xmas (War Is Over)."

Donny Osmond's Christmas at Home was thankfully only available on QVC last year but is now on store shelves—if you must have an Osmond Christmas, stick with the Brothers. Nashville's holiday fare this year has nary a steel guitar or fiddle; Martina McBride and Kenny Rogers are too orchestrated to be country, while Vince Gill tries (and fails) to inject a Sinatra touch. The bland Christmas with Babyface makes you grab for the Johnny Mathis.

Or perhaps you have all the holiday music you need. If so, it might be time to ask Santa for a magnifying glass, so you can read the words to those songs you thought you knew by heart.

 
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