Christmas Spirit

Four albums stand out among this year's new releases. RECORDINGS

EVERY year some interesting new releases are added to the plethora of holiday record albums in the stores, and this year is no exception. Some of the newer approaches to Christmas music introduced in recent seasons remain popular. Mannheim Steamroller's ``A Fresh Aire Christmas'' and ``Mannheim Steamroller Christmas'' are on the pop-music charts of Billboard, a trade magazine. Also there are such new releases as Windham Hill's ``A Winter's Solstice III,'' featuring artists from that ``new-age'' label. And then there's the ``Merry Merry Christmas'' album from New Kids on the Block.

I sampled 15 or so of the 1990 releases and picked four to recommend, spanning a broad range of styles.

The first is Barry Manilow's ``Because It's Christmas'' (Arista ARCD-8644), the first holiday album by this master of melody. This beautifully crafted collection of old favorites and Manilow originals is a must for Manilow fans and anyone else who wants to check out this exceptionally talented but often unfairly maligned singer, composer, and arranger.

Here he deftly combines carols with original melodies. For instance,``Silent Night'' provides a rich orchestral introduction to the sad, bluesy, and amusing ``I Guess There Ain't No Santa Claus.'' Manilow uses ``Joy to the World'' as a springboard to a jazzy choral arrangement of ``Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'' Other Highlights include duets with K.T. Oslin on ``Baby, It's Cold Outside'' and on ``Jingle Bells'' with the ``girl group'' Expose. ``Because It's Christmas'' jumped from No. 81 to 49 on the Billboard pop-music charts in its third week to become the highest Christmas album listed there.

For those whose tastes run to the classical, a good choice is ``Christmas Remembered - Classic Holiday Chamber Music'' (North Star Records NS0024), featuring pianist Judith Lynn Stillman and friends. Christmas carols - including ``Joy to the World,'' ``O Holy Night,'' and ``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,'' along with selections from Handel's ``Messiah'' and Tchaikovsky's ``Nutcracker Suite'' - are played on combinations of piano, violins, viola, cello, flute, and guitar.

Among the finest are the lilting French carol ``Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella'' and the delightfully contrapuntal rendition of ``Ding Dong Merrily on High.'' As on the Manilow album, traditional carols are combined in ``mini-medleys'' with other music appropriate for the holidays (a Paganini/Liszt ``Etude'' with ``Deck the Halls,'' a Brahms ``Intermezzo'' with ``Silent Night,'' etc.).

For jazz fans, there's piano whiz Kevin Gibbs's ``Christmas Presence'' (Concord Records CCD-4432). Gibbs is a grown-up prodigy who started picking out Christmas carols with one finger on the piano at 17 months. Today he's doing a great job with both hands, not to mention the overdubbed synthesizer tracks - vibraphone and strings - which add a nice touch to the piano-bass-drums trio situation. Gibbs swings on ``God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,'' and gives ``Deck the Halls'' a novel treatment, taking the usually boisterous carol at a slow pace, basing its melody on the harmonies of a haunting Erik Satie waltz.

Gibbs digs in on ``What Child is This,'' moving away from his gentle Bill Evans style toward an approach based on the harmonies and attack of McCoy Tyner. Gibbs is joined by Paul Delnero on bass and Matthew Gordy on drums.

Pop musicians seem to have the hardest time making Christmas albums with real Christmas spirit, but ``Christmas in the City'' (CBS/WTG NK 46927) is an exception. It contains a collection of interpretations of mostly original songs performed and composed by young Latin artists, including Denise Lopez, Luis Enrique, Cover Girls, Willy Chirino, Louie Louie, and others.

Louie Louie settles into a bluesy groove on ``Santa Claus is Coming to Town,'' which sports a little rap section in the middle and ends with laughter and general horsing around - a fun cut. Brenda K. Starr gives a Supremes flair to Phil Spector's ``Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),'' and Luis Enrique, who sings and plays percussion, adds a Latin flavor to ``Tomorrow is a Holiday.'' The Cover Girls sing ``New York City Christmas,'' a dance track that's is sure to find its way into dance clubs this Christmas season. The disc is available in both Spanish and English.

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