THE right mix of holiday music creates the perfect atmosphere for everything from trimming the tree and baking Christmas bread to wrapping gifts and catching up with family and friends. This season's music releases offer a wide enough range to fit every activity.
Pop artists continue to cash in on the Christmas cheer by recording a mix of traditional favorites along with some original tunes. Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas (Columbia) is a standout in this category. Play this CD while you're decorating the tree and the entire family will be dancing around the living room.
Carey's rich, clear voice brings traditional Christmas classics to a new level. Her gospel version of ``Silent Night'' will make you feel as if you have a Missionary Baptist church choir in the house.
``Joy to the World'' shows off the soprano's remarkable range, and ``O Holy Night'' has never sounded as good as this soulful, throaty version. The original songs on the album range from the rocking ``All I Want for Christmas Is You'' to the mournful ``Miss You Most (At Christmas Time),'' with a children's choir singing backup on ``Jesus Born on This Day.''
Natalie Cole's voice can take the chill off the coldest winter day, and her Holly and Ivy (Elektra) Christmas album will keep the living room warm long after the fire has died down. Cole starts off with a jazzy ``Jingle Bells'' and includes ``No More Blue Christmas,'' a contemporary song about overcoming loneliness during the holiday season. The big-band sound on this album is perfect for festive gatherings.
For fans of contemporary country music, Trisha Yearwood offers The Sweetest Gift (MCA). Yearwood's husky, heartfelt voice moves from serene in ``Sweet Little Jesus Boy'' to rollicking in ``Reindeer Boogie.'' The album offers a nice mix of slow-paced and fast-moving tunes and breaks away from overplayed Christmas carols.
The legendary Judy Collins rings in the holiday season with Come Rejoice! (Mesa). The 14 tracks include a new version of Collins's 1971 hit ``Amazing Grace'' and several original songs written by the singer. ``Song for Sarajevo'' gives pause to holiday cheer in tribute to the children living in war-torn Bosnia. The St. Thomas Boys Choir gives the song a haunting feel.
``All on a Wintry Night,'' another new song written by Collins, is awkward at points with a forced rhythm to the lyrics. But her ``Come Rejoice'' works better, and the purity of Collins's voice carries traditional Christmas tunes like ``Away in a Manager'' and ``Good King Wenceslaus'' to new heights.
Disco diva Donna Summer brings her Christmas Spirit (Mercury) to the record stores this year. She sticks to traditional Christmas music for the most part but provides rich orchestration to enhance the sound. At times, however, the singer spends too much time talking during her songs instead of singing.
Look to Ghana-native Kofi for this year's funkiest version of ``Silent Night.'' A Very Reggae Christmas (Atlantic) will help you pick up the pace on Christmas afternoon when the house is strewn with wrapping paper, and it's time to clean up. The reggae theme works well on such favorites as ``Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' and ``The Little Drummer Boy.''
Kenny G's Miracles: The Holiday Album (Arista) is perfect for quiet evenings at home or get-togethers with family and friends. The pop saxophonist gives some old favorites a new sound and includes two originals of his own. ``Silver Bells'' soars, and you can almost see the snow dance to a jazzy ``White Christmas.'' This is perfect background music for any holiday party.
Another possible stocking-stuffer for the easy-listening crowd is Christmas Present (Mesa) from Rick Braun, who plays trumpet and fluegelhorn. His jazz-inspired interpretations of classics such as ``Do You Hear What I Hear?'' and ``The Little Drummer Boy'' give new insights to familiar tunes. The horns mix with percussion for a fresh sound. This is the perfect substitute for the Christmas Muzak that still reigns in many homes on the Christmas holiday.
The most exotic holiday album released this year is from the Nature Company. Composed entirely of animal sounds, A Wild Christmas brings a bit of the outdoors inside for the winter holidays. Traditional Christmas carols are ``sung'' by humpback whales, bats, chimpanzees, dolphins, and hippos, just to name a few.
Some sounds are natural animal songs, but others are digitally transformed. Dolphin voices are elongated to sound like violins, and walrus calls are shortened to sound like a bass.