Christmas on the cusp of sadness and melody

ANDY GILL ON ALBUMS; Various Artists Just Say Noel Geffen GED 25107

Of the mercifully few Christmas cash-ins released this year, this light-hearted compilation from the slacker generation is the most agreeable - and with proceeds partly donated to the human-rights charity Witness to provide camcorders for activists, at least you know the money won't be going to Michael Bolton's hairdresser.

Tacking between wacky and sincere, the album displays an engaging ambivalence towards the festive season. At one extreme, the late Ted Hawkins' version of "Amazing Grace" is as gently emotive as any carol; at the other, Sonic Youth's version of Martin Mull's comedy anti-heroin anthem "Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope" is as abrasive as possible.

In between, Elastica offer a cool, angular slant on "Gloria" and both The Posies' and Remy Zero's different takes on "Christmas" would be perfect for those who want a lonely indie Christmas. For serious melancholics, though, "Christmastime" by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn perches perfectly on the cusp of sadness and melody. More amusing by half is Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy" - "We shut it down harmoniously/ Rockin' softly/ 808 beat". The only other rap offering, The Roots' "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa", is a downbeat gangsta parody in which Millie exacts revenge for sexual abuse.

The biggest missed opportunity is by Southern Culture On The Skids, who try too hard to jollify "Merry Christmas Baby", the classic Charles Brown version of which is the finest Christmas song of all. Here, the group even manages to leave off the punchline "Well, I haven't had a drink this morning/ But I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree" - surely the finest of seasonal sentiments, and breathalyser-friendly, too.

WHITNEY HOUSTON

The Preacher's Wife

Arista 07822-18951-2

Even die-hard Whitney fanatics might baulk at this gospel-heavy soundtrack to the film. After The Bodyguard, it'll sell by the truckload, but it won't be played as often, stuffed as it is with over-arranged testaments of faith filled with Whitney's endless vocal gymnastics.

There is no entry-point left for the listener, Whitney having filled any spare moments with unnecessary elision, while the effect of choir and orchestra is to crowd out any authentic emotion. The Annie Lennox- penned stomper "Step By Step" is an obvious hit, but the impression is of indulgence in the sin of pride.

MO' THUGS

Family Scriptures

Epic/Relativity REL 486741 2

A strong late contender for single of the year lurks here; if it was available as a single, that is - the Poetic Hustlaz' "Searchin' 4 Peace" is a swaying anthem with softly insistent harmonies and cascading rap in the Bone, Thugs & Harmony tradition, except that the Hustlaz gaze at the heavens from their gutter rather than celebrate the sewer. Their sincerity packs more true gospel spirit into a song than Whitney manages in an album.

The diversity of the Cleveland scene covered by the album sets it aside from the dreary duopoly of the bi-coastal rap wars. This is one of the three or four best rap albums of the year.

TIGER

We Are Puppets

Trade 2/Island TRDCD

Working in the Supergrass/ Space vein, Tiger are quirkily melodic and engagingly primitive; at times, you'd swear they were from Wales, not Buckinghamshire. Like all Britpoppers, they lift liberally from the past - in their case, the buzzsaw grind of the Velvet Underground.

"Shamed All Over" is what "Lady Godiva's Operation" might sound like narrated by Ray Davies with hiccups. Dan Laidler's idiosyncratic vocal style, the band's unique selling point, sometimes seems built entirely from expostulations, and, on "Cateader Reddle", expressions even less reliant on English. Perhaps they are Welsh, after all.

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