Holiday Gift Guide : Calendar’s little helpers offer suggestions in pop, jazz, holiday, family and classical music, plus videos, computer games and books. (Good news: They’re easy to wrap.) : HOLIDAY! : Welcome Alternatives to Yuletide Chestnuts

<i> Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer</i>

Yes, it’s that time of year when musicians by the score turn to songs of holiday cheer or reflection, reminding us of that inescapable truth of the season: Mel Torme is cleaning up.

His modern classic “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” written with Robert Wells, is covered countless times anew, while other singers and songwriters take their best shots at creating evergreens that will leave them sitting as pretty in their golden years.

We’ve mostly selected collections that tap modern-day angst, evoke a sense of wonder or vividly conjure a holiday world of their own.

* * * 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS, “You Sleigh Me!” Atlantic. The most inspired outing of 1995. The gem among many fine alternative-rock and nu-folk performances is Jill Sobule’s rendition of “Merry Christmas From the Family,” another morbidly funny character study by Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen. The icing on the plum pudding is that some proceeds benefit Hale House, which cares for babies born with drug or alcohol addictions or HIV.


* * * LOREENA McKENNITT, “A Winter Garden,” Warner Bros. McKennitt’s Celtic-mystic foundation makes the five songs on this EP at once ethereal and earthly. Ancient meets modern, familiar meets exotic--peaking with the hypnotic Irish-Middle Eastern treatment of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

* * * GARY HOEY, “Ho! Ho! Hoey,” Surfdog/Zoo. The hotshot guitar-slinger creates appropriate instrumental arrangements for each tune, from the swaggering Texas blues on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the haunting treatment of “White Christmas,” the only new version worth listening to a second time.

* * MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER, “Christmas in the Aire,” American Gramaphone. How about some Christmas wallpaper to go along with the wrapping paper? The runaway bestseller among holiday albums so far is another glistening synthesizer workout--the kind of thing to throw on when you really don’t want to listen.

* * * CLINT BLACK, “Looking for Christmas,” RCA. Tops among the slew of new country offerings. Black and songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas have turned out 10 holiday-themed originals that revel in the Christmas spirit while stopping short of wallowing in it.

* * 1/2 LUTHER VANDROSS, “This Is Christmas,” Epic/LV. The sultry R&B; singer largely croons about warm, cuddly celebrations for two. One of the few times things get out of hand is his overblown run at “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

* * * THE BLUE HAWAIIANS, “Christmas on Big Island,” Restless. This quartet of L.A. lounge- haoles finds a happy medium between camp and genuine feeling in these Hawaiian-guitar-led renditions of old favorites. Off-kilter choice of the year.

* * ALL-4-ONE, “An All-4-One Christmas,” Blitz/Atlantic. These teen heartthrobs have crafted the most rocking and soulful version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” since . . . the Partridge Family.


The annual flood of Christmas re-releases shows no sign of abating. Among the standout new-for-'95 collections are James Brown’s “Funky Christmas” (Polydor), “The Ventures Christmas Album” (Razor & Tie) and the incomparable Mahalia Jackson, “Mahalia Sings Songs of Christmas” (Legacy/Columbia).

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (f a ir), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).