You think achieving originality in pop music is tough the rest of the year? Try keeping things fresh during the season of 1,000 "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmases," "Joy to the Worlds" and "O Holy Nights." This year's new releases present the holiday season as a time for, depending on which artist's contributions you listen to, international brotherhood, spiritual rejuvenation, steamy romance, unabashed greed or Scrooge-like cynicism.
**** BARBRA STREISAND, "Christmas Memories," Columbia. Classy and classic. The burnished beauty of Streisand's voice just deepens with time, as does her skill at effortlessly negotiating sophisticated material in the Broadway tradition, even when it's dusted with a holiday-season reverie. It's been 35 years since her last Christmas album--no doubt people will be listening to this one for another 35 and beyond.
***those VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Now That's What I Call Christmas!" UMG. This double CD gathers nearly every major holiday-related pop and rock recording of the past 60 years. Classics by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen share the album with entries from such contemporary chart-toppers as Britney Spears, 'N Sync and Celine Dion. The absence of rock holiday classics by Chuck Berry, the Kinks and Elton John leaves it just shy of being the definitive Christmas compilation.
*** SUZY BOGGUSS, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Loyal Dutchess. This classy country-pop singer could have replaced "merry" with "swingin'" in the title, given the heavy Bob Wills influence, which turns out to be ideally suited to the Christmas spirit. Delbert McClinton, Ricky Skaggs and the late Chet Atkins join her on several tunes.
*** TONI BRAXTON, "Snowflakes," Arista. Forget smiling children's faces, peace on Earth and goodwill toward mankind. Braxton coos and purrs her way toward making Christmas the sultriest day of the year. Three holiday standards supplement the velvety R&B originals Braxton has written with husband and co-producer Keri Lewis and other collaborators, including Shaggy. For those who think Christmas equals romance.
*** DESTINY'S CHILD, "8 Days of Christmas," Columbia. This album says more about the red-hot R&B trio than about the holidays, which in this case is a good thing. Several of the season's most recognized songs are reworked so there's not a whiff of staleness about them. Such fresh-as-today arrangements may sound dated in a decade, but for this year at least, they work.
*** B.B. KING, "A Christmas Celebration of Hope," MCA. The blues master's first Christmas album benefits City of Hope, which adds a good cause as icing on the musical cake. King avoids the obvious in omitting "Blue Christmas," but exquisitely handles themes alternately downcast and playful in a milieu as urbane as blues can be.
* * * VARIOUS ARTISTS, "A Very Special Christmas 5," A&M. The latest in this series of fund-raisers for the Special Olympics benefits from thoughtful song selection and committed performances from Macy Gray, Dido, Stevie Wonder and Powder, the latter offering a nifty industrial-punk slant on Alvin & the Chipmunks' ''Christmas Don't Be Late.'' A lineup that also includes Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, B.B. King, Tom Petty, Eve 6 and Jon Bon Jovi stresses stylistic diversity over musical cohesiveness.
**those MICHAEL McDONALD, "In the Spirit--A Christmas Album," MCA Nashville. Despite the album's Nashville origins, McDonald traverses a smooth-jazz course that swerves through the glossy rhythm and blues and light soul-funk that's his trademark. He sprinkles a few standards among new tunes that he has written with a variety of collaborators that should soothe baby boomers throughout the holidays.
**those 38 SPECIAL, "A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night," CMC International. Last year Lynyrd Skynyrd delivered an unexpectedly charming holiday album, so why not these guys? The ballads that attempt to show these Southern rockers' sensitive side were unnecessary in this collection: As long as the guitars are blazing and the drums are kicking, everything's just fine.
**those VARIOUS ARTISTS, "MTV TRL Christmas," Lava/Atlantic. This grab bag offers something for everyone--everyone under 20, that is. The drawback is that something for everyone virtually ensures that no one will like everything. Syrupy teen pop from 'N Sync vies with brassy materialism from Willa Ford, which clashes with both the hard-edged rap-rock of P.O.D. and a straightforward Beach Boys salute from Sugar Ray on "Little Saint Nick." Several tracks are new this year; others have been around awhile. The highlights are cuts by Smash Mouth and Blink-182.
** JON SECADA, "The Gift," Epic. The Cuban-born, Grammy-winning singer follows the Percy Faith route on his first Christmas album, with full orchestra often thundering behind him. "Cuando el Tiempo Nos Castiga," one of two Spanish-language numbers, conveys more passion and character than the standard-issue carols he sings in English.
**those OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN, "The Christmas Collection," Hip-O. The Australian country-pop star has become a more seasoned vocalist over the last three decades. Her rendition of "Ave Maria" here won't make Streisand lose any sleep, but she does bring richer tone and sharper phrasing than you would expect to several holiday standards, including duets with Vince Gill, Kenny Loggins and Clint Black.