Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight On...

updated 12/15/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

>Music for the Holidays

WHAT A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS Louis Armstrong and friends Old Pops is in fine, convivial form, and the "friends" include Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Lionel Hampton, Mel Tormé (singing his own "The Christmas Song"), Dinah Washington and the bands of Gordon Jenkins, Benny Carter and Duke Ellington. (Hip-O)

CHRISTMAS AT THE BILTMORE ESTATE Judy Collins Few instruments are as well-suited to the ideally sweet, pure sound of Christmas music as Collins's still-crystalline voice, which glows in this live, mostly traditional concert at a North Carolina estate. Collins has written three new songs, one of which sets "The Night Before Christmas" to music. (Elektra)

THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM Nitty Gritty Dirt Band A warm, intimate collection mixing traditional tunes with more recent holiday songs like Steve Goodman's "Colorado Christmas," this cozy album features guest vocals by Alison Krauss and a visit from NGDB alumnus John McEuen. (Rising Tide)

CHRISTMAS EVE AND OTHER STORIES Trans-Siberian Orchestra This strikingly original concept album, conceived and executed by rock composer-producer Paul O'Neill, features lots of concert rock chords, big choirs and a story about an angel confronting war on Earth. Marlene Danielle, an original Cats cast member, adds her big voice to the proceedings. (Lava/Atlantic)

CHRISTMAS IS COMING HOME B.J. Thomas Sometimes the blandest performers make the best Christmas albums, and this mix of mostly new and a few traditional songs is a warm, ingratiating package. (Warner Resound)

COUNTRY CARES FOR KIDS Various artists Alabama's Randy Owen spearheaded this all-star album to benefit St. Jude children's hospital in Memphis. Highlights: Sammy Kershaw's duet with daughter Erin, 11, and Bryan White's version of "When You Wish upon a Star," not usually considered a holiday song but always a pleasure to hear. (BNA)

CHRISTMAS THROUGH A DIFFERENT WINDOW Ray Stevens Nothing here equals Stan Freberg's "Green Christmas" or "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Christmas at Ground Zero," but Stevens's satirical take on Christmas commercialism and the bubba subculture is often funny. (MCA Nashville)

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