All I Want For Christmas...

This year, for once, we got our vicarious shopping done early. Avoided the crowds coughing germs on us, beat the lousy weather, maxed out the credit card before the Fed could jack up interest rates any further -- we're in a holiday mood! It was the elections that did it, of course. We can almost taste those coming tax cuts -- wait'll you see all the books and CDs we'll be able to buy next Christmas -- and things had been getting a little out of hand culturally. Thank goodness it's no longer ""cool'' to elevate smut and negativity in the name of art! This holiday-gift roundup's only affront to cherished values is that ""Ren + Stimpy'' video, unless you count the ""Nude in Art'' playing cards. No gangsta rap, no heavy metal, no tickets to weirdo performance pieces. This is our Contract for Christmas: if it's over the top, it doesn't go under the tree. 'Tis the season.

It's hard to be an opera-lover and get with the new America-first program, but American composer Carlisle Floyd's 1955 American opera, Susannah (Virgin. 2 CDs), has a topflight American cast: a heartbreaking Cheryl Studer, a seductive Samuel Ramey. Set in rural Tennessee and based on the Bible -- how mid-'90s can you get? -- it has the lilt of a square-dance tune and the passion of a revival meeting. Curl up and listen under the Operabet cotton blanket (Metropolitan Opera Guild, 800-892-2525. $50), with A-to-Z characters (Aida, Brunnhilde, Carmen . . .) woven in. All foreigners, but the thing itself is ""crafted with pride in U.S.A.''

Fiddle freaks will beg Santa for Jascha Heifetz: The Complete Collection (BMG. 65 CDs. Not a misprint); it'll be hell on the reindeer. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter (Philips) has selected his best performances and kept it down to a modest 21 CDs. Most were recorded live, so sound varies; musicianship, never. Not live enough? You could get a loved one and yourself -- don't forget yourself -- tickets to next May's Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. All the symphonies, by the Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonic and Mahler's own Vienna Philharmonic -- plus the songs, by the likes of Thomas Hampson and Anne Sophie von Otter. Your airline may offer frequent-flier miles for sitting through the Symphony of a Thousand. If you prefer the virtual, the digital and the interactive, Robert Winter's CD-ROM Dvorak's Symphony No. 9: From the New World (Voyager. For Macs, $59.95) parses the music and leads you out into the cultural history.

Irving Berlin rose from rags to riches, stayed rich, lived to 101 and still had his troubles. This may not be the time of year to read about the secret sorrows of the man who wrote ""White Christmas,'' but Mary Ellin Barrett's Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir (Simon & Schuster. $23) is a literate, moving account. Berlin, Irving, didn't make The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (St. Martin's. $50), but Berlin, Ben (""Estonian bandleader, pianist, and arranger''), did. You know -- recorded ""Piccolo Pete'' back in '29? This essential reference work now sells for the price of a box set somebody will listen to half of once.

No such problem with a Bud Powell box; two superb ones are out for what would have been the master be-bop pianist's 70th birthday. The Complete Bud Powell on Verve (5 CDs) has Powell in his prime, from 1949 to 1956, and a 150-page book that may be the most informative such mini-bio ever. The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (4 CDs) has stuff from the late '40s, then jumps to the early-'60s recordings some cognoscenti prize for their weirdness.

The dry, intense post-Coltrane tenor-player Joe Henderson has become a star doing theme albums -- Strayhorn, Miles -- but his own best original tunes are on The Milestone Years (8 CDs). It's been a good year for tenor-sax records: Joshua Redman's Moodswing (Warner) has been hyped, but not overhyped; it's a killer. So is The Journey (Columbia), by the less celebrated David Sanchez, one of Dizzy Gillespie's last proteges, and JC on the Set (Columbia), by the ferocious Detroit native James Carter. The old Riverside History of Classic Jazz (3 CDs) was the anthology for ""moldy figs'' who deemed bop anti-jazz; at last it's on disc. Obscure stuff from the greats (Satch, Bessie, Bix), great stuff from the obscure (Original Memphis Melody Boys) and ""Slidus Trombonus,'' by Sodero's Military Band. Meanwhile, back on the cutting edge, New York composer-drummer Bobby Previte's Slay the Suitors (Avant) and Hue and Cry (Enja) have such smart players as Don Byron weaving in and out of many-hued, many-textured ensembles.

Each disc of Celebrate Broadway (RCA, 6 CDs) is a mini-revue with major talent: ""Beautiful Girls'' has Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Barbara Cook, Julie Andrews and Bernadette Peters. The CD-ROM Vid Grids (Geffen/Jasmine Multimedia. For Windows, $34.95) does what true Broadway fans long to do: slices up videos by Guns N' Roses and Soundgarden and scrambles the pieces. You have to put them together before the music stops.

Well, you don't have to. You could always hole up with Tommy Dorsey/Frank Sinatra: The Song Is You (RCA. 5 CDs) and pretend time has stopped; it's fun for the first hour. Sinatra once pointedly called George Jones America's second-best singer; Cup of Loneliness (Mercury. 2 CDs) is early, raw and scary. The Everly Brothers achieved a near-perfect synthesis of country anguish, rock-and-roll energy and teen appeal; Heartaches and Harmonies (Rhino. 4 CDs) has the essential Everly oeuvre. If the second half lags, it's only because the first half would make anything sound lame. Since Dolly Parton's career has the same problem -- her accountant would disagree -- the live, unplugged Heartsongs (Columbia) is a step in the right direction -- backward. Way to Blue (Rykodisc) is a single-CD retrospective of the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who OD'd on antidepressants in 1974; his stately acoustic arrangements have a tragic perfection that seems not of this earth.

On Lead Belly's Last Sessions (Smithsonian Folkways. 4 CDs), from 1948, they kept the tape rolling as the great African-American songster ran through much of his vast repertoire of blues, hollers, gospel, pop and protest songs, pausing to comment or reminisce. Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino. 2 CDs) surveys three decades of blues-based, Indian-influenced ""American primitive guitar,'' music as strong and lean-lined as a Shaker church. Young Doc Watson played electric guitar in a country band, but on his first recordings (1960-62), Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley (Smithsonian Folkways. 2 CDs), he got back to basics with old medicine-show banjo-man Ashley, fiddler Fred Price and singer Clint Howard. His greater sophistication never jarred with their simplicity; the music hasn't aged a day.

Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story 1959-1965 (Abkco. 2 CDs) illuminates a cultural moment: when the sacred and profane strands in black American music gave birth to soul. There's little of Cooke's own singing: SAR is the label he founded to record both R & B (Johnnie Taylor) and doo-wop-inflected gospel (the Soul Stirrers). Yet his presence can be felt in every track: the gospel moves; the R & B stretches toward heaven.

Oh, speaking of which. We look forward to each year's new Christmas albums about the way we look forward to the new cat books. Still, The Spirit of Christmas Past (Nimbus) has operatic immortals singing such seasonal evergreens as ""Ave Maria'' (Ponselle) and ""Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht'' (Schumann-Heink) -- plus Basil Rathbone reciting ""The Night Before Christmas.'' And If Every Day Was Like Christmas (RCA) borrows from Elvis Presley's five holiday albums, from rootsy (""Merry Christmas Baby'') to cutesy (where do we start?). But what sold us was the 3-D pop-up of a snow-covered Graceland that springs in your face whenever you open the package. O come, all ye faithful.

The trouble is, we're supposed to be happy at Christmas,'' writes Elisa Segrave in her introduction to The Junky's Christmas and Other Yuletide Stories (Serpent's Tail. $12.99). We know we said no downers this time, but such a bracingly unsentimental collection -- including William Burroughs's sardonic title story -- will cheer misanthropes and malcontents who might feel excluded at this glad time of year.

You want inclusive? Even encyclopedias aren't encyclopedic enough to encompass Flannery O'Connor, Jerry Clower and Memphis Minnie. Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor (Norton. $27.50) has 'em -- plus Louis Armstrong holding forth ""On an Empty Stomach.'' A book to read till it falls apart. Blount reprints a scene from Tennessee Williams's ""Baby Doll'' film script; equally funny -- if inadvertently so -- is this opening line of Williams's, exhumed in First Fiction: An Anthology of the First Published Stories by Famous Writers (Little, Brown. $22.95, paperback $12.95): ""Hushed were the streets of many-peopled Thebes.''

Buzzing are the streets of not-many-peopled Eden, N.Y., home of the American Kazoo Company, one of George Cantor's Pop Culture Landmarks (Visible Ink. $17.95). Your own living room can be a pop-culture landmark with Walter Laird's The Ballroom Dance Pack (Dorling Kindersley. $24.95): a CD to waltz, tango and cha-cha to, a book to tell you how -- and foot charts suitable for framing as Dada art. Richard Kadrey's Covert Culture 2.0 (St. Martin's. $12.95) explores borderlands where the cutting edge frays to a fringe: e-zines (e-mail magazines), Hong Kong action films, didjeridoo music and bizarre corners of the Internet. Dick DeBartolo's Good Days and MAD: A Hyster-ical Tour Behind the Scenes at MAD Magazine (Thunder's Mouth. $29.95) may seem tame by comparison. That's because MAD is so familiar we've forgotten how bizarre it is: ""Spy vs. Spy?'' Alfred E. Neuman? Where did this stuff come from? Even DeBartolo's chapter headings -- ""A Brief, But Short, History of MAD Magazine'' -- have us scratching our heads. Funny? Not funny? So not-funny it's funny? So funny it's not even funny? At least we've figured out what to think of Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe: Volumes 8-13, from the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (Doubleday. $15.95). This project started in 1978 and we can assert that it's genuinely educational, genuinely accurate and a hoot. King Solomon's Garden: Poems and Art Inspired by the Old Testament (Abrams. $24.95) covers the same ground more reverently -- though with subversives like Frost and Dickinson involved, watch your back.

No film buff -- no anybody -- should be without Pauline Kael's 1,291-page For Keeps (Dutton. $34.95). It's the best of the best of four decades, and her reviews have lost none of their feisty, slangy, provocative charge. No less idiosyncratic, and no less fun, is David Thomson's radically updated A Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf. $40, paperback $25); his independent opinions -- Down with Scorsese! Up with Mitchum! -- and quirky style make it compulsive reading. But the best movie reference book, hands down, is the newly revised edition of the late Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia (HarperPerennial. $25): highly reliable, highly readable.

Nothing is less readable than computer books; Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver's The Cyberspace Lexicon (Phaidon. $29.99) gives lucid -- we swear it -- definitions of cyberjargon from ""anti-aliasing'' to ""Z-buffer.'' It even tells you what cyberspace is. Out-of-towners can find New York City even more alienating than cyberspace (if you move your mouse to the wrong place on the pad, nobody tows it); Eric Homberger's The Historical Atlas of New York City (Holt. $45) uses charts, maps, photos and text to show how New Amsterdam became post-Fun City. But don't kid yourself: every place is a zoo these days. The Atlas of Contemporary America (Facts on File. $45) shows the distribution of hate groups and toxic-waste dumps; Latitudes & Attitudes (Little, Brown. $14.95) locates the relative concentrations of bowlers vs. racquetball players, Oprah-watchers vs. Donahue devotees.

Knopf's Restaurants of Paris guide ($25), by contrast, is up-market America's vision of the Good: lavishly illustrated histories of 100 ""memorable'' beaneries and the lowdown on a couple of hundred others. The encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Wine ($45) doesn't miss a trick: from oenophilia in lyric poetry to the requisite color plate of barefoot grape stompers. If you're a culinary do-it-yourselfer -- like you really have the time -- let Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts (Chapters. $29.95) be your co-conspirator in cookery. Sand tarts, jam cake and half-moon pies, with clear instructions and illuminating asides. Alice Medrich's Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts (Warner. $35) sounds like consumer fraud. But no tofu-carob-aspartame horrors here; just good-tasting stuff that's artery-friendly.

Maria Grammatico and Mary Taylor Simeti's Bitter Almonds (Morrow. $20) is a reader's cookbook; imagine Oliver Twist actually getting some more. As a child, Grammatico lived in a bleak Sicilian convent, where the nuns supported themselves by making almond pastries. Simeti has adapted the ancient recipes for American kitchens. How strange and wondrous those kitchens will seem when the nuns' almond pillows, sighs and desires, and mothers-in-laws' tongues come out of the oven.

There's a limit, we know, to how much more handsomely designed stuff you can cram into the house before something has to go out to the garage. It's part of what we like about the miniature modern chairs (Vitrashop, 212-879-8074) from Germany's Vitra Design Museum: beauty without bulk. Among the 34 available replicas of classics, we fancy Charles Rennie Mackintosh's tall ladder-back ($175), and the Eames molded-plywood occasional chair ($140). The life-size Eames chair reissued this year (Museum of Modern Art, 212-708-9880) goes for $680, and it doesn't even lean back! Stick with the miniatures and your old La-Z-Boy.

The foot-tall Iota bedside/table lamp (Nemo, 203-378-4000. $149) looks like a space-age dunce cap until the black-matte peak smartly lifts up, swivels and adjusts to focus the halogen lamp inside. An even lovelier light is shed by Beth Mueller's colorful ceramic menorah (Guggenheim Museum store, 212-423-3542. $98), which suggests both Chagall and postmodern architecture. Alison Palmer's handmade, hand-painted ""Demoiselle'' ceramic spoon rest (Guggenheim Museum store, 212-423-3542. $26) does more than suggest Picasso -- and Picasso might have a suggestion for her if he'd lived to see it. But hey, it's nice to be remembered. Take Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 painting ""Paris Street; Rainy Day''; that's now on an umbrella (Museum Collections, 800-442-2460. $39), and nobody's bent out of shape but folks who bought those Magritte umbrellas last year.

We don't know what it says about us, but we've ended up with a passel of vessels: jaunty Storybird pitchers (Chiasso, 800-654-3570. $30 and $70), made of glossy dishwasher- and microwave-safe stoneware. Ursu-la Munch-Petersen's Fiesta-ware-colored ceramic pitcher (Royal Copenhagen, 800-431-1992. $36 and $65), elliptical and aerodynamic; ideal for those times when only flying crock-ery seems to get your point across. Metrokane's award-winning Gallery glasses (800-724-4321. $5), jewel-toned and shapely, made of light acrylic plastic. And the sneakiest vessel of all: the leather-covered stainless-steel organizer flask (Museum of Modern Art, 212-708-9880. $54) fits into a Filofax-type appointment book and holds four ounces of whatev-er they used to put in flasks. Gee, the '50s -- the '20s? -- really are back.

Mittel Europa, the latest in the Clarkson Potter style series ($50), celebrates not just the baroque and Biedermeier of Vienna but the babushkas of Slovakian grannies. Meanwhile, such earlier books in the series as Japanese Style ($12) have been scrunched down to stocking stuffers. Caribbean Style ($12) is an armchair winter holiday: a guide to the candy-colored vernacular architecture of the islands. And speaking of style: for the cutups on your Christmas list who sometimes waggishly sport those fish neckties with their oxford shirts: fish bedroom slippers (Casu-al Living U.S.A., 800-843-1881. $12.50). Choose rainbow trout or largemouth bass; each has glassy button eyes and nonskid ""scales'' on the soles, no pun intended.

We don't mean to imply that your baby is just a garden-variety kid, but the hand-knit, machine-washable Fruit and Veggie Caps from Hand in Hand (800-872-9745. $29.95) make a cute garnish for infants to 4-year-olds. Top off toddlers with a strawberry, a lemon, a carrot or an eggplant; when you read them ""The Tale of Peter Rabbit,'' they may wind up rooting for Mr. McGregor. (They'll know it's story time by the colorful, pull-apart Polyfoam Puzzle Clock [Museum of Modern Art, 212-708-9880. $15] or the cap-shaped Jester Clock [Caravansary, 212-463-9513. $48]: three bells and all is well.) Kids won't mind that the ladybug yo-yo (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 212-860-6939. $8.95) glorifies another garden pest.

Grown-ups know it's a dog's life, but we had a Pavlovian response to the woebegone pooch place mat (Mxyplyzyk, 212-989-4300. $6.95): we had to smile. (Won't improve table manners.) Ren + Stimpy Classics II (Sony. $14.98) will lower the tone of your household even further. With creatures journeying into each other's bellybuttons, it's not for the fastidious. This volume has the ""Sven Hoek'' episode, whose homosexual subtext freaked out Nickelodeon. Need we say parental discretion is advised? Need we explain the appeal? And to think parents once fretted over Looney Tunes. These Sylvester and Tweety bookends (Warner Bros. Studio Store, 800-223-6524. $120) are perfectly wholesome -- and you can put books between them. Real books.

The Dorling Kindersley History of the World ($39.95) and the same publisher's Eyewitness Atlas of the World ($24.95) combine crisp text and stunning visuals, from African art objects to recent news photos. But even these snappy, magazinelike layouts feel a bit good-for-you next to a truly compelling disaster. In Hindenburg: An Illustrated History (Warner. $60), Ken Marschall's high-drama paintings complement Rick Archbold's narrative of the famous airship's fiery demise. Historical importance: B-minus. Mythic resonance: A-plus. Kids today know baseball as one more corrupted corner of the entertainment industry; Donald Honig's elegiac Shadows of Summer (Viking. $60) reminds us of its vanished nobility. Black-and-white and sepia photos taken between 1869 and 1947 catch long-gone heroes in splendid isolation. You can't get pictures like this from the 3D Magic camera (3D Im-age Technology, 404-416-8848. $14.95). But you can get prints that look remarka-bly like cheesy old novelty postcards.

If you crave a higher-tech experience, Encarta '95 (Microsoft. $99.95), a multimedia encyclopedia -- hey, that rhymes -- for Windows, can teach you to say ""My name is . . .'' in 60 languages. Its 26,000 articles are accompanied by 100-plus animations and video clips. Read about Watergate, then watch Nixon give his resignation speech. Voyager's Macbeth CD-ROM ($49.95) offers film clips (from the Welles, Kurosawa, and Polanski versions), critical essays, a glossary -- we keep forgetting if ""incarnadine'' is a verb or an adjective -- and a chance to play Lady Macbeth via the ""Macbeth Karaoke.'' Sounds like tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is here today. Whew: Christmas '94. Does the fun ever stop?

Sister Wendy Beckett, a British Carmelite nun, has become the Andrew Greeley of art criticism. The cover of The Story of Painting: The Essential Guide to the History of Western Art (Dorling Kindersley. $39.95) has her picture cheek by jowl with such earlier celebs as van Gogh and Botticelli's Venus. The Art Book (Chronicle. $35) is less conventional: a fat, fun volume of alphabetical, one-artist-to-a-page entries, each with a big color plate. Great Art Treasures of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Abrams. $195), a two-volume, 20-pound ""suitcase'' edition, is worth the weight: a lavish look at the finest objects in one of the world's great museums. Some curmudgeons think restoring Michelangelo's murals was a bad idea (something about how centuries of grime add to his conception). But hardly anybody will think The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration (Abrams. $75) isn't a beautiful book: a Marvel Comics vision of sacred history, as if drawn and inked by God himself.

But must art be tucked away in hard-to-get-to museums and hard-to-lift volumes? Art Playing Cards (ABC Carpet & Home, 212-473-3000) are handheld retrospectives: Leonardo, Michelangelo and The Nude in Art, 55 -- count 'em -- 55 bodacious bare-alls, from Goya's ""Naked Maja'' to Rubens's ""Three Graces,'' each of whom has more flesh than 55 Kate Mosses. Educational too!

Naomi Rosenblum's A History of Woman Photographers (Abbeville. $60) draws on the work of 240 women, from the celebrated (Margaret Bourke-White) to the unjustly neglected, like Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose 1896 self-portrait mocks the ""new woman'': cigarette in one hand, tankard of beer in the other, stockinged legs revealed to the knee. Freud, who asked, ""What do women want?'' would have been scared by this book, which answers: ""Everything.'' Nancy Stout is too young to qualify as a historical figure, but her Havana (Rizzoli. $45) captures the contemporary city's crumbling glamour, from its squalid back streets to a marble-girt drawing room, presided over by a brooding portrait of Lenin.

George Rodger's pictures of African tribes and the London blitz are hallmarks in the history of photojournalism. A new retrospective of this photographer's photographer, Humanity and Inhumanity: The Photographic Journey of George Rodger (Phaidon. $60), shows no one had a keener understanding of the human heart.

Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. Cyclops (Bullfinch. $75), full of actors, monkeys, rap stars and prisoners, is all about style and impact, pitched at a worrying level of high-strung artificiality. But photographers tend to be at their most artificial -- and sometimes most revealing -- when they photograph themselves. (Do they have to run around the tripod or what?) The Camera I: Photographic Self-Portraits (Abrams. $75) has marvelous autosnaps, from Nadar decked out as an Arab (circa 1863) to a lipsticked Robert Mapplethorpe (1980). The year's most unsettling self-portraits may be in John Peter's The Oral History of Modern Architecture (Abrams. $67.50): the ghostly voices of mostly long-dead big shots from Alvar Aalto to Frank Lloyd Wright discuss their work on a CD tucked into the back cover. In fact, come to think of it . . . a memento mori on Christmas morn? No. Great talk, edifying edifices: keep this one for yourself. And stay merry, will ya?

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