Everything we know about Saint Nick we learned through the oral traditions of pop musicand it's not all pretty. As is evident in songs ranging from ''Santa Claus Is Coming to Town'' to ''Rudolph,'' this suspiciously jolly workaholic has a cherry-red proboscis and depends on other bulbous-nosed wonders to save his butt when he's in a fog. He cheerfully exposes children to secondhand pipe smoke, wears real fur, and has gotten to at least first base with your mother. Long before the CIA conducted psychic experiments, he mastered the art of ''remote viewing'' to spy on naughty crybabies. And don't panic, but he's up on your rooftop right now.
Saint or snake? It's not always easy to tell, but there are facets of everyone's favorite fatty yet unexplored. Ready to go behind the mistletoe? A survey of 2001's top new holiday-themed releases from Barbra Streisand's first Christmas album in 34 years to a TRL-themed compilation featuring the young likes of 'N Sync and Weezerreveals still more musical angles to the Man Who Would Be Kringle, such as...
...SANTA AS SUGAR DADDY
Seminal material girl Eartha Kitt ain't got nothin' on this generation of gold diggers. In her new single ''Santa Baby (Gimme Gimme Gimme),'' Willa Ford gives Father Christmas a veritable lap dance while unrolling her list of demands. Could Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé, or Sammy Cahn at their seasonal peaks have written a couplet as inspiring as ''Gimme, gimme, gimme/Gucci''? Just to make sure Santa doesn't miss the message and show up bearing a Backstreet Boys wall calendar, this Britney wannabe also places orders for a Manhattan loft, her own fanzine, and five seaside boy toys in Speedos.
What Willa should be demanding is a wave of teen pop superior to the largely sorry crop heard on MTV TRL Christmas (Lava/Atlantic), a compilation that offers her avaricious carol as its leadoff track. The album veers between innocuous vocal-group bubblegum (LFO, Christina Aguilera) and equally innocuous pop-punk (blink-182's juvenile tidings of bad cheer in ''I Won't Be Home for Christmas''). There are a few signs of intelligent life: Sugar Ray does a decent, if too faithful, cover of the Beach Boys' ''Little Saint Nick,'' and Smash Mouth's ska-flavored ''Better Do It Right,'' which pits Santa's influence against Satan's, has a little yuletide tang. C
Beyoncé Knowles isn't quite as needy as Willa. But Destiny's Child's 8 Days of Christmas (Columbia), gets off to an almost equally acquisitive start with the title song, wherein the bootylicious trio brag about admirers who proffer such trinkets as ''a pair of Chloe shades and a diamond belly ring'' and ''the keys to a CLK Mercedes.'' All that avarice leaves a sour taste in these supposedly less materialistic, post-9/11 times, but 8 Days of Christmas soon recovers with silky originals like ''Winter Paradise'' and a cornucopia of chestnuts, all vocally arranged to within an inch of their lives, including a solid drum-and-bass rethink of Donny Hathaway's ''This Christmas.'' All right, galsdammit, you earned the Benz. B+
...SANTA AS U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL
If we had to nominate one Christmas song as history's most inexplicably overratedat least among contemporary MOR croonersit'd have to be David Foster's ''Grown-Up Christmas List,'' a plea to Santa for world peace that's unbearably treacly (even if it does fit this season a little better than ''Gimme Gimme Gimme''). Naturally, Foster pal Barbra Streisand picked up on ''List'' for Christmas Memories (Columbia), her first such album since '67. The good news is, the song selection gets considerably better; this is her best-chosen (and orchestrated) studio set in years, even decades. Babs sticks mostly with the secular, but she does put the Christ back in Christmasalong with the Buddha, and the Mohammedin ''One God,'' which sounds like a product of our ecumenical times but which, in fact, she nicked off a 1950s Johnny Mathis LP. B
...SANTA AS HIT-AND-RUN DRIVER
The inexplicably enormous ''Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer'' is still enough of a hit 18 years later to show up on NOW That's What I Call Christmas! (BMG). The two-CD set devotes one disc to predictable but satisfying inclusions from Sinatra, Presley, Mathis, Como, et al. The modern bobby-soxer set gets its due on disc 2, which covers the ground from John & Yoko to Britney and Celine. If only Santa would steer his deadly reindeer in the direction of the new tracks from Michael Bolton and Shaggy's pound. B-
...SANTA AS CELESTIAL CABBIE
Ever since Elvis sang ''Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me,'' singers have assumed that Saint Nick has nothing better to do than find their ex-lovers and give 'em a ride back to their bereft apartments on Christmas Eve. Toni Braxton picks up the thread with ''Santa Please,'' a beseeching ballad from her new Snowflakes (Arista). Braxton needs to work harder at getting her man back herself: She sounds uncharacteristically wan here, frequently drowned out by powerful string arrangements. C+
...SANTA AS ADULTERER, OR PERV
The highlight of the new EP from They Might Be Giants, Holidayland (Restless), is the previously released ''Santa's Beard,'' a key entry in the slim subgenre of songs about Santa as sexual interloper (''I don't like that fat guy around,'' whines the narrator). TMBG also offer one of the few Hanukkah songs to focus on a troubled relationship. Too bad the only newly minted track among these five is their remake of the Sonics' garage-rock classic ''Santa Claus.'' B
John Popper and B.B. King are the latest bluesmen to promise to be your ''Back Door Santa.'' Their dirty duet is part of A Very Special Christmas 5 (A&M), which proves the law of diminishing returns. Like 4, it's mostly a live albumrecorded in front of the Clintons last yearbut someone noticed that Stevies Wonder and Nicks might not pull in the youth crowd, so studio tracks from teen-skewing acts like SR-71 and Eve 6 are incongruously sprinkled in. On the plus side, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers put a Christmas spin on the previously unseasonal ''Little Red Rooster''; on the minus, Jon Bon Jovi makes Elvis' corpse spin hot circles under Graceland with his graceless impersonation on ''Blue Christmas,'' and pitch-challenged Macy Gray struggles, not very valiantly, to keep up with the melody of ''This Christmas.'' B-
...SANTA AS GHOUL
Perfect for Christmas or Halloween, Louis Armstrong's classic '''Zat You, Santa Claus?'' posits a visitor outside the door who may be a mystical benefactor from parts north...or just your garden-variety goblin. This creepy Christmas novelty is one of 18 good reasons to pick up Swingin' Christmas (Rhino), which rounds up the vintage likes of Louis Prima, Tex Beneke, and Kay Starr. Your chance to give the gift of great horn charts, this collection veers into the contemporary just long enough for ''That Swingin' Manger,'' Bob Francis' wicked parody of Francis Albert Sinatra at his most inappropriately improvisational. A-
...SANTA AS ANGEL OF DEATH
In centuries past, the plague periodically popped by to spoil Christmas. Nowadays, it's a new album of synthesized cheese from Mannheim Steamroller; Christmas Extraordinaire (American Gramaphone) is the fourth such Yule log from Moog maestro Chip Davis, not counting repackagings. The tracks that stick to more traditional orchestration aren't quite so root-canal-like, but beware when Davis lets electronically loose on the likes of ''Winter Wonderland'' like a fifth-generation Keith Emerson clone. The triumph of tchotchke gonzo here is the Spanish carol ''Fum, Fum, Fum''or, as the liner notes explain: ''Chip set this in a Renaissance style that morphs to Renaissance/Rock in one song (much like the God Rest Ye Renaissance and God Rest Ye Rock N Roll settings from the first Christmas album).'' In simpler language: Run for your godforsaken lives. D+