Everything about Mariah Carey's career has been overblown and all- encompassing, so it makes sense that she wouldn't be content singing (or oversinging) ''Joy to the World'' on her first holiday collection, Merry Christmas (Columbia). Instead, Carey performs it as a medley with that other ''Joy to the World'' the old Three Dog Night hit. This being the season trumpeting the arrival of the heavenly Father, Carey omits the ''Jeremiah was a bullfrog'' verse. But she makes up for it with hired hands Clivillés and Cole, who set the whole thing to a club-beat pulse, complete with over-the-top gospel choir. It's one of the year's unintentional camp classics. The only capper would be an inside photo of Carey posing with a real live deer, but in such a way as to not smudge her makeup or muss her hair and that's here too!
Like an ever-growing number of pop stars, Carey knows that making a yuletide album is a potentially good investment if the public takes to it, it'll be money in the bank for years to come. (If you write Christmas songs of your own, even better; imagine the royalties potential!) This perception sounds cynical, but how else can you interpret the avalanche of Christmas albums by pop stars during the last few years? The parade continues this season with another dozen or so holiday pop albums, led by Carey, Kenny G's Miracles: The Holiday Album (Arista), and Natalie Cole's Holly & Ivy (Elektra). (For a unique perspective on the rest, see our guest reviewer's take, in the sidebar.)
For Mariah Carey, Christmas isn't necessarily a time of contemplation or spirituality; like every other moment of the year, it's time to sing with enough lung power to knock over the manger. She spends most of Merry Christmas elongating every syllable in songs from ''O Holy Night'' to Phil Spector's girl-group oldie ''Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).'' The result is less a celebration of the season than merely another showcase for Carey's formidable, but cold, vocal chops. She and collaborator Walter Afanasieff have also written three standard wannabes, but the songwriters don't seem to realize that one of the requirements of a Christmas song is that people should be able to sing along, and anyone who can keep up with Carey's elastic melody lines on ''Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)'' deserves to be on Star Search.
Cole's Holly & Ivy doesn't look like a Christmas album (she opts for a simple black evening dress on the cover, as opposed to Carey's Mrs. Claus-visits-Melrose Place tights), and sometimes it barely sounds like one. Possibly inspired by Cole's cameo on Sinatra's Duets, she and coproducer Tommy LiPuma have made the usual yuletide tunes brassy and bustling; when she and the musicians swagger through ''Winter Wonderland,'' it's like Christmas Eve at the Copa. Some of the standards sink from overly gushy arrangements (''Merry Christmas Baby'' is the cleanest-sounding blues you'll ever hear), but Cole's voice stays as warm and toasty as a hot toddy. And we should all give thanks that on Holly & Ivy, she covers her dad's ''The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)'' alone, not as a duet with the dead.
Along with Neil Diamond, Kenny G joins the curious ranks of Jewish men performing Christmas songs. The juxtaposition doesn't jar him a bit. On Miracles, he and his soprano sax worm their way through easy-listening renditions of ''Silent Night,'' ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'' you know the repertoire by now. With the album, G's transformation into the Mantovani of the digital age is complete. It's perfect background music for shopping in a mall or wrapping presents. His own personal gift is thanking 143 people by name in the credits. It's a good thing he sold all those records last year he'll need the cash for all those presents. Merry Christmas: C Holly & Ivy: B Miracles: C+