Q: When do they start playing Christmas music at the mall?

A: “Oh, the day after Thanksgiving,” you state with certainty.

And that’s right–if you were responding to the question in 1990. Savvy–some would say desperate–retailers of Century 21 are quicker to the starting line. As soon as the witches go beddy-bye on Halloween night, they’re off lickety-split, enticing shoppers with the wintry funk of Wilson Pickett’s “Back Door Santa” or any of the gazillion and one versions of Irving Berlin’s poignant “White Christmas.”

Musically speaking, December comes a little earlier with each passing year. And that’s all right by me. As an unrepentant lover of the seasonal repertoire, I celebrate every Santa-fied note heard over the crackling P.A. as I promenade downtown. While mom and the kids shop simply to shop, I shop only to listen.

“Check it out,” I enthuse as I stroll beside my daughter, a promising pianist. “Tony Bennett just modulated the last verse. Neat, don’tcha think?”

“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she sighs, lying, fully aware of the extent of my aural Christmas jones. Exasperated, she hangs an abrupt left into Old Navy and leaves me stranded, accompanied only by the echo of Bennett’s upbeat forecast: “You know it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you … ”

Later, having been abandoned by my family of scrooges, I play the erstwhile musicrit, staring hopefully at this year’s stack of fresh Xmas wax. Several of the 14 new discs look promising. Others, wrapped up in garish greens and raging reds, give off a Grinch-inspired stench. Like the inevitability of granny’s stale fruitcake, bad Christmas music must be dealt with and discarded, never to be tasted again.

Country Divas
How do you like your county music? A tad slick and citified–or as pure as a gurgling mountain stream. Patty Loveless’ Bluegrass and White Snow (Epic/Jahaza) is the later, an in-the-tradition affair that will appeal to fans of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Cameos by Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton mix with strummed guitars and stroked mandolins. But it’s PL’s voice, a natural instrument with tight vibrato, that’s front and center, shining like the Star of Bethlehem.

Imagine a Nashville orchestra date that got bad directions and ended up in L.A. or a Nelson Riddle-Frank Sinatra collaboration recast with a southern drawl. That’s Lee Ann Womack’s The Season for Romance (MCA). In a little girl voice that wings with uncommon grace, Womack proves that the art of swing knows no regional bounds, while the larger-than-life arrangements by Rob Mounsey (Steely Dan) shimmer like expensive diamonds. Big-budgeted, indulgent and lovely.

Fallen Angels
The cover is a tip-off. In an apparent tribute to Nancy Sinatra, Carly Simon is dressed up in come-hither red boots and a white-as-snow mini-skirt trimmed with fur. Yeah, I’ll concede that Simon’s physique still titillates, yet time marches on–even for the singer-songwriter elite of yesteryear. Sadly, her voice has frayed around the edges. On Christmas Is Almost Here (Rhino), Simon’s earnest but breathless pipes wobble in and out of tune, spoiling the quaint, lo-fi production job by Don Was. Not even a celebrity guest spot by Willie Nelson, who duets on his own standard, “Pretty Paper,” can save the day.

Songs for Christmas (Liquid/BMG) by former Youngblood leader Jesse Colin Young fares better, but suffers similar foibles. Father Time has left a messy thumbprint upon Young’s once silvery pipes. Minus his high flying falsetto made famous on “Get Together,” the singer resorts to the sandpapered whisper of a weary troubadour. His less-is-more technique works nicely on a rough and ready version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which recalls the eerie wail of bluesman Skip James. Simple harmony vocals and finger-played guitars, however, ain’t enough to save the rest of the CD.

While Young and Simon struggle, the airbrushed soft-rock of America sounds exactly the way it did 30 years ago–for better or worse. If you enjoyed “A Horse With No Name” way back when, you’ll sing along to Holiday Harmony (Rhino). Produced with all the bells and whistles by another ’70s survivor, Andrew Gold, HH recalls with a wink classics by Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and even America’s own Top 40 smashes like “Tin Man” and “Ventura Highway.”

Classical Gas
Christmas All Over the World (Sony Legacy) is the perfect disc for undiscerning adults who, once a year, pretend that they are listening to something of quality. Subtitled “17 Classics Performed by the World’s Most Beloved Vocalists,” the compilation includes the usual superstar suspects: the Three Tenors, Venessa Williams, Sarah Brightman and others. Faux opera plus innocuous pop equals sonic Wonder Bread.

Ironically issued by the same mega-conglomerate, the annoyingly titled The Ultimate Classical Christmas Album of All Time (Sony Legacy) is a testament to truth in advertising. A boffo double-disc sampler that raids the cavernous Columbia Records vaults, TUCCAOAT delivers on all counts. Count ’em: 43 tunes with heavenly choirs, lush symphonies, legendary soloists and a precious version of “O Tannenbaum” by the tinkling Rita Ford Music Boxes. Righteous accompaniment for a classy, candle-lit holiday dinner.

Pop/Pap Goes the Wassail
My fave contemporary collection of ’02 is Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk), a tasty sampler of familiar voices situated somewhere between the worlds of alt- and mainstream. By turns saccharine (“12/23/95” by Jimmy Eat World) and sarcastic (Bright Eyes’ “Blue Christmas”), MTC proves that brainy pop is still a possibility in these sadly conformist times. Bright moments: Wry Ron Sexsmith making like the Kinks’ Ray Davies on the title cut, followed by hitmaker Vanessa Carlton, who delivers a delirious “Greensleeves,” emoting like a crazed elf in mid-epiphany. Maybe, just maybe, she’s the real deal.

As for the pap, School’s Out! Christmas (St. Nicholas/Hip-O) signals the official death of the Boy-Band/Disney-Diva craze. Populated by Justin/Britney wannabes like Chris Trousdale and Ashelee Simpson, “20 tracks by today’s hottest young stars” mindlessly motor along to bad beats and stale synths. Nothing ill in these grooves, Holmes. Street credibility: less than zero.

The Best of the Rest …
Christmas with the Rat Pack (Capitol). This vintage Pack gathers 21 disparate sides by Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. Unreleased goodies from Dean-o’s TV specials and the Candyman’s previously unheard but stunning “Christmas Time All Over the World” make this a must for any self-respecting member of the Rat Patrol.

‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets! (Yep Roc). The Ventures with an attitude. The World Wrestling Federation sponsored by Fender. Choose your own quotable quip, but if you copped a visual at the ‘Jackets’ Xmas show at the Cradle, this is the souvenir.

Various artists–O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays (Rounder) and Christmas on the Mountain: A Bluegrass Christmas (Universal South). Two sides of the same coin. For pristine balladry, go with the Rounder set, starring banjo wiz Tony Trischka and Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver. Mountain, meanwhile, frames pure Xmas exultation. Uptempo fiddle and mandolin rides with heaps of twang, courtesy of Del McCoury’s juggernaut combo and guests Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson.

Various Artists–The Best of Celtic Christmas (Narada). Another double-disc goodie–and the prettiest music this side of heaven. Those who’ve pigeon-holed the Narada imprint a prisoner of its own New Age credentials should reconsider–and acknowledge the sheer beauty of this ethereal blend of pipes, whistles, harps and human voices. Highlights include the ageless chanteuse Maddy Prior, who duels with drummer boys on “I Saw Three Ships,” and Disc 2 in all its splendor, which recreates a hearty Galway holiday with the chamber quartet Dordan.

Chris Botti–December (Columbia). A surprise jewel by a trumpeter with round tone and good taste–except when he sings. Botti’s no Chet Baker, but his Miles Davis mimicry on horn is cool as a cuke. Propelled by David Carp’s mercurial bass, “Winter Wonderland” swings like a mutha’. This season, December is the best new jazz Xmas disc on the racks–bar none. EndBlock