CHRISTMAS RELEASES are dominating the upper reaches of this week’s Billboard Top 200. Holiday collections from A&M’s Amy Grant, Columbia’s Neil Diamond and Liberty’s Garth Brooks and A&M’s second “A Very Special Christmas” are lodged in the Top 10.

Are Christmas releases having an unusually strong year in 1992? Or is the SoundScan method of reporting unit sales finally presenting an accurate read of consumer holiday music purchases?

Maybe a little of both.

“We’re looking at, in terms of just Christmas albums, about a 4% increase,” says Robert Olsen, manager of the Jones St. Tower Records outlet in San Francisco.

“That’s pretty good for something that has only a four-week life. And you have to remember that album retail sales across the country are probably down 4% or 5% (for the year). You compare that deficit to the Christmas albums, and you’re looking at a 9% gain,” Olson said.

“In the past, I’m not sure how many times you had leading artists coming out with Christmas music,” explained SoundScan chief exec Mike Fine. “Christmas music was generally put on a seasonal chart.”

But “A Garth Brooks doing a Christmas album is still Garth Brooks,” says Fine.

ISSAC TIGRETT, one of the original forces behind the Hard Rock Cafe, will begin construction in January on his latest project: A blues supper club in West Hollywood called the House of Blues.

Tigrett, who cashed out of the Hard Rock chain in 1988, has again teamed up with several celebs for his new venture, including Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and River Phoenix. The goal is to develop a chain of clubs.

House of Blues will feature live performances in the basement, with plans for a weekly Aykroyd-hosted TV showcase.

The first House of Blues opened last month in Cambridge, Mass. The 27,000 -square-foot local club, set to open sometime in the summer, will be at 8434 Sunset in West Hollywood.

MIKE STRATFORD, former program director at L.A. radio station KBBT-FM (The Beat) and new A&R VP of Quincy Jones’ Qwest Records, sounds more like a basketball coach when talking about his new gig.

“One of my first assignments will be to firm up the franchise,” he says.

“Tevin Campbell is in the early stages of his career, so we want to develop him with an eye on the future,” Stratford says. “Keith Washington and the Wynans willalso be putting out their second albums, so we want to make sure they don’t suffer from the sophomore jinx. I’m also going to be focusing on the crossover potential of those acts.”

Qwest president Jim Swindel says Stratford was brought on board because of his strengths as an administrator and his tastes in music.

In the near and long term, “We will be adding staff to make this a full-service record company,” Swindel said.

THE NEW VIRGIN Megastore got off to a less-than-auspicious start when its announced Dec. 8 opening was delayed a day because of a late city safety inspection.

Still, things are looking bright at Richard Branson’s Sunset Strip music and video complex.

First-week sales were reportedly “about 75% over projections,” according to Virgin’s Ian Duffell, president of Virgin Retail Group Asia Pacific and USA.

Duffell wouldn’t disclose numbers, but Virgin is donating $ 1 from each transaction during its first two weeks to AIDS Project L.A., and Duffell estimates that will amount to “over $ 10,000 by the end of the (first) week.”

“At the chain store where I worked before,” noted one sales clerk, “eight CDs was a ‘wow’ sale. Here, people are consistently buying eight to 15 compact discs at a time.”

The Sunset Strip war between Virgin and Tower Records farther west also heated up this week.

Following a Los Angeles Times story indicating that Tower’s prices were lower , Virgin offered each of Billboard’s Top 30 albums for $ 11.98.

Tower will soon begin construction of a parking structure to compete with Virgin’s 850 free underground spaces.

HOLLYWOOD RECORDS continues to mine the Queen catalog. Freddie Mercury’s “The Great Pretender,” a compilation of solo material recorded during the 1980s, was released on the anniversary three weeks ago of Mercury’s death. Meanwhile, Queen guitarist Brian May will embark on his first solo U.S. tour, opening for Guns N’ Roses. May’s “Back to the Light” album will be released in Feburary on Hollywood. … Lynda Emon, whose career includes prominent mention in the best-selling music industry probe “Hit Men,” has formed Lynda Emon Management, a firm based in Nashville. First signing is pop/opera singer/songwriter and classical violinist Joe Lampasone.

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