MUSIC
Review

Holiday music: Seth MacFarlane, Downton Abbey, Idina Menzel, more

The good, the bad and the indifferent in new holiday music releases

Whether it's musical inspiration or economic incentive, there's a bountiful group of new holiday music releases this year. Here is Calendar's annual guide to the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal, "Talkin' Christmas!" (Sony Masterworks). You'd expect this meeting of the long-running gospel group and veteran blues musician to have plenty of spirit, and they don't disappoint. The opening rendition of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" as a driving blues shuffle telegraphs immediately their aim to dispense with any of the usual holiday-music conventions, and most of the originals are worthy additions to the ever-expanding Christmas music canon. A breath of fresh winter air. Rating: Three and a half stars

The Boys of St. Paul's Choir School, "Christmas in Harvard Square" (Decca). Anyone looking for a traditional spiritually focused collection of Christmas music will be well-served by this gorgeously sung and recorded set of sacred choral music from the 14th through 20th centuries, mostly from England, Ireland, France and Germany. Some selections are exceedingly well known, others fairly rare — many containing moments of otherworldly beauty. Rating: Three stars

Felix Cavaliere, "Christmas Joy" (Atisha). Anyone expecting a healthy dose of the gritty blue-eyed soul that Cavaliere specialized in while fronting the Rascals in the '60s will be only partially rewarded here. A few muscular R&B numbers are supplemented by several smooth jazz/slow-jam ballads, an awkward trek through "Feliz Navidad," some unnecessary Phil Spector Christmas album remakes and a couple of nice geographical detours like "Christmas in New Orleans," which approximates a funky Neville Brothers-like groove. Rating: Two and a half stars

Elizabeth Chan, "Christmas in the City" (Merry Bright Music). Chan, a former marketing executive for Condé Nast and Self magazine, traded that world a few years ago to focus on writing and recording holiday music, and this seven-track effort is her third release. It opens with an acoustic version of her 2013 Christmas hit "Fa La La," closes with a remix of "Vixen" from her 2012 debut, "Naughty and Nice," and offers five other originals, the beat-driven numbers generally more inviting than her ballads. She's yet to write her own "White Christmas," but there's no denying the earnestness she brings to tales of holiday joy or reverie. Rating: Two stars

William Close & the Earth Harp Collective, "Holidays" (Nettwerk). Close and his experimentally minded cohorts generate some genuinely magical moments in this set, notably the opening instrumental setting for "Carol of the Bells" and wholly transcendent performances of "Ave Maria," "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night." Detours into driving rock for "Little Drummer Boy" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" aren't inherently uninteresting but feel misplaced in the context of more ethereal tracks that surround them. Rating: Three stars

Earth, Wind & Fire, "Holiday" (Sony Legacy). The venerable R&B band does what it does best here: lays on the hard and heavy funk with fat horn accents and thick rhythmic riffs to propel a batch of time-tested holiday favorites. Their original "September" successfully morphs for the occasion into "December." Singer Philip Bailey periodically takes things into the stratosphere with his remarkable falsetto, and the upbeat numbers will keep any holiday gathering moving. Rating: Three stars

Renée Fleming, "Christmas in New York" (Decca). Opera star Fleming delivers a lively, thoroughly adult Christmas album that leans decidedly jazz. Her way with melody is assured, and she truly swings in several numbers, which feature such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Brad Mehldau and Kurt Elling, as well as Broadway singer Kelli O'Hara. Fleming also has a gorgeous duet on "In the Bleak Midwinter" with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Rating: Three stars

Peter Furler, "Christmas" (Prescott). The Australian jazz-pop singer's unusually high, light tenor is a challenge to get around, even though the world-music inclusive arrangements, which Furler created with pianist David Ian, often aid in the delivery of eight well-trod old-school carols. Rating: Two stars

Anthony Hamilton, "Home for the Holidays" (Mister Music/RCA). The R&B singer brings welcome grit to many of the tracks here, in contrast to the glistening shimmer that often envelops R&B holiday sessions. Rating: Two and a half stars

Heart & Friends, "Home for the Holidays" (Frontiers). OK, Heart gets kudos for expanding the parameters of what constitutes "holiday music" by roping in Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Seasons," Harry Nilsson's under-appreciated ballad "Remember Christmas" and their own 1977 hit "Barracuda" because … the secret sign for the early Christian church was a fish? Well, never mind. The live recording is distracting, and singer Ann Wilson's tendency to belt to the rafters overwhelms Joni Mitchell's wistful "The River," although it works well on "Stairway to Heaven." Why that's on a holiday album is another mystery. A deluxe two-disc set also includes a DVD of the concert, which included guest spots by Sammy Hagar, Shawn Colvin, Richard Marx and Patrick Monahan. Mainly for the Heart faithful. Rating: Two stars

Alan Jackson, "Let It Be Christmas" (EMI Nashville). The amiable singer from Georgia touches a lot of familiar bases on this reissue of his 2002 album. The orchestra and big-band arrangements connect more to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin than most Grand Ole Opry types, but his light touch and affinity for things that swing is usually effective. Rating: Three stars

Jamey Johnson, "The Christmas Song" (Gassed Up Records). The neo-country outlaw singer-songwriter has crafted a bittersweet original country waltz, "South Alabam Christmas," to complement his easygoing versions of the inescapable yuletide duet "Baby It's Cold Outside" (with Hawaiian singer Lily Meola), "Mele Kalikimaka" (a lively collaboration with the Secret Sisters), Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" and Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song." Johnson's deft phrasing adds a lot of color to familiar territory. Rating: Two and a half stars

Dave Koz & Friends, "The 25th of December" (Concord). Saxophonist Koz's third holiday outing, after 1997 and 2001 efforts, is as sonically comforting as a warm bath. But like that toasty bath, it's best experienced briefly before the heat dissipates, as happens here in an album-closing reading of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" that even Stevie Wonder can't rescue. Other guests include Gloria Estefan, Richard Marx, Trombone Shorty, Kenny G and, of course, Johnny Mathis. Rating: Two stars

The Living Sisters, "Harmony Is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday" (Vanguard). The seasonal album from L.A.'s indie pop foursome is as light and sweet as a powdered-sugar-dusted Christmas cookie. Eleni Mandell, Inara George, Becky Stark and Alex Lilly wrap their endearing voices around a few classics ("Jingle Bells," "Little Drummer Boy," "Silver Bells") sprinkled among gently skewed originals. Only occasionally does all the sweetness start to feel like one holiday confection too many. Rating: Three stars

Mediaeval Baebes, "Of Kings & Angels: A Christmas Carol Collection" (QOS). Apparently the Renaissance Faire community also needs a holiday album of its own, so here it is. The titillating ensemble name notwithstanding, this batch of time-tested Western European carols, most in English, a couple in standard Latin, others in Middle English and Medieval Latin just for fun. The sextet is supplemented on several songs by additional female voices, creating a light, effervescent vocal experience. Rating: Three stars

Idina Menzel, "Holiday Wishes" (Warner Bros.) As a seasoned Broadway singer, Menzel brings a stocking-full of interpretive skill to some holiday classics. She also co-wrote the album's one new entry — "December Prayer" — a lovely minor-key reflection about a soldier finding his way home for the holidays. Arrangements are pretty conventional, and she draws out several songs to overly dramatic lengths, but Menzel's tone and phrasing are consistently lovely. Rating: Two and a half stars

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FOR THE RECORD

Holiday albums: In the Nov. 27 Calendar section, a review of 2014 holiday music albums misspelled the surname of singer Idina Menzel as Medina.

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Caitríona O'Leary, "The Wexford Carols: Ireland's Greatest Christmas Music" (Heresy). This is easily the year's most ambitious undertaking, a resurrection and reconstruction of carols not widely known outside their point of origin in County Wexford, Ireland. O'Leary has been working to find lost melodies that traditionally accompanied these poems written in the late 17th century and passed down through oral tradition. Producer Joe Henry brings a fitting gravitas to the selections, many of which were intended to give solace to disenfranchised Irish Catholics, resulting in themes of loss — personally or spiritually — and redemption. There's not a whiff of treacle or sentimentality here. Rating: Three and a half stars

Seth MacFarlane, "Holiday for Swing!" (Republic). As MacFarlane demonstrated during his Oscar-hosting duties last year, the one thing he just might be serious about is classic pop music of the Great American Songbook era. That passion is in high gear on this big-band outing featuring arrangements by Joel McNeely. Seasonal standards such as "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "The Christmas Song" are balanced with lesser-known songs including "Little Jack Frost Get Lost" and "Christmas Dreaming." MacFarlane exhibits an easy command of Sinatra-like swagger and behind-the-beat phrasing. No joke. Rating: Three stars

Over the Rhine, "Blood Oranges in the Snow" (GSD). The Ohio-based husband-wife Americana duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist examine memories, loss and reunions both joyful and melancholy in these nine songs, six of which Detweiler wrote or co-wrote, plus Merle Haggard's aching country classic "If We Make It Through December" and two others. The really savvy part is the way they inject snippets of other seasonal songs into the originals, underscoring how much music itself is an integral part of the holiday season and spirit. If every musician brought this much inspiration and imagination to the task of recording holiday songs, what a wonderful world it truly would be. Rating: Four stars

Pentatonix, "That's Christmas to Me" (RCA). This Texas vocal quintet is resonating with a broad swath of listeners by blending old-school vocal harmonies a la Bobby McFerrin (who gets a nod with a medley of "Don't Worry Be Happy" and "Winter Wonderland") with contemporary pop-R&B beats and production touches. The title track, the group's a cappella original, is a highlight for its showcase of the unadulterated human voice; so is the instrumentally spare rendition of "Frozen's" runaway hit "Let It Go." Rating: Two and a half stars

Raskasta Joulua, "Ragnarok Juletide" (Spinefarm). What is it about the holiday season that seems so ideally suited to over-the-top headbanging? Maybe it's all the elements of excess that are part and parcel of both. This Finnish symphonic hard-rock orchestra invokes crunching riffs, wheedling mile-a-minute lead guitar work and throat-shredding vocals in service of several original songs that are remarkably reverent, along with a few classic carols. An acquired taste, but one that surely will hit the spot for those who want Christmas hard and loud. Irving Berlin couldn't have dreamed of the treatment "White Christmas" would get in the hands of these hard-rock dudes any more than anyone in Finland ever had to resort to dreaming of a white Christmas. Rating: Two and a half stars

Darius Rucker, "Home for the Holidays," (Capitol Records Nashville). Now a country star, Hootie & the Blowfish's former frontman offers a Southern-fried collection in which a producer seems to have met him at the studio door and said, "Howdy, here's your holiday sweater." Rucker's delivery is amiable enough in a Perry Como-Andy Williams sort of way, but there's little chemistry between singer and song. This collection often does feel more like a spreadsheet than a truly musical or spiritual exploration. Rating: One star

Tim Rushlow & His Big Band, "Classic Christmas" (Row Entertainment). Another Nashville-routed outing, this one from the former Little Texas singer and songwriter. Rushlow goes after the Michael Bublé-Harry Connick Jr. crowd with this horn-heavy, hard-swinging session, which has its moments. "A Soldier's Gift," one of two originals he co-wrote, gets points off for the generic "Thank you, soldiers" line. Military servicemen and -women deserve better than this cheesy attempt to tug on heartstrings. Rating: Two stars

John Schneider and Tom Wopat, "Home for Christmas" (D13 Entertainment). This reunion of "The Dukes of Hazzard" stars, the result of a crowd-funding effort, deserves credit for allowing the guys to tackle a few deep tracks such as Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's "The Secret of Christmas," Bob Dorough's bebop-inspired "Blue Xmas" and Linda Hill Williams-Robert Murphy Williams III's old-school country "On a Quiet Christmas Morn" in addition to a slew of seasonal warhorses. Both sound thoroughly competent at the mike, even though there's little freshness or musical individuality at work. Rating: Two stars

The Xmas-Men, "Santa Is Real" (Rosetta Records). The Xmas-Men are Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen's backup band, and they've whipped up a swinging instrumental trad-country take on more than a dozen holiday staples, including their boss' twisted modern-day ode to dysfunction, "Merry Xmas From the Family" (minus the lyrics, of course). Arrangements are consistently inspired, often surprising, and their performances are as buoyant as Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. Extra points for the most inspired album cover of the year, a brilliant yuletide spin on the Louvin Brothers' 1960 country-gospel classic, "Satan Is Real." Rating: Three and a half stars

Various Artists, "An Americana Christmas" (New West). This compilation gathers holiday tracks recorded over the last three or four decades by a stellar compendium of rock-folk-country veterans and relative newbies including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, the Band and Valerie June. The songs are nearly evenly divided between holiday classics and originals. Emotions vary from Ronnie Fauss' down-and-out "Everybody Deserves a Merry Christmas" to Yoakam's jubilant take on "Run Run Rudolph." Rating: Three stars

Various Artists, "Carols for a Cure, Volume 16" (Rock-it Science Records). Decidedly aimed at the Broadway-loving music fan, this annual series serves up holiday tunes sung by casts of current or recent musicals. It's a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, so the ups and downs of individual performances are almost subservient to the worthy cause. Why the cast of "The Book of Mormon" is missing in action from this project is a mystery. Rating: Two and a half stars

Various Artists, "Christmas With Nashville" (Big Machine). That's "Nashville," the prime-time soap, not so much the city, though the two intersect in not-so-merry ways on this franchise-enhancing effort. We get oh-so-obvious pairings of series matriarch Connie Britton singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," the show's catty upstart Hayden Panettiere taking on "White Christmas" and on-the-rise singer Clare Bowen handling the saucy "Santa Baby." Rating: One and a half stars

Various Artists, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (Syco/Epic). This entry from Simon Cowell's Syco label serves up a handful of seasonal staples by Fifth Harmony, Meghan Trainor, Fiona Apple, and the duo of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, whose "Winter Song" is the highlight. Rating: Two and a half stars

Various Artists, "A Merry Friggin' Christmas" soundtrack (Lakeshore). The pendulum swings pretty far in this collection of tracks from indie rock and pop acts such as Rufus Wainwright, Ben Kweller, the Belle Brigade, Aaron Tipton, Ryan Culwell, the California Feetwarmers and half a dozen others. Not all the tracks are especially distinguished — the unfussy spirit of the performances is the best thing about this collection assembled for the poorly received holiday film featuring Robin Williams in one of his final appearances. Rating: Two and a half stars

Various Artists, "Christmas at Downton Abbey" (Warner Bros.). With all the variations, permutations and endless genre spins on the holiday music trove — R&B, folk, country, jazz, gospel, rock, metal, hip hop, etc. — it's surprisingly refreshing to hear a compendium of core classics done just about as traditionally in an Anglo-Saxon way as possible. Orchestral-driven arrangements and top-drawer vocal work in tracks largely drawn from the Warner Music archives from such classical world heavyweights as Kiri Te Kanawa, the Choir of King's College, Cambridge and Nikolaus Harnoncourt upholds a standard of spirit and majesty against which others are still measured. Rating: Three stars

Twitter: @RandyLewis2

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