This year’s bounty of holiday albums includes offerings from pop music heavyweights such as Sia, Gwen Stefani, Fantasia, Reba McEntire, 98 Degrees and veteran rockers Cheap Trick.
But don’t let familiar names prompt you to overlook rewarding new albums from lower-profile acts including Us the Duo, Lowland Hum and MARi.
Artists who make seasonal albums know their most loyal fans will snap them up no matter what; the yearly challenge is to what lengths they’re willing to go to craft something worthy of consideration beyond ye most faithful.
Albums ranked below three stars are primarily for ardent fans, while three stars and above warrant a listen by anyone interested in expanding their Yuletide collections.
*** Balsam Range, “It’s Christmas Time” (Mountain Home Music). Bluegrass seems particularly in sync with the humility that’s a cornerstone of the Christmas tradition. This North Carolina quintet proves that point in a half-dozen numbers. Check the minor-key wistfulness of Doc Watson’s “Christmas Lullaby,” the sprightly mountain lilt in the Stanley Brothers’ “I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time,” and the earnestness in harmony-rich arrangements of “The First Noel” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The added layer of strings from the Nashville Recording Orchestra are unnecessary but don’t become a major distraction.
*** Charles Billingsley, “It’s Christmas Time Again” (Crest Music). As far back as Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Christmas and big band music have gone together like stockings and goodies. Singer-author Billingsley rounded up a platoon of L.A. session pros for this collection recorded live in the studio. The arrangements are uniformly tasteful, and the song selection emphasizes swing. Billingsley is credible with his phrasing, even if he’s not going to threaten Sinatra — or Buble, for that matter. Trivia note: This may be the first seasonal album to consider John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Good Night” as a holiday tune.
** Blackmore’s Night, “Winter Carols” (Minstrel Hall Music). This is the third time around for the seasonal album from the “Renaissance rock” side project of Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and his wife, singer Candice Night. Their 2006 work has been remastered and fleshed out with three additional carols, with a second CD including the same live renditions of five songs and several mixes of their original song “Christmas Eve” from the 2013 expanded reissue. Tasteful, mostly acoustic arrangements straight out of a Renaissance Pleasure Faire often are grandiose in scale, cranking up to 11 only on their electrified version of Swedish rock band Rednex’s “Wish You Were Here.”
*** Tom Chaplin, “Twelve Tales of Christmas” (Interscope). The tales skew dark on this somber exploration into themes of faith, redemption and gratitude by Keane frontman Chaplin. His eight originals build to something of a bittersweet symphony, and they’re fleshed out with equally adept renditions of the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” East 17’s “Stay Another Day” and Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air,” the latter of which is from the holiday TV special “The Snowman.”
** ½ Cheap Trick, “Christmas Christmas” (Big Machine). The long-running rock outfit applies its amped-up, rocked-out spin on Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to a holiday set that comes across as strongly derivative of (surprise, surprise) Spector. Hats off to Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson for taking a stab at three originals, the best of which is the most earnest, “Our Father of Life.” Those share space on the album with well-trod carols and a few less frequently covered rock-era secular songs including the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and Harry Nilsson’s gorgeous “Remember (Christmas).”
** ½ Tav Falco, “A Tav Falco Christmas” (Org/Frenzi). This may be the loopiest seasonal release this year. Actor, musician and performance artist Falco applies his “art damage” sensibility to the holiday music canon. The album boasts eight tracks, mostly classics, sounding gloriously demented enough to act as a tonic for anyone who can’t bear the thought of another dose of sugary sentimentality.
** Fantasia, “Christmas After Midnight” (Rock Soul/Concord). The “American Idol” alum serves up this year’s intimate and romantic holiday collection. Along with a bevy of seasonal standards, she includes some slightly left-field choices, including Leiber & Stoller’s “The Snow Is Falling” and a Motown deep cut, “Give Love on Christmas Day” previously recorded by the Jackson 5 and Johnny Gill. It’s all meticulously produced, at times overwhelming the human factor that allows music to soar.
*** Josh Groban, “Noel,” (Reprise). A gorgeous, classically trained voice applied to Yuletide favorites is always going to find an audience, as Groban’s 2007 album has shown year in and year out, selling more than 6 million copies since its release. He’s added six tracks for a 10th anniversary deluxe edition, among them a heartfelt duet on the Charlie Brown Christmas anthem “Christmas Time Is Here” with an ageless Tony Bennett. Still a classic.
** ½ Hanson, “Finally It’s Christmas” (S-Curve/BMG). The erstwhile wunderkind siblings out of Tulsa, Okla., take an energetic indie-pop tack on this grown-up sequel to 1997 teen pop holiday album “Snowed In,” cooking up an inventive spin on Mariah Carey’s contemporary Yuletide standard “All I Want for Christmas,” as well as contributing four earnest originals.
**1/2 Susan Holloway, “Joy to the World” (Susan Holloway Music). Memphis-bred violinist Holloway provides a welcome alternative in the world of instrumental holiday albums with one that avoids the pitfalls of somnambulant lounge piano or schmaltzy jazz sax. She applies her sinewy fiddle over EDM-adjacent tracks on 10 varied holiday favorites, the arrangements now and then losing a little steam before a song is over. Bonus point for mashing up Hoyt Axton/ Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” with the Christmas tune.
** David Ian, “Vintage Christmas Trio” (Prescott). Any jazz pianist who dives into holiday music with a trio also featuring upright bass and drums is going to run up against the mighty shadow of Vince Guaraldi. Ian executes these 10 Christmas standards skillfully, even if it does ultimately add up to an outing that might well have been called “Another Charlie Brown Christmas.”
*** Lucy Kalantari and the Jazz Cats, “It’s the Holidays!” (A Few Little Notes). Diversity is the word on this five-song EP from Brooklyn singer, bandleader and children’s music specialist Kalantari and her cohorts. Thematically they salute Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s with music that’s part trad-jazz, part klezmer and all part-tay.
*** Loose Cattle, “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (Low Heat). This tradition-minded quartet navigates the fine line between sincerity and parody in 15 songs that navigate the intersection of country, rock, R&B, soul and Cajun music. Along with such homages to holiday dysfunction as Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From the Family” and Mary Catherine and William Danoff’s “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas),” the band reaches wide with Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” and Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ.”
*** ½ Lowland Hum, “Songs for Christmas Time” (Lowland Hum / Tone Tree Music). Husband-wife duo Daniel and Laura Goans have crafted one of the most inventive and fittingly humble holiday collections this season. They’ve re-imagined such warhorses as “Joy to the World” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to give them unexpected freshness and supplement them with less-frequently covered tunes including the African American spiritual “Ain’t That Rockin’ All Night” and Johnny Cash’s “We Are the Shepherds.” A smart blend of low-tech and high-imagination.
*** MARi, “Have Yourself a MARi Little Christmas (Lucid Artist). This bilingual five-song EP by the half-Puerto Rican, half-Cuban New Yorker puts a vibrant Latin pop spin not only on the predictable “Feliz Navidad” but also on “Maria Sabias Que” (Mary Did You Know), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “O Christmas Tree” and “Carol of the Bells.” Punch horns and intoxicating rhythms lift each out of the doldrums, and even persuade us to forgive the record’s titular pun.
*½ Reba McEntire, “My Kind of Christmas” (Nash Icon). It’s hard to shake the feeling that this project had more to do with expediency than genuine inspiration. There’s no lack of commitment from the veteran country singer, but the choice of just voice and piano for virtually the entire session carries an inescapable budgetary consciousness. Even guest vocal contributions from Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood, Darius Rucker and Lauren Daigle can’t alleviate the track-to-track sameness.
** 98 Degrees, “Let It Snow” (UME). The boy-turned-man vocal quartet invests 11 holiday classics and one thumping Top 40 radio-ready original (“Season of Love”) with a little soul, a little rock, a little jazz, a little romance, a little reverence, a little a cappella harmonizing, a little tradition and a little contemporary sensibility. A little goes a long way.
** ½ Pentatonix, “A Pentatonix Christmas Deluxe” (RCA). The a cappella quintet has pumped up its 2016 holiday album that was one of last season’s biggest hits with five new tracks, most notably with a lovely arrangement of “How Great Thou Art” with guest singer Jennifer Hudson, and a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with the String Mob. The voices-only approach harks back to the madrigal choirs of auld, but brings it up to date with vocalized hip-hop/R&B beats, although there’s not much anyone can do to alleviate the innate squareness of “Up On the Housetop.”
** The Piano Guys, “Christmas Together” (Portrait). For anyone who finds the Mormon Tabernacle Choir too understated, the Piano Guys may just be your guys. They are musician-producers Al van der Beek, Paul Anderson, Steven Sharp Nelson and Jon Schmidt, and they leave no stop unpulled in this grandest-scale of Yuletide jam sessions. The orchestral and choral cast of thousands may cross the line into overkill often, but credit them for neatly pairing traditional carols and complementary works from the classical repertoire such as “Mary Did You Know” with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, and “Joy to the World” with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Heavy-hitter guests include Placido Domingo, the King’s Singers, Peter Hollens, David Archuleta and — well what do you know? — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
** Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, “Elvis Christmas” (Legacy). The music-biz elves who just can’t let the King of Rock rest are at it again, this time posthumously grafting strings, horns and celestial choirs onto a baker’s dozen of his beloved Yuletide recordings. The idea is best suited to the vintage carols and pre-rock holiday standards, and verges on the intrusive with the bluesier numbers such as “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” Only for those who most prize Presley’s Vegas years. For this Elvis fan, I’m dreaming of a purist Christmas.
** Dylan Scott, “Merry Christmas” (Curb). Louisiana country singer Scott delivers the kind of holiday set that Nashville pros could knock off in their sleep -- and sometimes do. All the pieces are in place in this five-song EP: holiday classics (“The Christmas Song,” natch, “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” among them), swelling strings and twangy sincerity. All that’s missing is some personality.
*** Sia, “Everyday Is Christmas,” (Monkey Puzzle/Atlantic). Australia’s quirky singer, songwriter and performance artist takes her first holiday album seriously — in concept, anyway. She and collaborator Greg Kurstin have written 10 songs, automatically helping it stand out from the forest of collections dominated by over-familiar songs. They bring effervescent energy to dance-minded tracks such as “Santa’s Coming for us” and the Phil Spector-inspired “Candy Cane Lane” while investing real sincerity into more introspective numbers including “Snowflake” and “Underneath the Mistletoe.”
*** Gwen Stefani, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” (Interscope). The No Doubt singer-songwriter infuses her effervescent spirit into a handful of originals that she mixes with fresh spins on “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night” and “Let It Snow.” Naturally there’s a duet with her beau, Blake Shelton, on the sweetly romantic title track, which she co-wrote.
** The Tenors, “Christmas Together” (Decca). Canada’s pop-classical trio— Victor Micallef, Clifton Murray and Fraser Walters — pool their high Cs and let orchestral forces loose in this sweeping rout through the Christmas canon. Their own composition, “When We Are Together,” bounces and “oh-whoa-oh-oh-ohs” along like something that Taylor Swift might have crafted when she was still hanging out in Nashville.
*** ½ Us the Duo, “Our Favorite Time of Year” (Alvarado Records). This indie rock husband-wife duo channels a similar retro-hipster spirit that Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have brought to She & Him’s delightful holiday releases. It’s charmingly low-fi, and they’ve managed to breathe life into several chestnuts, a result of the humility they bring to the whole affair. One of this year’s most pleasant surprises.
*** Various artists, “13 Days of Xmas” (Bloodshot). The Americana label has pulled together spirited recordings largely of material pulled from deep in the repository of seasonal music. Any collection that opens with a version of “O Holy Night” by the group Murder By Death — and one that dusts the cobwebs off that warhorse at that — is off to a great start. Tracks by Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, Ruby Boots, Devil in a Woodpile and the Yawpers make this rootsy album consistently invigorating.
** Various artists, “A Bad Moms Christmas — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (Sony Masterworks). This year’s irreverent holiday film comedy folds in 16 disparate-bordering-on-dizzying tracks, with three new holiday themed songs written for the movie. The mood swings carom from the stripped-down wistfulness of the Lumineers’ reading of “Blue Christmas” to the manic exuberance of Fleur East’s “Like That” and the relentless hip-hop pulse of Pitbull-FloRida-LunchMoney Lewis’ dance-inducing “Greenlight.” The holiday relevance of some tracks is dubious.
**** Various Artists, “Cool Blue Christmas” (Contrast). A treasure trove of vintage blues, R&B, jazz and country has been culled for this series of eight albums spread across nine CDs (available individually on Amazon and elsewhere) spanning 1924 to 19’63. Anyone who winces at the thought of another faceless version of “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells” will shout “Hallelujah!” at the availability of Johnny Otis (with Little Esther & Mel Walker) doing “Far Away Blues (Xmas Blues),” Coleman Hawkins tackling “Greensleeves” or Bessie Smith belting “At the Christmas Ball.” A Yuletide gold mine.
** ½ Various Artists, “Holidays Rule, Vol. 2” (Capitol). The good news: This compilation has something for everyone. The bad news: It’s got something for everyone. That translates into a diverse collection spanning Paul McCartney with Jimmy Fallon & the Roots doing a quirky, stripped-down snippet of the Beatles’ solo song “Wonderful Christmastime,” Norah Jones with a jazzy live track “Peace,” Grace Potter’s dreamily romantic “Christmas Moon” and Flor de Toloache’s glorious mariachi take on E.E. Lawrence’s “That’s What I Want for Christmas.”
*** Butch Walker, “Over the Holidays and Under the Influence” (Crush Music). Walker reigns happily over what sounds like a raucous, rootsy live-in-the-studio romp through eight Christmas standards, all secular pop hits including “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” The vibe is celebratory, and everybody keeps things joyously spontaneous enough to ward off any Grinches who might dare suggest they were under-rehearsed.
** ½ Reta Watkins, “That Christmas Feeling” (Suite 28/Naxos). Christian singer Watkins’ holiday offering benefits from Jason Webb’s lively, Basie-inspired big-band arrangements and smart production by Dave Williamson. She’s a fleet singer with a deft touch and natural warmth that comes out in a couple of Jeremy Johnson-Paul Marino originals that share space with eight holiday standards.