Often, the annual holiday tradition that is Christmas music is rooted in nostalgia — a recycling and an update of the familiar. This year, however, the season’s holiday releases are rather broad in scope and genres.
From Georgian singer Katie Melua’s offering with Russian and Eastern European elements to R&B crooner R. Kelly’s pleasant surprise of a Christmas collection, perhaps the time has never been better to liven up your holiday library.
This year’s crop is rated below.
*** Band of Merrymakers, “Welcome to Our Christmas Party” (Portrait).
This L.A.-based collective taps a sprightly energy that’s infectious. Bonus points to producer-musicians Kevin Griffin and Sam Hollander for going the extra step of writing a handful of holiday originals that bring additional freshness to the outing. Tracks feature guest appearances from Natasha Bedingfield, Dan Wilson, Mark McGrath and various other pals, making this a savvy choice for indie rock lovers on your holiday shopping list.
*** Jon Batiste, “Christmas With Jon Batiste” (Amazon Music).
The Louisiana singer-keyboardist and bandleader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” lets his jazz chops loose with aplomb, alternating impeccable instrumentals with a varied group of singers. His guests include Aloe Blacc and Judith Hill, vocal group Infinity Song, drummer Jason Marsalis, guitarist Eric Gales, trumpeter Sean Jones and violinist Lee England Jr. The spirit is strong on this one.
***½ The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (Omnivore Recordings).
Three bonus tracks invigorate this still vibrant 2003 collection from the venerable gospel group, which brought plenty of star power to the original album with such guests as Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and George Clinton.
**½ Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Christmas Together” (Pearl).
There’s a healthy dose of Texas swing in the country power couple’s first holiday album, but as you’d expect from the genre-crossing artists, they also veer far and wide — into classic pop (“Baby It’s Cold Outside”), Broadway country (“Hard Candy Christmas” from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) and gringo mariachi (“Feliz Navidad”). Yearwood purrs persuasively in “Santa Baby,” and Brooks brings the requisite light touch to the utterly forgettable novelty contribution “Ugly Christmas Sweater.”
*** Lauren Daigle, “Behold: A Christmas Collection” (Centricity).
Until Adele gets around to turning in her own holiday album, this fills the bill of soulful, dusky-voiced seasonal music nicely. Daigle often leans more jazz than soul-R&B, so it’s no surprise that Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” is among the 10 chestnuts Daigle and her jazz collaborators have offered up.
**½ Neil Diamond, “Acoustic Christmas” (Capitol).
For his second collection of yuletide music, the veteran singer-songwriter takes a broad-based approach, touching on traditional carols, gospel songs, secular hits and couple of originals. Given that Diamond has never shied from going over the top with his music, the relatively stripped-down arrangements and down-to-earth vocals are refreshing.
*** Kurt Elling, “The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas” (Okeh).
The veteran jazz singer takes a thematically and musically expansive approach that reaches well beyond jazzed-up renditions of holiday favorites. He focuses on the messages of universal goodwill, childlike innocence and the spirit of giving in the song selection and arrangements. A worthy addition to any jazz lover’s music collection.
*** Jackie Evancho, “Someday at Christmas” (Portrait).
The former wunderkind soprano is now all of 16, and she shows off a remarkably mature voice on her classically rooted Christmas outing. The music is at its most gorgeously formal in her duets with superstar tenor Plácido Domingo, but she also delivers a nicely down-to-earth version of Ronald Miller and Bryan Wells’ title tune long associated with Stevie Wonder.
**½ Peter Hollens, “A Hollens Family Christmas” (Peter Hollens).
Oregon’s a cappella music specialist puts his and his collaborators’ voices front and center in many of the tracks on this warm, easy listening outing. No hard edges here. Hollens includes instrumental support on several tracks to avoid potential aural fatigue of a full session of a cappella harmonies. The inventive arrangement of the evergreen “Carol of the Bells” is a highlight.
*** R. Kelly, “12 Nights of Christmas” (RCA).
The R&B crooner’s reputation and the album’s title would lead you to expect an ultra-seductive set of songs, but Kelly surprises with a dozen originals built on bona fide regard for the simple joys of holiday spirit. Only at the end does he shift the focus from home and hearth into the boudoir, a predictable milieu that slightly dampens the charm of what has come first.
*** Loretta Lynn, “White Christmas Blue” (Legacy).
Lynn is 84, but retains a girlish sparkle in her voice and the songs she’s written to complement the spiritual and secular classics she takes on. The title track shows there’s life yet left in the spin on the colors of Christmas, while “Country Christmas” hones in on the homespun humility that’s been her signature for more than half a century.
** Reba McEntire, “My Kind of Christmas” (Nash Icon).
There’s a certain low-key charm hearing this country queen singing holiday songs with just piano accompaniment. But too often the arrangements lean toward a soft-rock melancholy that undermines the very notion of holiday spirit.
*** Sarah McLachlan, “Wonderland” (Verve).
The signs for emotionally reassuring empathy are all in place. There’s the signature catch in her voice as the Canadian singer-songwriter leaps across vocal registers, as well as atmospheric and expansive sonic production work. She’s joined by Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright on her harmony-rich rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and the orchestral arrangement with “Let it Snow” tips the hat to Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album. Yet perhaps most compelling is the rarely performed “Huron Carol.”
*** Kacey Musgraves, “A Very Kacey Christmas” (Mercury).
The upstart singer-songwriter brings plenty of the same feisty outsider sensibility that’s made her first two albums so refreshing. She’s co-written four of the dozen songs here, and she gets assists from Willie Nelson, Leon Bridges and the Quebe Sisters on several as well.
*** Katie Melua featuring Gori Women’s Choir, “In Winter” (BMG).
Georgian singer and songwriter Melua has drafted the choral ensemble from her homeland to provide distinctive polyphonic harmonies to several of the tracks here. The highlight is the yuletide favorite “Carol of the Bells” sung a cappella in its original Ukrainian incarnation, “The Little Swallow,” complete with Ukrainian lyrics. They also team up on gorgeous material from Georgia, Russia and Romania. Melua goes it alone for some more conventional choices such as Joni Mitchell’s “River” and a handful she co-wrote.
** Jennifer Nettles, “To Celebrate Christmas” (Big Machine).
The power and soulfulness of the Sugarland singer’s voice has been a blessing and a curse for her over the years, and the same quandary shows up here. Often she can’t resist going full throttle when restraint would serve the material better. Case in point: the over-the-top rock-country treatment given the gospel holiday standard “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the operative word being “tell,” not “belt.”
** Rascal Flatts, “The Greatest Gift of All” (Big Machine).
Points for effort, if not execution, for the pop-country trio’s attempts to turn the relentlessly chipper “Deck the Halls” into a doo-wop-ish R&B workout a la the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” as well as the gospel classic “Go Tell It on the Mountain” into a country-funk barnstormer. Other readings of mostly hyper-familiar songs are characteristically overwrought, rendering them of interest primarily to diehard Flatts fans. Highlight: their a cappella delivery of the first half of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
*** She & Him, “Christmas Party” (Columbia).
Singer Zooey Deschanel and guitarist M. Ward seem perfectly in sync with whatever it is that makes the holiday season so uniquely joyful. On their second seasonal album, they channel vintage holiday classics such as “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Happy Holiday” as well as pop aficionado choices including Vashti Bunyon’s “The Coldest Night of the Year” and Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s “Christmas Memories.” Sincere romanticism is balanced with a knowing sense of humor.
**½ Various Artists, “A Capitol Christmas” (Capitol).
The West Coast’s first major label opened 75 years ago, and the company’s current handlers have combed through its estimable archive for this compilation of tracks from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Some are iconic (Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” Bing Crosby’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?”), some are curiosities (the Dinning Sisters with Bob Atcher’s rendition of “Christmas Island”), but it’s nice to have so many vintage tracks in one place.
**½ Various Artists, “Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas” (Putamayo).
After something of a routine start in which Christmas classics are spun with Latin rhythms, this collection picks up toward the end. Roman Street’s “Christmas Rhumba,” Grupo Son Sabor’s “El Año Viejo” and La Super Band’s “Ven Ven” should perk up any holiday gathering.
*** Wonderlux, “Wonderlux Presents Christmas Eve” (Wonderlux Music).
This project from producer-arrangers Brad Benedict and Mark Fontana could be accused of horning in on Brian Setzer’s retro rockabilly swing slant on the holidays if the results weren’t so much sheer fun. Lots of twangy, reverb-drenched guitars and sly quotes of rock and pop hits enliven the instrumental re-fashioning of “Greensleeves,” Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “O Holy Night” and other holiday classics.
*½ Chris Young, “It Must Be Christmas” (RCA).
This country heartthrob brings some high-powered collaborators along for his sleigh ride through the canon of seasonal music — Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Boyz II Men — but can’t muster much freshness with his vocals. He’s big on syllable twisting and stretching, but falls short when it comes to pumping life into super-familiar songs. The two he co-wrote do little to break the sameness.