This post has been updated. See note below for details.
This year’s crop of holiday music releases demonstrates anew that the only rule of success in this specialized genre is that there are no rules. Who’d have predicted that the standouts in a year of big name entries would include R&B; superstar Mary J. Blige, the erstwhile king of British pub rock (Nick Lowe) and an Indian classical music virtuoso (James Whetzel)?
Here is Calendar’s annual assessment of the highs and lows of seasonal music collections for 2013. The ratings run from one star (poor) to four stars (essential).
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: “It Feels Like Christmas Time”
Brian Setzer has made a cottage industry of marrying holiday music with big-band roots rock, a feat that hasn’t gone unnoticed by L.A.'s long-running retro swing band. It’s hard to go wrong with swinging arrangements as tasty as these. Setzer may bring more fire, but BBVD packs plenty of oomph this time out.
Susan Boyle: “Home for Christmas”
There’s not a note here that will offend or irritate, the possible exception being the lame-brained decision for Boyle to tackle a posthumous duet with Elvis Presley on “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Otherwise, her gorgeous voice is employed effectively, albeit without any shred of human imperfection.
Mary J. Blige: “A Mary Christmas”
Blige gets positively jazzy on a swinging big-band take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” replete with some bona fide scatting on her part. Mostly, however, she’s operating in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir end of the musical spectrum, with arrangements emphasizing massed orchestral and choral forces often overwhelming the songs. Her musical collaborators include Barbra Streisand, Marc Anthony, Jessie J., the Clark Sisters and Chris Botti.
Erasure: “Snow Globe”
The first words we hear from the veteran British duo are “People hiding in the shadows/People stumbling in the dark/Angry shouts and accusations/broken dreams and broken hearts.” But fear not: Vince Clarke and Andy Bell don’t disappear down the rabbit hole of morose feelings. They look to the spirit of the season for redemption, and put their percolating electronics to smart use on a mixed bag of carols, contemporary pop songs (their take on Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” is a quirky trip) and five originals.
John Fahey: “Christmas Soli”
A compilation from the esteemed guitar wizard’s four holiday albums showcase his brilliance with the instrument. Superficially these are beautifully arranged holiday classics, but listen closely and you’ll discover a master class in the possibilities of finger-picked guitar. “Carol of the Bells” has rarely sounded so authentically bluesy.
Nick Lowe: “Quality Street”
One of the masters of British pop has delivered the freshest holiday music collection of the year, most of it written by Lowe. His knack for wordplay and pithy insights plays out charmingly across his own songs, supplemented by spirited versions “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Silent Night.” “Christmas at the Airport” is a masterpiece of retro-hipster caroling.
Johnny Mathis: “Sending You a Little Christmas”
The man responsible for one of, if not the, most popular Christmas album ever (1958’s “Merry Christmas”) is back with yet another holiday outing. The ultra glossy voice sounds smooth as ever on a mostly soothing batch of tunes, some of which long for a jolt of caffeine. He’s brought along a handful of duet partners including Billy Joel, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan and Jim Brickman.
Elizabeth Mitchell & Friends: “The Sounding Joy”
Mitchell has enlisted a slew of associates to dig into the 1953 compendium “American Folk Songs for Christmas” assembled by Ruth Crawford Seeger, folk icon Pete Seeger’s wife. There’s a fitting living-room ambience to the recording, which amplifies the charm of the songs’ delivery. Nothing like some genuine humility to bolster the spirit of the season.
Mindy Smith: “Snowed In”
The Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s 2007 album “My Holiday” remains one of the most unassumingly moving holiday albums, and her new five-song EP makes an excellent companion. Two originals — “Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” and the gently romantic title track — are complemented by three classics buoyed by the inventive vocals Smith brings to her recordings year-round.
The Robertson Family: “Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas”
(EMI Records Nashville)
Country’s idiosyncratic clan gets high-powered help from guests including Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, George Strait, Luke Bryan and Josh Turner. Irreverence (“Camouflage and Christmas Lights”) overshadows sincerity, but thankfully doesn’t obliterate it: Krauss and Sadie Robertson offer up a no-joshing “Away in a Manger” that’s enough to make you think there are real hearts beneath all those beards.
The Surfchord: “Sea Sun Greetings”
There’s a fun idea here of transplanting the holiday scenarios from the North Pole and snow-covered hills to the beach. It’s too bad the uncredited vocalist can’t muster a little character or range, and that the guitars aren’t nearly stinging enough to make the surf theme more vibrant.
Various artists: “Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, Vol. 15"
(Rock-it Science Records)
The target audience for this one is pretty specific: diehard fans of Broadway musicals. Across the 22 songs on two CDs are cast members from “Wicked,” “Mamma Mia,” “Once,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Lion King” and several others. Proceeds benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Just one question: Where’s the “Book of Mormon” cast?
James Whetzel: “Holiday: Sarod and Beats”
This could easily have been a train wreck: Traditional carols played on Indian classical instruments. But the deep spirituality inherent in the sarod (to Western ears at least) combines magically with the familiar melodies to put a remarkably endearing spin on well-trod music. Available at https://www.jameswhetzel.com.
Update Dec. 2 at 10:55 a.m.: Ruth Crawford Seeger--The review of Elizabeth Mitchell & Friends’ ‘The Sounding Joy’ misidentified Ruth Crawford Seeger as folk icon Pete Seeger’s wife. She was his step-mother.