Each year that great body of work known as “Holiday Music” grows, as contemporary artists offer new Yuletide tunes or try their hand at traditional favorites. Here’s a round up of some of the notable new entries in the Christmas music cornucopia for 2015.
TITLE: “That’s Christmas To Me (Deluxe Edition)”
LABEL: RCA Records
STYLE: Modern a cappella vocal Christmas
NOTABLE: Like Straight No Chaser before them, modern a cappella group Pentatonix has enjoyed its greatest commercial success via holiday recordings. The original version of “That’s Christmas To Me” was one of the best Christmas albums of 2014. This Deluxe Edition includes 10 of the 11 tracks from the original version, as well as four new tracks from the group and a special new recording of last year’s standout hit, “Mary, Did You Know?” featuring The String Mob. There is also be a digital EP which will just feature the five newly recorded tracks. Group members Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado, Avi Kaplan, and Kevin Olusola have created a collection of holiday music that showcases both the group’s gorgeous harmonies (“Silent Night,” “Mary Did You Know”) and stunning beatbox-driven arrangements (“Sleigh Ride,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”). The title song is an original composed by the group. Tori Kelly guest stars on the “Winter Wonderland”/“Don’t Worry Be Happy” mash-up.
HIGH POINTS: The group’s vocal gymnastics and beatboxing are so intricate that throughout the album, you’ll swear you hear instrumental accompaniment and traditional percussion. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” starts out in a traditional choral arrangement before morphing into a gospel-pop celebration. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is given a fresh, bouncy arrangement. A bright, percussion-driven cover of Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” should bring the old English-sounding song wider exposure. Of the new tracks, a traditionally arranged “The First Noel” is most effective.
LOW POINT: Listeners who prefer more traditional arrangements would be best advised to look elsewhere – but they probably wouldn’t be interested in Pentatonix to begin with. The original album’s version of “Mary Did You Know” was both a vocal showcase for the group and one of the lovelier renderings of the song ever recorded. The addition of The String Mob on the Deluxe Edition doesn’t detract from any of that, but technically, it’s no longer an a cappella track.
ARTIST: LeAnn Rimes
TITLE: “Today Is Christmas”
LABEL: Kobalt Records
STYLE: Country-Soul-Pop Christmas
NOTABLE: Rimes follows-up her 2014 holiday EP “One Christmas: Chapter One,” with this newly recorded 12-song collection. Rimes co-wrote two original songs for the album, the title track (which has been tapped as the official Christmas theme for NBC’s “Today” show), as well as “I Still Believe in Santa Claus.” Gavin DeGraw and Aloe Blacc guest star on the album.
HIGH POINTS: LeAnn Rimes still has a voice that embodies country soul – she can carry a song equally well with either a southern drawl or a soulful preach. Rimes and Aloe Blacc deliver a terrific, slightly upbeat version of Ray Charles’ “That Spirit of Christmas,” and Gavin DeGraw and Rimes do equal justice to “Celebrate Me Home” on a soulful version of the Kenny Loggins classic. Rimes seems like she’s having a blast on a high-energy version of “Must Be Santa” that sounds like it was recorded when a horn section crashed a Christmas party at a Tex-Mex bar. “Joy” (a medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” / “Angels We Have Heard on High” / “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) serves as a showcase for Rimes’ powerful voice, as does the a cappella version of “Auld Lang Syne” that closes the album.
LOW POINT: Rimes’ versions of songs like “Little Drummer Boy,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and a down-tempo “We Need a Little Christmas” aren’t bad, but sound a bit too generic to distinguish them from the numerous versions already recorded by other artists.
ARTIST: Count Basie Orchestra
TITLE: “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!” LABEL: Concord Jazz
STYLE: Big Band Christmas
NOTABLE: Founded in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Although it was predominantly featured on Tony Bennett’s 2008 album, “A Swingin’ Christmas (Featuring The Count Basie Big Band),” this is the Count Basie Orchestra’s first Christmas album. The 19-piece band is accompanied by Johnny Mathis on “It’s The Holiday Season,” Ledisi on “The Christmas Song” and Carmen Bradford on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Additionally, Ellis Marsalis (Piano) and Plas Johnson (saxophone) are guest musicians on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” At age 90, veteran Count Basie arranger Sammy Nestico contributes charts for “Jingle Bells” and “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslas.”
HIGH POINTS: If you’re a fan of swing or big bands, you’ll love this album from beginning to end. Director Scotty Barnhart has shaped an album deeply rooted in the Count Basie tradition that still sounds fresh and timeless in 2015. The usually mellow Johnny Mathis adds a surprisingly confident swinging vocal – sounding a lot like Al Jarreau – to “It’s the Holiday Season.” Vocal turns by Ledisi (on “The Christmas Song”) and Carmen Bradford (on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) shine as well. But it’s the musicianship of the orchestra that takes center stage throughout the album. “Little Drummer Boy” is a standout, showcasing not only Clayton Cameron’s excellent drum work, but also a piano solo by Llew Matthews, a sax solo by Jay Brandford, a piccolo solo by Cleave E. Guyton, Jr., and trumpet solos by both Endre Rice and Scotty Barnhart.
LOW POINT: No style of music, no matter how well played, will please everyone. So listeners who regularly avoid jazz, big band, or swing will probably not appreciate “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!” For everyone else, it’s a very Merry Christmas indeed.
ARTIST: Kenny Rogers
TITLE: “Once Again It’s Christmas”
LABEL: Warner Music Nashville
STYLE: Retro Country-Jazz Flavored Christmas
NOTABLE: This is Kenny Rogers’ first new Christmas album in seventeen years, and his sixth Christmas album overall. Although mostly thought of as a country artist, the songs on “Once Again It’s Christmas” are flavored by as much by jazz as country. Rogers co-wrote “The Light” and an intro to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” entitled “Here It Is Christmas.” With five previous Christmas collections under his belt, most of the album features lesser-known holiday songs – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guests on the album include Jennifer Nettles (who duets with Rogers on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”), Alison Krauss, Jim Brickman, Winfield’s Locket, and a cappella group Home Free. Rogers is also a noted photographer. The album’s cover is photo taken by Rogers entitled “Red Tree.”
HIGH POINTS: The title track is a lovely, nostalgic recollection of Christmas memories featuring showcasing Rogers’ crooning voice and a beautiful harmonica solo by Pat Bergeson. Country stations are likely to embrace Rogers’ stellar version of “There’s A New Kid In Town” featuring backing vocals by female duo Winfield’s Locket. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” is an unexpected country gospel treat, with Rogers more than holding his own with a cappella group Home Free.
LOW POINT: At age 77, Rogers’ voice is still warm and distinctive, but it isn’t quite as versatile as it used to be. Most of the album features reflective, down-tempo songs, giving the album an almost melancholy tone. The usually up-tempo “Winter Wonderland” is given a jazz-soul makeover. As a result, it seems a bit subdued, and winds up showcasing Rogers’ vocal limitations rather than his strengths. Fans who prefer more familiar holiday fare might be better served with Rogers’ “Christmas In America.”
ARTIST: Kylie Minogue
TITLE: “Kylie Christmas”
LABEL: Warner Bros./Parlophone
STYLE: Pop-Dance-Retro Secular Christmas
NOTABLE: For her thirteenth studio album overall, pop idol Kylie Minogue returns with her first holiday album, “Kylie Christmas.” While the 47-year-old Melbourne, Australia native has not always shown the best judgement when choosing material as of late, Minogue does an excellent job putting together the songs on “Kylie Christmas.” It’s a collection of classics (“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Winter Wonderland”), popular favorites (“It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Christmas Wrapping”), obscure covers (Connie Francis’ “I’m Gonna Be Warm This Winter,” Yaz’s “Only You”) and originals (“Every Day’s Like Christmas,” “Christmas Isn’t Christmas ‘Til You Get Here”). Minogue takes a traditional, and at times, downright old-fashioned approach for most of “Kylie Christmas.” She co-wrote five of the album’s original tracks. Guests include Iggy Pop (on a cover of the Waitresses “Christmas Wrapping”), James Corden (on a cover of Yaz’s “Only You”), and on the deluxe version, Kylie’s sister Dannii Minogue (on the original disco workout “100 Degrees”). The album features 13 songs on the standard edition, and 16 songs on the deluxe edition.
HIGH POINTS: Studio magic allows Kylie Minogue to duet with the late Frank Sinatra on a swinging big band version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Also fun is Kylie’s pairing with a Scroogy-sounding Iggy Pop on “Christmas Wrapping.” The Phil Spector-inspired original “White December” might strike a chord with the millions of listeners that have made Mariah Carey’s similarly styled “All I Want for Christmas Is You” a perennial. Minogue’s sweet, pleasant voice is showcased on the melancholy version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The duet with James Corden is another highlight, but “Only You” has no connection to Christmas, New Year’s, or any other holiday.
LOW POINT: The album includes the two songs – “Let It Snow” and “Santa Baby” – that were recorded for Minogue’s 2010 release “A Kylie Christmas.” Yet another obvious version of “Santa Baby” is unnecessary – especially when the album features the similarly themed original “O Santa.” Some Christmas music traditionalists might balk at the fact that this is purely a secular holiday album. Enough with the multiple versions already – put all 16 songs on the album and call it a day!
TITLE: “Christmas in Tahoe”
LABEL: Sunken Forest Records
STYLE: Contemporary Rock Christmas
NOTABLE: It was only a matter of time until the popular San Francisco-based rock band Train released a Christmas album. This generous 15-song collection (available exclusively on Amazon.com) should please both fans and nonfans alike. It’s mostly a collection of covers of pop, rock, and R&B holiday favorites like Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Elvis Presley’s “Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me),” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.” Also included are three original songs co-written by lead vocalist Pat Monahan – “Wait For Mary, Christmas,” “Christmas Island,” and a new version of the group’s 2010 holiday tune, “Shake Up Christmas.” The group earns points for also covering a few lesser-known holiday songs including The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” Tracey Thorn’s “Tinsel and Lights” and Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody.”
HIGH POINTS: Train does an excellent job on both The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” – neither of which were Stateside hits in their original versions. Perhaps one or both will do better this time around. The best original song on the album is the Jimmy Buffett-esque “Christmas Island,” a catchy, lighthearted tune that sings the praises of spending the holidays in the tropics.
LOW POINT: Why call the best original song on the album the same name as a fairly popular Christmas standard? While I’m on the subject of song titles, I know I’m nitpicking, but the Joni Mitchell song is incorrectly referred to as “The River” on the album credits. It’s simply “River.” Train’s versions of popular holiday songs like “2000 Miles,” “Happy Xmas (War Is over),” and “River” are okay, but pale when compared to the definitive original versions.
ARTIST: India.Arie and Joe Sample
TITLE: “Christmas With Friends”
LABEL: Motown Records
STYLE: Soulful R&B Jazz Christmas
NOTABLE: For her sixth studio album, R&B and soul vocalist India.Arie teamed up with keyboardist Joe Sample to record “Christmas With Friends.” Sadly, Sample passed away in September 2014 before the album was completed. He plays piano on four of the ten songs – the opening “Let It Snow,” “Silent Night” (featuring Brandy), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (featuring Kem), and “The Christmas Song.” The album is filled with other guest appearances by artists representing contemporary gospel, jazz, pop, R&B, and rock, including Michael McDonald, Dave Koz, Tori Kelly, Trombone Shorty, and Kirk Whalum. The album strikes a nice balance between secular and religious Christmas songs.
HIGH POINTS: Arie has a strong, versatile voice that allows her to handle the various musical styles represented with equal aplomb. The album’s one original song, the sentimental “Favorite Time of Year” was co-written by Arie and is one of the highlights of the album. Arie shows off her playful side on a bright and breezy rendition of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” A beautiful rendition of “Mary, Did You Know” is performed as a duet with gospel star Gene Moore, Jr.
LOW POINT: As mentioned above, Arie has a strong, versatile voice, but she would benefit from more restraint in her approach. Too often she veers into runs and other vocal gymnastics when the song would be best served by simply carrying the tune. There’s a fine line between personalizing a holiday standard and ruining it, as unfortunately happens with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The usually reliable Michael McDonald joins Arie on “Merry Christmas Baby,” but what should have been an album highlight turns into what sounds more like a shouting match.
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