Every December brings another deluge of new, if not necessarily fresh, interpretations of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” Here are this year’s standout holiday albums deserving of attention between revisits to perennial Bing Crosby, Phil Spector, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley and Beach Boys yuletide collections.
Elizabeth Chan “If the Fates Allow” (Merry Bright Music) High-octane holiday joy is foremost for this marketing exec-turned-singer-songwriter for whom seasonal has become a cottage industry. Her latest yuletide collection features half a dozen songs largely aimed at making listeners want to dance, but the breakout title track encourages welcome reflection and gratitude.
John Legend “A Legendary Christmas (Deluxe Edition)” (Columbia) Legend expands on his 2018 album with four bonus tracks that include a witty #MeToo-era appropriate duet with Kelly Clarkson on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” rewritten by Legend and Natasha Rothwell. Among the other adds are a second-line parade-worthy reading of “Christmas in New Orleans.” The Amazon Music version also throws in his take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
Idina Menzel, “Christmas: A Season of Love” (SRV/Decca) Menzel is back with a second yuletide collection, following her 2014 “Holiday Wishes” album, and this one similarly pulls out all the stops as she fronts a big band and full orchestra on these mostly familiar tunes. Duet partners include Ariana Grande, Josh Gad, Aaron Lohr and Billy Porter, and Menzel injects some freshness into the mix with less tried-and-true fare including the holiday romantic lament “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas” and the sprightly Hanukkah-minded salsa “Ocho Kandelikas.”
Lea Michele, “Christmas in the City” (Sony/Masterworks) As the title telegraphs, Michele employs the most urbane approach imaginable, befitting her Broadway/Big Apple background. She wrote the title track, a bouncy musical sleigh ride through the city that never sleeps. Orchestral and choral forces abound in most of the dozen tracks, three benefiting from particularly inviting duet harmony parts for her collaborators: Broadway singer Jonathan Groff, theater-film actor and singer Darren Criss and British actress-singer Cynthia Erivo.
Josh Rouse, “The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse” (Yep Roc) There are basically two approaches to the holiday music genre: a shopping spree through the existing catalog or, as the indie singer-songwriter does here, write your own. That’s no easy feat given how many people have already done so, never mind that most listeners prefer the familiar over the novel. But Rouse commits fully, conjuring the spirit of Louis Prima in the swinging “Lights of Town” and channeling pure pop effervescence in “Heartbreak Holiday.” Smartly played.
R & B/ Blues/ Gospel
The McCrary Sisters, “A Very McCrary Christmas” (Rounder) This Nashville-based sibling gospel quartet emphasizes repertoire out of the African American church tradition, investing considerable verve to such touchstone numbers as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “No Room at the Inn,” along with European-rooted fare including “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night.” Americana musicians with whom they often cross paths drop in on various tracks, among them Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas and Keb’ Mo’ as well as celebrated gospel singer Shirley Caesar.
Keb’ Mo’, “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You” (Concord) The L.A.-born, Nashville-based blues musician brings a refreshingly low-key spirit to his holiday outing. He’s cowritten half the songs, enhancing the feeling that he’s truly invested in adding to, rather than merely rehashing, the seasonal music canon. The sincerity of his original songs carries over into smart covers of deep holiday tracks including Koko Taylor’s “Merry, Merry Christmas” and Charley Jordan’s “Santa Claus Blues.”
Various Artists, “Blues Christmas” (Putumayo) It’s hard in 2019 for a session of holiday blues performances to rise above earnest and predictable. This one, featuring tracks by Kenny Neal, Charles Brown, Chuck Leavell, Paul Oscher, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, among others, succeeds on occasion, the best example being Earl King’s extended swaggering romp “Santa, Don’t Let Me Down.”
Judy Collins and Jonas Fjeld featuring Chatham County Line, “Winter Stories” (Wildflower) This tinsel and treacle-free outing looks at winter not so much for the obvious trappings of specific holidays but for the emotions of familial gatherings, separation from loved ones, frozen landscapes and thawing romance. The purity of Collins’ angelic soprano blends beautifully with Norwegian singer Fjeld’s sandpapery tenor, and the flavorful backing of the bluegrass group Chatham County Line keeps the instrumental settings invitingly humble.
Los Lobos “Llego Navidad” (Rhino) Anyone who’s followed the East L.A. band’s long and distinguished career won’t be surprised at their decision to focus on songs of the season from disparate regions of the American South and Central and South America. Three bilingual holiday classics _ Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” Augie Rios’ “¿Donde Esta Santa Claus?” and Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex polka “It’s Christmas Time in Texas” _ supplement Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s “Amarga Navidad,” Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe’s irresistible salsa “La Murga” and one original, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez’s “Christmas and You.”
Melanie Penn, “Immanuel _ The Folk Sessions” (Equally Well Music) This six-song EP consists of unplugged, live-in-the-studio renditions of songs that first appeared on the Broadway singer-turned-Christian pop musician’s 2017 album “Immanuel.” The low-key settings reinforce the sense of wonder she strives for in songs of faith, minus any proselytizing, that she’s written from the perspective of biblical characters encountering Jesus for the first time. An ambitious task, convincingly executed with Sheryl Crow-like amiability and a welcome absence of pretentiousness.
The Singing Contractors, “Building a Christmas to Remember” (Gaither/Capitol) The duo’s name, album cover and title set up expectations of something akin to Tim Allen’s old sitcom “Home Improvement” _ “More power!!” _ but the music is no joke. Singers Josh Arnett and Aaron Gray are utterly sincere, if not always stylistically distinctive, in this heartfelt and often sprightly country session.
Tara Thompson, “Hillbilly Christmas” (TDT Enterprises) The Tennessee native is related biologically to Loretta Lynn and musically to country upstarts such as Miranda Lambert, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves and even the great John Prine. Her irreverent and sharply witty album _ with nine smart originals and a crisp version of “Blue Christmas” _ is a welcome antidote to the overwhelming sentimentality of the vast majority of Christmas music.
Paul Winter Consort & Friends, “Everybody Under the Sun: Voices of Solstice (Volume One: The Singers)” (Living Music) Easily the most inclusive and expansive of this year’s holiday crop. “Everybody Under the Sun” lives up to its title with featured performances in two CDs by soloists from the U.S. and well beyond representing more than a dozen countries and cultures. Recordings are drawn from winter concerts that saxophonist Winter has presided over annually since 1980 at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Volume Two, due in 2020, will highlight the numerous instrumentalists Winter has hosted.
The 5 Browns, “Christmas With the 5 Browns,” (Steinway & Sons) Sibling pianists Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae apply the classical training they received at New York’s Juilliard School of Music to classical and traditional holiday favorites as sublime as “O Holy Night” and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” as esoteric as Max Reger’s “Weihnachtstraum” and as approachable as “Greensleeves” and a five-piano arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s perennial “Sleigh Ride.”
Ana Gasteyer, “Sugar and Booze” (Henry’s Girl Records) Were Frank, Dino or Sammy still with us, any or all would pounce on the delightfully swaggering title track. Better known for her acting and comedic skills, “Saturday Night Live” alumna Gasteyer puts her considerable vocal chops to work here to marvelous effect on this ebullient big-band jazz effort. Whether it’s the jump-blues slant on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the bossa nova take on “Sleigh Ride” or a couple of solid originals she cowrote, Gasteyer almost unerringly finds the right, fresh touch for each.
Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, “A Jazzy Little Christmas” (Gaither) This male quartet’s old-school entry evokes memories of the Rat Pack and Tony Bennett, the latter no coincidence since his erstwhile musical director, pianist Billy Stritch, also co-produced this session. It’s roughly half classics and half originals, most directly and effortlessly presented. Among the latter, “Love You Remember” is a vintage-sounding pop-R&B number in which Haase slides effectively into Elton John terrain.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, “Big Band Holidays II” (Blue Engine) Worth the price of admission alone is Aretha Franklin’s solo rendition of “O Tannenbaum,” which she sings in German and English while accompanying herself with her inimitably incendiary gospel piano work. The album, drawn from annual concerts in New York from 2015-18, plays like a dinner show of the best kind, with echoes of the great Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman orchestras of the Swing Era, expanded with worldly arrangements such as “Brazilian Sleigh Bells” that puts an irresistible Latin jazz spin on Percy Faith’s composition. Other singers include Catherine Russell, Denzal Sinclaire and Veronica Swift.
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