Each December brings another deluge of new, if not necessarily fresh, renditions of “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “White Christmas”, and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasted Over an Open Fire)”. Here are this year’s most notable holiday albums that deserve attention between revisits to the perennial collections of Bing Crosby, Phil Spector, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley and Beach Boys yuletide.
Elizabeth Chan “If Fate Permits” (Merry Bright Music) High-octane holiday cheer is first and foremost for this marketing executive-turned-singer-songwriter for whom seasonal has become a cottage industry. His latest Christmas 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 its 2018 album with four bonus tracks that include a witty, #MeToo-era-appropriate duet with Kelly Clarkson on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” re-written by Legend and Natasha Rothwell. Other additions include second-line parade-worthy reading of “Christmas in New Orleans.” The Amazon Music version also adds his version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Idina Menzel, “Christmas: A Season of Love” (SRV/Decca) Menzel is back with a second Christmas collection, following her 2014 “Holiday Wishes” album, and this one also pulls out all the stops as she leads a big band and full orchestra to these mostly familiar tunes. Duo partners include Ariana Grande, Josh Gad, Aaron Lohr and Billy Porter, and Menzel injects some freshness into the mix with less-tried fare, including the romantic holiday lament “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas” and the animated spirit of Hanukkah salsa “Ocho Kandelikas”.
Lea Michele, “Christmas in the City” (Sony/Masterworks) As the title telegraphs, Michele uses the most urban approach imaginable, befitting her Broadway/Big Apple experience. She wrote the title track, a musical sleigh ride through the city that never sleeps. Orchestral and choral forces abound in most of the dozen or so tracks, with three boasting particularly inviting duet harmony parts for its collaborators: Broadway singer Jonathan Groff, screen actor and singer Darren Criss and actress -British singer Cynthia Erivo.
Josh Rouse, “Josh Rouse’s Vacation Sounds” (Yep Roc) There are basically two approaches to the holiday musical genre: spree through the existing catalog or, as the freelance singer-songwriter does here, write your own. That’s no small feat considering how many people have already done it, never mind that most listeners prefer the familiar to the novel. But Rouse fully commits, evoking the spirit of Louis Prima in swinging “Lights of Town” and channeling pure pop effervescence in “Heartbreak Holiday.” Cleverly played.
The McCrary Sisters, “A Very McCrary Christmas” (Rounder) This Nashville-based gospel quartet emphasizes African-American church tradition repertoire, investing considerable verve in such touchstone numbers as “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “No Room at the Inn,” as well as European-origin fare including “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night”. American musicians with whom they often cross paths can be found on various titles, including Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas and Keb’ Mo’ as well as the famous gospel singer Shirley Caesar.
Keb ‘Mo’, “Moonlight, Mistletoe and You” (Concord) The Los Angeles-born, Nashville-based blues musician brings a refreshingly low-key spirit to his vacation outing. He co-wrote half of the songs, which reinforces the feeling that he was really invested in adding to, rather than just rehashing, the canon of seasonal music. The sincerity of his original songs comes through in clever covers of deep holiday tunes, including Koko Taylor’s “Merry, Merry Christmas” and Charley Jordan’s “Santa Claus Blues.”
Various Artists, “Christmas Blues” (Putumayo) It’s hard in 2019 for a holiday blues performance session to rise above seriousness and predictability. This one, with tracks from 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 long swagger “Santa , Don’t Let Me Down.”
Judy Collins and Jonas Fjeld with Chatham County Line, “Winter Stories” (Wildflower) This tinsel-free, molasses-free outing looks at winter not so much for the obvious pitfalls of specific holidays as for the thrills of family gatherings, separation from loved ones, frozen landscapes and thawing romance. Collins’ angelic soprano purity blends beautifully with Norwegian singer Fjeld’s sanded tenor, and the savory backing of bluegrass band Chatham County Line keeps the instrumental parameters invitingly humble.
Los Lobos “Llego Navidad” (Rhinoceros) Anyone who has followed East LA’s long and distinguished career will not be surprised at their decision to focus on the season’s songs from disparate parts of South America and Central and South America. Three bilingual holiday classics — “Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano, “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios? and Freddy Fender’s tex-mex polka “It’s Christmas Time in Texas” – complete “Amarga Navidad” by José Alfredo Jiménez, “La Murga” by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe and an original, “Christmas and You” by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez.
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 understated settings reinforce the sense of wonder she seeks in the songs of faith, without any proselytism, which she wrote from the perspective of biblical characters encountering Jesus for the first time. An ambitious task, convincingly executed with Sheryl Crow-like friendliness and a welcome lack of pretension.
The Singing Contractors, “Building an Unforgettable Christmas” (Gaither/Capitol) The duo’s name, album cover and title created expectations of something resembling Tim Allen’s old sitcom “Home Improvement” – “More Power!!” – but the music is no joke. Singers Josh Arnett and Aaron Gray are utterly heartfelt, if not always stylistically distinctive, in this heartfelt and often upbeat 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. His irreverent, witty album – featuring nine clever originals and a sharp take on “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)” (Live Music) By far the most inclusive and expansive holiday crop this year. “Everybody Under the Sun” lives up to its title with featured performances on two CDs by soloists from across the United States and far beyond representing more than a dozen countries and cultures. The recordings are taken from winter concerts that saxophonist Winter has presided over every year since 1980 at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. The second volume, due out in 2020, will highlight the many 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 ‘Jesu , Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, as esoteric as “Weihnachtstraum” by Max Reger and as accessible as “Greensleeves” and an arrangement for five pianos of the eternal “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson.
Ana Gasteyer, “Sugar and Booze” (Henry’s Girl Records) If Frank, Dino or Sammy were still with us, all or part of it would jump to the delightfully blustering title track. Best known for her acting and comedian skills, “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Gasteyer puts her considerable vocal talents to work here to marvelous effect on this exuberant big band jazz effort. Whether it’s the jump-blues slant of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the bossa nova of “Sleigh Ride,” or some solid originals she co-wrote, Gasteyer almost infallibly finds the right touch. freshness for everyone.
Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, “A Jazzy Little Christmas” (Gaither) The old school entry of this male quartet evokes memories of the Rat Pack and Tony Bennett, the latter is no coincidence since its former musical director, pianist Billy Stritch, also co-produced this session. It’s about half the classics and half the originals, presented most directly and effortlessly. Among the latter, “Love You Remember” is a vintage-sounding pop-R&B number in which Haase effectively glides over Elton John’s pitch.
Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, “Big Band Holidays II” (Blue Engine) Aretha Franklin’s solo rendition of “O Tannenbaum,” which she sings in German and English while backing herself with her inimitably incendiary gospel piano work, is worth the price of admission alone. The album, taken from the annual concerts in New York from 2015 to 2018, plays like a dinner show of the best kind, with echoes of the great orchestras Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman of the Swing era, fleshed out with worldly arrangements such as “Brazilian Sleigh Bells” which gives an irresistible Latin jazz twist to Percy Faith’s composition. Other singers include Catherine Russell, Denzal Sinclaire and Veronica Swift.