Shakin' up the holidays

Holiday albums offer soundtrack for the season; Click here for audio excerpts

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Whether you like your musical Christmas cheer straight up traditional, stirred with jazz, shaken with rock or laced with country, this year’s crop of new holiday CDs truly offer something for every taste.

SourceMedia staff members past and present have given the following 13 discs a spin, dishing up our takes on the musical smorgasbord.



CHRISTINA PERRI: “A Very Merry Perri Christmas” (Atlantic)

Rating: ????

Traditional Christmas songs with a bit of a mellow twist. This six- to seven-song album (depending on where you purchased it) featured Perri’s renditions of Christmas classics, but they are presented in a way that makes them seem fresh. Many of the songs are accompanied by minimal instrumentation, making this very natural sounding.

The only note the album seemed to hit flat, was the rendition of “Ave Maria.” While performed in Latin, it seems like Perri was unfamiliar with the meaning of the words she was singing. It reminded me of myself trying to sing along at Christmas Mass as a 5-year-old, parroting the words my parents sang.

An all-around good mix that could easily make it into your Christmas season rotation.

-- Erin Rooney, KCRG-TV9

Best song: “Please Come Home For Christmas” (click link below for a sample)

ANDRE RIEU: "Home for the Holidays" (Universal Music Enterprises)

Rating: ????

Holiday classics are delivered with spirit and style. If this doesn't get you in the mood, nothing will.

Andre Rieu is the most commercially successful classical musician in history, selling more than 30 million albums. His holiday album, recorded in 2011 and released in October, provides ample evidence how and why he has achieved superstar status with sold-out concerts.

Classics like "White Christmas," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silver Bells" are delivered in lush arrangements by Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra. "Sleigh Ride" has just the right amount of jazz that Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops brought to the well-known Leroy Anderson standard.

Rieu, a charismatic violinist and conductor, also demonstrates his composing skills with "December Lights," a composition that doesn't include sleigh bells or the usual sounds of Christmas. In many ways, it's a pleasant, welcome departure from the rest of the album that primarily includes such seasonal fare as the "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah."

While Rieu is known for his use of strings and full orchestration, his decision to let an acoustic guitar lead Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains" adds the perfect light touch. The vocal trio of Mirusia Louwerse, Kimmy Skota and Carla Maffioletti also shine on "Walking in the Air."

If you purchase the "Home for the Holidays" CD, you get a bonus DVD with the full concert filmed at Rieu's castle-like home in Maastricht, Holland. The scenery and music are spectacular, but they don't match the charm of a delightful 10-year-old ballerina gliding across the stage and into your heart on "Walking in the Air."

— George Ford, The Gazette

Best song: "December Lights" (click link below for a sample)

VARIOUS ARTISTS: “A Very Special Christmas 25” (Big Machine Records)

Rating: ????

If you love a little mash-up in your Christmas CDs -- which I do -- look no further. This year’s 25th anniversary edition of “Very Special Christmas” albums is the perfect blend of funky and fun as well as sweet and soulful.

If it’s straight traditional Christmas songs you want, Christina Aguilera is pitch perfect on “O Holy Night” and Micheal Buble’s sexy croon on “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” goes straight to your heart.

And while making a traditional Christmas song your own is admittedly tough given that hundreds of versions by just as many singers are out there, Jason Mraz brings his own swinging style to “Winter Wonderland” with much success and the Dave Matthews Band brings funky to the Christmas story like no one else can in “Christmas Song,” where God is referred to as Daddy-o.

If it’s something new you want, Cheap Trick’s version of “I Want You for Christmas” -- a Christmas version of its hit “I Want You to Want Me” -- will stick in your head for hours (days actually) and Francesca Battistelli’s “December 25” is sure to become a classic.

You can also feel better forking over the money for a new CD this year, since the proceeds from this one go to a worthy cause, the Special Olympics.

-- Janet Rorholm, The Gazette

Best Song: “December 25” (click link below for a sample)


KEM: “What Christmas Means” (Motown)

Rating: ???½

Here’s an ideal setting for enjoying this collection of holiday originals and timeless classics: Cuddled by a fire with your significant other, lights dimmed, favorite beverage in hand and free of all distractions.

If you’re not familiar with this Motown singer/producer’s work, one of his publishers offers a perfect description of his style: “Mellosmooth.” KEM’s light, clear vocal tone is evident on every track, from “A Christmas Song For You,” with acoustic guitar and percussion, to the jazz jam session of “Merry Christmas Baby.”

Nashville native KEM (real name Kem Owens) overcame homelessness and addiction to discover his spirituality, which is on full display on the album’s opening tracks, “Glorify The King” and “What Christmas Means” (“Who would rise/So all the world could see/His holiness in you and me”).

Remarkably, half the tracks are co-written by KEM himself, including one of my favorites, “Be Mine For Christmas,” a brass-accompanied duet with fellow jazz musician Ledisi.

Snuggle a little closer, take a break from the holiday frenzy and find 45 minutes to absorb this CD. Your inner romantic will be grateful.

– Richard Pratt,

Best song: “Doo Wop Christmas (That’s What Christmas Is All About)” (click link below for a sample)

BLAKE SHELTON: “Cheers, it’s Christmas” (Warner Music Nashville)

Rating: ???½

This CD is perfect for those wanting a country voice in their Christmas music. With a good mix of both slow and up-tempo Christmas classics, Shelton brings his strong Southern voice to each number.

The album includes several collaborations featuring Kelly Clarkson, Michael Buble, Reba and of course, one with his wife, Miranda Lambert.

“Cheers, it’s Christmas” kicks off the married couple singing “Jingle Bell Rock,” setting the laid back feel of the album. The CD also offers up some southern Cheer with songs like “Oklahoma Christmas.”

Shelton provides a light, fun, country twang to many of the numbers, but there are a few that don’t offer anything special or different from the many Christmas albums available by other country artists.

-- Addison Speck, KCRG-TV9

Best song: "Oklahoma Christmas" (click link below for a sample)


COLBIE CAILLAT: “Christmas in the Sand” (Universal Republic)

Rating: ???

Some singers have the perfect voice for Christmas music and Colbie Caillat is one of them. Her new Christmas album is a treat to listen to, getting you in the mood for snowy nights with “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” featuring Gavin DeGraw, trimming the tree or baking Christmas cookies.

Her two new Christmas songs are well written and beautifully done. They are certain to be played for years to come. A shout-out goes to Iowa City native Jason Reeves, a longtime Colbie Caillat collaborator who helped write those new tunes: “Christmas in the Sand,” a bouncy, fun song for which the album is named, and “Every Day is Christmas,” which features Reeves on vocals as well.

The rest of the songs are oldies but goodies like “Santa Baby,” which fits Caillat’s sultry voice well. She also partners with Brad Paisley on “Merry Christmas Baby,” another fun tune.

-- Janet Rorholm, The Gazette

Best Song: “Christmas in the Sand” (click link below for a sample)

CELTIC WOMAN: “Home for Christmas” (Manhattan Records)

Rating: ???

With a name like Celtic Woman, you expect to hear some fancy fiddling, but that doesn’t happen until song three, when “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” picks up the tempo from the slower, melodic first two cuts. That’s when the fiddle comes alive and you expect jolly old Santa to step-dance his way from the chimney.

You get a little more of the Celtic sound with a bagpipe introduction and interludes in song five, “We Three Kings.” That’s followed by “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” done in a rather subdued manner rather than the rousing rendition I’d hoped to hear.

Yes, as the tracks continue, this is an easy-listening Christmas compilation with an Irish flavor, one you can play in the background while fixing that traditional holiday feast or as the family gathers ’round the yule log to catch up on the past year. (“Auld Lang Syne” is included.)

Many of the cuts feature a musical wall of sound punctuated by crisp instrumental solos reminiscent of a Manheim Steamroller classic. Yet, the voice of Celtic Woman (actually four Irish women in the group created by the former musical director of “Riverdance”) is ever present and pleasant, especially on the four “bonus” tracks composed by the group.

— Dave Rasdal, The Gazette

Best song: “The First Tree in the Greenwood” (click link below for a sample)

ELVIS PRESLEY: “The Classic Christmas Album” (RCA/Legacy)

Rating: ???

To enjoy the CD even more, put the tracks on shuffle and play a game. Guess which songs are sung by the young, full of pep Elvis who is singing through a crooked smile as his voice plays with staccato pacing so that you can hear the hips swivel; or the sequin-jumpsuit-wearing, drunk uncle who needs an intervention, singing to overly ornate orchestration that sounds like a parody of himself?

We should expect some cheese when it comes to Elvis, but the songs where he takes himself too seriously can be hard to listen to. When he’s having fun, you think of holiday parties, gathering with loved ones and giving gifts. Melodramatic Elvis is akin to that one person who drank a bit too much at the holiday party and is dominating the karaoke machine.

The two songs with inserted vocals by Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride are OK, but it’s clear the emotion they are trying to create is one-sided. They’re trying a bit too hard to create chemistry. Elvis is always best on his own.

-- Cecelia Hanley, Correspondent

Best song: “Blue Christmas” (click link below for a sample)

RICHARD MARX: “Christmas Spirit” (TourDForce)

Rating: ???

Ah, Richard Marx always leaves us satisfied. The hard-rockin’ crooner takes us on a wild holiday sleigh ride, veering from the straight and narrow path on all but the most hallowed Christmas carols.

He begins with a lush, dreamy glide through “The Christmas Song,” then turns “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” into a power peace ballad a la U2, remaking a tired old song into something completely new, fresh and hip.

My favorite twists elevate the “Little Drummer Boy” to rock god status, add a gentle country amble countering the usual hustle and bustle of “Silver Bells” and zig “Jingle Bell Rock” down a rockabilly road.

He packs plenty of family and friends in this sleigh as well, from his three sons, wife and mother joining in a reverent reading of “O Come All Ye Faithful” to a tight duet with Kenny Loggins on “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and a swingy twirl with Sara Niemietz on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

At first listen, I thought Marx didn’t know what kind of holiday disc he wanted to create, since it seems like a mishmash of styles. But with each subsequent listen, it’s apparent this eclectic collection offers something for every good taste.

-- Diana Nollen, The Gazette

Best song: “Little Drummer Boy” (click link below for a sample)


CEELO GREEN: "CeeLo’s Magic Moment" (Elektra)

Rating: ??½

The best songs on this holiday compilation tend to be the ones where CeeLo is singing with someone else. CeeLo has an amazing range and can hit the high end in the first syllable and the low end in the second syllable. Still, I didn't find his voice strong enough to carry all of the songs he sang all by himself.

"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," featuring Straight No Chaser, topped my favorite tracks by allowing CeeLo to have a fun and campy time with the lyrics. On "Merry Christmas, Baby," CeeLo croons a classic with Rod Stewart, and he seems to be having a fun time on "All I Need is Love" with The Muppets, although I would have preferred to hear more from the Muppets on this track.

"Run Rudolph Run" seemed catchy enough to get both my attention and my son's as we listened to the whole CD during a drive. "Silent Night" is probably CeeLo's best attempt at trying to record a standard for future holidays.

I liked the CD. But it feels more like something you would pick and choose what to listen to instead of putting it on and listening to the whole thing while you trim the tree.

-- Michael Wagner, KCRG-TV9

Best song: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (click link below for a sample)

ROD STEWART: “Merry Christmas, Baby” (Verve)

Rating: ??½

The first few tracks on this CD are so generic that they might as well have been sung by Rodney the neighborhood caroler than by rock ’n’ roll icon Rod Stewart.

But the CD picks up with the fifth track, “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a duet with Cee Lo Green. From there on, it’s almost like attending a concert in which the artist starts low and builds energy throughout.

Stewart’s rendition of “Let It Snow” is especially lively. “Blue Christmas” is appropriately blue.

The CD peaks with “We Three Kings,” Stewart’s duet with Mary J. Bilge. His passion comes through on “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne,” but I wish he would have kicked it up another couple notches for a little more oomph.

Stewart could have done a little better on “Merry Christmas Baby,” but you can do worse than this for a holiday soundtrack.

-- Terry Coyle, The Gazette

Best song: “We Three Kings” (click link below for a sample)


WILLIE NELSON: “The Classic Christmas Album” (Columbia Legacy)

Rating: ??

In 1982 Willie Nelson released a version of “You Were Always on My Mind” that possibly was most honest rendition of any song. Ever. He won a Grammy for it.

This holiday season, Columbia Legacy has put out a collection of recordings by Nelson singing his way through “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells” and the like.

What are we to make of this from a former Outlaw? For fully the first half of these offerings, it’s as if he’s finishing up some contractual obligations.

Come “Pretty Paper” and “Blue Christmas” half way through, it’s still not the Willie Nelson we know, wistful and in a powerful amount of hurt. But we’re in the right country.

If you want Christmas music while you whip up eggnog or entertain the in-laws, plenty of choices are available, from Bing Crosby to Diana Krall. If you want to hear Willie Nelson as good as he gets, you have other options.

P.S.: If there ever has been a bearable recording of “Frosty the Snowman” by anyone, I reckon I’ve yet to hear it.

Michael Chevy Castranova, The Gazette

Best song: “Pretty Paper” (click link below for a sample)          

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