Gazette staff weighs in on holiday hits and misses with this year's new Christmas albums

 

Whether you’re in the mood for rockin’ around the Christmas tree or cuddling up by a flickering fire, we’ve taken the guesswork out of choosing your Santa soundtrack from this year’s harvest of holiday collections. Most have garnered at least a ho-ho-ho, several rated a ho-hum and for once, none have caused us to say, “ho-no.”

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Hearty Ho Ho Ho

 

Idina Menzel

 

“Christmas: A Season Of Love”

• Label: Decca Records

• Rating: ★★★★

If there’s a time of year made for big, sweeping show tunes, this is it.

December is a month of twinkling lights and elaborate decorations, of wrapping everything up in beautiful bows, after all. Why not go big with Christmas songs as well, and turn them into showstoppers?

Broadway star Idina Menzel is the perfect person to do that.

The queen of sweeping show tunes, she brings all her verve to this album, full of orchestra-backed renditions of classics and new songs alike. She’s joined by winning collaborators on several numbers, including Ariana Grande, Josh Gad and Aaron Lohr, plus the excellent Billy Porter on my favorite song of the album, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

She revisits her Broadway role of Maureen from “Rent” with a very nice version of “Seasons of Love.”

I was a bit surprised she didn’t include her more recent blockbuster, “Let it Go,” the ice queen anthem of Disney’s “Frozen.” Perhaps best to let that go, and enjoy all the other gems on this holiday offering.

• Best song: “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”

— Alison Gowans, The Gazette

 

Lea Michele

 

“Christmas in the City”

• Label: Sony Music Entertainment

• Rating: ★★★★

Lea Michele’s first holiday album was inspired by her memories of growing up in New York City, and that nostalgia is particularly felt in the sole original song on the album, “Christmas in New York.” Interestingly, Lea also opted to perform an acoustic cover of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from the Disney film “Frozen,” which felt unnecessary.

But beyond the original song and the “Frozen” cover, the album doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

The album taps the talents of Broadway performers and former “Glee” co-stars Darren Criss, Jonathan Groff and Cynthia Erivo, which I thought were the best songs on the album. That’s in no way a knock against Lea. Her vocals are unparalleled and her softer, gentler tracks were gorgeous.

Overall, “Christmas in the City” is a perfectly good holiday album.

• Best Song: “White Christmas” featuring Darren Criss

— Michaela Ramm, The Gazette

 

Ho Ho Ho

Mariah Carey

 

“Mariah Carey Merry Christmas” Deluxe Anniversary Edition

• Label: Sony Legacy

• Rating: ★★★ 1/2

If you love Mariah Carey’s 1994 song “All I Want for Christmas is You,” you’re not alone.

The oh-so-danceable carol Carey co-wrote with Walter Afanasieff is the best-selling Christmas single by a female artist, and broke a Spotify record last year with more than 10 million streams on Christmas Eve.

If your Christmas playlist isn’t complete without this song, you’ll be thrilled with Carey’s new, two-disc Christmas CD, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of her first Christmas album. It has four versions of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” including the original, the 2000 version featuring rappers Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow, an extended dance mix and a previously unreleased recording of Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas is You” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

There are some other new songs, including “When Christmas Comes,” a duet with John Legend, and an interesting “Sugar Plum Fairy Introlude” in which Carey and others use their vocals to imitate the musical instruments usually heard in this piece from the “Nutcracker” ballet.

• Best song: “All I Want for Christmas is You” — obviously.

— Erin Jordan, The Gazette

 

Pentatonix

 

“The Best Of Pentatonix Christmas”

• Label: RCA

• Rating: ★★★ 1/2

I am one of those people who wouldn’t buy a Christmas CD, but if I did, it would definitely be this one. I’d highly recommend this album if you are looking for new Christmas music to get you in the spirit.

If you want to jam out around the house while wrapping presents, decorating the tree or baking cookies, their livened up beats will move you.

A favorite song is hard to choose from this ensemble, but I liked “Mary, Did you Know?” the best. You can hear all of their voices and their ranges within this song, like many on the CD.

They do a lot of collaborations on this CD and one of them is a classic with Whitney Houston, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The only bad thing I would have to say about this CD is it is too short without enough songs.

• Best Song: “Mary, Did you Know”

— Nicole McConnell, The Gazette

Chicago

 

“Chicago Christmas”

• Label: Rhino

• Rating: ★★★

If you’re looking for a very traditional Christmas album this season, you might want to keep searching. If you’re a hard-core Chicago fan, this may still be your cup of cocoa.

This is not the first Christmas release for the band — it’s their fourth, to be exact. But it seems to be a departure from the others.

Many of the songs are a Chicago take on songs I was familiar with. Others seemed like if you tweaked the lyrics, they wouldn’t be recognizable as Christmas songs at all.

I did, however, find myself enjoying the music and the distinctly Chicago horns and overall smooth sound.

• Best song: “Sleigh Ride 2019”

— Erin Rooney, KCRG

 

Rob Halford With Family & Friends

 

“Celestial”

• Label: Legacy

• Rating: ★★★

Other than actually NOT being a Judas Priest record, this is absolutely a Judas Priest record in every other way, fitting nicely on your shelf next to “Hell Bent for Leather” and “Screaming for Vengeance.”

Halford, the “Metal God,” delivers blistering versions of holiday standards like “Away in a Manger” and “Deck the Halls” that sound not unlike Priest classics like “Electric Eye” and “Breaking the Law.”

In addition, Halford has contributed a handful of original compositions, including one called “Donner and Blitzen” that makes you want to pump your spike-wristbanded fist in the air.

There is a little tongue-and-cheekiness to the album, for sure, but Halford still is able to show off the operatic four-octave range that has made him a legend of the genre.

Every year I do these reviews, I swear to God I get the ones that are Christmas albums in name only. So yeah, this one isn’t for Grandma — unless Grandma hung out with Ozzy, toured with Motorhead, and sat in the front row for Iron Maiden in the ’70s and ’80s. On a related note, if any of that is true, I want to party with Grandma.

• Best songs: “Donner and Blitzen,” “Deck the Halls”

— Sam Paxton, The Gazette

 

Oak Ridge Boys

 

“Down Home Christmas”

• Label: Lightning Rod Records

• Rating: ★★★

The new song, “The Family Piano,” is the perfect opening track on the Oak Ridge Boys’ new “Down Home Christmas” album. The country quartet’s memorable vocals make every song thereafter feel like a family reunion or a holiday party.

The album features two tasteful Christian classics in “Silent Night” and “Amazing Grace,” the latter of which was a favorite song of former President George H.W. Bush and added as a tribute following his death last year.

The rest of the songs are brand-new, but a few may be instant classics with songwriting help from several acclaimed artists. The album is produced by Dave Cobb, the behind-the-scenes king of alternative country music right now.

The band’s current “Down Home Christmas” tour is scheduled to stop at Dubuque’s Five Flags Center on Dec. 19, along with several other Midwest shows in December.

• Best song: “Don’t Go Pullin’ on Santa Claus’ Beard”

— Adam Sullivan, The Gazette

 

Ho-hum

Dionne Warwick

 

“Dionne Warwick & The Voices of Christmas”

• Label: Kind Music Group

• Rating: ★★ 1/2

In these divided times, it’s hard to even agree on music.

Dionne Warwick’s “The Voices of Christmas” CD should solve at least one modern holiday problem: It’s a CD of almost exclusively holiday collaborations that are well produced, solidly sung and so intensely bland absolutely no one will be able to object. Probably because you will even forget you are listening as your uncle, on his third eggnog, begins his annual rant about immigration.

The collection is bookended by delightfully overwrought renditions of “Silent Night” and the “First Noel,” which is the actual meaning of Christmas.

The best collaboration on the album is “Jingle Bells,” which is sung with John Rich of Big & Rich, the Oak Ridge Boys and Ricky Scaggs — all of whom provide a chorus of politely sung “Miss Dionne,” while Warwick, predictably, absolutely slays on the vocals.

Another notable song is the very slow “Rudolph the Red-Rose Reindeer” with Andra Day. It’s notable, because it might actually be the only non-annoying version of that song in existence.

The rest of the album fades into easy listening obscurity, making it the perfect background soundtrack to your holiday family trauma.

• Best song: “Jingle Bells”

— Lyz Lenz, The Gazette

 

Jim Brickman

 

“A Christmas Celebration”

• Label: Green Hill

• Rating: ★★

I got to work late, and Jim Brickman’s “A Christmas Celebration” was the only holiday CD left to review.

That’s OK, I thought. I’ll write a review about how the last one chosen turns out to be the Christmas star.

Alas, it was not to be.

“A Christmas Celebration” is all over the place. It has instrumentals, Christmas love songs and even a misplaced military tribute. Brickman is an expressive, accomplished pianist and a CD focusing on that skill would be more satisfying than this hodgepodge.

Brickman wrote 14 of this CD’s 15 songs, and the ones with lyrics seldom rise above predictable and sappy. The exception is “Raise a Glass,” a lively, happy song welcoming the holidays.

Brickman was in Cedar Rapids for a New Year’s Eve show at the Paramount Theatre in 2015, so I know he has his fans. He has six gold and platinum “new age” albums. I have none.

I should be more generous in this season of good will. I’ll raise a glass.

• Best song: “Raise a Glass”

— Mary Sharp, The Gazette

 

Ana Gasteyer

 

“Sugar & Booze”

• Label: Henry’s Girl Records

• Rating: ★★

I was ready to laugh with this 15-track album by the “Saturday Night Live” alum (1996-2002), but it was not quite what I was expecting.

Songs such as “Sugar and Booze,” “Nothing Rhymes with Christmas” and “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again” had promising titles, but the songs were more poking fun at the holidays than funny. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

And, it may be good to consider what you are in for before diving in.

The humor is far more subtle than you might find on comedy albums from other SNL cast members. This is a holiday album with a twist, rather than a laugh-out-loud comedy.

Gasteyer creates a loungy, retro feel and mood through a mix of songs she co-wrote, and holiday classics such as “Let it Snow” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It could fit right in at a cocktail party with family and old friends.

• Best song: “Secret Santa,” featuring Maya Rudolph

— B.A. Morelli, The Gazette

 

Seay

 

“A Winter Blessing — The Gift”

• Label: Tuscan Sun

• Rating: ★★

Seay’s “A Winter Blessing — The Gift” is the perfect background music to put up your Christmas tree to and decorate your home for the holidays.

Her album, which captures the message of love, hope, joy and peace for all, does not require your full attention.

The majority of the tracks are instrumentals featuring guitar, bass, piano, strings and percussion, with dramatic crescendos and decrescendos and Seay “ooo”-ing and “ahh”-ing with holiday nostalgia.

Tracks like “Snowfall” and “Winter,” while magical in their own way, can be a bit repetitive.

Seay, whose longest song on the album — “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” — is more than six minutes long, could use a lesson in brevity.

Classics like “Carol of the Bells” and “All Around The World” are a relaxing twist to the original holiday anthems.

I would suggest this album to my grandmother.

• Best song: “Carol of the Bells”

— Grace King, The Gazette