116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s been a particularly prolific year for holiday albums — so much so that I’ll just stop the introduction here to save space and get right to reviewing the albums themselves.
Kelly Clarkson: “When Christmas Comes Around ...” — Clarkson’s second holiday album opens with a real show stopper — “Merry Christmas Baby” (one of seven Clarkson co-writes on the album, not the familiar R&B standard). It disguises some thorny emotions within a richly soulful melody that shows why Clarkson’s singing wowed judges all those years ago on “American Idol.” The song signals that “When Christmas Comes Around ...” is anything but the typical holiday album. Clarkson has quipped that it’s a breakup holiday album (she recently went through a highly publicized divorce), and that describes songs like the lighthearted “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” or the more serious big ballad “Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know)” — two of the other strong originals on the album. But Clarkson also includes some familiar upbeat material, including “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Santa Baby” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” Whatever the songs, they often come with full orchestration and plenty of studio polish, yet don’t sound overproduced. With two stellar holiday albums to her credit, fans will be ready whenever another Clarkson Christmas album comes around again.
Pistol Annies: “Hell of a Holiday” — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley put their stamp on the holidays with their distinctive blend of country, rock, soul and even a little gospel. Ten of the 13 songs on “Hell of a Holiday” are originals, which give the album its own musical character. And of course, the Pistol Annies bring the sass and humor that has helped define their three excellent non-holiday albums, but there’s also tenderness and emotional depth on songs like “The Only Thing I Wanted” and “Believing.”
Norah Jones: “I Dream of Christmas” — Jones’ first holiday foray is the relaxed effort you would expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s boring. On “White Christmas,” for instance, her sprightly piano parts put some fizz into the song. And while Jones slows the already ambling tempo of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” (yes, the song by Alvin and the Chipmunks), she gives the song some punch with some rather bold horn parts. In addition to such familiar tunes, “I Dream of Christmas” features five originals, and they provide some highlights on this winter warmer.
Morgan James: “A Very Magnetic Christmas” — Originals like “I Wanna Know” and “Long As I Got You” are standouts, but James also absolutely transforms “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night” and other standards into her signature sound that’s bluesy and soulful with some jazzy swing. And oh yes, she sings the hell out of these songs. This is my pick for best 2021 Christmas album.
Amanda Shires: “For Christmas” — The talented songwriter/violinist delivers one of the year’s best holiday albums. “For Christmas” encompasses pop, soul, rock and folk with effortlessly melodic (mostly) original tunes and creative subject matter, with “Gone For Christmas” and “A Real Tree This Year” being prime examples.
Paul Kelly: “Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train” — The year’s most ambitious holiday album belongs to the accomplished songwriter Paul Kelly, who assembled 22 songs from across centuries and countries — some familiar, some obscure — to create a holiday album that’s charming, reverential to irreverent, very diverse and entertaining.
Josh Turner: “King Size Manger” — Turner keeps it country, while being plenty creative with song arrangements on “King Size Manger.” A prime example is “Angels We Have Heard On High,” with its surprisingly propulsive backbeat and frisky guitars. Turner will bring his “Holiday & the Hits” concert to the Riverside Casino Event Center at 8 p.m. Dec. 10. Tickets are sold out, so if you missed that boat, maybe Santa will slip this album under the tree.
G. Love: “Coming Back Home For Christmas” — Love brings his mix of blues, rap, soul and rock to 10 original holiday songs that set a rootsy, good-time mood on this refreshing holiday album.
Hiss Golden Messenger: “O Come All Ye Faithful” — Singer/songwriter M.C. Taylor has crafted an inventive, introspective and soulful, folk-centric holiday album that includes three fine original songs, three reinvented standards and inspired covers of songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Spiritualized and Woody Guthrie.
Brett Eldredge: “Mr. Christmas” — The high point on Eldredge’s second Christmas album is the title song, an original that starts out slinky and builds into a jazzy romp. He sticks to the big band formula of his first holiday offering, 2016’s “Glow,” and with some smart arrangements and his warm baritone, Eldredge might give Michael Buble a run for his money as music’s leading Sinatra-esque Christmas crooner.
New Found Glory: “December’s Here” — The 10 originals here offer a humorous and fond look at the Christmas holidays. The songs lean more to the pop side of New Found Glory’s pop-punk sound, but they’re plenty energetic and catchy.
Paul Gilbert: “TWAS” — Guitar and rock music fans will find plenty to like in “TWAS,” as Gilbert shows his considerable playing skills on 11 Christmas standards and two original songs.
Brian Fallon: “Night Divine”; Steve Perry: “The Season”; Steve Wariner: “Feels Like Christmas Time”; Kat Edmonson: “Holiday Swingin’ (A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1)”; Vitamin String Quartet: “It Feels Like Christmas”; Orleans: “New Star Shining”; Jose James: “Merry Christmas From Jose James”; We Banjo 3: “A Winter Wonderful”; Tyler Shaw: “A Tyler Shaw Christmas”; Alejandro Fuentes: “Soulful Christmas”
Back in the box
Here are some other albums that, while not total fails, don’t jingle the bells: Steve Holy: “A Christmas To Remember”; Brett Young: “Brett Young & Friends Sing The Christmas Classics”; Pentatonix: “Evergreen”; Manchester Orchestra: “Christmas Songs Vol. 1.”