Arts & Culture

These 12 holiday music albums can help end 2020 on a high note

Artists pour sacred and secular into holiday collections

Collage created with submitted images. (The Gazette)
Collage created with submitted images. (The Gazette)
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Perhaps it’s because music acts were forced off the touring circuit, leaving unplanned time to work on albums or other projects, but 2020 has been a bountiful year for holiday music. Here’s hoping these holiday albums help you end this strange and challenging year on a high note.

Carrie Underwood

“My Gift” (Capitol Nashville)

 
 

The current queen of country music takes her first holiday album in a decidedly spiritual/worship direction, approaching the material with suitable reverence. Familiar hymns make up much of the album, but the biggest highlights come with the original songs — none more than “Hallelujah,” a song co-written by John Legend. He joins Underwood on this standout ballad in which their impressive vocals send the song soaring to the heavens. This season’s most likely blockbuster holiday release, “My Gift” is a beautifully executed album that pays tribute to the true reason for Christmas.

» LISTEN NOW: Carrie Underwood, "My Gift" playlist on YouTube

Meghan Trainor

“A Very Trainor Christmas” (Epic Records Group)

 
 

Trainor brings her buoyant charm to this 16-track album, especially putting her stamp on the season with a half-dozen original songs. A major highlight is her collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire on the song “Holidays,” which quite literally illustrates the connecting threads between ’70s R&B/pop and current-day pop. Trainor also adds a few original touches to some of the holiday standards on the album, but the frothy instrumentation on these songs is pretty standard stuff for today’s version of pop music. Still, “A Very Trainor Christmas” is fun and more original than many holiday albums.

» LISTEN NOW: Meghan Trainor, “A Very Trainor Christmas” playlist on YouTube

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Dolly Parton

“A Holly Dolly Christmas” (Butterfly Records/12Tone Music)

 
 

Parton makes “A Holly Dolly Christmas” a bit of an event. For one thing, Parton wrote five of the songs and co-wrote a sixth for this 12-song album. While all of the original tunes are good, “Circle Of Love,” a particularly pretty, spiritually-themed ballad, is a high point. Several big-name guests — including Michael Bublé and Willie Nelson — also help “A Holly Dolly Christmas” feel like something more momentous than just another holiday album.

» LISTEN NOW: Dolly Parton, “A Holly Dolly Christmas” playlist on YouTube

Leslie Odom Jr.

“The Christmas Album” (S-Curve Records)

 
 

The star of “Hamilton” steps well outside the usual Christmas album box on his second holiday album. On “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas,” he slows things down and gives the song a bit of a jazzy treatment. “Little Drummer Boy,” with additional vocals from the Mzansi Youth Choir, puts a South African accent on this classic. Like Bing Crosby, Odom’s supple and smooth vocals have a comforting quality, and it wouldn’t be surprising if “The Christmas Album” (as well as his first holiday album, “Simply Christmas”) become perennial favorites that get played in households every Christmas for many years to come.

» LISTEN NOW: Leslie Odom Jr., “The Christmas Album” playlist on YouTube

Goo Goo Dolls

“It’s Christmas All Over” (Warner Bros.)

 
 

The veteran pop group’s first Christmas album is a satisfying effort that often strays from its guitar pop signature. A cover of Tom Petty’s hooky “Christmas All Over Again” gets a bit of a Motown feel. One of the best out-of-character songs is “You Ain’t Gettin’ Nothin’,” a humorous original that sounds like a mix of the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the retro swing of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, while the jazzy medley “The Christmas Party” is another festive surprise.

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» LISTEN NOW: Goo Goo Dolls, “It’s Christmas All Over” playlist on YouTube

Tori Kelly

“A Tori Kelly Christmas” (Capitol)

 
 

For her first holiday album, the country/Christian music star teamed up with executive producer and R&B icon Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who brings an appropriate amount of groove to this album. “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel/O Come All Ye Faithful” are given a relaxed sway that works well, while “Joy To The World/Joy Joy” gets a lively swing. Kelly, who can take her voice to heights many singers can only dream about, does over-sing on occasion. Fortunately, often enough Kelly resists the temptation to turbo charge her singing, showing she doesn’t have to go over the top “American Idol” style to give a song wings.

» LISTEN NOW: Tori Kelly, “A Tori Kelly Christmas” playlist on YouTube

For King & Country

“A Drummer Boy Christmas” (Word Entertainment)

 
 

The sibling duo of Joel and Luke Smallbone brings plenty of heft to such standards as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” What’s more, they also markedly reshape the arrangements of many of the familiar hymns, adding creative instrumental segments and inventive backing vocal parts. This makes “A Drummer Boy Christmas” the most refreshing, while still reverential, Christmas album of this season.

» LISTEN NOW: For King & Country, “A Drummer Boy Christmas" playlist on YouTube

Pentatonix

“We Need A Little Christmas” (RCA Records)

 
 

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This sixth holiday release from this popular a cappella group suffers from frothy vocal arrangements that sound like they were created during the 1950s and cleared by TV network censors. More than a few vocals also sound overproduced and overlayered — “My Favorite Things,” “12 Days Of Christmas” and the title track are examples. Part of the appeal of a cappella is hearing the voices sounding like they do naturally and how they can be woven together in imaginative ways, but his album doesn’t sound organic. And whose idea was it to layer Pentatonix’s vocals over Bing Crosby and the London Symphony Orchestra on “White Christmas.” We may need a little Christmas, but we don’t need this flawed album.

» LISTEN NOW: Pentatonix, “We Need A Little Christmas” playlist on YouTube

Black Violin

“Give Thanks” (Di-Versatile Music Group LLC)

 
 

This duo brings its unique mix of classical and hip-hop to this 11-track album. Most of the songs are re-imagined versions of holiday classics that get hip-hop grooves and some elaboration on their familiar melodies with the violins of Kevin Marcus and Wil Baptiste. But a few originals — “Celebra,” featuring De La Ghetto and the humorous story of “Toy Soldier” — up the ante on this enjoyable outing.

» LISTEN NOW: Black Violin, “Give Thanks” playlist on YouTube

Matt Nathanson

“Farewell December” (Acrobat Records)

 
 

Nathanson deserves credit for choosing covers such as “Father Christmas” by the Kinks, “I Believe In Father Christmas” by Greg Lake and “Snow” by Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately, Nathanson isn’t terribly imaginative with his versions, making this a well-intended, yet unexceptional holiday album.

» LISTEN NOW: Matt Nathanson, “Farewell December” playlist on YouTube

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Barnaby Bright

“Bleak Midwinter” (Blurple Music)

 
 

The Kansas City duo offers a ballad-heavy collection of holiday fare that has its share of sadness to go with tinges of hope. Between touching ballads “If We Listen,” “My First Christmas Eve” and “Star Crossed Christmas,” stoic versions of “Mary Did You Know” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the jazzy acoustic tones of “Christmastime (Again),” it makes for an excellent, unique and beautiful Christmas album.

» LISTEN NOW: Barnaby Bright, “Bleak Midwinter” playlist on YouTube

Tommee Proffitt

“The Birth of a King” (Capitol Christian Music Group)

 
 

The producer/musician set out to make a Christmas album that sounded like an epic movie soundtrack. If you like grandiose music and production in the vein of “Lord of the Rings,” Trans-Siberian Orchestra or “Game Of Thrones,” Proffitt’s approach to “The Birth of a King” should suit you just fine.

» LISTEN NOW: Tommee Proffitt, “The Birth of a King” playlist on YouTube

Want more Christmas music this year?

I can recommend:

the grooving and soulful tunes on JoJo’s “December Baby”

Christian artist Francesca Battistelli’s “This Christmas”

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Straight No Chaser’s “Social Christmasing” with its creative takes on holiday music

a cappella country group Home Free’s “This Christmas”

the smooth jazz with a touch of world music sound of Nils Landgren’s “Christmas With My Friends VII”

Terri Clark’s “It’s Christmas ... Cheer!” and its traditional country style

the peppy pop-rock soundtrack to “Happiest Season,” which includes contributions from an all-LGBTQ+ cast of artists, including Sia, Tegan & Sara, Anne-Marie and more

the jazzy and frequently breezy singing of Simone Kopmajer on her album, “Christmas”

and the mostly cheery set of holiday originals that range from jazz to pop to Latin on “New Holiday Classics” by Adrian Cunningham and La Lucha.

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