2018 ALBUM REVIEWS: Classic Christmas, Contemporary Christmas, and William Shatner

Our intrepid staff takes on 11 new Christmas albums - good and bad - so you don't have to

This year’s crop of musical ornaments will have some listeners rockin’ around the Christmas tree — and others rolling their eyes.

We’ve taken the guesswork out of trimming the choices into tracks Santa can hang his hat on, and those that should be tossed on the yule log.

Brightest baubles

JESSIE J

“This Christmas Day”

Label: Lava Music

Rating: HHHH

 

This sultry British chanteuse — and classmate to Adele and Leona Lewis — brings big band flair with just a hint of hip-hop and a heaping helping of soul to Christmas.

From the sizzling first notes and the big-band blast of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” followed by swinging sounds of “Man with the Bag,” this disc unfolds as the perfect, shimmering backdrop for a glitzy Christmas cocktail party or onto a New Year’s Eve dance floor.

She swings through “Let it Snow,” dashing through liberal doses of syncopation and twinkling piano. “The Christmas Song” gracefully glides in on harpstrings before blazing with blistering sax.

Hot sax, cool finger snaps and a touch of coy make “Jingle Bell Rock” rock in the best way. Even “Rudolph” cuts a shiny new path, winging in on ethereal harp and chimes before seamlessly jingling into a hoof-stomping trip in a one-horse open sleigh.

Her softer side shines as she ends with a beautifully reverent rendition of “Silent Night.”

But the highlight in a crystalline collection of highlights is the disc’s title track, which she co-wrote. “This Christmas Day” will make anyone who has lost someone smile through tears.

• Best song: “This Christmas Day”

— Diana Nollen, The Gazette

 

MARTINA McBRIDE

“It’s the Holiday Season”

Label: Broken Bow Records

Rating: HHHH

 

On her first two Christmas CDs, Martina McBride did “duets” with Elvis Presley and Dean Martin, treated hymns with reverence and balanced melancholy with merry. On “It’s the Holiday Season,” she focuses solely on mirth, putting a new spin on old standards, and it is a wonder to behold.

Stellar big-band-style arrangements full of swing and zing elevate her game. Her voice is as vibrant as ever, but she’s looser, more playful as she prances through nine upbeat tracks, including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” by Iowa’s Meredith Willson.

McBride comes up short only in the number of songs. I want more of her joy in my world.

• Best song: The “Happy Holiday/It’s the Holiday Season” medley.

— Rae Riebe, The Gazette

shiny baubles

INGRID MICHAELSON

“Songs for the Season”

Label: Cabin 24 Records

Rating: HHH 1/2

 

If you’re yearning for tunes from yesteryear, Ingrid Michaelson’s “Songs for the Season” hits the nail on the head.

The songs are seasoned favorites, and Michaelson’s smooth voice and occasional brass accompaniment will take you back to another time.

Michaelson has her own take on classic Christmas songs, like “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow,” but a slowed down version of the Mariah Carey classic “All I Want for Christmas,” featuring Leslie Odom Jr., is a surprising gem. The traditionally up-tempo song is slowed and stripped down and is simply accompanied by piano and strings.

Although the songs are slightly different than you remember, you will be singing along the whole way through.

• Best Song: “Mele Kalikimaka”

— Erin Rooney, KCRG TV9

JOHN LEGEND

“A Legendary Christmas”

Label: Columbia Records

Rating: HHH

 

In the liner notes of “A Legendary Christmas” — alongside photos of himself and his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, and their two children decked out in retro 1950s gear — John Legend writes about the importance of memories and traditions at Christmas. From its opening notes, his album stays true to that ethos.

The first track, “What Christmas Means to Me,” covers a song first recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967 — and Wonder jumps in on harmonica here.

On “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Legend, backed up by Esperanza Spalding, pays close tribute to Frank Sinatra. Later, he evokes the spirit of Nat King Cole on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”

New songs are mixed in, but even they feel like old standards. The album relies heavily on the smooth vocals and soulful melodies that have defined Legend’s career.

This album isn’t necessarily breaking new ground or taking big risks, but at Christmas there’s nothing wrong with a classic sound — especially if the goal is to evoke nostalgia.

• Best song: “Bring Me Love”

— Alison Gowans, The Gazette

 

THE MAVERICKS

“Hey! Merry Christmas!”

Label: Mono Mundo Recordings

Rating: HHH

 

A quick check of YouTube turns up more than 700 songs with Christmas in their titles. Add eight more, compliments of The Mavericks, a Miami-based band that’s been around since the early 1990s.

This Christmas album is light and good-hearted, filled with pop tracks that have a little Latin, a little R&B, a little country, a little Texas swing, a little saxophone, and lyrics that give Santa his due. It’s secular — just right for trimming the tree or swilling the eggnog.

The best songs are the ones showing off Raul Malo’s vocals, a Cuban-American with a crystal-clear tenor-baritone that’s as close to Roy Orbison as we have these days. He’s always had a way with ballads, and “Christmas Without You” and “I Have Wanted You (for Christmas)” come off well.

But the best song is “Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride,” one of the originals, with as many double entendres as packages under your tree. The kids won’t get the double meanings, but their parents will. Move over, “Santa Baby.”

• Best song: “Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride”

— Mary Sharp, The Gazette

 

OLD 97s

“Love The Holidays”

Label: ATO Records

Rating: HHH

 

Um ... this is a Christmas album? Really?

Three songs into the alt-country pioneers’ first holiday album, the track “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas)” opens with a riff reminiscent of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.”

The rockabilly version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” doesn’t sound like the hymn you sing at Christmas Eve service.

“Up On the Housetop” sounds not unlike some of the Irish folk/punk mashup bands like the Pogues, Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly.

This is a record full of almost entirely original material, save for a bouncy version of “Auld Lang Syne” and a cover of the Elvis Presley staple “Blue Christmas.”

The rest of the album’s 14 tracks all feature the horns, fiddles, pedal steel guitars and accordions mixed with that fuzzy guitar feedback showcased in the band’s sound for nearly 25 years now — power pop, country punk, loud folk, whatever you want to call it.

Do you have the family member that says, “I hate Christmas music”? Well, Rhett Miller and Co. have created the perfect album to shut that person up. OK, there’s a couple of sleigh-bell sightings, sure, but if you weren’t listening to the lyrics, you’d never know this was a holiday album.

• Best songs (tie): “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas),” “Snow Angels”

— Sam Paxton, The Gazette

DIANA ROSS

“Wonderful Christmas Time”

Label: Ross Records

Rating: HHH

 

On this 20-song album, the Motown legend lends her soulful voice to holiday classics such as “White Christmas,” “Silent Night” and “Let it Snow,” and covers more contemporary hymns, including John Lennon-Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (The War is Over).”

The music has an almost regal sound, as if it is meant to be played in church wearing your Sunday best or at a Christmas soiree with eggnog and champagne poured in fancy glasses — and less appropriate blaring from car speakers on country roads.

Ross’ strong yet smooth voice rekindles the Christmas spirit with a full accompaniment of instruments and a light, cheerful and snappy pace.

“The party’s on, the feeling’s here,” Ross sings as the album opens with a fresh rendition of Paul McCartney’s title track, with jingling bells carrying the beat.

London Symphony Orchestra provides instrumental backing on “Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “The First Noel” and others. The songs were all originally released in 1994.

• Best song: “Overjoyed” (Stevie Wonder)

— B.A. Morelli, The Gazette

NOT QUITE AS BRIGHT

ERIC CLAPTON

“Happy Xmas”

Label: Bushbranch Records/Surfdog Records

Rating: HH 1/2

 

Eric Clapton fans will welcome these 14 tracks, especially after the British rock guitar god’s health problems in recent years. Casual holiday listeners looking for something to play while decorating the tree may be left a bit baffled, however.

Slowhand shows off his blues chops on Freddie King’s “Christmas Tears,” Lloyd Glenn’s “Lonesome Christmas” and Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” Interesting takes on “White Christmas,” “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” won’t surprise anyone familiar with Clapton’s studio output of pop standards over the past decade.

But those are the highlights — some forgettable R&B covers and a lone original don’t add much.

A jarring, six-minute, synth-soaked EDM version of “Jingle Bells (In Memory of Avicii)” really spoils the mood. The fact that it’s followed by a country two-step cover of Sonny James’ “Christmas in My Hometown,” complete with accordion and fiddle, makes it seem all the more out of place.

• Best song: “Christmas Tears”

— Jon Klinkowitz, The Gazette

TANNENBOMBS

MICHAEL MCDONALD

“Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection”

Label: Chonin Records

Rating: H 1/2

 

“Season of Peace” isn’t a very peaceful album at points, and it’s what makes this album, the fifth Christmas outing for the former Doobie Brothers frontman, such a frustrating listen.

The arrangements vary dramatically from song to song, from a large funk band arrangement with bluesy guitar solos on “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Every Time Christmas Comes Around,” where McDonald’s signature gravel voice sometimes struggles to cut through dense instrumentation.

McDonald also takes odd departures into R&B on a cover of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” more suited for gathering around the fireplace on Valentine’s Day rather than on Christmas, and a Southern rock detour on “Christmas on the Bayou” that’s a Christmas song only because the word “Christmas” is in the lyrics.

His cover of “O Holy Night” tries to blend bossa nova rhythms with a full string section in a time signature I couldn’t exactly make out immediately. It’s a dense, baffling tune.

So it’s only fitting that “Season of Peace” closes on McDonald’s cover of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with just a ukulele, string section and his voice. It’s the most minimal, peaceful song on the record — a sweet kicker to an overall confusing album.

• Best song: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

— Dan Mika, The Gazette

 

DAVID PHELPS

“It Must be Christmas”

Label: Gaither Music Group

Rating: H 1/2

 

Oh boy. I really wanted to like this Christmas collection from the Gaither Vocal Band’s tenor. We sang a lot of great Gaither tunes in high school — 40 years ago. This solo effort has a few redeeming moments, but I’ll never listen to it again.

The disc is a mix of David Phelps’ original songs, as well as his arrangements of familiar carols. His arrangements of sacred songs are the best, but nearly every one takes some weird twist at the end that ruins the experience. He even whistles on his too-long title track.

The lyrics in his original tunes are insipid at best and cheesy at worst. For example, in his rapid-fire “Christmas Rush”: “Dressed for church to see the cantata, no time to eat but I oughta ... someone put Jesus back into the manger.”

I do applaud the jazz and swing treatments of standards like “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” but even those get a big injection of cheese near the end. His “Catching Santa” tango, however, is so weird that I kind of liked it.

• Best song: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

— Diana Nollen, The Gazette

 

WILLIAM SHATNER

“Shatner Claus”

Label: Cleopatra

Rating: H 1/2

 

William Shatner can’t sing. Thankfully, he seems fully aware of this fact and avoids doing so for much of “Shatner Claus.”

Instead, the 87-year-old opts for a rhythmic speaking role on many of the 14 tracks.

At times it works quite well.

On “Silver Bells,” the pseudo call and response Shatner plays with featured artist Ian Anderson is lively and enjoyable. And there is no shortage of creative vocal play in his passionate rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

But too often, Shatner is extraneous to what is already a fully formed track with a vocal lead. He stumbles in front of, other times falls behind, and almost always is off the beat and melody. No time more apparent than when Shatner finds upward of 40 different melodic cadences for “Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum” on his haphazard rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Ultimately, this album has some fun tracks, but too often Shatner’s presence is more of an intrusion than an addition. “Shatner Claus” should be a skip for all but the most ardent fans of Captain Kirk.

• Best song: “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

— Max Freund, The Gazette

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