Arts

HOLIDAY MUSIC: 12 discs of Christmas

Collections range from true loves to turtle duds

Here you go — a new holiday CD to five your true love on each of the 12 days of Christmas. Not a turtledud in the bunch, although a few tracks here and there may leave some lords a-limping.

Gazette staff members heard the calling birds, and this is what they had to say ...


GOLDEN RINGS

SARAH MCLACHLAN
“Wonderland” (The Verve Music Group)
Rating: ★★★★

Everyone needs a little Sarah McLachlan for Christmas. Yes, I’m biased because I’ve been a fan of hers for years, but that’s why I jumped at the chance to listen to her latest CD. You can’t deny that her smooth-as-silk vocals and her impressive piano skills are perfect for holiday tunes.

My favorite is “The Christmas Song” as McLachlan puts a fun new twist on an old favorite. And the religious “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is simply beautiful as it starts out with just her voice and builds with a chorus and orchestra. It is a perfect song to showcase her range, as is “O Holy Night.”

If I had anything bad to say about the CD it would be that there was no need for her to share the holiday spotlight with other artists on two of the 11 songs, such as Emmylou Harris, Martha Wainwright and others on “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Away in a Manger.” But that’s just getting picky.

Best song: “The Christmas Song” (listen below)

— Janet Rorholm, The Gazette

 

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PENTATONIX
“A Pentatonix Christmas” (RCA Records)
Rating: ★★★★

I’m guessing many readers of this review have already had their “Pentatonix moment” — the day when they first heard the five-member a cappella group from Arlington, Texas, and knew instantly this was an assemblage of transcendent talent.

For me, that moment came when I watched their passionate 2013 rendition of “Little Drummer Boy,” set in the hills above Los Angeles.

But whether you’ve had that moment or not, you can find many such moments on this, the group’s third holiday collection.

Nearly every track captures a different musical genre, from the African-influenced tones of the supporting choir on “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to the urban groove of “Up On The Housetop.”

You’ll also find shoutouts to The Manhattan Transfer on “White Christmas,” NSYNC on “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” and an especially poignant rendition of “Hallelujah,” coming on the heels of the death of its original writer and singer, Leonard Cohen.

But Pentatonix is now making a point of recording more originals, and the two on this disc — “The Christmas Sing-Along” and “Good to be Bad” — are two of my favorites.

What shines through is the irrepressible joy they derive simply from singing. It’s contagious. Try not to sing along. I dare you.

Best song: “The Christmas Sing-Along” (listen below)

— Richard Pratt, The Gazette

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SILVER RINGS

JORDAN SMITH
“’Tis The Season” (Republic Records)
Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Listening to Jordan Smith’s vocals on his first Christmas album was just what I needed to get into the holiday spirit this year.

Now, Smith may be recognized as the winner of the ninth season of “The Voice,” NBC’s prestigious vocal contest, in 2015. In fact, he is the highest-selling artist to ever compete on “The Voice,” according to Entertainment Weekly.

His album doesn’t stray far from tradition as far as Christmas songs go, but it’s no surprise he showed off his vocal range throughout the album, especially in “O Holy Night” with The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

With “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Smith shook off his lullaby croons for a Sinatra-esque big band sound before switching to a powerful “Ave Maria” with soprano Maria Aleida.

While it has a variety of sounds, I highly recommend this album for those moments of upbeat celebration as well as peacefully sitting around a fire with the people you love.

Best song: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (listen below)

— Michaela Ramm, The Gazette

 

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JIMMY BUFFETT
“‘Tis the SeaSon” (Mailboat Records)
Rating: ★★★

For those fans firmly ensconced in the Margaritaville culture, they will find a fun collection of new and classic Christmas songs sprinkled with a Caribbean twist.

Whether it is the standout track on the album: Jimmy Buffett’s rendition of “Wonderful Christmastime,” complete with the unmistakable jingle of steel drums, or his wordplay of tweaking snowman to snow”mon,” Buffett stays true to his roots in a way die-hard fans are sure to enjoy.

However, for the less initiated crowd, some of the references to the breezy lifestyle may feel forced.

And his somewhat bizarre take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” reads like a haphazard buffet of 12 island items. 12 Landshark lagers, 9 pairs of flip-flops, and 2 tattoos? I prefer the original, thanks.

Ultimately, Buffett’s second Christmas album delivers a mixed bag of beach-inspired tunes.

Best song: “Wonderful Christmastime” (listen below)

— Max Freund, The Gazette

 

JACKIE EVANCHO
“Someday at Christmas” (Sony Music Entertainment)
Rating: ★★★

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At age 10, wunderkind Jackie Evancho wowed the world with her huge voice and second-place finish on “America’s Got Talent.” Six years later, she’s released her third Christmas collection, a shimmering showcase for her incredible vocal range and interests.

She soars to the highest heights on a duet of “Hallelujah” with Peter Hollens, and while her crystalline notes fall quietly on the ear, it’s hard to understand the actual lyrics. Her soprano is much more satisfying on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” with a version steeped in tradition.

And even though she’s tried to cross into the pop realm — on display through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Christmas Waltz” — she’s at her finest in the classical realm which first caught our attention. Still, she’s young and her developing voice is no match for Plácido Domingo’s booming resonance — but her many duets in this project display her talents for harmonies, as well as tender melodies.

The oddest choice was including two versions of “Little Drummer Boy,” even though both are delightful. I’m looking forward to seeing how her artistry evolves. She has so many gifts to bring.

Best song: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (listen below)

— Diana Nollen, The Gazette

 

AMY GRANT
“Tennessee Christmas” (Amy Grant)
Rating: ★★★

When Amy Grant recorded the song “Tennessee Christmas” for a holiday album in 1983, she was 22 years old and her two grandmothers were included in a family photograph on the foldout record jacket.

Fast forward 33 years and Grant still is singing “Tennessee Christmas,” but guess who has a grandchild now?

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Grant’s latest holiday collection includes new material like “Christmas for You and Me,” “December,” “Melancholy Christmas” and “I Still Can’t Sleep,” as well as old standards: “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (a duet with her husband, Vince Gill), “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “White Christmas.”

Her slower-than-normal rendition of “Joy to the World” allows for thoughtful contemplation of the meaning of the lyrics. Grant admits that while she had never sung the song so slowly, it helped her hear the words in a new way.

Those old enough to remember when three chipmunks first sang “Christmas Don’t Be Late” will enjoy a little nostalgia hearing Grant with her daughters Corrina Gill, Jenny Gill and Sarah Chapman supplying the background vocals.

My favorite cut is “Another Merry Christmas,” written by Grant and Ed Cash, that recounts how the holidays can be a source of happy or sad memories. An elderly woman living in a nursing home listens to her favorite records, reminding her of years long gone. A soldier is home from overseas, the pride of his family, but he’s still fighting a war that no one sees.

Grant and Cash remind us how people lead fragile lives and everyone needs to be loved and appreciated, especially around the holidays.

Best song: “Another Merry Christmas” (listen below)

— George Ford, The Gazette

 

LESLIE ODOM JR.
"Simply Christmas” (S-Curve Records)
Rating: ★★★

Leslie Odom Jr. is not throwing away his shot.

After a Tony and Grammy Award-winning performance as Aaron Burr in hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” Odom has released two albums this year. The second, “Simply Christmas,” features jazz renditions of Christmas classics.

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Odom’s velvety voice delivers melodies meant to be savored, and the entire album is deeply felt, even melancholy at times. Pianist Tommy King shines with a solo on “My Favorite Things,” slowed down here from its upbeat Julie Andrews origin. When Odom croons that with raindrops on roses he doesn’t feel so bad, you can hear the anguish he’s trying to cure.

My only real criticism? The album is only eight songs long, coming in at just over 30 minutes of music. If we want more holiday tunes from Odom, we’ll have to wait for it.

Best song: “Winter Song” (listen below)

— Alison Gowans, The Gazette

 

STRAIGHT NO CHASER
“I’ll Have Another ... Christmas Album” (Atlantic Records)
Rating: ★★★

I confess I was put off by some of the selections on Straight No Chaser’s Christmas offering. I prefer my Christmas music shaken, not stirred — sung with reflection on the meaning rather than delivered at a pony-express gallop.

But, brother, can this 10-man a cappella group harmonize.

And when they do speak to the heart, they accomplish it with abundance, such as in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — a longing for absent friends and a wish for better days ahead.

They’re at their best, though, when they aim to do both, as in “Joy to the World.” It’s sung with eyes-closed, in-the-moment, honest delight.

When they are having a good time — as is true in all acts of art, I imagine — so are we.

Best song: “Joy to the World” (listen below)

— Michael Chevy Castranova, The Gazette

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BRASS RINGS

NEIL DIAMOND
“Acoustic Christmas” (Capitol)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

In 1972, legendary singer-songwriter Neil Diamond celebrated a “Hot August Night” with the release of his double-live album of the same name, recorded at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

Diamond — best known for hits like “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man” and “America” — was back in California to record his latest album, only this time, it celebrates a time of year better known for hot chocolate.

“Acoustic Christmas” is Diamond’s fourth original album filled with holiday classics. It features 10 tunes, including the traditional “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as well as a couple originals, including “Christmas Prayers.”

From the first track, Diamond’s unmistakable voice and phrasing reminds you of his past work. You can hear the spirit of “I am I Said” on “O Holy Night” and “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime” and “Cherry Cherry” in “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Threads of “Forever in Blue Jeans” surface throughout the album.

While at times Diamond’s 75-year-old voice sounds tired and the album drags a bit, at other times, it picks up — especially the second half, which includes a country-gospel version of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” with backing vocals by The Blind Boys of Alabama, and a “Christmas Medley,” featuring backing vocals by The Waters Family. On this and “Christmas in Killarney,” Diamond is right in his wheelhouse.

If you’re a Neil Diamond fan, you’ll love it. For others, you’ll still enjoy putting it on while trimming the tree or hosting a holiday party. It’s a nice collection of tunes, performed well.

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Best song (tie): “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Christmas in Killarney” (listen below)

— Rob Clark, The Gazette

 

JENNIFER NETTLES
“To Celebrate Christmas” (Big Machine Records)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

Jennifer Nettles has done away with the country twang sound of Sugarland for the holiday season.

The Southern sass of “All I Want to Do” and “Stuck Like Glue” is gone from her new holiday album, “To Celebrate Christmas.“ In the new CD, Nettles sings a 10-song mix of calm holiday classics and Christian favorites.

The cool collection includes Nettles’ versions of “The First Noel,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and more. Idina Menzel even joins her for a warm duet of “Little Drummer Boy.”

Christmas music in her soft style is perfect for a peaceful holiday dinner or a quiet tree lighting. But if you’re hoping for some upbeat tunes for the present-opening frenzy on Christmas morning, you may be left wanting more from the album.

Best song: “Little Drummer Boy” with Idina Menzel (listen below)

— Madison Arnold, The Gazette

 

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SHE & HIM
"Christmas Party” (Columbia Records)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

If you’ve seen “Elf,” you know Zooey Deschanel’s old-timey alto vocals are perfect for Christmas classics. That being said, I was a bit caught off guard with the release of “Christmas Party,” the second holiday album from indie duo She & Him (Deschanel and M. Ward).

In typical She & Him fashion, the album takes a minimalistic approach to Christmas classics such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow,” with stripped instrumentals and breathy, jazzy vocals.

While I enjoyed most of the album — and generally appreciate She & Him’s music — some songs fell flat. Take for example, “Must Be Santa” — a song so repetitive and annoying I could only bear to listen to once. Never again. Several songs I’m on the fence about, including a cover of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which will never stand up to Mariah Carey’s original, but grew on me after a few listens.

All things considered, though, the album isn’t a bad addition to an indie music-lover’s holiday collection with the exception of a couple songs that perhaps should have been left behind.

Best song (tie): “Let it Snow” or “The Man with the Bag” (listen below)

— Liz Zabel, The Gazette

 

CHRIS YOUNG
“It Must Be Christmas” (RCA Records)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

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Christmas is all about comfort and coziness, laid on thick and warm. Chris Young’s Christmas albums remind you of your favorite holiday foods: nourishing and decadent but nondynamic.

Young delivers on Christmas classics, such as “The Christmas Song,” “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “The First Noel.” His rich baritone is perfect for crooning “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Twangy folk charm adds an edge to a few of the tracks.

Originals such as “Under the Weather” fall flat, but bringing in country-music staple Alan Jackson in “There’s a New Kid in Town” adds the perfect punch. Boyz II Men adds an unlikely but refreshing accompaniment in “Silent Night.”

This album is perfect for a soothing night under a soft blanket with a steaming mug in hand.

Best song: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (listen below)

— Makayla Tendall, The Gazette

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