Arts

Seasonal flavors: We sample this year's batch of holiday CDs

Recipes tried and true don’t always make it to the table.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

So to take the guesswork out of this year’s hits and misses, here’s our take on a baker’s dozen of new holiday CDs.

Some are true originals, like Sia’s “Everyday is Christmas.” Others spice up old favorites, like Dave Koz & Friends’ jazzy, snazzy “20th Anniversary Christmas.”

But a few just need a dash of something more to wake up your musical palate. 

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4 STARS

HANSON
“Finally It’s Christmas” (3CG Records)
Rating: ★★★★

No need to double-take, it’s not the mid-90s, and yes it’s Hanson, (the “MmmBop” kids). Although the band has been releasing new music through the years, this is the band’s second holiday album, with the last one coming out exactly 20 years ago.

This soulful and fun Christmas CD will get you tapping your toes, or in my case, singing in the car. Hanson mixes original songs like “Finally It’s Christmas” with jazzed-up versions of holiday favorites like “Wonderful Christmastime / Come on it’s Christmas.”

One of the best songs, is the almost-a cappella “Joy to the Mountain,” although “Winter Wonderland” goes so far as to incorporate a bluesy Wurlitzer for good measure.

This is an album you will want to listen to over and over again with your family. Set aside what you think you know about Hanson, this CD brings out the joy of the Christmas season and puts a smile on your face.

Best Song: “A Wonderful Christmastime”

— Erin Rooney, KCRG TV9

 

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DAVE KOZ & FRIENDS
“20th Anniversary Christmas” (Concord Music Group)
Rating: ★★★★

Dave Koz has fabulous friends.

The jazz sax man’s holiday CD sparkles with plenty of shimmer from David Benoit on piano, Rick Braun on trumpet and Peter White on acoustic guitar. Others join in, too, on this collection of familiar titles with sleek twists.

“Joy to the World” slides seamlessly into “What a Wonderful World,” with solo turns by Braun, Koz and White adding a lovely, mournful touch to this sentimental journey.

Crisp brass ushers in the beautiful simplicity of guitar, then surrounds White with a lush wrapping on “Angels we have Heard on High.”

After some smooth vocal tracks, the friends crank up the jazz swinging through “O Tannenbaum,” its branches infused with glistening ornamental strands of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “On Broadway.”

Kenny Lattimore adds vocal poetry with “Hallelujah,” a non-traditional choice that seems totally at home in the holiday mix.

This collection will add smooth sophistication to your grown-up Christmas dinners and dreams.

Best song: “O Tannenbaum”

— Diana Nollen, The Gazette

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3.5 STARS

HERB ALPERT
“A Christmas Wish” (Herb Alpert Presents)
Rating: ★★★ 1/2

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Herb Alpert’s first Christmas CD in 49 years is no Tijuana Brass rehash.

Yes, there are echoes of his onetime band’s Ameriachi horn harmonies. And four tunes from his 1968 release are repeated, but with vastly different arrangements. Sprightly “Winter Wonderland” is transformed into a song of contrasting moods — solemn, jubilant, then solemn again — and showcases the 82-year-old trumpeter’s jazz improv chops.

The CD’s lush yet unintrusive arrangements complement Alpert’s laid-back style, and his muted horn wrings the melancholy out of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the CD’s highlight.

On the title track, “A Christmas Wish,” Alpert cedes the spotlight to his wife, Lani Hill. She sings beautifully, but as the only vocal track, it interrupts the seamless instrumental intimacy of Alpert’s album.

Best song: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”

— Rae Riebe, The Gazette

 

LINDSEY STIRLING
“Warmer in the Winter” (Concord Records)
Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Combining classic Christmas songs many of us have heard all our lives with Lindsey Stirling, the 21st century performance artist, dubstep violinist and runner-up in the current “Dancing With the Stars,” is a winning notion pretty much just right for this season.

Her violin, with full-orchestra backing — recorded live, unlike her previous YouTube videos and CDs — are reverently touching in “Carol of the Bells” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Those and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” mix the tradition we know with Stirling’s own brand of swooping flourishes.

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“Christmas C’mon,” with vocals by Becky G and written by Stirling and others, on the other hand, is bouncy. And the title track is seasonally perky and optimistic.

Mixed throughout are hints of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and, yes, “A Chorus Line.”

Stirling is set to perform Tuesday (12/5) at U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Best song: Carol of the Bells

— Michael Chevy Castranova, The Gazette

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3 STARS

THE PIANO GUYS
“Christmas Together” (Portrait/Sony Music Entertainment)
Rating: ★★★

First off, let’s set the record straight: The Piano Guys are much, much more than pianists.

In fact, only one member, Jon Schmidt, is credited primarily for piano-playing skills. But that caveat is by no means a detractor for these four fine musicians and this, their second holiday compilation.

You may know The Piano Guys from their dozens of elaborate YouTube videos in unexpected settings. Yet it’s the collaborative efforts that truly shine.

The opening track, “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” features “American Idol” favorite David Archuleta and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (FYI: The Piano Guys are devout Mormons) providing gorgeous layered vocals. The renowned King’s Singers take a guest turn on the traditionally arranged “O Little One Sweet.”

And while not a strictly holiday tune, “The Sweetest Gift,” with Craig Aven’s lead vocals, is an achingly touching tribute to Piano Guy Jon Schmidt’s daughter, Annie, who died in a hiking accident in Oregon in October 2016.

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Granted, if you love instrumentals, there are numerous highlights for you in this collection. But The Piano Guys aren’t just a pretty keyboard.

Best song: “O Holy Night/Ave Maria (featuring Lexi Walker)

— Richard Pratt, The Gazette Digital Team

 

SIA
“Every Day is Christmas” (Atlantic Recording Corp.)
Rating: ★★★

The pop songstress I think of as Gaga Lite has stepped out from beneath her veils to bare her soul with Christmas love songs wrapped in tinsel bouncy and bright.

The opening track, “Santa’s Coming for Us,” sets a peppy, boppy tone for the collection, which continues by skipping sweetly down “Candy Cane Lane.”

The former “acid jazz” singer/songwriter from Down Under then turns a little more pensive with “Snowman” and “Snowflakes,” odes to loves that sweep in with the winds and melt under the sun.

“Ho Ho Ho” turns the corner with a more grown-up party call for the spirits that spike holiday hoedowns.

And at first listen, “Puppies are Forever” is sickeningly sweet, but when you really listen to the lyrics (the liner notes help), you’ll see a not-so-thinly-veiled plea to think hard before buying that cute little doggy in the window.

After a couple of spins through all 10 songs, you shouldn’t have to think hard before buying this disc for your holiday rotation.

Best song: “Santa’s Coming for Us”

— Diana Nollen, The Gazette

 

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SMOKEY ROBINSON
“Christmas Everyday” (Amazon Original)
Rating: ★★★

“Christmas Everyday” is Smokey Robinson’s first solo Christmas album, although he released two holiday albums with The Miracles.

In this new compilation, Robinson’s high, clear vocals never waver — unless he means them to — despite the Motown star’s 77 years. The bluesy mix includes fresh arrangements of “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night,” as well as fun interpretations of other standards. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard “White Christmas” with an island beat, but it’s kind of nice to imagine celebrating Christmas with a pina colada.

The CD features three original songs, including “Christmas Everyday,” which was on The Miracles’ 1963 holiday album, and two new songs, “The Night That Baby Was Born” and “You’re My Present.” The first of the new songs is a head-bobbing tune about a “little brown baby” born to “show mankind we’re really all the same.” Seems pretty relevant.

Robinson has some impressive guests on “Christmas Everyday,” including Trombone Shorty, Us The Duo, the Dap Kings and Take 6. I really loved “O Holy Night” featuring a cappella backup from Take 6.

Best song: “Please Come Home for Christmas”

— Erin Jordan, The Gazette

 

GWEN STEFANI
“You Make It Feel Like Christmas” (Interscope Records)
Rating: ★★★

No ska-soaked punky pop here from ’90s alt-rock “It Girl” Gwen Stefani — this offering of holiday fare is pure ’60s.

“You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” featuring country superstar and Stefani paramour Blake Shelton, channels “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Her cover of the Wham! classic “Last Christmas” (coming one year after the tragic passing of George Michael on Christmas Day) sounds just like the Ronettes backed by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound.”

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And Dusty Springfield’s Memphis soul is clearly evident in “Never Kissed Anyone With Blue Eyes Before You.”

Sure, No Doubt Gwen makes an appearance on “When I Was A Little Girl,” a pretty accurate callback to her signature song “Don’t Speak.” But B-A-N-A-N-A-S Gwen? She stayed home for the holidays.

Best song: “You Make It Feel Like Christmas”

— Sam Paxton, The Gazette

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2.5 STARS

98 DEGREES
“Let it Snow” (Universal)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

Yes, I had 98 Degrees’ first Christmas album, “This Christmas,” in 1999. I also had N’Sync’s “Home for Christmas,” and if the Backstreet Boys had released a Christmas CD, I would have bought that, too.

What can I say? I was in junior high, and my boy band dedication knew no bounds.

So my sense of nostalgia was piqued when I heard 98 Degrees was releasing a new Christmas album, “Let it Snow,” this year.

While crooning boy bands aren’t really my jam anymore, I couldn’t resist letting out my inner teen to give the new release a spin.

“Let it Snow” is an upbeat album, with plenty of harmonies employed on a mix of a cappella hymns and jaunty pop tunes.

Not every song lands. I kept finding myself skipping “Mary, Did You Know?” and their cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic “River” isn’t bad, but it doesn’t come close to evoking the melancholy of the original.

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Overall, this CD is an inoffensive addition to the Christmas pop lexicon, especially for those looking to revive a bit of the ’90s.

Best song: “What Christmas Means to Me”

— Alison Gowans, The Gazette

 

THE TENORS
“Christmas Together” (Decca)
Rating: ★★ 1/2

This CD by The Tenors, formerly The Canadian Tenors, is a solid Christmas music offering. Nice songs, nice voices, nice arrangements.

It’s unfortunate that The Tenors consist of three voices — Victor Micallef, Fraser Walters and Clifton Murray — bringing to mind that classic Christmas album by those other three tenors — Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti.

It’s not fair to compare a competent classical/pop trio to the three greatest tenors of our age. So I won’t, although the three Canadians bring some decent operatic chops to “Little Drummer Boy.”

Most of the arrangements are pretty predictable. A couple are overwrought: “Mary Did You Know?” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” And one, my favorite, is a surprise guest for a holiday album: the catchy, simple “When We Are Together,” celebrating “when I’m in your company, the world lights up like a Christmas tree.”

Best song: “When We Are Together”

— Mary Sharp, The Gazette

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2 STARS

ALABAMA
“American Christmas” (BMG Rights Management)
Rating: ★★

I have to admit, I was kind of hoping Alabama’s new Christmas album started with these lyrics:

Oh, play me some Christmas music

Like Santa and his reindeer used to play

And I’ll fly across the night sky

In a Cajun Christmas sleigh.

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Instead, the legendary country music trio of Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry throws you a Christmas curveball, opening their “American Christmas” album with a Beach Boys-inspired “Ain’t Santa Cool” track.

But don’t worry. After that, the 14 remaining tracks on the album ring of that well-known Alabama sound, albeit a well-seasoned sound.

From the traditional “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” to original tunes like “Why Can’t Christmas Day Last All Year Long,” “Greatest Gift” and “Sure Could Use Some Christmas Around Here,” the album features those familiar harmonies and Dixie-inspired instrumentation that landed Alabama in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. “Jingle Bells,” the 10th track on the album, comes closest to replicating that classic Alabama “Mountain Music” sound.

The album is both fun and serious and definitely attempts to convey the true meaning of the holiday season. At times, it gets a bit too heavy, particularly on the original tune “First Christmas Without Daddy.”

The disc ends with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne,” which has a nice little surprise about halfway through, changing from a ballad to an up-tempo Dixieland delight.

If you love Alabama, you’ll like this disc — especially if you’re looking for something new to have on while you trim the tree this year.

Best songs: “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Auld Lang Syne”

— Rob Clark, The Gazette

 

CHEAP TRICK
“Christmas Christmas” (Big Machine Records)
Rating: ★★

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If you prefer your eggnog slammed and not sipped, then this album may be for you.

It’s hard to believe this classic rock band, that made it big in the 1970s and ’80s and still is making albums today, just released its first Christmas album. “Christmas Christmas” has 12 songs, three of which are penned by the band itself.

One of its three original tunes, “Merry Christmas Darlings” helps sets the tone at the start. Nice, fun, mellow rock beat, but nearly halfway through someone cracks open what I imagine is a beer at a party before finishing the song. By the third song, the head banging truly begins with “I Wish It was Christmas Today.”

Cheap Trick’s version of “Silent Night” sounds just like you’d image a rock band would produce it — cue the guitar solo. And I’m pretty sure “Run Rudolph Run” was just waiting for someone to really rock it out.

While Cheap Trick’s choice of “Father Christmas” for its album seems appropriate for a rock band with the lyrics “Father Christmas, give us some money/ We’ll beat you up if you make us annoyed,” it doesn’t fit my idea of a cheery Christmas song. I’d rather have heard the band’s single “I Want You for Christmas,” (a play on its 1979 hit “I Want You to Want Me”) which I guess didn’t make the cut.

Overall, it’s a fun album for a party, just not one for relaxing by the fire.

Best Song: “I Wish It was Christmas Today”

— Janet Rorholm, The Gazette

 

REBA MCENTIRE
“My Kind of Christmas” (Rockin’ R Records)
Rating: ★★

Listeners won’t find an ounce of twang in country diva Reba McEntire’s newest Christmas album. McEntire delivers classy vocals over piano renditions of holiday standards, but she passes up more than a few chances to put her country flair on display.

McEntire’s voice is predictably flawless through 14 tracks and she gets superstar support from Vince Gill, Darius Rucker and others. The album features a refreshing take on “Silent Night,” with help from Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood and acclaimed Top-40 producer Greg Kurstin.

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For country music fans, “My Kind of Christmas” will ultimately prove underwhelming. The few high-tempo songs feel empty without any fiddle or steel guitar. McEntire’s 2017 single “Back to God” earned award nominations in both country and gospel music, but this album features a somber, stripped-down version.

I was most disappointed with McEntire’s take on “Hard Candy Christmas,” a song Dolly Parton popularized in the 1980s as part of the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” movie. What a letdown to hear McEntire — who popularized “Fancy” in the 1990s — put forth such a dull and unimpassioned cover.

McEntire’s latest Christmas offering might be suitable for the car ride to midnight Mass. Just be careful it doesn’t soothe you to sleep.

Best song: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” with Darius Rucker

— Adam Sullivan, The Gazette

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.