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Pentatonix to Darius Rucker: Reviews of new Christmas albums in 2014

As Christmas seasons go, this has been a so-so one for holiday music, with no superstar releases or crossover megahits. But there still are respectable acts stringing garlands in the studio and putting out albums they hope will sell for years to come. Here are reviews of this year’s top holiday releases.

Seth MacFarlane, “Holiday for Swing”

[s3r star=3.5/4]

He demonstrated his vocal prowess in 2011 on his big-band jazz album “Music is Better Than Words,” and snagged a Grammy nomination in the process. Now Seth McFarlane (he of “Family Guy” “American Dad” fame) is back with one of the best holiday albums to come down the snowy lane in years. This one’s another journey into the land of big band swing and high-octane jazz, and McFarlane pulls out all the stops in heavenly renditions of standards such as “The Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Playfulness abounds in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (a marvelous duet with Sara Bareilles) and “Little Jack Frost” with Norah Jones). “Moonlight in Vermont” gives Ol’ Blue Eyes a run for his money. Definitely in the vein of Sinatra and Crosby, this one’s a gem. — Miriam Di Nunzio

Pentatonix, “That’s Christmas to Me”

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Home Free, “Full of Cheer”

[s3r star=1.5/4]

The last two champs of NBC’s a cappella derby “The Sing Off” both have new holiday discs, and one is the season’s hottest new set of carols. Pentatonix’s “That’s Christmas to Me” has topped Billboard’s holiday albums chart for six weeks straight, fueled by a popular, powerful cover of “Mary, Did You Know?” The group’s a worthy winner, pleasing and never overpowering on standards including “Sleigh Ride” and “Silent Night.” And the singers make interesting choices here, adding Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” (“I was following the pack …” etc. etc.) to the Christmas canon and weaving “Winter Wonderland” with (ready for this?) “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” They’re head and heels above the corny, country-fried Home Free, who churn the songs through busy, gimmicky arrangements worthy of Andy Bernard. —Darel Jevens

NOTE: The 2015 Pentatonix tour comes to the Chicago Theatre on March 8-9. Tickets are on sale at ticketmaster.com.

Darius Rucker, “Home for the Holidays”

[s3r star=3/4]

A dazzler of a holiday album if ever there was one. A playful “Let it Snow” kicks things off in fine fashion and Rucker never looks back. The piano strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are marvelous. The breakout hit “What God Wants” is lush and meaningful and a beautiful addition to the Christmas song cannon. An uptempo “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is gorgeous at every turn, while “O Come All Ye Faithful” is simply pretty. Rucker welcomes the holiday season with arms open wide. —Miriam Di Nunzio

Anthony Hamilton, “Home for the Holidays”

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One can sense the sincerity in this R&B singer, best known for 2004’s “Charlene.” His vocals are heartfelt and just idiosyncratic enough to be interesting, and he augments the usual tracks with decent, understated originals including “Home for the Holidays” (featuring Gavin DeGraw) and “Coming Home.” Hyde Park’s Chaka Khan chimes in on an elegant reading of “The Christmas Song.” —Darel Jevens

Idina Menzel, “Holiday Wishes”

[s3r star=3/4]

The Tony winner comes up a champ in her first-ever Christmas album offering, as well. Crystalline vocals accompanied by sweeping arrangements will make your holidays merry and bright. Standouts include a bombastic “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a sleighbell-tinged “The Christmas Song,” the piano-driven “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a nicely updated “Silent Night.” —Miriam Di Nunzio

NOTE: Menzel brings her world tour to the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park on Aug. 16, 2015. Tickets are on sale at ticketmaster.com

Dave Koz, “The 25th of December”

[s3r star=3/4]

The album marks Koz’s fifth Christmas CD and first Christmas duets album and the veteran saxophonist is in some pretty fine company here. “This Christmas” with Eric Benet sizzles, while “My Grown Up Christmas List” with Heather Headley delivers its powerful message in the gentlest of arrangements. Latin rhythms abound as Gloria Estefan traverses “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The best cut by far is the sassy and jazzy “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” featuring India Arie and Trombone Shorty that will have your fingers snapping and toes tapping. But the one that has EVERYBODY talking (and the one that charted in the Top 10 on the Billboard jazz chart) is the cover of “All You Need is Love,” featuring the album’s complete duet lineup: Eric Benét, Jonathan Butler, Gloria Estefan, Heather Hadley, Richard Marx, Johnny Mathis, Maysa, BeBe Winans and Stevie Wonder. Koz told Billboard the song has a message that’s ‘a perfect fit for the holiday..” I don’t buy it, but then the holidays are a great time to spread the love amid the cheer. —Miriam Di Nunzio

NOTE: Dave Koz bring his holiday tour to the Chicago Theatre on Dec. 13, with special guests Jonathan Butler, Christopher Cross and Maysa. Tickets available at ticketmaster.com.

John Schneider, Top Wopat, “Home for Christmas”

[s3r star=2.5/4]

The dynamic duo from “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV series of the 1970s unite for this uber-jazzy take on holiday favorites, from the brassy opening of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” to the gentle piano strains caressed by Wopat’s baritone strains on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” to the sassy reworking of “Johnny It’s Cold Outside” (complete with a reference to their beloved General Lee). The voices work nicely together; diehard fans will love it. —Miriam Di Nunzio

B.J. Thomas, “O Holy Night”

[s3r star=2.5/4]

There isn’t much to this EP — just the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” troubadour delivering the customary church favorites (“The First Noel,” “What Child Is This?”) backed by a simple combo. But he’s earnest and still strong of voice, and this is perfectly respectable accompaniment to one’s festivities. —Darel Jevens

Earth Wind & Fire, “Holiday”

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This veteran band can’t go wrong with its trademark funky, brassy sound, but by the time the old songs get EWF’d up, there isn’t much holiday spirit left to them. “Joy to the World” is revamped into unrecognizability, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” stretches out to a meandering jam six minutes long. And closing track “December” is a missed opportunity — just the dusty hit “September” tweaked with mention of a different date. —Darel Jevens

Jim Brickman, “On a Winter’s Night”

[s3r star=2/4]

Available only from Amazon, this is something like the eighth holiday collection from Brickman, a mellow piano man in the Lorie Line/David Lanz tradition. While the tracks here all are pleasant and listenable — the standouts being “Blue Christmas” and “I Wish It Was Christmas” with a vocal by Ann Cochran — Brickman is reaching deep into the well by now with non-holiday filler like “Clouds.” And let the buyer decide if your season will be enhanced by gentle, tinkling renditions of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.” —Darel Jevens

Sara Evans, “At Christmas”

[s3r star=1.5/4]

Over 10 tracks, the country singer and “Dancing With the Stars” contender never once makes a case for this album’s existence. It’s all routine vocals over pedestrian arrangements of mostly overdone songs. Not awful, but also not worth seeking out. —Darel Jevens

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