Holiday albums from John Legend, William Shatner and more ring in the season
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With Christmas just days away, here’s a collection of holiday albums reviewed by The Associated Press:
Diana Ross, “Wonderful Christmas Time” (UMe/Ross Records)
Are you in the mood for jolly, singalong Christmas music? Diana Ross has you covered.
Looking for something more serene, with religious tones? Diana Ross has you covered.
Or are you looking for inspirational music that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the holidays? Again, Diana Ross has you covered.
Her new Christmas album, the 20-track “Wonderful Christmas Time,” may actually have a track for every mood of the season with the exception of the bah-humbug crowd. Ross’ silky, smooth soprano takes on a wide variety of songs, from “Ave Maria” to “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!”
She also goes outside the Christmas arc with songs about peace and love, like Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” While there’s something for everyone here, the downside is the lack of cohesiveness: Even though “What the World Needs Now” is given a sweeping, classical approach, to go from that to “Amazing Grace” is still a bit of head scratcher, despite a near seamless transition.
Of course, it’s a small quibble, like complaining that you were offered too many pie options at the holiday meal. In the end, you’ll be deeply satisfied.
— Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP
John Legend, “A Legendary Christmas” (Columbia Records)
If anyone needs a model for how to put out a successful Christmas album, look no further than everyone’s latest EGOT winner — John Legend.
On the modestly titled “A Legendary Christmas,” the singer mixes old chestnuts and new tunes, switches tempos from jazz to blues, and adds a few perfectly cast cameos. (Only Legend could get Stevie Wonder to play a little harmonica work on “What Christmas Means to Me”).
Legend teams up with veteran producer Raphael Saadiq for new takes on classics, including an uptempo “Silver Bells” and a lush “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with guest Esperanza Spalding. “Christmas Time Is Here” gets the lounge treatment and he’s nicely unearthed Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes.”
Legend shows off his own songwriting with the delicious throwback “No Place Like Home” and co-writes the bustling “Bring Me Love” with Meghan Trainor. “Waiting for Christmas” is classic piano Legend, “Wrap Me Up in Your Love” is a smoky R&B standout and “By Christmas Eve” — a promise to get home, like an update on Brenda Russell’s “Get Here” — is simply sublime.
The album’s cover features Legend in a Santa hat and bow tie, emulating one of Bing Crosby’s iconic Christmas albums. Bold move, Mr. Legend — but earned. This Christmas album is an instant classic.
— Mark Kennedy, AP
Eric Clapton, “Happy Xmas,” (Bushbranch/Surfdog)
Guitar god Eric Clapton may have been an unlikely rock star to cut a Christmas record, but for music fans looking for a bluesy alternative to the typical holiday dredge it’s as welcome as a steaming cup of hot chocolate on a wintry night.
“Happy Xmas” steers clear of the typical holiday playlist, and thankfully has more hits than misses.
“White Christmas” and “Lonesome Christmas” benefit from Clapton’s distinctive slowhand blues guitar style. The lone new song from Clapton, “For Love on Christmas Day,” will comfortably find a slot into soft rock holiday playlists but may turn off fans who prefer their Clapton with a little less schmaltz.
The most un-Clapton song, “Jingle Bells (In Memory of Avicii),” is a tribute to the late EDM DJ-producer Avicii, whom Clapton admired. It may be the first time “Jingle Bells” has ever been re-imagined as a tribute to a DJ, but whatever. It bears little resemblance to the holiday standard, or anything Clapton has done before, making it a curiosity at the very least, and a standout track for those who treasure Christmas music that’s not just outside the box, but on another planet entirely.
Kudos to the 73-year-old Clapton for at least making it interesting.
— Scott Bauer
The Monkees, “Christmas Party” (Rhino)
Take the last train to Christmas, and enjoy pure pop goofiness, harmony and personality with the implausibly still-around Monkees, the late ’60s TV sensations who are still as fun today as they were then.
Micky Dolenz handles most of the vocals, though Michael Nesmith sings on two songs and Peter Tork is on the banjo-laden “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Davy Jones, who died in 2012, sings lead on two tracks via tapes he recorded in 1991, backed by new instrumentation. His “Silver Bells” and “Mele Kalikimaka” will make a daydream believer out of you, too.
“Unwrap You at Christmas” sets the tone for this lighthearted holiday romp, leading into the whimsical “What Would Santa Do?”
Most interesting is “House of Broken Gingerbread,” with its unmistakable ’60s psychedelic feel. Built around a funky guitar riff, “Christmas Party” arrives at the conclusion that one holiday blowout year is enough: “Remember last year/Cops had to shut us down twice.”
The Monkees also cover classic Christmas tunes from Roy Wood (“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”) Paul McCartney (“Wonderful Christmastime”), and the oft-covered “Merry Christmas, Baby,” which is way more bad-ass than one would expect from The Monkees.
Guest musicians include XTC’s Andy Partridge, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Adam Schlesinger, who produced as well.
— Wayne Parry, AP
William Shatner, “Shatner Claus — The Christmas Album” (Cleopatra)
There comes a point every Christmas season that we get tired of hearing the same holiday songs. For that reason, and maybe if you’re a “Star Trek” fan, consider giving a listen to “Shatner Claus — The Christmas Album” by William Shatner.
Delivered in spoken word, the man who played Captain Kirk takes on classics like “Silent Night,” ”Blue Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” on an album that features a diverse group of guest artists, including Brad Paisley, Iggy Pop and Judy Collins.
Then there’s Henry Rollins, just in case you want a little bit of thrash to go with “Jingle Bells.” Or maybe Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson playing flute while Shatner speaks the word to “Silver Bells” is more your thing.
Whatever you decide, one thing is for sure — this is one of the most unique albums for the holiday season.
— John Carucci, AP
Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere” (New West)
There are more than enough recorded renditions of the season’s standard repertoire, from “Silent Night” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” So it’s a Christmas blessing that Rodney Crowell has opted for all-original material on his first album celebrating the holiday.
His songs tend toward the “Grandma Got Run Over” end of the spectrum, as his wry humor spreads irreverent Christmas cheer. The opening “Clement’s Lament (We’ll See You in the Mall)” is worthy of Tracey Ullman, and the Spike Jones-inspired title cut is just as funny thanks to a dream interlude and such poetic couplets as, “Christmas out the waz … Christmas up the schnoz.”
Crowell offers a mix of musical styles, from countrypolitan and jump blues to gypsy jazz. He does the bah-humbug bit on “Let’s Skip Christmas This Year” and the powerful “Christmas In Vidor,” and there are several ballads about romance on the rocks and the resulting holiday blues.
But he ends with the cheery “All for Little Girls & Boys,” as Crowell and his young daughters sing on a cassette recording from the early 1980s — a gift from Christmas past.
— Steven Wine, AP
Mitch Ryder, “Christmas (Take A Ride)” (Goldenlane/Cleopatra)
If you have a juke box by the Christmas tree or want to experience the feeling, Mitch Ryder’s your man. He keeps songs under three minutes, accentuates the beat and primes a dozen Yuletide favorites for a bit of Christmas dancing.
The Motor City legend’s style (no surprise here) is founded on the sounds of the Sixties — rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues and soul — and enough energy to light up all your seasonal ornaments.
Ryder, who’s made some albums since his glory years with Detroit Wheels that are well worth tracking down, sings some of the inevitable holiday favorites in the rock and pop canon like “Blue Christmas,” ”Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
But you’ll also find some Motown sounds like “What Christmas Means to Me” and a hidden 1965 gem in The Sonics’ booming “Santa Claus.”
Ryder’s voice is often ragged and he covers the unfortunate “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” but Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” is a great closer to a kind of Christmas record you rarely hear these days.
— Pablo Gorondi, AP
Michael McDonald, “Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection” (BMG Records)
Michael McDonald is no newcomer to the Christmas album genre. He’s recorded two original discs while also putting tracks from those records on compilations with the addition of a new song or two.
“Season of Peace” belongs in the latter category, complementing tunes from records released in 2001, 2005 and 2009 with an instrumental version of “Winter Wonderland” featuring ukulele wiz Jake Shimabukuro.
If you don’t have any of the previous offerings, “Season of Peace” is a good holiday choice, as the intimacy and warmth of McDonald’s voice is well suited to the Christmas catalog of standards like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” ”O Holy Night” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
“Every Time Christmas Comes Around,” which he co-wrote, sounds like the Doobie Brothers with the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section. Other tracks McDonald co-wrote — such as “Peace” (written with Beth Nielsen Chapman), “To Make a Miracle” and “Christmas on the Bayou” — add a variety of styles and tones to the festive spirit and help make the compilation a worthy option.
— Pablo Gorondi, AP
Jessie J, “This Christmas Day” (Lava/Republic)
English pop star Jessie J of “Bang Bang” fame shows off her jazzy side and a very serious ability to tackle standards on her first holiday album, “This Christmas Day.” It’s utterly charming — and utterly unmemorable.
The talented songwriter and singer’s voice flutters beautifully over classics like “Let It Snow,” ”White Christmas” and “Silent Night” without doing anything different or interesting to them. It’s overly respectful, as zesty as eggnog.
These songs have been done to death and everyone has their favorite versions. While Jessie J proves yet again she’s an underappreciated artist, she’s hardly dislodged, say, Brenda Lee from owning “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Two duets — “Winter Wonderland” with Boyz II Men and “The Christmas Song” featuring Babyface — are highlights, as is her nicely fresh take on “Jingle Bells,” which she nicely owns. But let’s face it: This is mostly background music while we wait for Elvis or Sinatra or Mariah to show up.
— Mark Kennedy, AP
The Mavericks, “Hey! Merry Christmas!” (Mono Mundo)
If you could only choose one new album to mingle in with the classics at your holiday party, you could do a lot worse than the Mavericks’ “Hey! Merry Christmas!” It’s the sound of a great band with a unique style leaning into the holiday season with gusto.
The Mavericks have evolved in all the right ways over the years — adventurous, ambitious and not bound by formulaic thinking. Led by Raul Malo’s dynamic vocals, they pour folk, swing, jazz, rockabilly and Latin sounds into one big pot of gumbo.
And it turns out their holiday stew has some kick.
This collection includes eight original compositions and two familiar tunes, both far enough from heavy rotation to fit in well here: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “Happy Holiday.”
And while some of the new songs sound derivative — you’ll hear echoes of Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” on “Santa Does,” for example — the common element is fun.
No gimmicks or fakery here — just straight-ahead party songs made-to-order for the party season.
— Scott Stroud, AP
Engelbert Humperdinck, “Warmest Christmas Wishes” (OK! Good Records)
Engelbert Humperdinck seems like a natural choice for frequent collections of Christmas songs, but “Warmest Christmas Wishes” is his first in nearly four decades.
Last year’s “The Man I Want to Be” showed the now 82-year-old singing with gusto and updating his repertoire with songs from Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran. Here he doesn’t come so near to the present, covering Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas” and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Christmas Song (I’m Not Dreaming of a White Christmas)” and the arrangements stay close to the “holidays with strings” sort. One exception is an unexpected instrumental version of “White Christmas,” which sways gently in Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelli mode.
Also on board are Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” as well as “O Tannenbaum,” in a bilingual German-English version.
The German influence continues with “Leise rieselt der Schnee,” which also gets a separate, English-language adaptation — “Silently Falls the Snow.” The album also includes Austrian evergreen “Still, Still, Still” (in English only) and some original compositions like “A Christmas for the Family.”
Humperdinck’s album radiates calm, so it’s probably best played when soothing sounds are most appreciated, not, for example, when the children are tearing the wrapping paper off their gifts. On second thought, maybe that’s exactly when it could be most effective.