Nothing makes the Christmas season merry and bright like some good ol’ fashioned holiday tunes. You know the songs — those classic melodies with lyrics — both cool and treacly — that can fill the house (or your car) with plenty of fa-la-la-la-la. Each year, musickmakers unleash a new crop of holiday albums (most of them recorded in the swells of the summer heat, no less), just in time for the season’s celebrating and feasting.
And not all of them take the road most traveled.
This year, Chicago’s R. Kelly released his first holiday CD, aplty titled “12 Days of Christmas.” There’s nothing in the traditional vein about this one, though its 12 original tracks (in the usual soulful R. Kelly vein) will put some of us in the celebrating mood no doubt (give this one a listen after the kiddies are fast asleep). Kelly makes a stop at the Chicago Theater with his Christmas tour in tow on Dec. 13 and 14; tickets at thechicagotheatre.com).
Same goes for The Killers, who for a decade now have donated the 100 percent of sales from one Christmas single each year to (RED), the foundation begun by Bono in 2006 to support the fight against AIDS. This year’s single, a revamp of the classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” joins 10 other originals on the band’s holiday compilation “Don’t Waste Your Wishes.”
While both these albums could make anyone’s holiday play list, the following list takes a look at albums that took a whole new approach to the Christmas classics:
Leslie Odom Jr., “Simply Christmas” (S Curve Records). This one is simply one of the best of the year’s holiday pack. Odom, who is perhaps most familiar to folks these days for his Tony Award-winning turn as Aaron Burr in that little Broadway musical known as “Hamilton,” turns out an impressive roster of classics, everything from “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The Christmas Song” and “Ave Maria” and so many more in between. His soulful spin on each of them will fill even the ba-humbugiest of us with plenty of good cheer.
Andra Day, “Merry Christmas From Andra Day,”: This gorgeous EP is the perfect vehicle for Day’s sultry vocals. Piano, bass, guitar create the perfect jazz trio vibe; the occasional strings and electric keyboards are icing on the cake. The arrangements on classics such as “The First Noel,” “Winter Wonderland,” and especially the slow and steady “Carol of the Bells,” render them marvelously contemporary. Her duet with Stevie Wonder on “Someday at Christmas” is not to be missed.
Kenny Lattimore, “A Kenny Lattimore Christmas”: Everything from R&B to beatbox to rhythmic drums and gorgeous piano and glorious choir combine for this beautiful trip down Christmas music lane. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is hauntingly slow and deep. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is uptempo and soulful. “Home for the Holidays” is an a cappella stunner.
Amy Grant, “Tennessee Christmas” (Sparrow Records): Somber tones permeate Grant’s first foray into a holiday album in ten years. No wonder, it’s been a very tough few years for the Grammy-winning singer. Her daughter was nearly killed in a car crash. Her mom died five years ago after a long battle with dementia. The album is as introspective as any Grant has ever released; this time her emotions are channelled through familiar holiday classics. The aptly named and beautiful “Melancholy Christmas” delivers a most powerful message loud and clear. A duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with hubby Vince Gill is properly playful. The piano-driven “Joy to the World” is dusted with a bit of solemnity that renders it a beautiful hymn indeed. “White Christmas” is given an upbeat jazzy turn, with some mighty fine guitar work on the bridge. This was the album that really tugged at the heartstrings every listen.
Neil Diamond, “Acoustic Christmas” (Capitol): Timeless best describes Diamond’s vocals, and this collection of holiday faves (and originals). Completely scaled back in terms of arrangements, Diamond and guitar are just what these classics needed. “Silent Night,” blessed by a gently rocking guitar rhythm and mandolin is one of the prettiest versions of this sweet hymn. “Do You Hear What I Hear” is beautifully updated and heartwarming. “Mary’s Boy Child” is lovely and upbeat. Diamond tops it all off with “The Christmas Medley,” a trio of rollicking feel-good holiday cheer.
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, “Christmas Together” (Pearl Records): The most happily married couple in country music shares their love of Christmas on their first full-out duets album collaboration. The result is a lively mix, the perfect soundtrack for your holiday happenings. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has never sounded like so much fun. Yearwood is sexy and playful on her very brassy take on “Santa Baby” (channeling her innermost Marilyn Monroe), while the duo is clearly having a good time on “Marshmallow World” (one of the best covers of this classic in years). Of course Brooks is not about to be outdone in the fun department — “Ugly Christmas Sweater” is a hoot. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music charts; no surprise there. Fans have been waiting a long time for the twosome to release a country music duets album; this is but a taste of how potent that eventual project will undoubtedly be.
Jackie Evancho “Someday at Christmas” (Portait): The “America’s Got Talent” wunderkind with the impossibly powerful voice serves up a heaping helping of holiday blessings on this collection of Christmas standards. Lush strings, sweeping orchestrations are served well by this 16-year-old songstress. “Do You Hear What I Hear” is hauntingly beautiful. “The Christmas Song” is a bit overdramatic, but still likeable. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is gentle and sweeping. Evancho’s voice has matured quite nicely and those piercing high notes that she navigates so effortlessly serve her well on this collection.
Sarah McLachlan, “Wonderland” (Verve): McLachlan revisits nearly a dozen holiday favorites. Contemporary arrangements are key here. “Let It Snow,” “Silver Bells” get an added boost from the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra.” Even with full orchestra, McLachlan makes every track intimate. “What Child Is This” is sweeping and grand, McLachlan’s whispery vocals adding charm and grace. Diana Krall stops by for piano duties on that Peanuts classic “Christmas Time is Here,” the song proving to be a perfect fit for the McLachlan, who returns to the holiday CD release party nearly a decade after her million-selling “Wintersong.” A special treat: Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright join forces with McLachlan for a potent “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The Canadian McLachlan treats us all to the haunting “Huron Carol,” reportedly that nation’s oldest Christmas carol, written in the mid-1600s, with original lyrics by St. John de Brebeuf no less. The devout hymn is a beautiful revelation (doubt many Americans heard this one before).
Rascal Flatts, “The Greatest Gift of All” (Big Machine Label Group): This 10-track release just oozes rollicking holiday spirit. From the opening strains of the bold and brassy “Joy to the World” to the equally glorious a cappella harmonies on “Hark! The Harold Angels Sing,” the Nashville trio has put its signature stamp on a slew of Christmas classics. “Silent Night” is rendered a sweet family affair as the children of Joe Don Rooney, Gary LeVox and Jay De Marcus provide the opening vocal strains. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is pure country rock. “The First Noel” is decidedly R&B with a bit of a kick. Everything old is truly new again.