News Column

Jon's Xmas CD gift guide

December 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 04--SOONER OR LATER, every serious singer (and many an instrumentalist) gets the urge to make a Christmas album. It's kind of their equivalent of climbing Mount Everest -- a challenge she or he feels compelled to take on.

Making something new out of time-worn standards is a primary objective.

So is bringing entertaining new songs to the party.

And let us not ignore the payday. Even in this music-sharing age, Christmas sets sell almost as well as candy canes and enjoy a much longer shelf life, reappearing each holiday season for years. Sometimes with a new cover. Or in a refreshed deluxe edition adding a few bonus tracks (like mellow soul man KEM's newly upgraded "What Christmas Means," introducing a charming duet with Patti LaBelle).

And, after artists have dished more than one, their Christmas sets then get repackaged in "best of" bundles -- like Legacy Recordings' "new"-for-2013 Classic Christmas collections by the likes of Alabama, Neil Diamond, Martina McBride and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

But be of good cheer, no regifting was allowed in compiling our Best of the 2013 Christmas Albums list, this year featuring a baker's dozen of irresistibly sweet treats. Buy with assurance -- you ain't heard this music before. Well, not exactly like this . . .

1. Mary J. Blige, "A Mary Christmas" (Verve/Interscope) -- A delicate balancing act, this one. And, for certain, one of the year's best. Repertoire is traditional, as is Mary J.'s sincere delivery, just modestly "worked" with soulful (though never sassy) ruffles and flourishes. Same goes for David Foster's plush pop arrangements, as pretty and pure as new fallen snow. Special guests Barbra Streisand, Chris Botti, Marc Anthony and Jessie J add to the classy and contemporary impressions.

--Favorite: Mary J.'s lilting "My Favorite Things." Yeah, eat your heart out, Carrie Underwood -- singing the same holiday-wish-list classic Thursday evening on NBC's live rendering of "The Sound of Music." (And on the nicely wrought cast album, already released yesterday!)

2. Nick Lowe, "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family" (Yep Rock) -- It's the English pub rocker, casually tossing rare and original musings on the yule fire. Like his kinda bleak "Christmas at the Airport" and Roger Miller's quaint childhood memories of "Old Toy Trains."

--Favorite: Lowe's snap-happy, skiffle gospel treatment of "Rise Up Shepherd."

3. Christine Lavin presents "Just One Angel v2.0" (Yellow Tail) -- This second edition of artsy, craftsy holiday originals is rich in social consciousness, offbeat yuks and crossover appeal. (A high percentage of Jewish singer/songwriters contributed.) You've got to admire Ilene Weiss' seduced-then-abandoned tale of the "Tree," Tom Paxton's flub-a-dubbing "My Christmas Guitar," Uncle Bonsai's migrant worker's plaint "Seasonal Work," the Berrymans' polka-powered resolutions ("pay the bar tab, tear down the meth lab") of "New New Year Year."

--Favorite: Ms. Lavin's own biographical salute, "Christmas 1899," the day film icon Humphrey Bogart was born. Yeah, holiday miracles come in different forms.

4. Johnny Mathis, "Sending You a Little Christmas" (Columbia) -- A voice synonymous with the holiday (has anyone ever crooned "Winter Wonderland" better?), Mathis remains in primo angelic form on this yummy new set. The majority of tunes are duets -- including Billy Joel (sounding increasingly like Tony Bennett) on "The Christmas Song," a shockingly girly Susan Boyle chiming in on "Do You Hear What I Hear" (also to be found on her own, new "Home for Christmas" set) and Mathis' down-"Home For the Holidays," with the Jordanaires.

--Favorite: J.M. and Gloria Estefan's Latin-tinged take on "Mary's Boy Child," still the best born-in-the-manger story song.

5. Kool & The Gang, "Kool for the Holiday" (ATO) -- Sporting multiple singers and rappers, the Gang serves up the funkiest celebration of the season. Oldies like "Joy to the World," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" are radically reconstructed, now danceable! And several newbies likewise add to the group's trademark "celebrate good times" tradition.

--Favorite: A jazzy, jingling "Christmas Always."

6. & 7. Joshua Bell and Friends, "Musical Gifts" (Masterworks); The DePue Brothers Band, "When It's Christmas Time" (Beat the Drum). We're lumping these two together because both feature a classically trained fiddler (or four, with the Philly-rooted DePue Brothers) getting down for the holiday in "jazz-grass" and "grassical" (bluegrass/classical) fashion.

Bell's coterie of uptown friends and musical settings have the makings of a posh PBS TV special -- from the a cappella troupe Straight No Chaser (skatting like the Swingle Singers on "Nutcracker Medley") to country lass Alison Krauss ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman"). Also present: Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Botti (the trumpeter does get around), Placido Domingo, Chick Corea, Michael Feinstein and a partridge in a pear tree.

--Favorite: Bell and company's Judeo-Christian mash-up, "Christmas Confusion."

For their locally cut set, the DePue clan and Philly friends smoke the grassical especially well with "Good King Wenceslas."

--Favorite: "Fat Man," a rockin' original about the super-powered Claus that hints of Bruce Hornsby, Steve Miller and the old "Batman" TV theme. What a hoot.

8. "The Best Man Holiday" (RCA) -- One of two new holiday-themed movie soundtracks (the other's for "Black Nativity"), this one gets our special stamp for its contemporary crop of R&B talents and sprinkling of new material -- including Emeli Sande (serving a wonderfully stripped-down "Winter Wonderland"), oddly auto-tuned Jordin Sparks and Fantasia, and sometime/former Philadelphians John Legend and Marsha Ambrosius.

--Favorite: Betcha can't keep the lid on the party when R. Kelly uncorks his personal bottle of cheer, "Christmas I'll Be Stepping."

9. Jewel, "Let It Snow" (Reflections) -- Her second seasonal set (the first released in 1999), the newbie's a multifaceted, chamber/folk gem surrounding Jewel's intimate, good-vibrations vocals with artfully arranged woodwinds, harp, flute and strings.

--Favorite: The waltzing original, "It's Christmas Time," with Beatles-ish imagery of snowflakes that "give me kaleidoscope eyes."

10. Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped in Red" (RCA) -- The rarely idle talent works those brassy pipes often on "old-school" Christmas rocking styles -- evoking the Ronettes (on the title track), Motown girl groups (hovering "Underneath the Tree") and Elvis P. on (what else?) the rockabilly "Blue Christmas." Clarkson mostly wraps the package well, though the usually seductive "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a notable dud, with phoned-in collaborator Ronnie Dunn. She makes up for it, though, with a walloping big band treatment of "My Favorite Things" and decent original "4 Carats" (think variations on "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend").

--Favorite: The dark, dysfunctional-family party narrative "Just For Now," written by English talent Imogen Heap. Scary good.

11. Jonathan Butler, "Merry Christmas To You" (Mack Avenue Records) -- Like George Benson, Butler's a facile jazz guitarist who doubles as smooth crooner. Laced with balmy South African (his homeland) and Caribbean flavors, this calming, oft-stripped-down presentation seems an ideal scoring for tree trimming and gift wrapping.

--Favorite: Butler's Stevie Wonder-ful original, "Happy Holidays."

12. Nnenna Freelon & John Brown Big Band, "Christmas" (Brown Boulevard Records) -- With Freelon's aggressively bluesy, angular vocal shifts and Brown's wild, walloping band elaborations, this session takes time to sink in. But the hot horns and Hammond organ-scorched "Silent Night" (also quoting "All Blues") and mash-up of "Deck the Halls" with "Christmas Time Is Here" prove irresistible.

--Favorite: The New Orleans-strutting "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

13. "Duck The Halls -- A Robertson Family Christmas" (EMI) -- If (and only if) you're a fan of these Louisiana hickster millionaires from the hit A&E series "Duck Dynasty," you'll gain some glee from this sometime-comedic set, matching 'em up with country notables George Strait, Alison Krauss (her again!), Luke Bryan and most effectively Josh Turner, paired with Missy Robertson on his original "Why I Love Christmas." (None of the music, by the way, shows up on the DD family's new DVD release "I'm Dreaming of a Redneck Christmas.")

--Favorite: Uncle Si's twisted recitation of "The Night Before Christmas" is almost worth the cost of admission.

Also newly released: Erasure, "Snow Globe"; Gretchen Wilson, "Christmas in My Heart"; The Piano Guys, "A Family Christmas"; Leona Lewis, "Christmas, With Love"; The Surfchords, "Sea Sun Greetings"; Celtic Woman, "Home for Christmas" Deluxe Package (with "Live from Dublin" DVD).

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