Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday party planner: new Christmas albums

Looking for some new music to freshen up your usual holiday soundtrack? 
The following are some Christmas albums that came out recently...
Various Artists
Holidays Rule
(Hear Music/Concord/MPL)
A collection that defines eclectic, “Holidays Rule” features 17 genre-splicing tunes, ranging from alternative, jazz, bluegrass and roots to Americana, Latin and beyond. Co-produced by The Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk and overseen by Paul McCartney’s music company, the musicians include well-known names (the former Beatle, fun., The Shins, Rufus Wainwright, The Civil Wars, Punch Brothers), acclaimed acts (The Head and the Heart, Andrew Bird, Irma Thomas with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Calexico, Holly Golightly) and others (Y La Bamba, Fruit Bats, Eleanor Friedberger, Heartless Bastards, Ages and Ages, Black Prarie).
Standouts include The Shins’ electronic-tinged take on McCartney & Wings’ “Wonderful Christmastime,” fun.’s orchestrated version of “Sleigh Ride,” Wainwright’s stark, piano-led duet with Sharon Von Etten, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Macca’s quiet, jazzy “The Christmas Song” and The Civil Wars’ quick, subtle “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  

Various Artists
A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years Bringing Joy to the World
(Big Machine)
The first edition of the holiday CD series, featuring top pop, rock, R&B and rap hit makers of 1987 is definitely an all-time classic. The latest incarnation, “Bringing Joy to the World” rounds up heavy hitters like Train, Michael Buble, Cheap Trick, Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews Band, Christina Aguilera, OneRepublic, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Jewel and others.
Among the highlights are Cheap Trick’s rocking “I Want You for Christmas” (a subtle revamping of its signature hit “I Want You to Want Me” with Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx on drums), OneRepublic’s original “Christmas Without You,” which takes on an old school R&B vibe and McBride’s spunky “Please Come Home for Christmas” a la Pat Benatar’s old perennial. Also notable are Matthews’ laid back, live “Christmas Song” (taken from a ’10 Chicago gig) and Mraz’s “Winter Wonderland,” done in his usual breezy acoustic guitar style.
Tracey Thorn 
Tinsel and Lights
Best known as half of the acclaimed British alt-pop/dance duo Everything But the Girl, Thorn tackles holiday themed tunes by an unique range of songwriters on “Tinsel and Lights.” And only one is a tried-and-true standard: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
EBTG partner Ben Watt turns up on half the tracks to add guitar, piano or keyboards. A breath of fresh air, stand outs include Jack White’s mildly rocking “In the Cold, Cold Night,” Green Gartside of Scritti Politti’s upbeat, poppy “Snow in Sun,” Thorn’s own sprightly “Tinsel and Lights,” the electronic-tinged duet with Gartside on “Taking Down the Tree” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Sister Winter.”  Elsewhere, Thorn takes on songs by Joni Mitchell (“River”), Stephin Merritt (“Like a Snowman”), Randy Newman (“Snow”) and Ron Sexsmith (“Maybe This Christmas”) with her usual understated elegance.  
Colbie Caillat  
Christmas in the Sand 
(Universal Republic)
The Southern California native’s “Christmas in the Sand”  is one of the more pleasant surprises among the newest crop of seasonal music efforts. Co-produced by her father Ken Caillat (Fleetwood Mac), Colbie puts a lean, bluesy spin on “Merry Christmas Baby,” thanks to guest guitar and vocals from Brad Paisley. She does a lush and loose version of “Santa Baby,” while Gavin DeGraw helps give “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a carefree vibe.
More duets include Justin Young on pleasant, (real) string section-enhanced classic “The Christmas Song” and Jason Reeves during the impressive original mid-tempo ballad “Every Day is Christmas.”
The latter, along with the fun, Hawaii-inspired “Christmas in the Sand” were both co-penned by Reeves and Kara DioGuardi. Keying into the album art, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” starts off in a tropical style, transitions into a mild rocker; it works well. “Happy Christmas” is a poignant reminder about the real meaning of the holiday, including those less fortunate.
Blake Shelton    
It’s Christmas
(Warner Bros.)
Although Shelton is busy judging NBC’s “The Voice,” he still found time to record “Cheers, It’s Christmas,” a collection that should satisfy his diehard fans. The country singer does an upbeat “Jingle Bell Rock” with wife Miranda Lambert. She also appears to add vocal coos with her trio the Pistol Annies on “Blue Christmas – one of the standouts here. Another is the twangy, fiddle-laden Shelton original “Santa’s Got a Choo Choo Train.”
It’s rife with additional guests too: Reba McEntire turns up on the down home country flavor of “Oklahoma Christmas,” Kelly Clarkson adds drama to orchestrated Keith Whitney tune “There’s a New Kid in Town” and Michael Buble duets on his own hit “Home,” here with pedal steel accents. Shelton’s “Time for Me to Come Home” even features his mother!
Rod Stewart   
Merry Christmas, Baby
There’s been a Stewart media blitz lately with the release of his autobiography “Rod” and first seasonal album. Produced by David Foster, “Merry Christmas, Baby” is a sleek, yet warm collection. Among the selections is a traditional, intimate take on “White Christmas” and  a bagpipe-driven nod to Stewart’s native Scottish heritage with “Auld Lang Syne.” Trumpeter Chris Botti appears on the sleek, jazzy “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” - a virtual "duet" with Ella Fitzgerald. 
Other duets display a good vocal chemistry between Stewart Mary J. Blige on a dramatic “We Three Kings,” Michael Buble during the breezy, humorous “Winter Wonderland” and Cee Lo Green on the soulful, Motown-ish title track. More lively soul strains come via the horn-driven original, “Red-Suited Superman” with guest Trombone Shorty. Longtime Stewart fans and those who came along more recently with the “Great American Songbook Series” should enjoy both the TV special and album alike.
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta    
This Christmas 
This project came about when Travolta suggested he record a Christmas song with Newton-John and it eventually branched out to an entire album. Like the album cover photo, "This Christmas" is like a cozy fireside chat between old friends. As an actor whose previous vocal experience came more than 30 years ago, Travolta is a bit rusty, but Newton-John does an admirable job covering when they jointly duet. When he’s on his own, the results are less successful.

James Taylor makes “Deck the Halls” tolerable, Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra appear on the jazzy “Winter Wonderland,” Barbra Streisand (!) lends her silky pipes to "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Cliff Richard comes out of semi-retirement for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; Kenny G and Chick Corea provide musical help. 
Elsewhere, “Silent Night” has a Celtic lilt and children’s choir, “This Christmas” makes a stab at jazzy soul, lite rocker "I Think You Might Like It" is a sequel of sorts to “You’re the One That I Want" and “Auld Lang Syne” is a mash-up with Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here.” Proceeds benefit the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Center and the Jett Travolta Foundation.

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