Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A roundup of new Christmas albums

If you’re hosting a Christmas party or just getting around to trimming the tree, here are some new releases to freshen up your seasonal soundtrack.

Artist: The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Title: Rockin’ Rudolph (Surfdog)
You might enjoy if you like: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, Stray Cats

Tell me more: For his third studio Christmas album – and first in a decade - the former Stray Cat mixes big band arrangements with rockabilly flourishes to fine effect. Longtime producers Peter Collins and Dave Darling return as Setzer puts his unique spin on classics like the upbeat, jiving “Here Comes Santa Claus” (with prominent female backing vocals), a subtle cocktail lounge-styled "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," plus vibrant instrumental takes on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Carol of the Bells." But the real winners here are the 18-piece ensemble’s racing "Yabba-Dabba Yuletide" (based on TV’s “The Flintstones” theme, with a nifty sax solo, presented in regular and extended lengths) and a quite rocking, 1960s-leaning "Rockabilly Rudolph." Super fans can purchase the deluxe box set stuffed with goodies at
Artist: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Title: It’s a Holiday Soul Party (Daptone)
You might enjoy if you like: Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Fitz & the Tantrums

Tell me more: The Brooklyn-based, Grammy-nominated act delve into old school R&B, soul and funk sounds with stellar results during “It’s a Holiday Soul Party.” Impressively, half the selections are memorable originals, including the lively “8 Days (of Hanukkah),” where Sharon Jones soulfully sings about dreidels, frying latkes and cooking up brisket as the female backing singers count things down. Some compelling social consciousness arrives via “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” with a sweeping string arrangement and prominent horn lines that recall Marvin Gaye. A groove-laden “Just Another Christmas Song” seamlessly incorporates seasonal song titles, while the jaunty “Big Bulbs” boasts a finger snapping gypsy vibe and gives all the ladies’ smooth harmonies a chance to shine.

Artist: Tony Hadley
Title: The Christmas Album (Verve)
You might enjoy if you like: Bryan Ferry, ABC, Spandau Ballet

Tell me more: Although Spandau Ballet enthusiasts are still waiting for a new release following the 1980s new romantic band’s reunion a few years ago, they can revel in the frontman’s diverse and luxurious crop of covers and originals. Some are more about being together in wintertime than anything else. Among the 16 tracks are Hadley’s cheery interpretation of Train’s “Shake Up Christmas,” Greg Lake’s regal and hushed “I Believe in Father Christmas,” an effervescent “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (done Springsteen-style), The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and a barrelhouse piano-driven “Run Run Rudolph.” Elsewhere, the romantic “I Don’t Want to Spend One More Christmas Without You” (popularized by ‘N Sync) is right in Hadley’s wheelhouse, while the stripped down, piano and synth-laden take on Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” and Chris Rea’s breezy “Driving Home for Christmas” are standouts.   

Artist: LeAnn Rimes
Title: Today is Christmas (Prodigy Entertainment/Kobalt)
You might enjoy if you like: Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Sara Evans

Tell me more: LeAnn Rimes’ third holiday album was recorded in LA, but much of it boasts an old school Southern R&B vibe, thanks to a stellar crop of session vets like Booker T. Jones, Willie Weeks, Ray Parker Jr., James Gadson and others. A delight from start to finish, Rimes duets with Aloe Blacc on the laid back, grooving Ray Charles popularized “That Spirit of Christmas,” then teams with Gavin DeGraw on Kenny Loggins’ heartwarming “Celebrate Me Home” as both get some soulful wails in (the latter is among several featuring drummer Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers). Elsewhere, a fun, quick-fire Dixieland take on the old Mitch Miller tune “Must Be Santa” and the beautiful Vince Guaraldi/Lee Mendelson-penned “Christmas Time is Here” doesn’t wear out its welcome. Both are highlights, along with the aching, piano and cello-enriched Brandi Carlile ballad “The Heartache Can Wait.” Rimes also includes better known numbers within medleys and a stunning a capella “Auld Lang Syne.”
Artist: Train
Title: Christmas in Tahoe (Sunken Forest)
You might enjoy if you like: Counting Crows, Matchbox 20

Tell me more: In 2010, Train did “Shake up Christmas” on the deluxe edition of the “Save Me San Francisco” CD, but this is the band’s first full holiday studio effort. Besides the aforementioned infectious track, Pat Monahan and company key into the album title with mild, organ-led rocker “Christmas Island” and another solid original, the folk-ish ‘Wait for Mary, Christmas.” Train puts its trademark sing-along pop/rock stamp on Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me” and Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” They also serve up a few pleasant surprises in Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” (complete with psychedelic bridge), the skiffle take on “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” (where Monahan whimsically channels Elvis), The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and a brilliant chiming version of “Tinsel Lights,” by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl). “Tahoe” is available for streaming exclusively through Amazon Prime and purchase on CD.  
Artist: Kenny Rogers
Title: Once Again It’s Christmas (Warner Bros.)
You might enjoy if you like: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill

Tell me more: By all accounts, Kenny Rogers has become synonymous with Christmas music, having put out six official holiday albums over the past 30 years. Some are better than others (1984’s “Once Upon a Christmas” with Dolly Parton ranks as the best); “Once Again It’s Christmas” falls somewhere between. Featuring plenty of subtle orchestration and spiritual underpinnings, it’s good for snuggling with your loved one by a fire. Jennifer Nettles turns up for a playful duet on “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Alison Krauss adds angelic sophistication to the ballad “Some Children See Him,” female duo Winfield’s Locket bring drama to “There’s a New Kid in Town” and Jim Brickman plays some classy piano during the elegant “That Silent Night.” But when Rogers pairs with Home Free – winner of “The Sing Off” competition – on traditional gospel number “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” everything really heat up. Rogers also tweaks previous arrangements of “Winter Wonderland,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  
Artists: Various
Title: Now That’s What I Call Country Christmas (Universal Music Group)
You might enjoy if you like: any country music past and present

Tell me more: On “Now That’s What I Call Country Christmas, the long-running multi-genre compilation series rounds up 30 tracks spanning from 1979 to last year. A veritable “who’s who” of country music, it leans more modern, but there are several veterans on hand, including Reba, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and Johnny Cash. Highlights on Disc 1 include Hunter Hayes’ spirited live rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby” with tasty electric guitar work, Toby Keith’s lean country rocker “Santa I’m Right Here,” Brad Paisley’s equally sizzling and humorous cover of Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” and Little Big Town’s understated “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Among the standouts on Disc 2 are Gary Allan’s barrelhouse piano-driven “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Alabama’s haunting “Little Drummer Boy,” Montgomery Gentry’s version of the Robert Earl Keen steeped-in-reality tune “Merry Christmas From the Family” and Willie Nelson classic “Pretty Paper.”   
Artists: Various
Title: Indie for the Holidays (Amazon Prime)
You might enjoy if you like: independent alt-rock

Tell me more: An Amazon Prime exclusive, this collection features more than two dozen well-known acts and newcomers that are mostly signed to independent labels. A bulk of the songs are originals. Reverend Horton Heat, Family of the Year, Turin Brakes, Rogue Wave and Avid Dancer all turn in solid songs. Yet the highlights come from Sondre Lerche, whose chamber pop-leaning “Surviving Christmas” describes an uncertain future; A Silent Film, reminiscing about the past on elegant ballad “Christmas at Our House”; Yacht, whose odd New Wave-ish, drum machine-driven “Christmas Alone” details a nontraditional holiday; Lisa Loeb delves into dark-hued Beck territory on “Champagne”; Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices’ “What Begins on New Year’s Day” is a short and intriguing blend of acoustic/electric guitars.

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