By George A. Paul
If you’re looking for some fresh music to liven up your parties, tree trimming, baking or other Christmas-related activities this month, here are some worthy contenders...
Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (Mercury Nashville) – The country singer wanted to create a “whimsical throwback holiday record that evokes feelings of nostalgia and simpler times.” From the twangy, idyllic opener “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to the relaxed, pedal steel-infused closer “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” she definitely succeeded here. There are nods to Andrews Sisters harmonies of the 1940s (“Let it Snow,” “Mele Kalikimaka”) and kid-centric novelty songs of the 1950s (The Chipmunks popularized shuffle “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” an ebullient “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”). Prior duet partner Willie Nelson returns to guest on Hawaiian flavored original “A Willie Nice Christmas,” co-written by Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne (sample lyric: “may we all stay higher than the angel on top of the tree”). Other newly penned numbers like the pensive, orchestrated “Christmas Makes Me Cry” - helmed by the aforementioned songwriters and Brady Clark - the uptempo Motown-styled “Ribbons and Bows” (dig the jaunty sax solo) and “Present Without a Bow” (with R&B singer Leon Bridges) are also winners.
Sarah McLachlan, Wonderland (Verve) – With longtime producer Pierre Marchand and drummer Ashwin Sood in tow, the Canadian chanteuse's second holiday collection (after 2006’s Wintersong) oozes enchantment. Montreal indie rock band Half Moon Run joins McLachlan on several tunes and really makes its presence felt during a dramatic “O Come All Ye Faithful” and compelling stomper “Go Tell it On The Mountain” (where Martha Wainwright and Emmylou Harris take lead vocal turns). The latter artist also adds her heavenly pipes to “Away in a Manger.” Other highlights include “Angels We Have Heard on High” - with percolating sounds and Taos drums - the luxurious “Let it Snow,” a spacey, ukulele-led “Winter Wonderland,” highly dramatic traditional “Huron Carol” and stark solo piano cover of Randy Newman’s “Snow,” available as a bonus track. Grade: A
Loretta Lynn, White Christmas Blue (Sony Legacy) – Anytime we get new music from this legendary Country Hall of Famer, it’s a rare treat. Last spring, fans were treated to the solid Full Circle, Lynn’s first new studio effort in a dozen years. Now it’s time to rejoice again as Lynn returns with an enjoyable seasonal collection in her trademark country style. Co-produced by daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash, the songs are rife with mandolin, fiddle, steel guitar and fiddle sounds. Lynn, 84, ably revisits her own humorous “To Heck with Ole Santa Claus” off 1966’s Country Christmas and unveils the nifty new title track, which could’ve easily been on that LP and was co-penned by Shawn Camp (Garth Brooks, Josh Turner). Elsewhere, she does a fine job on such perennials as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” Lynn even recites “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The physical CD is highly recommended to see archival photos and postcards. Grade: A
She & Him, Christmas Party (Columbia) – Ascribing to a retro musical aesthetic, where less is usually more, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have crafted another enthralling holiday album. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth handles drums here; Jenny Lewis and the Chapin Sisters bolster the female harmonies. She & Him gives “All I Want for Christmas is You” a Phil Spector-ish vibe, Ward handles lead vocals on a laid back “Run Run Rudolph.” Both Deschanel and Lewis infuse “Winter Wonderland” with a nice floating on air feeling. The intimate "Coldest Night of the Year" (by obscure British female folk-singer Vashti Bunyan), upbeat “Marshmallow World,” Sinatra ballad “Christmas Memories” (penned by Don Costa, with Marilyn and Alan Bergman) and dreamy, ukulele-driven “Christmas Don’t Be Late” are among several standouts. Grade: A
Jennifer Nettles, To Celebrate Christmas (Big Machine) – Nettles has been omnipresent lately, returning to host “A CMA Country Christmas” and starring in TV movie “Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love,” the sequel to the Dolly Parton-inspired “Coat of Many Colors.” On her first holiday album since Sugarland’s Gold and Green in 2009, Nettles delves into other genres with satisfying results. Everything starts with a rockin’ take on spiritual “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” propelled by rollicking piano and sax. The majestic slow build of “Little Drummer Boy” is a soaring harmony battle with Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel (“Frozen”), while the jazzy “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” features fluttery guest vocals by rising R&B star Andra Day. The soulful take on Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home,” a luxurious version of Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” (from 1954 film “White Christmas”) and the poignant “Merry Christmas with Love” (initially recorded by Sandi Patti in 1983) were inspired choices. And then there's Parton’s “Circle of Love,” done in a plaintive, acoustic-based style. Grade: B+
Brett Eldredge, Glow (Atlantic) – On his debut Christmas album, the hunky country singer takes an old school crooner approach in the vein of Dean Martin and Bing Crosby with some elegantly orchestrated songs. Meghan Trainor joins for a playful duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and the pair’s vocals mesh well together. Eldredge’s romantic original title track finds him singing about getting cozy with a loved one in front of a fire and reveling in the reflection from Christmas tree ornaments. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a bright and brassy “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and gorgeous “The First Noel” (featuring an a capella intro) are highlights. Grade: B
Neil Diamond, Acoustic Christmas (Capitol) – Teaming up with superstar producers Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt) and Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.), plus notable session musicians like Joey Waronker, Sebastian Steinberg, Tim Pierce, Jamie Muhoberac and The Waters Family, Diamond’s fifth holiday collection is a stripped-down affair. It's the sonic equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket. Blind Boys of Alabama add vocal heft to spirituals “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” The Irish-tinged “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Christmas in Killarnrey” are colored at various points by Uilleann pipe, bodhran and Irish fiddle. Set to piano and subtle orchestration, “Christmas Prayers” is an inviting original composition. Another new one, “Make a Happy Song,” is included in a sprightly medley comprising Lead Belly’s “Almost Day” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Grade: B-