Friday, December 09, 2016

New Christmas Music for 2016, Your Complete Guide, Our Largest Post Ever, The Latest From Kacey Musgraves, Candace Bellamy, Leslie Odom Jr., Brett Eldredge, Kylie Minogue, and 60 More New Releases!




 "And so this is Christmas..." sang John Lennon in 1971 on his single "Happy Xmas/War is Over". Now in 2016, that song has become part of the Christmas repertoire. There are no specific criteria for joining the ranks of "Winter Wonderland", "White Christmas", et al. One way, if you are an artist, is to release a Christmas single that becomes a hit. Then your song gets replayed each year, and if it's good enough (or even sometimes not), sooner or later someone else will record it and eventually you are in. There are examples in every decade.

What got me into this line of thought is the realization of just how amazingly durable these songs are. I'm going to guess that maybe we've got a hundred songs or so in the repertoire, and there's a core group of perhaps a couple of dozen songs that show up on nearly every Christmas album. We hear these same songs over and over again in every different style and music genre. And yet, they still sound fresh and exciting (well, most of them).

As I write this, I have already reviewed approximately thirty of the albums listed below. I had to start in mid-October in order to publish this by the beginning of December. Here it is the day before Thanksgiving, and I just listened to two more albums. You would think that by now I'd be sick of Christmas music, but I'm not. That's what I meant about the amazing durability of this music. The two latest albums have me just as pumped as the first ones that I played back in October.

There are some encouraging trends this year. For awhile, it seemed like we were getting a glut of covers of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Santa Baby". This year thankfully, those songs are few and far between. Likewise, for covers of Joni Mitchell's "River" and "My Favorite Things" from 'The Sound of Music'. These songs are not, and will never be, Christmas songs. This year, there has been the disturbing (wrong) idea to include Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah!" on Christmas albums. Someone needs to look beyond the name similarity with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and maybe go and actually listen to the words of the Cohen tune. There is no disputing the greatness of this classic song, but with Cohen's recent death I fear that we are in for more of such misguided attempts to make this a Christmas song.

Now it's the Monday after Thanksgiving and this article is up to about 42 albums; I'm still not done, still going strong. In the last 24 hours I've heard an album and two new EP's that I'm just about as revved up on as I can be. You can read the details below about Christmas on the Lamb, Candace Bellamy, and Rita Wilson.

It only took about a minute into Candace Bellamy's EP to flip head over heels. Who is Candace Bellamy and why have I never heard of her until now? Why are there only four tracks? We need a full length, right this very minute. And Rita Wilson, isn't Tom Hanks married to someone named Rita Wilson? Could this be the same person? She has such a good singing voice. All these questions and more will be answered in the reviews below. Getting it published by the end of the November now looks shaky at best. It might take until the weekend.

Update: It's now December 1st and I'm on the home stretch, I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have about nine or ten releases left, although tomorrow is new release Friday and depending on what comes out, that light might just be an oncoming train. Although I've already listened to nearly fifty new Christmas albums, this morning I heard some really interesting stuff. There was some New Orleans style Christmas jazz (The NOLA Players), a good sounding new female singer-songwriter (Janet Devlin), a 60s retro guitar band that just might be one of the cooler releases this year (Wonderlux), a great sounding single from John Oates, and a pop diva (Ariana Grande).

Update: It's now Saturday, December 3rd and there's so many releases that this article has passed three targets: Black Friday, the end of November, and this weekend. Technically, this weekend isn't done yet but there are still twelve or thirteen left to go, so the odds of publishing by tomorrow are mighty thin. It's time to impose a deadline. This article will go live regardless of what by next Saturday, December 10th, if not earlier. The grand total of releases covered is closing in on sixty. Yikes!

Update Tuesday, December 6th: Huzzah! Listening and principle writing are done. The total of items covered is a whooping sixty-five new releases, making this far and away my largest blog article ever. We still need to finish the linkage and add some bonus video, finalize my list of favorites, and do an edit read through or two. Then we publish. I can't wait for all of you to read this.

All of the new music in this article is listed below, alphabetically by artist. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end to see my picks and some bonus videos. Many thanks to Bev Kates and Lindsey Mitchell for their hard work in the preparation of this article.

It is my hope that the music in this article brings to you the same tidings of joy and comfort as they do for me. I can't tell you precisely what a tiding is, but this is the time of year to carry on traditions and I think we all know what we mean when we say it. The good feelings of this special season are multiplied when we share them with someone. So, whatever your age, gender, race, religion, politics, sexual preference, or nationality, I wish you a merry/happy Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, Festivus, Winter Solstice, or whatever you celebrate, and a happy and peaceful new year.

 
There's a present by the fire place
Wrapped especially for you
But all that I want is to see your face
That's how you make my wish come true
Kylie Minogue - "Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here"
 
David Arkenstone & Charlee Brooks - Winter Fantasy
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The New Age genre withstood the corporate overhype and when the dust cleared the serious New Age musicians were left, of which David Arkenstone is one. He weaves threads of folk, jazz, rock, and classical into a style of music that is uniquely his own. Paired with vocalist Charlee Brooks, composer and keyboardist Arkenstone concocts a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments that is eminently listenable. Winter themed originals together with traditional Christmas carols comprise Winter Fantasy. "Deck the Halls/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is an instrumental in the style of a Medieval dance. The Medieval theme continues with traditional fare like "Gaudete" (Steeleye Span), Noël Nouvelet (Loreena McKennitt) in which Brooks' wordless vocal complements the violins and other instruments, and "A Wassail, A Wassail Throughout This Town". The most Latin I can recall from school is the song "Adeste Fidelis" or "O Come All Ye Faithful", and every time I hear it I hope they'll do at least one verse in Latin, but they rarely do, except for singers of Bing Crosby's generation. So I really enjoyed hearing "Veni Veni Emmanuel" which is "O Come O Come Emmanuel" in Latin, and quite a gorgeous rendition it is.
Listen to: "What Child Is This", "Gaudete", and "Veni Veni Emmanuel".

Gene Autry - A Melody Ranch Christmas Party
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[NOT PREVIEWED] This new vault release from Varese Sarabande Records is both a rare Christmas album and a fascinating slice of American history. Here is the label's description (you may know actor Pat Buttram from his role as Mr. Haney on the 60's CBS network comedy Green Acres):
Gene Autry 'A Melody Ranch Christmas' is a special album with a vintage radio show approach. It includes iconic and rare Christmas songs performed live on Gene Autry's popular Melody Ranch radio show by Gene, the Cass County Boys, the Pinafores, the Gene Autry Blue Jeans, Rosemary Clooney, and Carl Cotner's Orchestra. You'll also hear Gene introduce songs, Pat Buttram perform classic comedy, and Johnny Bond thoughtfully reflect on the season.

The album has traditional Christmas standards like 'Jingle Bells' and 'Joy to the World' plus rare performances of Gene Autry's holiday hits including 'Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)' & 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Medley.' Several tracks are songs Gene and his Melody Ranch pals performed every holiday season but never released on record such as 'White Christmas,' 'Cowboy Santa Claus,' and 'Winter Wonderland.' Many of Gene's hit records were introduced to the American public on his radio show and several of those debut performances are on his album including 'Frosty the Snow Man,' 'I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus,' and 'Sleigh Bells.'

Radio show favorites like Pat Buttram's humorous holiday poem 'Did You Ever Hafta Sleep at the Foot of the Bed?' and Gene's reading of '`Twas the Night Before Christmas' are also included. All of these performances, ranging from 1942 to 1955, are from Gene Autry's personal archive of radio show lacquer transcriptions discs that were restored via digital transfer and restoration over the last twenty years.

This collection of Christmas music and spoken word from Gene Autry's radio show broadcast not only provides rare performances of seasonal favorites but also gives the listener a glimpse of the holidays from the last century.

Jon Batiste - Christmas with Jon Batiste
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Jon Batiste is the bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. For his first Christmas album, Batiste plays mostly favorite carols, a pair of secular standards, and three originals that he wrote, one of which opens the album. "Endless Love" has that great combination of R&B and Christmas with guest Aloe Blacc. There are guests all over the record such as drummer Jason Marsalis, who guests on "Winter Wonderland". "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" features Judith Hill singing with Batiste on an arrangement that is equal parts jazz and soul, and the result is most pleasing. Christmas with Jon Batiste is otherwise jazz, he calls it reimagining. Most of this album has a sense of improvisation that just confirms the jazziness of Batiste's reimagining. Some of the songs like "Silent Night" have a slow, deliberate pacing that reminds me of the second line processionals in Batiste's native New Orleans. "Silent Night" has a very jazzy vocal that features a superb violin solo by guest Lee England Jr. Eric Gales adds a nice guitar solo to "What Child Is This", a track which also features some great work on the Hammond organ. Batiste brings many instruments to bear including a vocal ensemble for a quite jazzy take on J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", and guest Sean Jones adds his trumpet skills to the mix. It's Big Easy style piano all the way on the original "Christmas in Barcelona", which closes the record.
Listen to: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman"

Candace Bellamy - Santa Baby
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I first heard about Candace Bellamy on a tip from SoulTracks, a website and newsletter that is a compendium of all things soul music. This is the EP that I flipped for as soon as I heard it, partially because Bellamy's particular combination of soul, jazz, and blues is pure magic when paired with Christmas. The other reason is Bellamy's voice, her tone and delivery is perfectly suited for this type of material. Her Santa Baby EP has four tracks, two carols and two secular tunes. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that her "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is as good as any version of this song that I've ever heard. This record compares favorably to an EP by Hamish Stuart, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Stuart, formerly a founding member of the Average White Band, released this EP some years ago, and it never fails to amaze me just how relaxing a good soul Christmas record can be. Aside from her voice and her excellent musicians, a giant reason why these recordings sound so good is the amount of air in them. I'm talking about the production style that allows these tracks lots of space to breathe. When done right, as on Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin' album, it's the silence within the song that makes the music that much more powerful. Even Bellamy's title track, "Santa Baby", sounds so good I don't even care that it will be the 900th version in my collection. For the record, Bellamy is an R&B artist based in Austin, TX, and she does have one prior full length album and some EPs, just not a full length Christmas album (yet).
Listen to:"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas".

John Berry - John Berry Christmas
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Although the name John Berry was unfamiliar to me, I read that he has been a country artist for lo these last 37 years, with twenty albums to his credit. Musically, he's got an appealing voice and performs a type of country rock that is instrumentally impressive. Compositionally, this may be one of the more religious album in this article. Of the album's ten tracks, there is one carol ("O Holy Night"), one gospel classic ("Mary Did You Know"), one popular tune (a slow and acoustic "Blue Christmas"), and seven newer, mostly original tunes. Berry's "Blue Christmas" is somewhat unusual, but it works really well as a sort of personal blues. There are lots of well said sentiments in "I Don't Want To Rush This Christmas".
Listen to: "Let Us Be", "I Don't Want To Rush This Christmas", and "Mary Did You Know".

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood - Christmas Together
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[NOT PREVIEWED] This album is streaming exclusively on Amazon's new separate subscription streaming service (not Prime). Here is what the Tennessean had to say:
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, married since 2005, chose the holidays as the theme for their first full-length duets project. Christmas Together is an 11-song collection of Christmas classics and unexpected surprises. The couple duet on many of the songs including a swinging, big band version of “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Marshmallow World” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Yearwood shines on “Santa Baby” and “Hard Candy Christmas” while Brooks goes solo on “Feliz Navidad.” Brooks enlisted James Taylor for the album’s last track “What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song)” – a track that’s alone worth the price of the album.
Jimmy Buffett - 'Tis the SeaSon
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'Tis the SeaSon is Jimmy Buffett's newest Christmas album. Parrotheads may love it, but I was hoping for a little more island flavor in the music. I'd like to suggest the far superior Christmas Island that Buffett released in 1996. I've listened to Christmas Island a couple of times through now, and I'm most impressed. It is everything that this new one is not.
Listen to: "Wonderful Christmastime", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", and "Winter Wonderland".

The Real Gone Reissues: Ray Conniff - The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings
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Ever wonder what music sounded like just before rock 'n roll? Real Gone Records has just released an ambitious slate of reissues, all Christmas music from artists that were commonly labeled Easy Listening, Middle Of the Road (MOR), or Beautiful Music. So far, I count eleven such reissues, too many to preview and write about individually. In the remastering process Real Gone goes to great lengths to present and preserve this music with the collector in mind. The releases include:
Jack Jones - The Jack Jones Christmas Album
Eddy Arnold - The Complete RCA Victor Christmas Recordings
The Ventures - The Ventures’ Christmas Album (Deluxe Expanded Mono & Stereo Edition)
Ray Conniff - The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings (2-CD Set)
Mitch Miller and The Gang - Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch! (Expanded Edition)
The Robert Shaw Chorale - Christmas Hymns and Carols Vol. One
The Norman Luboff Choir - Songs of Christmas/Christmas with the Norman Luboff Choir
Living Guitars & Living Strings - The Joy of Christmas/The Sound of Christmas
Mantovani - Christmas Carols
Sammy Kaye and His Orchestra - I Want to Wish You a Merry Christmas

For more information, see the Real Gone Records website. To see what these reissues are all about, read what Real Gone has to say about Ray Conniff - The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings.
Ray Conniff sold more records than any other arranger/conductor in the history of pop music. So it’s no surprise that his three Christmas albums were smash hits, charting a total of 16 times between them. Leading off was 1959’s Christmas with Conniff, which went to #14 on the charts, the first of five chart appearances; then came 1962’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which went to #15 for the first of its eight turns atop the charts; and, finally, 1965’s Here We Come A-Caroling, which also went to #15 atop the Christmas charts for the first of its three appearances. Now, Real Gone Music has put together all three of these albums—plus a bonus track, Conniff’s 1965 version of “My Favorite Things”—into a bargain-priced 2-CD set comprising every Christmas track Ray recorded during his historic run at Columbia Records. The 31-track collection includes photos from the Columbia vaults, new liner notes by Joe Marchese, and a fresh remastering at Sony’s Battery Studios in New York. Some of the most beloved holiday recordings of all time all in one place, presented with panache!
Listen to:"Here Comes Santa Claus", "Sleigh Ride", and "Frosty the Snowman"

Canton Junction - A Canton Christmas
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As I listened to Canton Junction's A Canton Christmas I wondered two things. I wondered how a band could be this good and somehow fly completely under my radar; I had not even heard of them. The other thing I wondered was how they could be from Canton, Ohio and sound so much like a Texas band. The second question is easy. The Canton in the name is, in fact, a small town in east Texas. Regarding the first question, Canton Junction was formed in 2011, specializing in southern gospel, country, and western swing. Prior to this Christmas album, they were primarily active within the contemporary Christian genre. I'm seeing that Christian artists cross over to pop and other genres quite naturally when it comes to Christmas records. Canton Junction strikes me as something of a cross between The Oak Ridge Boys and Exile. They are also billed as a vocal quartet and they have a band of incredible quality backing them. When they go full tilt, as they do on the opening track ("Joy to the World"), both band and singers not only sound amazing but the actual feeling of joy they project is palpable. On "We Three Kings" the band is augmented by strings and their sound is even better yet. By the time I got to track three, "A Big Ole Texas Christmas", I was hooked. They are so good at western swing that this track reminds me of Asleep At the Wheel. I'm ready to go see them at Antone's. The songs on A Canton Christmas are mostly traditional carols with a few newer and religious songs; there are none of the familiar secular standards. I figure that since the Christmas origin story is by definition religious, that any such tune might have a place on a Christmas album and Canton Junction makes them sound extra good. They slow things down on a few tracks, and they excel there as well, on songs like "The First Noel" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth". The latter is a beautifully rendered song on a subject that should, I think, be a lot more common in Christmas albums. The closing track is a well executed medley of "Silent Night" and "Away In the Manger".
Listen to: "We Three Kings", "A Big Ole Texas Christmas", and "Let There Be Peace on Earth".

Captain Kangaroo - Merry Merry Merry Christmas From Captain Kangaroo
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[NOT PREVIEWED] Kids of many generations grew up watching Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan), whose daily morning show aired on television for 38 seasons beginning in 1955. For anyone who feels strongly about the good captain, BMG has reissued Merry Merry Merry Christmas From Captain Kangaroo. In the service of this article, I tried to listen to this. I'm all for nostalgia, but this album was truly painful. You may feel otherwise so all the links are here. Dusty Groove, Inc. offered the following additional information.
This wonderful Christmas record comes from the early part of the 60s, with the grander period production touches to show for it – groovy chorus backing vocals, sound effects, and a big, bright sound – on Christmas classics, original material, fun spoken intros and interludes. Not hokey at all...a real charmer! Includes "Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas", "Jingle Bells", "Santa's Other Reindeer", "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas", "When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter", "Happy Little New Year" and more.

Lauren Daigle - Behold: A Christmas Collection
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Even though Lauren Daigle's chosen career is as a contemporary Christian artist, Behold is almost evenly divided between religious carols and popular Christmas songs; no more religious than any of the other albums in this article, and less so than some. Daigle has a very appealing voice and the music is soft jazz. The album opens with an energetic "Jingle Bells" then regroups with a nice, relaxing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that is quite nice indeed. "What Child Is This" gets a very jazzy rhythm. I enjoyed hearing her do "Christmastime Is Here", a song which was very common some years ago but this year there are not that many new versions. On "Little Drummer Boy", which I must admit is not one of my favorite songs, Daigle's voice is accompanied by just one instrument that sets the rhythm, which allows her to sing one of the most intimate and disarming versions of a track, which usually gets a big production.
Listen to "Jingle Bells", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy".

Andra Day - Merry Christmas from Andra Day
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This year there are several different artists covering Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas". Andra Day, whose debut album was released just last year, was discovered in part by Wonder. He joined Day in the studio to duet with her on his Christmas classic making her EP, or at least this track, essential listening. The other four tracks are well produced familiar favorites featuring the newly minted R&B /Pop singer. A friend heard me playing this and said, "That sounds like Amy Winehouse", and it does, especially on the jazzy "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".
Listen to: "Someday at Christmas", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "The First Noel".

Janet Devlin - Little Lights
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Janet Devlin is a singer, songwriter, musician, and actress from Northern Ireland who has just released a second Christmas EP, Little Lights. Her first such EP was last year's December Daze. In 2014, she released her full length debut album, Running With Scissors, which she made with crowd funding through PledgeMusic. Devlin got her start making YouTube videos, which developed a following, loyal fans call themselves Devlinators. In 2011, she successfully appeared on The X Factor TV program at age 16, achieving a much wider following. At first, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was about this EP that kept me coming back to it, but during a listen this morning it came to me. These songs are unusually delicate, melodic, and personal, and in that way Little Lights reminds me a lot of Rosie Thomas and her album These Friends of Mine. Graeme Pleeth's production is also noteworthy. Songs that first seem like intimate arrangements of voice and piano become much more than that with a simple additional element, such as a few well placed bass notes ("Wake Up It's Christmas"), or maybe some strings in another, or bells, etc. Another important part of what makes this music so appealing is that Devlin looks at Christmas through grown up eyes and yet she clearly has not lost her sense of wonder. It's interesting that of these six songs, she wrote three and covered three more. The only really familiar tune is "White Christmas" and you have never heard it done like this, with the same fragile beauty as the other songs on this EP. So well do the cover songs integrate with Devlin's compositions that you can't readily tell which is which, although I think I may have heard "Merry Xmas Everybody" before. The set concludes with the track "Christmas Kiss", that seems like the anti-"Santa Baby"; you've got to love that. One last thing, I think this may be the only Christmas record I've ever seen in which every song on it has the word "Christmas" in its title.
Oh mister saint nick
A brand new Ferrari
Just won't do the trick
Oh Christopher Kringle
On Christmas this girl
Is 4 years single
I don't want to ask twice
A Christmas kiss would be nice
Listen to: "Merry Xmas Everybody", "Merry Christmas Mum and Dad", and "Christmas Kiss".

Neil Diamond - Acoustic Christmas
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I've always felt that perhaps the coolest way to see a major pop star perform would be to strip away the trappings of the huge concert, and watch them sing in a small club with just a few backing musicians. With a career now spanning over fifty years, Neil Diamond lets us experience exactly that, at least on record, with his latest Christmas album Acoustic Christmas. I'm very fond of the simple arrangements of acoustic instruments that lets you get close to both the singer and the song. Diamond's pension for bombastic, momentous performance is kept to a minimum here. Of course his voice will always have a certain amount of gravitas, but these ten tracks offer Diamond in a whole new perspective. Diamond's voice is masterful, the way he inhabits a tune and carries the melody. Here he gives the acoustic treatment to ten mostly religious carols; highlights include "O Holy Night", "Do You Hear What I Hear", "Mary Boy Child" and "Christmas in Killarney", which sounds both delightfully old fashioned and Irish.
Listen to: "Do You Hear What I Hear", "Mary Boy Child", and "Christmas in Killarney".

Cara Dillon - Upon A Winter's Night
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Cara Dillon is a folk singer, songwriter, and musician from Northern Ireland. Upon A Winter's Night is her sixth album since 2001 and offers a gorgeous Celtic Christmas album with a lot less of the familiar fare found on other yuletide releases. Dillon presents a mixture of older and newer traditional songs along with three new originals, which is not to say that this album is totally unfamiliar. There are songs like "O Come, O Come Emanuel" and "O Holy Night". When you've heard one too many versions of "Jingle Bells" or "Mele Kalikimaka" just dial up this album. There is something very special about the combination of Celtic and Christmas music and Upon A Winter's Night by Cara Dillon is one of the best.
Listen to: "Upon A Winter's Night", "The Wexford Carol", and "O Come, O Come Emanuel".

Brett Eldredge - Glow
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I was hoping that someone would do this sort of Christmas record and on his first Christmas album Brett Eldredge takes his rightful place beside Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble as this year's answer to Sinatra. Eldredge is not exactly a sound-alike, but his voice has the same strength and swagger as Sinatra. The backing is pure 1940s big band/orchestra and it swings. Eldredge sings the heck out of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and the band plays likewise. I love "I'll Be Home for Christmas", especially when it's soft and jazzy; this rendition goes to the head of the class. Even the original, "Glow", holds its own alongside all the old favorites. I can even forgive the 999th version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" because it features guest vocalist Meghan Trainor. You will also love the jazzy take on "White Christmas". According to Eldredge, "...I recorded those classics in New York City and tried to give a tip of the hat to the ones that came before me — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ray Charles — by adding that swing and that soul to the best of my ability.”
Listen to: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "I'll Be Home for Christmas", "Glow", and "White Christmas".

Kurt Elling - The Beautiful Day
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If you'd like to hear some good Christmas jazz but are perhaps tired of hearing jazzy versions of the same old same old, give a listen to The Beautiful Day by Kurt Elling. Eleven of the album's fourteen tracks will be new to you. Vocalist and percussionist Elling co-wrote or arranged many of them and it's a good listen, somewhat relaxing. "Sing a Christmas Carol" gets things started by throwing in the names of some carols to set the mood. "We Three Kings" is not the familiar song, although Elling does use the chorus as a jumping off point. "Little Drummer Boy" gets a jazz reconstruction with what Elling calls "a New Orleans street beat." After eleven mostly original tracks comes something totally unexpected. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard anyone cover Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne", but Elling does a quite nice jazz version. Donny Hathaway's classic "This Christmas" follows, sounding equally good. The album concludes with the title track which features some beautiful acoustic guitar, cello, and vocals by Elling's daughter Luiza. Read this excerpt from the album's liner notes.
With The Beautiful Day, Kurt Elling has pulled off something close to a Christmas miracle. He has taken a secular approach to a religious holiday, without shying away from a spiritual message. He has taken Christmas – a day of the year that holds deep meaning and memories for him – and embraced it in all its Christian imagery and lore. But from these specifics he has chosen to amplify the holy day's universal themes of wonder, mystery, goodwill and hope. And he has done so with such deftness and generosity that people of all faiths can share in those concepts.
Listen to: "Sing a Christmas Carol", "Little Drummer Boy", and "This Christmas".

Tommy Emmanuel - Christmas Memories
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Tommy Emmanuel, using his fingerstyle technique on acoustic guitar, can play rings around most guitarists, so much so that none other than Chet Atkins bestowed upon him the title of CGP or Certified Guitar Player (a title that Atkins had invented for himself). On his latest Christmas album, Emmanuel recorded live in the studio and turned out an album that defied my expectations; I was imagining a John Fahey-type instrumental set. Joining Emmanuel on this session are Annie Sellick on vocals, Pat Bergeson on guitar and harmonica and John Knowles, CGP on guitar. I'm not clear whether Knowles was certified by Atkins, but since Atkins is no longer with us, likely the responsibility for applying the designation has fallen to Emmanuel. In any case, it's a joy to hear the two guitarists play together as on "Jingle Bells". According to Emmanuel, "Every performance is how it went down… no studio tricks or fix-ups, just honest singing and playing. This brings a feeling to the music that can’t be manufactured. It sizzles with fun and spontaneity." It sure does. I really like the sound of Sellick singing with the acoustic guitars, especially on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!". The latter song also features Pat Bergeson on harmonica as does "White Christmas". The album is made up of mostly familiar favorites plus three new originals. One of these, "Christmas Memories" is a beautiful instrumental, which segues into "Waltzing Matilda"; this is from Australia, after all. The album closes quite nicely with an instrumental "Amazing Grace".
Listen to: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!", and "Christmas Memories/Waltzing Matilda".

Jackie Evancho - Someday at Christmas
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This is a very traditional Christmas album. Classical/pop singer Jackie Evancho may be young, but you'd never know it listening to Someday at Christmas. A native of Pittsburgh, Jackie became a household name when she competed on America's Got Talent in 2010 at the age of ten. The title track, written by Stevie Wonder, is probably the newest composition on the record. Evancho's version really shines a light on Wonder's lyrics, which you can focus on because their styles of singing are so different. I heard details listening to Evancho that I don't specifically recall even though I've heard this song by Wonder so many times it seems like a standard. The detail is interesting because in 1967 when Wonder released this he was still years away from being granted artistic freedom by Motown records, and yet "Someday at Christmas" embodies all the political and cultural concepts that Wonder would become known for in the 1970s. This album has a mix of secular favorites, (mostly) traditional carols, and some classical yuletide compositions. Evancho's almost formal style of singing works exceptionally well on the classical and the carols. During the intro to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" I could almost hear her busting out "The hills are alive..." from the Sound of Music. This album has a number of guest vocalists including Plácido Domingo, Vittorio Grigolo, and Il Volo who joined Evancho for a bonus version of "Little Drummer Boy". Peter Hollens also appears, lending his vocals to a rendition of "Hallelujah". I won't go off on another rant here, but it amazes me that during the production of an album like this that no one appears to have paid attention to the lyrics enough to realize that this is not a Christmas song. Guest Vittorio Grigolo duets with Evancho on "O Holy Night" and the results are sensational.
Listen to: "Someday at Christmas", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and "O Holy Night".

Exile - Wrapped up in your arms for Christmas
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This album presents something of a mystery. When I plucked it off the new release list recently, I thought Exile was a soul band. I remembered hearing their hit "Kiss You All Over" back in the 90s. But then I put this on and it's no soul band, this Exile plays the most agreeable sounding country rock that I've never heard. A quick visit to Exile's biography reveals that the band who had the hit record "Kiss You All Over" in 1996 is in fact the very same country band from Kentucky who just released Wrapped up in your arms for Christmas. My curiosity now piqued, I went back and listened to that old record, which still sounds remarkably good, and in fact it didn't sound the least bit country. And knowing what I know now, it doesn't sound like a soul band, but the vocals are pretty soulful so I am content that the mind is not playing tricks. Now that we've got that sorted out, let's look at Exile's Christmas album. It has a mix of familiar favorites, carols, a gospel tune, and four original compositions including "Merry Christmas From Cancun". The good humor continues with a cover of "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" (Buck Owens/Don Rich). The album kicks off with an energetic "Run Rudolph Run". Exile's take on "O Holy Night" is one of the nicest and most unique versions I've heard. A solid vocal is paired with acoustic guitar, which is joined by a gentle keyboard as the song builds, then comes a most melodic guitar solo. I think it may be a first, to have an electric guitar solo on "O Holy Night"; I like it. The title track is a good Christmas love song. The original "Bluegrass Kind of Christmas" isn't a bluegrass song at all, it's more of the aforementioned agreeable country rock. The last two tracks are live recordings. Exile sounds exceptionally good live, singing the gospel standard "Go Where I Send Thee", which is followed by "Silent Night".
Listen to: "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy", "O Holy Night", and "Go Where I Send Thee".

The Gatlin Brothers - We Say Merry Christmas
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This is incredibly traditional. These recording are so precise, polished, and professional that they sound like they are more likely to have been recorded in the 1960s than 2016. And yet, this was listed as a new release on November 25th. This sounds like it could have been one of those Real Gone MOR reissues. Clearly, this is going to require a bit of research. A quick check of the web reveals that this is in fact a brand new recording. Looking at the lineup of tracks, it is notable that there is a guest appearance on the medley of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" / "Away in a Manger" / "The First Noel" / "Silent Night". Appearing is the Lennon Sisters. I can remember back in the 60s, my grandmother and my great aunts used to watch The Lawrence Welk Show where the Lennon Sisters were regular guests. Then it hit me, the music of the album could just as easily been performed by The Gatlin Brothers on The Lawrence Welk Show. That said, the Gatlins have been around for a long time, and they sound like they might well have appeared with Mr. Welk themselves. We Say Merry Christmas is a double album, with a total of nineteen tracks which include three new compositions by Larry Gatlin.
Listen to: "Winter Wonderland", "Carol of the Bells", and "Alleluia"

The Gothard Sisters - Falling Snow
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Falling Snow by the Gothard Sisters is a Celtic folk Christmas album and it is most impressive. The sisters, Greta, Willow, and Solana, are all expert musicians who also sing and perform Irish dance. Saying that a group like this are multi-instrumentalists seems as if it could be cliche, until you hear the Gothards play. About half the album is instrumental and when they play, these three are a powerhouse. One of my first reactions listening to this album was that the violin players could likely play in a classical orchestra, so I was not surprised in the slightest to read that they are all classically trained violinists. In addition to the musicianship, one reason this music sounds so strong is that they get an incredible sound from their rhythm instruments, plus the rhythms that they play are inventive throughout the record. Solana is the lead singer and when all three sing their voices blend like only sisters can. The ten tracks on Falling Snow range from ancient carols to Christmas songs of more recent vintage. The Gothard Sisters hail from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. In the sense that they are three sisters who sing and play Celtic music, they strike me as a sort of American version of The Corrs, that is when The Corrs actually play Celtic folk as opposed to pop.
Listen to: "Good King Wenceslas", "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and "Joy to the World".

Ariana Grande - Christmas & Chill
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Looking over the many entries on this list, nearly all of the music genres are represented, that is with one exception. There really isn't any mainstream pop, none of the sort of music that populates the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 chart these days. Christmas & Chill by Ariana Grande nicely fills that gap. Grande's two previous solo albums both entered the Billboard Album Chart at #1. Her singles pretty much have all lived in the Top 10 of the Hot 100. Christmas & Chill is an all original EP with its six songs all co-written by Grande. This EP actually was first released last year, one week before Christmas as an iTunes exclusive. This year it got a more general digital release, and for you disc aficionados, it came out this year on CD in Japan. Through her label, Republic Records, Grande commented on her Christmas EP.
“My friends and I created Christmas & Chill together in my home studio in under a week! I hope you can feel how much we loved making it when you listen to the music” Ariana said, “I wanted to surprise my fans for the holidays and do something special for them. My fans are always so good to me and I hope the music brings some joy and happiness to them this Christmas.”
Listen to: "Wit It This Christmas" and "Not Just On Christmas".

Amy Grant - Tennessee Christmas
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Amy Grant has had a long and successful career as a contemporary Christian artist, with a commercially successful foray into pop back in the '80s. Her latest Christmas album, Tennessee Christmas, was recorded at home with a number of new original songs taking their place alongside the old favorites and two traditional carols. The number of popular secular tunes is a tad surprising considering her background. Even more surprising is the inclusion of a cover of The Chipmunks' "Christmas Don't Be Late". Grant gets an assist from her husband, Vince Gill, who adds his guitar and duets with her on "Baby It's Cold Outside". I'll even forgive this umpteenth version because they sound so good together. "White Christmas" is nice and jazzy as is "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". "O Come, All Ye Faithful" adds a nice touch that you don't often hear, a voice-over Christmas message from the artist.
Listen to: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful".

Peter Hollens - A Hollens Family Christmas
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Before listening to this year's crop of Christmas albums, my knowledge of a cappella vocal groups was limited to Pentatonix and the two Pitch Perfect movies. I have enjoyed expanding my horizon with the new releases by Straight No Chaser and Peter Hollens. The first thing I noticed about the Hollens' record was the extraordinary quality of the voices; some sound soulful like Straight No Chaser, while others seem more formal, classical even. A Hollens Family Christmas contains a well chosen slate of nine familiar songs as well as an original written by Peter Hollens, "December Song", which appears in two versions - one with instrumental backing and one an a cappella version. One of the highlights for me was the inclusion of "My Grown-up Christmas List". I first became aware of this song when Jane Monheit recorded it in 2005. On this one I especially like the solo vocal by Evynne Hollens, Peter's wife. It's not a song that you hear covered all that much, but this year I've run into a couple of excellent versions, of which this is one. John Lennon's "Happy Xmas" is another that you don't hear that much but the version included here is also a standout, as is the contemporary gospel tune "Mary Did You Know?", which seems to be making the jump to more and more Christmas albums.
Listen to: "My Grown-up Christmas List", "Mary Did You Know?", and "Happy Xmas".

Jessy J - California Christmas
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Jessy J has made a superb sounding smooth jazz Christmas CD. Not to be confused with Jessie J, the British pop star and singer songwriter, Jessy J is a Mexican-American saxophonist and she hosts numerous guests on this her first seasonal offering. I haven't heard a smooth jazz album sound this good since the glory days of the GRP Christmas collections. I'm going to guess it's Jessy doing the vocals and spoken word on the first track, an inspired medley of "Feliz Navidad" and "Home for the Holidays". She also sings quite nicely on "The First Noel". Silent Night" has a guest vocalist, the other six tracks are instrumental. Jessy gets terrific tone on her sax and her style is easy to get hooked on. The production and sound quality of California Christmas is excellent and the Latin seasoning in the rhythm gives the whole project a definite warm quality. The aforementioned guest list includes Paul Brown, Maurice Smith, Jay Rowe, Steve Oliver, Jeff Lorber, and Michael Thompson.
Listen to: "Feliz Navidad"/"Home for the Holidays", "Winter Wonderland", and "Joy to the World" (feat. Jeff Lorber).

Aled Jones - One Voice at Christmas
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[NOT PREVIEWED] Aled Jones is a singer from Wales who is a fixture on Welsh TV and radio. He has just released One Voice at Christmas. This is not available for streaming, but the following comes from the Classic FM press release.
Aled Jones returns to duet with himself on his brand new album on the Classic FM label. ‘One Voice at Christmas’ features a collection of the nation’s most treasured seasonal classics, including a brand new arrangement of Aled’s worldwide hit, ‘Walking in the Air’.
Read more at Classic FM.

R. Kelly - Twelve Nights of Christmas
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I would like to say that R&B music, like jazz, works exceedingly well with Christmas. However, I must report that Twelve Nights of Christmas has no familiar favorites on it. This is an album of twelve brand new original songs written by R. Kelly (one is a co-write). If you are a fan of Kelly's, welcome to his next album. These are just about all love songs set at Christmas time; or more to the point, this is a seduction album with a Christmas theme, which may or may not be a good idea based on how you view Kelly's activities that have landed him in the tabloids. What it comes down to is something like watching a good movie by Woody Allen or Mel Gibson, love the art but not the artist. I won't go too much further into this album except to mention that "Mrs. Santa Claus" kind of reminds me of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones".
Listen to: "My Wish for Christmas", "Home for Christmas", and "Mrs. Santa Claus"

Kenny Lattimore - A Kenny Lattimore Christmas
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Kenny Lattimore lives at the intersection of jazz and soul. That's why his take on popular fare, such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", sound so good. These songs together with several new originals, plus an adaptation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" that turns it into a new song, all come first on the album. Then A Kenny Lattimore Christmas gets religious real fast, in a celebratory way. Lattimore's voice is so strong and he so excels at singing "O Holy Night" that as the arrangement builds complete with orchestra, Lattimore starts to sound like Michael Buble gone gospel. What follows are several more originals including the high energy gospel romp "Reason to Celebrate", clocking in at 7:33. The record comes to a close beautifully with a quiet acoustic guitar version of "The Christmas Song".
Listen to: "I'll Be Home for Christmas", "Reason to Celebrate", and "The Christmas Song".

Jane Lynch - A Swingin' Little Christmas!
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Jane Lynch is a triple threat in that she is a comedienne, actor, and singer, and she brings a built-in audience to this project from starring in the Fox series "Glee". A Swingin' Little Christmas! will take you back to the days of big band swing jazz and female vocal groups such as The Andrews Sisters. There is quite a bit of musical diversity here; it's got different styles as well as solid original compositions. One refreshing feature (I like surprises) is a cool little instrumental version of "Silent Night". I'm loving the subtle jazziness of this, makes me think of a jazz band in a club, shows over, crowd has gone home, it's late night Christmas eve, before packing up, the band plays one more, just for themselves and for the bar's employees. This album has quite a few moving parts. The label, KitschTone Records, breaks it down in detail and gives a little more background on Lynch.
Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winning actress, Jane Lynch, is getting in the Christmas spirit with the release of a brand new Christmas CD, A Swingin Little Christmas! Following a path set by her role as Sue Sylvester on the musical mega-hit TV show, Glee, a successful run as Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of Annie and a critically acclaimed national tour of her own cabaret show, See Jane Sing, this album marks her first step as a international recording artist.

Jane didn't come to the party alone, inviting her friends Kate Flannery (best known for her portrayal of Meredith on NBC's The Office) and Tim Davis (vocal producer for Glee and one of the industry's leading vocal arrangers) to join in as both featured singers and as part of a classic-sounding vocal group (under Mr. Davis vocal direction). The trio is accompanied by The Tony Guerrero Quintet a nationally recognized jazz ensemble in its own right with multiple CD releases to its credit.

A Swingin Little Christmas is unapologetically sentimental, recalling the classic Christmas albums of the 1950s and 60s. The album features fifteen tracks, including fresh takes on ten classic carols and five brand new nostalgia-inspired originals, penned by bandleader, Tony Guerrero. The disc is ripe with clever jazz arrangements, tight vocal harmonies and features a variety of instrumentations including a five-piece jazz quintet, a full big band and lush string orchestrations. Both Jane and Kate are well known for their comedic abilities, and while the album has several fun, lighthearted moments, there are also plenty of deep, rich and even serious musical moments to balance it out.
Listen to: "A Swingin' Little Christmas Time", "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella", and "Silent Night".

Loretta Lynn - White Christmas Blue
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Country music doesn't get any more old school than Loretta Lynn. In the business for almost sixty years, she has recorded forty-seven studio albums, plus numerous best of compilations, two live albums, and two box sets. White Christmas Blue is her first new Christmas album in fifty years. The first thing that struck me is that there is no hint of age in Lynn's voice. With a combination a new original, new versions of older originals, a couple of traditional carols, and several popular favorites, listening to this one is a treat. "White Christmas Blue" is the new original and it has everything you could want in a country Christmas tune, a perfect opening track. The simplified arrangement of "Away In A Manger" gives the performance an immediacy that you don't often hear. The sound of the carols is pretty straight forward, but when you get to favorites like Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas", the pedal steel guitar and the honky-tonk piano are a delight to the ear. Many have tried to read Clement Clarke Moore's poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas", but I have to say that the version closing this album is disarming in its intimacy, spoken with a lone acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Listen to: "White Christmas Blue", "Away In A Manger", and "Blue Christmas".

Natalie MacMaster - A Celtic Family Christmas
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Natalie MacMaster and her husband, Donnell Leahy, are among the world's foremost Celtic fiddle players. Celtic music goes especially well with Christmas, as this album's eleven tracks attest. "Angels We Have Heard On High" kicks things off with some exuberant fiddling. "White Christmas" has a nice swing to it. By the time you listen to "Christmas Medley" you'll be hooked; this instant classic includes "Joy to the World", "Jingle Bells", "Sleigh Ride", "Good King Wenceslaus", "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear", and "I Saw Three Ships" all in six and a half minutes. The medley nicely illustrates how well MacMaster and Leahy combine the secular and the religious on A Celtic Family Christmas. For those that think that the "Twelve Days Of Christmas" is too repetitive to be enjoyable, this instrumental rendering has some interesting twists. Instead of a different object, each day's verse is played on a different instrument, and when they get to five, "five gold rings" is either sung or spoken in a different way each time, and then the days below five are played in a different style each time through. This otherwise instrumental album includes vocals on the final track, a gorgeously played "Silent Night". In keeping with the theme of the album's title, the children handle the vocals, alternating another language (Gaelic?) and English.
Listen to: "Angels We Have Heard On High", "White Christmas", and "Christmas Medley".

Katie Melua - In Winter
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Katie Melua's In Winter is not your everyday Christmas album. It doesn't have a lot of old favorites but it is essentially a thoughtful concept album with its focus on winter, inspired by Melua's own experiences growing up in Soviet Georgia until emigrating with her parents at age nine to Northern Ireland. Two of the three songs you will know bookend the album. In Winter opens with "The Sparrow", which uses the familiar melody of "The Carol of the Bells". Sung in Ukrainian, it features the all-female Gori Women's Choir. What follows is a cover of Joni Mitchell's "River", worth discussing for a couple of reasons. I have often complained about "River" being included on Christmas albums because it is not a Christmas song. "River", however, absolutely belongs on this one, and In Winter is all the better for it. What the song is really about is alienation and escape, "I wish I had a river to skate away on." This totally fits with the theme of the album. The other reason that "River" is significant is that Melua does a stripped down arrangement, which like most of the original songs that follow, is all starkly personal. In context, the winter theme isn't limited to literal interpretation, winter is also a good metaphor for isolation, contemplation, etc. The third familiar song that closes the album is a uniquely gorgeous "O Holy Night". This song generally lends itself to bombastic versions, in which singers show what they can do. Melua does a slow and soft rendition consisting of her voice, acoustic guitar, and somewhere in the near distance, the Gori Women's Choir. They sound the part perfectly when Melua sings "Oh hear the angel voices!" The way that Melua has written the intensely personal originals and constructed this album, she has done something truly ambitious here and I am impressed with the result. Here is part of what Matt Collar wrote on allmusic.com.
Melua delivers a handful of ruminative and lyrical originals, many inspired by her memories of growing up in what was then the Soviet Union, as well as the complex and often heartbreaking history of Georgia's civil war. She also weaves in several well-curated covers, including poignant renditions of Joni Mitchell's "River," Sergey Rachmaninov's "All-Night Vigil-Nunc Dimittis," and the hymn "O Holy Night." Melua even finds room to sing in Ukrainian, opening the album with a magical rendition of the traditional song "The Little Swallow," whose melody is better recognized to Western audiences as "The Carol of the Bells." These are warmly arranged, beautifully executed recordings that capture the stark, introspective beauty of a rural Eastern Europe in winter.
Listen to: "River", "Perfect World", and "O Holy Night".

Sarah McLachlan - Wonderland
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Wonderland is a good name for Sarah McLachlan's new Christmas album as it is one of the most enjoyable listening experiences in this crowded field. The album's eleven tracks are divided roughly evenly between secular standards and favorite carols, except maybe for one, "Huron Carol", a traditional Canadian Christmas hymn. It's nice to throw in an unfamiliar one to be a little different. The arrangements on Wonderland are relaxed, with McLachlan's strong and clear voice carrying the melody. One of the old favorites she does is "Silver Bells"; I like her version and it's a song that you don't hear much on modern Christmas records. To that point, one thing that sets Wonderland apart from the pack is the fact that this is an album that could just as easily been recorded in 1956 or 1966, if not for the fact that Sarah wasn't born yet. All of the songs were in existence then; the song lineup reminds me of some of the Christmas albums my mom had when I was little. My only quibble is that McLachlan gives "Let It Snow" a new melody. This is only a small thing but for an album so in tune with tradition, I had to mention it. For the record, Wonderland is McLachlan ninth album and her second Christmas album.
Listen to: "The Christmas Song", "Away In A Manger", and "Silver Bells".

Kylie Minogue - Kylie Christmas (Snow Queen Edition)
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When Kylie Christmas was released last year it contained sixteen tracks, and I liked it a lot. Now, one year later, it has been rereleased as the Snow Queen Edition and it has expanded to twenty-two tracks. With most other reissues of this sort, I would look at it as a crassly commercial move to get you to buy it again. In this case I will say that I like the expanded album even better, they didn't just tack on the new tracks at the end, they resequenced the album mixing in the new tracks. For a track by track discussion of the original sixteen, see last year's article. Here is what's new.
05 Stay Another Day - On the first new track, Minogue covers East 17 with some lush and gorgeous voice work, resulting in one of the nicest tracks on the record.
07 At Christmas - On this one, Kylie covers Sara Evans giving this rousing country tune a classic girl group pop sound. This was the first single off this newly reconfigured album.
10 Wonderful Christmastime (With Mika) - Like Kylie's cover of "Christmas Wrapping", the arrangement doesn't stray far from the Paul McCartney original right down to the sound of the keyboards. Originally perceived as lightweight, "Wonderful Christmastime" has hung in over the years allowing the good feeling generated to rule the day, and now Minogue sounds fully at home hosting this particular party.
13 I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday - I was going to say that Minogue gives this gem the full Phil
Spector/Ronettes treatment, but listening to the original Wizard recording written by Roy Wood (The Move), it seems that Wood was the one who "Spectorized" the tune, and this cover is faithful to the original in that regard. This one has been covered many, many times including versions by Nick Lowe, Wilson Phillips, and Girls Aloud. This track is another reason to love this "new" album.
21 Christmas Lights - This is a Coldplay song and although in the soft part Minogue sounds more delicate as compared with the way Chris Martin sounds intimate, when both songs get to the bridge it's celebration all the way.
22 Everybody's Free (To Feel Good) - To close the album, Minogue gives us this unbridled, over the top bit of optimism covering not only Rozalla's original, but perhaps more to the point, covering Quindon Tarver's version, which was used by Baz Luhrmann (naturally) in his Romeo and Juliet movie. "Everybody's Free" may not be a Christmas song per se, but the sprit of the season does permeate the tune (just as long as this doesn't start showing up on random Christmas albums).
Listen to: "Stay Another Day", "Wonderful Christmastime", and "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday"

Kacey Musgraves - A Very Kacey Christmas
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In addition to being her first Christmas record, A Very Kacey Christmas is, in every respect, her third album as well. I will say up front that I am a fan of Ms. Musgraves. I hold her first two albums in high regard and thoroughly enjoyed her concert. So I was excited to learn that she had recorded a Christmas album this year, and it did not disappoint. I'm going to use one simple word to describe this album: delightful. The sound of her voice, the arrangements, and performance of her band are in every way consistent with the earlier albums. I especially love the pedal steel guitar by Paul Franklin, which together with Musgraves' vocals, give each song its character or flavor. The pedal steel so nicely rides a fine line between country and Hawaiian music, so much so that it sounds completely natural when they do "Mele Kalikimaka." The album is all popular (no carols), and Musgrave shines on standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!". Kacey co-wrote the four originals including one, "A Willie Nice Christmas", on which she was joined by Willie Nelson reprising his guest role on her last album. There are several kid-oriented tunes such as "Christmas Don't Be Late" (which makes it's second appearance this year covering The Chipmunks' classic), "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas". "Feliz Navidad" features a prominent accordion to take you right to the Lone Star state for some authentic sounding Tex-Mex. One of my favorite songs to find on a Christmas album gorgeously closes this one. "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" has the sweetest combination of country and jazz that you could ever want to hear. Delightful, totally delightful.
Listen to: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "Feliz Navidad", and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?".

Jennifer Nettles - To Celebrate Christmas
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Counting Sugarland's Green and Gold, To Celebrate Christmas is Jennifer Nettles' second Christmas album. It contains ten tracks with a nice mix of religious carols and popular songs. It's also a good mix of styles, opening with some big production numbers like "Go Tell It On the Mountain" as a full-on gospel-tinged rocker, complete with horns and guitar solos. Things get jazzier with even a touch of New Orleans in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", a track which features Andra Day as guest vocalist. Idina Menzel (Let It Go) joins Nettles for a spirited "Little Drummer Boy". Setting itself apart from your average Christmas album, To Celebrate Christmas draws some tunes from interesting sources. "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" came from the classic Bing Crosby movie White Christmas; it was written by Irving Berlin and in the movie it was sung by a young Rosemary Clooney. "Circle of Love" was written by Dolly Parton for the sequel to Coat of Many Colors, a television movie in which Nettles reprises her role as Parton's mother. Nettles reached back to the 80's for "To Christmas With Love", a song first performed by Sandi Patti. Even though Nettles' version of Kenny Loggins' "Celebrate Me Home" is really excellent, I've got to restate my objection to starting to make Christmas songs out of songs that aren't ("River", "My Favorite Things"). If "Celebrate Me Home" was on any other Jennifer Nettles solo album, I would call it a highlight. Nettles is one of the strongest vocalists in country or any other kind of music. Her "O Holy Night" starts softly and builds to a tremendous climax. Listening to it I could see her going head to head against Neil Diamond on that song in a competition such as you see on The Voice (NBC).
Listen to: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "Little Drummer Boy", and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep".

The NOLA Players - Christmastime in New Orleans
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This time of year I love being reminded, in a visceral way, just how relaxing it can be to listen to a good jazz band doing Christmas music. When such music has a distinctly New Orleans flavor, all the better. AimHigher Recordings/Verve explains The NOLA Players thusly, "A big band jazz orchestra composed of 18 of New Orleans finest jazz and classical musicians, The NOLA Players came together to honor their beloved city through this musical Christmas card, CHRISTMASTIME IN NEW ORLEANS."
Listen to: "Deck the Halls", "Christmas In New Orleans", and "I Heard the Bells".

The Oak Ridge Boys - Celebrate Christmas
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In a career spanning over fifty years, The Oak Ridge Boys, who started as a gospel quartet and later crossed over to country and pop, have made their share of Christmas albums. Their new one, Celebrate Christmas, is their sixth. Apparently, there has been a bit of backlash from their fans that this new one is not new enough, etc. I'll say that this is not a fair criticism for a couple of reasons. First, Christmas is all about tradition and there are not an infinite number of Christmas carols, so having done five prior Christmas albums some songs are bound to repeat. Although I can't speak directly to that because this is the first Oak Ridge Boys album that I have ever listened to, and quite frankly I was blown away. The Oak Ridge Boys Celebrate Christmas has a very listener-friendly mix of carols and secular standards plus five newer, less familiar tunes. I'm here to say that every track on here is good. Start with the four voices, all excellent, as are the harmonies and the vocal arrangements. The vocals are on par with the three a cappella albums that I listened to for this article, except that this group has actual instruments playing behind them. The band is similarly excellent throughout; I especially like how the pedal steel and violin add a bit of western swing flavor. The quartet consists of lead singer Duane Allen with (top to bottom), tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Goldenbass, and bass 'extraordinaire' Richard Sterban. As I said, all of their voices are impressive, but I am endlessly fascinated and amazed by Sterban every time I hear him sing. His voice is so deep and so true it's positively breathtaking; he makes Barry White seem like a tenor. Having recently refurbished my turntable with a new cartridge and pre-amp, I enjoyed this record so much that I am considering making this my first new vinyl LP purchase since the early 1980s.
Listen to: "O Come, All Ye Faithful", "Blue Christmas", and "The Hallelujah Chorus"

John Oates (feat. The Time Jumpers) - "Santa Be Good to Me"
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I'm not sure where you even go these days to find Christmas singles. I was happily surprised to see this on a new release list of albums and EPs. Having recently been very impressed by the Time Jumpers and their excellent brand of western swing on their latest album, I was thrilled to discover that they had joined forces with soul and rock legend John Oates (Hall & Oates) for a new Christmas single. The swinging backup works incredibly well with the soul style of the tune that Oates co-wrote. "Santa Be Good to Me" is available as a digital download, according to Rolling Stone it is also a limited-edition vinyl single that includes the traditional "Children Go Where I Send Thee" on the b-side. Oates told Rolling Stone, "I've always wanted to write and record a swing-style song. We tried to write a contemporary lyric talking about trying to find love and companionship in a modern world and still not lose the holiday spirit."
Listen to: "Santa Be Good to Me"

Leslie Odom, Jr. - Simply Christmas
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Leslie Odom, Jr. is major Broadway star, who last year joined the cast of Hamilton and promptly won both a Tony and a Grammy for same. His solo album was released earlier this year and entered the Billboard Jazz chart at #1. The bottom line is that Odom has a terrific voice and he has just released Simply Christmas, eight tracks of jazz inflected Christmas magic. The arrangements are mostly Odom's voice and piano, occasionally joined by bass, drums, and sometimes a keyboard. The overall effect is chill, in the best possible way that Christmas jazz can relax you. The first six tracks are popular favorites, although I must lodge a complaint that he includes "My Favorite Things" (not a Christmas song). That said, he does such a fantastic job on "My Favorite Things" that it would sound great on any other album. He also makes up for this with his inclusion of the seldom covered "Merry Christmas Darling". This classic tune by The Carpenters was covered in 1997 by The Whispers (V.A.-'Tis The Season) showing its great potential as a soul song. Closing the album are "Winter Song", written by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, and "Ave Maria", a religious number that doesn't see many Christmas albums, but Odom does an exquisite job with the vocal. This record is much too short, when it ends you'll wish there were more.
Listen to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", "Merry Christmas Darling", and "Ave Maria".

Lisa Osland - Christmas Saxophones: SaXmas
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Lisa Osland's title is Professor of Saxophone and Director of Saxophone Ensembles at the University of Kentucky. Cool job. Mix Christmas and jazz and do it well, and I'm there. These sax arrangements on Christmas Saxophones: SaXmas sound good, I mean really good. There's a lot to love on this album, fifteen tracks in fact. It's extra fun that a number of tracks start with the saxes warming up, then you hear the director or the baton count off and start the song. I like that five tracks are devoted to Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite; this music is every bit as iconic to Christmas as "I'll Be Home For Christmas" or "Winter Wonderland". There is a wickedly good Elvis impersonator singing "Blue Christmas" accompanied by saxes. There are actually a number of different sax ensembles on this record. I'll let the label, Mark Records, describe it.
What can be more fun, fresh and exciting than hearing our favorites, but with a twist. Christmas Saxophones: SaxMas(sic) features some of the finest saxophone players in Kentucky as we turn the season on boring, stale Christmas songs in saxo-fun charts! This energetic release offers you cool jazz arrangements as well as some traditional charts arranged to please the ear and place a Holiday smile on your face. Mark Records is well known for producing fun, original, thought provoking and interesting releases. This ultra-fun Christmas series features this Saxophone release, Christmas Tubas, Christmas Trombones, Christmas Clarinets, and Christmas Brass Ensembles with more instruments to follow.
Listen to: "The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a: I. Overture", "Blue Christmas", and "We Three Kings".

Laura Pausini - Laura Xmas
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Laura Pausini is an Italian pop singer and songwriter who has an international following. This is the English edition, which is actually a multi-lingual set of mostly secular Christmas favorites. What I like best about this album are the quality of Laura's vocals, the jazz treatments by the Patrick Williams Orchestra, and several interesting covers: John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War Is Over), "Feliz Navidad" (in Spanish and English just like the José Feliciano original), and the gospel standard "Oh Happy Day" (the Edwin Hawkins Singers). Another plus is that some songs get a very traditional orchestral arrangement, while others, mainly uptempo numbers, get the full jazz treatment complete with an incredible sounding horn section. The arrangements and the performances are right on the mark; the pacing and production is quite pleasurable. In addition to all that, I no sooner complained in another review, no one ever sings "O Come All Ye Faithful" in its Latin version, when here comes Laura Pausini with a very nice "Adeste Fidelis". The album closes with a beautiful version of "Silent Night" sung in Laura's native Italian.
Listen to: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "White Christmas", and "Feliz Navidad".

Laura Pausini - Laura Navidad
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This is the Spanish edition, available as an import. Read the review above of the English edition. The only difference between the two editions is that four songs are sung in Spanish on Laura Navidad: "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", " Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", "White Christmas", and "Silent Night". The first three are sung in English and the last song is in Italian on the English edition. All other tracks are the same on the two editions.

There is also a French edition named Laura Xmas. It is the same as the English version with the exception that "White Christmas" is sung in French ("Noël Blanc"). See bonus video blow.

Luciano Pavarotti - Christmas With Pavarotti
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[NOT PREVIEWED] Decca has just reissued this classic Christmas album on two CDs including one performance that was previously unreleased. Here are all the details from Decca Records.
Decca presents Luciano Pavarotti’s most popular performances of Christmas classics, Christmas with Pavarotti. Comprising an outstanding selection of Christmas pieces recorded by the world’s favorite tenor, including traditional and modern songs, Christmas with Pavarotti features performances with fellow members of The Three Tenors, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, as well as Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Lionel Richie.

Pentatonix - A Pentatonix Christmas
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Pentatonix was formed in 2011 and then later that year won an NBC competition called The Sing Off; their prize was cash and a recording contract. Before this season, they were the only a cappella vocal group I knew of by virtue of their 2014 release That's Christmas to Me. This year brings their second seasonal effort, A Pentatonix Christmas. These guys are pros all the way. You'll be amazed at what the human voice can do. If you are a fan of this kind of music, there are three such albums in this article. I wouldn't want to judge one of those vocal group competitions because I think all three albums are fantastic. You can't really say one is better than another, each of them has their own distinct personality; there are differences in the type of voices, the various arrangements and the choice of material. On this record, Pentatonix has a number of old favorites, mostly popular but including a couple of traditional carols. There is a nice doo-wop flavor on many of the tracks, especially on "I'll Be Home For Christmas". Manhattan Transfer guests on "White Christmas". They play it straight with a fairly traditional rendering of "Coventry Carol", which is a song that really lends itself to this sort of arrangement; it's one of my favorite tracks here. There are two tracks that I must take issue with for having nothing to do with Christmas. First there's "Hallelujah". I am almost reluctant to mention because of Leonard Cohen's recent death and the fact that Pentatonix does such a nice job with it, however if you listen to the lyrics you'll find that "Hallelujah" has absolutely zero to do with Christmas, and this is not the only Christmas album that includes it this year. The other is "Coldest Winter" and I would normally be okay with a Christmas album containing a winter song, but if you listen to this one you'll find that they are not really singing about the season, winter is just a metaphor for an icy relationship. "Up On the Housetop" gets a treatment that's both inventive and energetic. There are two originals that also benefit by the high energy of the vocals, "The Christmas Sing-Along" and "Good To Be Bad". The good cheer and the slight reggae influence is irresistible on the closing track "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" in which Pentatonix cover NSYNC.
Listen to: "I'll Be Home For Christmas", "Coventry Carol", and "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays".

Elvis Presley - Christmas and Gospel Greats
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[NOT PREVIEWED] London reissue label Not Now Records has assembled a two disc package incorporating both the Christmas and gospel recordings of Elvis Presley. Here are the label's details of this new release.
So entrenched was the public perception of Elvis as a hell-raiser, that the announcement he was making a record of Christmas songs sent the world into a tailspin. Released in 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album, showed that Elvis had created a template for all future Christmas recordings: no rock star had ever undertaken such a project and it was Elvis who paved the way…
Over the years, Elvis would always warm-up in recording studios and before live performances, by singing his favourite Gospel songs. But it was not until 1960, with the release of the LP His Hand In Mine, that the wider world understood the full extent of their rock & roll idol’s fondness for inspirational music.
Enjoy this superb 2CD set including "Santa Claus Is Back In Town", "If We Never Meet Again", "Blue Christmas" and many more...

Rascal Flatts - The Greatest Gift Of All
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Rascal Flatts has just released their first Christmas album, The Greatest Gift Of All. According to their publicity, they've won a gazillion awards, sold millions of CDs, millions of downloads, and they are one of the hottest touring bands selling in the ballpark of ten million tickets. And yet, Rascal Flatts is a band that I had never listened to before this. Now having listened to their Christmas effort, I am most impressed, not only with the quality of the trio's vocals, but the band's performance, the arrangements, and the production. Like many other Christmas discs this year, they begin with a rousing "Joy to the World", the band going full throttle replete with horn section. "Deck the Halls" gets a new melody which is not intrinsically bad, but this track now sounds a lot like The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl", and I haven't the first clue what's up with that. Nine of the ten tracks are old favorites, both secular and religious. The other song is "A Strange Way To Save The World", which is the story of Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus set to a very pretty melody; Rascal Flatts covered this tune from gospel group 4Him. I really like the full-on rock treatment on "Go Tell It On the Mountain", starting with a wicked wah-wah guitar line, then the band comes on bringing full horn section. The most up to date song on the record is Stevie Wonder's "Someday At Christmas"; the version here is another standout. Rascal Flatts may be a country band but the lead singer, Gary LeVox, has got soul and it shines on "Someday At Christmas". The album closes, as I would imagine many of their concerts do, with a vocal tour de force; here, it's "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".
Listen to: "Joy to the World", "Someday At Christmas", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".

She & Him - Christmas Party
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Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward came together as She & Him in 2006 and together they have released one EP and five albums (including 2011's A Very She & Him Christmas). Christmas Party is their second Christmas album and it's another highly listenable affair. Deschanel has a very pleasant voice that lends itself well to the material on this album, although, for me, it's almost impossible to listen to She & Him without thinking that Deschanel is singing as her character in the Fox TV series "New Girl." The album has relaxed, simple arrangements of mostly Deschanel's voice and Ward's guitar. Ward takes the lead vocal on "Run, Run, Rudolph", which features backing vocals by Deschanel and the Chapin Sisters. Jenny Lewis guests on "Winter Wonderland" and Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth handles the drums on over half of the album's twelve tracks. The songs on Christmas Party are all popular, non-religious, about half being the songs that you hear on most Christmas albums. Of these, I find "Let It Snow" especially appealing. "Mele Kalikimaka" is in danger of being over-used this year, but this rendition is one of the most tuneful that you're likely to hear. Things get more interesting when She & Him do tunes that have seldom been heard on modern Christmas albums. Some of these are really old school and lots of fun like "Must Be Santa", "Happy Holiday", "Christmas Memories", and "The Man With the Bag". I had never heard "The Chipmunk Song" ("Christmas Don't Be Late") done by anyone other than The Chipmunks. This year's new Christmas releases brought two human cover versions, and one of them closes Christmas Party.
Listen to: "Let It Snow", "Must Be Santa", and "Christmas Memories".

Jordan Smith - 'Tis the Season
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Jordan Smith is a contemporary Christian artist who also sings pop and gospel, and like Jackie Evancho became widely known for his success on a television show; in this case, it was NBC's The Voice. As The Voice recognized, Smith has a very appealing vocal style laced with both expressiveness and soul. LightWorkers/Republic Records pulled out all the stops to make 'Tis the Season a major entry in the Christmas releases of 2016. It was produced by David Foster (Josh Groban, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart), winner of 16 Grammy Awards. The album's twelve tracks represent a good mix of traditional carols and popular favorites. The usual suspects are here of course, along with a few interesting differences. I was glad to see "Grown-Up Christmas List" included; this is only the second time I've seen that covered this year. "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" has gone wrong in any number of lessor hands; I think Jordan's take on it is a winner. "Ave Maria" is one that you don't hear much on Christmas records, but this duet with Maria Aleida closes the album beautifully. Along the way, Jordan excels on "O Holy Night", joined by none other than the Morman Tabernacle Choir.
Listen to: "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", and "Ave Maria".

Straight No Chaser - I'll Have Another...Christmas Album
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Of all the artists that I listened to for the first time for this article, I was most impressed by Straight No Chaser. They are a ten member a cappella group that specializes in Christmas music. I'll Have Another...Christmas Album is their fifth Christmas release. Yes, I am familiar with Pentatonix, and I would recommend every Pentatonix fan check out Straight No Chaser. All their voices are superb and incredibly soulful. I'll Have Another...Christmas Album has a pleasing mix of about two thirds popular songs and the rest traditional carols; most of the songs are well known favorites plus there are two originals. The record opens with a fresh take on Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You". They take some liberties with the melody on "Joy to the World" in a high energy gospel-tinged romp in which portions of the group sings rings around each other and the joy is quite infectious. After that, they slow it down for a beautiful "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" with the combined voices achieving a tone that you'll want to hear again and again. If I had not been won over by this point, "Run Run Rudolph" holds its own with every great rock 'n roll version you've ever heard. This record has delights waiting on every track. Their version of "Mele Kalikimaka" is one of the best I've heard. The album ends with the humorous drinking song "To Christmas!" and if this track doesn't put a grin on your face, you've got issues this article isn't going to help you with.
Listen to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", "Run Run Rudolph", and "Mele Kalikimaka".

Frankie Valli - 'Tis the Seasons
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In the 1960s and 70s, The Four Seasons and the solo Frankie Valli spent a tremendous amount of time riding atop the singles chart, and for good reason; those singles were so good that they helped define the concept of Top 40 radio. Now, at age 80, the singing voice has aged as you might expect, and his trademark falsetto only appears once on 'Tis the Seasons. The first time I listened to this I had some reservations, so I waited several weeks thinking it might sound different. On second listen those reservations remained, and his voice quality doesn't even enter into it. Philosophically, I cannot trash someone's Christmas album, so I'm just going to mention what I liked and then I'll show you what his label says. The album opens with a medley of "Joy To the World" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?". These songs go together well and the medley was effectively constructed; the record gets off to a good start. There is one other medley of two more traditional carols, "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Angels We Have Heard On High", which also go together well. The other eleven tracks are all popular standards and without going into too much detail, I'll say that it seems like Valli's renditions attempt to be slightly different from the conventional versions that are out there. The track I like best on the album is "Merry Christmas, Baby", which features the guitar of guest Jeff Beck. This track may be worth the price of the album. Here is what Rhino Records has to say about Frankie Valli's 'Tis the Seasons.
Holiday traditions: everybody’s got ‘em. For diehard music fans, one of those traditions is seeing which artists will decide that the time is finally right to release a Christmas album. In Frankie Valli’s case, it’s taken him rather a lot of time to make that decision, but after being in the music business for 55+ years, he’s finally released the first solo Christmas album of his career: ‘TIS THE SEASONS, which is in stores now.

Produced by Bob Gaudio, who formed The Four Seasons with Valli way back in 1960, ‘TIS THE SEASONS features 13 classic Yuletide tracks, including a version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” with guest guitar by Jeff Beck. Gaudio has pointedly said that while the material may be familiar, the treatments may not be, but don’t worry: Valli’s voice is still out in front, right where it’s always been.
Listen to: "Joy To the World"/"Do You Hear What I Hear?", "Merry Christmas, Baby", and "Jingle Bell Rock".

Various Artists - Big City Christmas
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[NOT PREVIEWED] This album is not streaming anywhere that I could find, but the description looked so interesting that another year I might have just bought it. However, this year there were too many others to seriously consider this. In any case, here is the low down from Bear Family Records.
An unique compilation of Christmas songs from the wide range of Rhythm & Blues, Doo-Wop, Pop Crooners, and Rockabilly! - For the first time in the label's mighty long history, the Bear Family team sends its own 'Season's Greetings'! - A nostalgic Christmas celebration with 30 rarities from the years 1948-1968! - Included are an outtake by Frankie Valli's Four Lovers, a rare alternate version of Eartha Kitt's 'Santa Baby', two extremely rare radio broadcasts by Ricky Nelson, The Holly Twins featuring Eddie Cochran on guitar, and some previously unissued material by Charlie Starr, Johnny Houston, Frankie Lymon and Bill Haley & His Comets! - Famous Christmas hit classics are featured here by such legends as Doris Day, Dean Martin, Chuck Berry, Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney and many more! - Hear some lesser known jewels from tiny labels performed by Cathy Sharpe, The Moods, and Patty Surbey. Also included is a very rare 1966 Christmas message by Ann-Margret!- A unique compilation for your Christmas listening pleasure!

Various Artists - A Capitol Christmas
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In the 1940s and 1950s, Capitol Records was the go-to label for Christmas music, first on 78s, later on LPs and 45s. During the CD era, Capitol did a superb job of reissuing the classic Christmas recordings from the vault on a number of CD collections. To celebrate their 75th anniversary, they have just released A Capitol Christmas, which offers a one disc distillation that represents some of their best tracks. The album opens with Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)", a recording widely considered to be the best Christmas song of all time. Next up is "The Christmas Waltz" by Frank Sinatra, a tune that sounds iconic. After that the highlights come fast and furious including a classic version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, Jo Stafford singing "White Christmas", Sinatra again with "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", Kay Starr with the hipster "(Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With The Bag", and the Bing Crosby classic "Do You Hear What I Hear". Johnny Mercer was one of the co-founders of Capitol Records and one listen to his "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" will tell you everything you need to know about why it was such a great label at that time. To read more about Capitol's Christmas Legacy, read Merry Christmas To You. All told A Capitol Christmas has twenty-three tracks of Christmas excellence. Actually, the album has twenty-four, but I must object to the last track, which is a posthumous duet between Natalie Cole and her father Nat King Cole on "The Christmas Song". Call me a purest but I don't think recordings like this should be altered. In this case, Nat's vocal was added to Natalie's version of the song. If left unchecked this process could get out of hand and we could wind up with abominations like adding Kenny G's smooth jazz sax to Louis Armstrong's classic "What A Wonderful World" (yes, this actually happened).
Listen to: Nat King Cole - "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)", Bob Atcher - "Christmas Island", and Johnny Mercer - "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town".

Various Artists - Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs From the Season
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Take a handful of songs about the winter, take another handful of songs about Christmas, no carols, no old favorites, well maybe one. Works for me. This is an album that is as stylistically diverse as its artists. What all these tracks have in common is that they have been assembled and released by folk label Red House Records, their first holiday offering. Some may know Red House as the long term home of Greg Brown, but no, he's not on here. I can't adequately explain my love for this record; I think it hits me somewhere near the spot in the pleasure center of the brain that share the same sentiment for Asleep at the Wheel's Merry Texas Christmas Y'All or Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas From the Family". I'm going to suggest three songs below, but three songs cannot do this album justice. So if these three tunes hold any appeal for you, I urge you to stream the whole thing, or just go buy it. This recommendation is my gift to you, the reader.
Listen to: "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)" by Davina and The Vagabonds, "Song For a Winter's Night" by The Pines, and "Blue Christmas" by Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams.

Various Artists - The Classic Big Band Christmas Album
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Sony Legacy has compiled The Classic Big Band Christmas Album from vintage big band recordings and released it as a double vinyl LP along with an MP3 download (there is no CD release). Most of the eighteen tracks are the versions originally released on 78s. The artist roster reads like a who's who of the big band era. There are sides by Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman, Sammy Kaye, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Glenn Miller, Harry James, Les Brown, Spike Jones, and many more. My first radio job was at an automated station with a big band format. WQLK-FM is located in Richmond, Indiana, which was the birthplace of Glenn Miller.
Listen to:Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman - "Winter Weather" (clarinet), Red Norvo - "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm", and Charlie Spivak - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?".

Various Artists - The Classic Christmas 80s Album
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Most of the selections on The Classic Christmas 80s Album have been available for years on other Christmas compilations, but for the fan of 80s music, it's great to have them all together in one place. Plus, there may be some surprises in store for even the ardent Christmas collector. I don't think I had previously heard "Christmas Time Is Here" a prime slice of 80s soul by Ray Parker, Jr. (Ghostbusters). Buster Poindexter lays it on thick on "Zat You Santa Claus", a track I am most familiar with Louie Armstrong singing, back in the day. I don't think I've previously run across Poindexter's version. This record pulls a couple of tracks from the A Very Special Christmas album including one by The Pointer Sisters, and Run D.M.C's "Christmas in Hollis"; a track that gets better with each passing year. It's possible that I previously missed the tune by New Kids On The Block, but I know I'd never before heard the Fishbone track. I'm glad to see "Christmas Is the Time to Say 'I Love You'" by Billy Squier on here. When I went looking for a digital copy of this a few years ago, I was not really surprised to learn that the original master for the 45 rpm single was recorded during the MTV video shoot. This is a very strong lineup of tracks, including The Waitresses, Wham!, Hall & Oates, Dave Edmunds, and The Hooters, to name a few more.
Listen to: The Waitresses - "Christmas Wrapping", Hall & Oates - "Jingle Bell Rock", and Billy Squier - "Christmas Is the Time to Say 'I Love You'".

Various Artists - Joyful Jazz! - Christmas With Verve! - Vol. 1: The Vocalists
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Verve has a rich history as a jazz label and a quick look at the contents of this new collection confirms the scope of their catalog. As much as Nat King Cole's recording of "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) is revered as perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all time (see Capitol Christmas, above), the version that kicks off this album is essential too. The singer Mel Tormé wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Bob Wells, all in forty-five minutes. In this recording Tormé includes a little known last verse; little known because it was not included in the Nat King Cole version. "The Christmas Song" dates from the 1940s and the tracks that immediately follow it by Norah Jones with Willie Nelson, Patti Austin, and Diana Krall, are of more recent vintage. And with artists such as Peggy Lee, Betty Carter, and Billie Holiday, nearly all of the decades from the 40s until now are represented on this album. Standards and classics abound on Joyful Jazz!, there are tracks by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (separately) and a priceless version of Billie Holiday doing "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm", both performance and sound quality are amazing. Shirley Horn's "Winter Wonderland" prompted my wife to remark, "With classics like these, I don't know why anyone else would ever record them."
Listen to: Mel Tormé - "The Christmas Song", Patti Austin- "Christmas Time Is Here", and Billie Holiday - "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm".

Various Artists - Joyful Jazz! - Christmas With Verve! - Vol. 2: The Instrumentals
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Verve separated the vocal tracks and instrumentals into separate volumes, each is a single CD at an attractive price. Vol. 2: The Instrumentals has a similar wide scope to Vol. 1, with artists spanning the decades from John Coltrane and Bill Evans to Tom Scott and Kevin Eubanks. One big attraction of this collection is the inclusion of a previously unreleased track from Oscar Peterson. One of my very favorite Christmas records is An Oscar Peterson Christmas so I was most excited about this track, "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm". The selections are all excellent on Vol. 2. Ramsey Lewis opens the album with one of his trademark piano covers in the style he pioneered with "Hang On Sloopy". Kevin Eubanks is a jazz guitarist from Philadelphia who became well known when he assumed leadership of Jay Leno's Tonight Show band when Branford Marsalis stepped down; Eubanks plays "Silver Bells" on his acoustic. Don't worry, there is plenty of electric jazz guitar on here too, on tracks by Mark Whitfield, Stanley Jordan, and more. I'm also liking Tom Scott's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". Jimmy Smith gives his Hammond B3 a good workout on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". Lionel Hampton's "Swingle Jingle" actually contains some vocals (shhh). The disc closes with a highly enjoyable take on "Greensleeves" by John Coltrane.
Listen to: Mark Whitfield - "Those Soulful Jingle Bells" Roy Hargrove & Christian McBride - "Frosty The Snowman", and John Coltrane Quartet- "Greensleeves".

Various Artists - A Silverado Family Christmas
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Silverado Records is a new Nashville label (2016) that specializes in country music under the motto: "Ferociously independent. Accidentally awesome." This release is a seven track EP consisting of three new originals and four Christmas classics. Although the only familiar artist on the record is Joe Diffie, the voices are all good, as are the musicians; the arrangements are relaxed, warm, and inviting. Diffie does as nice a version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as you are likely to hear this year. Although there have been many versions of "Blue Christmas" this year, this may be the only one that picks up the backup vocal line from the original; you'll know it when you hear it. On the new tune, "Christmas Time for Just You and Me", the sound engineers have made it seem like you are playing the Crystal Yates track off a piece of classic vinyl, a nice touch.
Listen to: Joe Diffie - "I'll Be Home For Christmas", Tony Winkler - "Blue Christmas", and Crystal Yates - "Christmas Time for Just You and Me".

Various Artists - A Winter Union
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[NOT PREVIEWED] Folk musicians, singers, and songwriters, husband and wife team Debbie & Stu Hanna collectively are Megson, one of the prime purveyors of British chamber folk. Their involvement in this CD makes it worth considering. The following information was received from Megson Music. "A Winter Union is collection of folk music from Christmas and the Winter Solstice. Jade Ward, Debbie Hanna, Ben Savage, Hannah Sanders, Cliff Ward and Stu Hanna, six leading lights of the British folk scene join forces to celebrate the season in this limited edition CD. Pre-order from MEGSONMUSIC.CO.UK., digital version available till 31/12/16, or pick up a copy at one of the upcoming A Winter Union shows (UK)."

The Ventures - The Ventures' Christmas Album
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The Ventures' Christmas Album is part of the Real Gone Records reissue program. I am covering it separately because The Ventures made a career out of doing electric guitar instrumental covers of some of the sixties biggest hits. Their music is rock 'n roll, even though a case could be made that it is pretty MOR nonetheless. The Ventures musically are instrumental cousins to surf guitar bands like The Surfaris ("Wipe Out"), with rock drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitars. Playing the melody on such familiar tunes can be so simplistic that I think they entertain themselves by sometimes sounding like they were about to play some other song only to shift gears into the Christmas selection. "Sleigh Ride" begins with a speeded up quote from their biggest hit "Walk - Don't Run", which they return to between verses. "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" heists big chunks of "I Feel Fine" by the Beatles. It's great fun to find the song snippets contained in this album, including "Wooly Bully", just for one more example. Here's what Real Gone had to say about The Ventures' Christmas Album.
There are some albums that should NEVER go out of print. And by the beard of St. Nick, the greatest instrumental rock ‘n’ roll Christmas record of all time is one of them! 1965’s The Ventures’ Christmas Album was and is an absolute marvel, setting the group’s trademark Mosrite guitar twang loose on wildly inventive arrangements that start out with then-current hit melodies and then morph into Christmas chestnuts. So, for instance, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” opens with “Wooly Bully,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” opens with “I Feel Fine,” and “Frosty the Snowman” opens with “Tequila” (Frosty is evidently feeling no pain)! But we at Real Gone Music aren’t content with merely copying previous reissues of this essential holiday platter; we’re including both the stereo version and, for the first time ever on CD, mono version of this album on a single disc, so you can hear it the way most people have heard it in the “modern” era and also hear it the way most people heard it when it first came out! What’s more, liner note writer Bill Kopp tracked down original Ventures rhythm guitarist Don Wilson for quotes (and got a testimonial from Danny Amis a.k.a. Daddy-O Grande of Los Straitjackets). Thrown in some vintage photos and you have a package everybody’s going to want to spin the entire holiday season!
Listen to: "Sleigh Ride", "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "White Christmas".

Rita Wilson - The Christmas Sessions
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If you, like me, missed Rita Wilson's debut album AM/FM in 2012 (and subsequent work), you too might find it a revelation how well she sings and how good these Christmas Sessions sound. The five track EP opens with a phenomenal version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas", and whoever figured out that this song would medley well with The Duprees classic "You Belong To Me" is, in my book, a stone genius. "You Belong To Me" was sung by guest Richard Marx. Wilson takes liberties with the melody of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" making it her own. She doesn't, however, stray so far from the original to get anything other than my admiration for this beautiful performance. By track three, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", she has hit perhaps three of my most favorite Christmas standards, and another A+ performance. "A Christmas Medley" gives fresh melody to "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger", along with the medley treatment. The EP closes with "There Will Be A Better Day", a new song written by Darrell Brown and Beth Nielsen Chapman, making Wilson's Christmas Sessions a nice addition to anyone's Christmas playlist. And yes, actress/singer Rita Wilson is, in fact, married to acting phenom Tom Hanks.
Listen to: "I'll Be Home for Christmas / You Belong to Me" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".

Wonderlux - Christmas Eve
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My first impression upon hearing this album sight unseen was that the electric guitar versions of the Christmas repertoire had definite 60s surf influences and it sounded like a cross between Los Straitjackets' Christmas album and Southern Culture On the Skids. Oh, and that Wonderlux had just made one of the coolest releases of the season. So it was not entirely a surprise to learn that Wonderlux is an aggregation of musicians working with producers Brad Benedict (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy) and Mark Fontana (Blue Hawaiians). I wasn't familiar with the Blue Hawaiians but apparently Fontana was the founding member and they had released a Christmas album back in 1995 entitled "Christmas On Big Island". Stubby's House of Christmas website explains that there was a failed Kickstarter campaign to record a follow-up last year, which partially led to the Wonderlux recording. Additionally, the Wonderlux press release gives this description.
Some of the holiday season’s most beloved traditional carols will have music fans stirring with delight as “A Nightmare On Elf Street (Inspired by O Holy Night)” and “It Came From The North Pole (Inspired by We Wish You A Merry Christmas)” are among new interpretations of seasonal songs on Christmas Eve.

Guitar-driven instrumentals featuring horns, percussion, “curious keyboards” and “opera-exotica,” these originals include elements of surf, psychedelic, lounge, rock, spaghetti western, exotica, a-go-go, film noir, mysterioso and blues that bring dramatic flair and an edgy mood to the sounds of Christmas.
All of the musicians who played on Christmas Eve are exceptional, especially the two guitarists Phil Gough and Marcus Watkins. I also have to say that the drum sound on this album is amazing. I found this album, in it's entirety, to be totally delightful and I can also predict with confidence that the concert style ending to "Mistletoe a Go-Go/Silent Night" will put a smile on your face.
Listen to: "Tinseltown Nocturne/Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", "It Came From The North Pole/We Wish You A Merry Christmas", and "Mistletoe a Go-Go/Silent Night"

Chris Young - It Must Be Christmas
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It Must Be Christmas is Chris Young's sixth album and his first Christmas release. Singles from Young's previous albums have basically ruled the country charts ever since his 2006 debut. Young has a smooth voice that would never be mistaken for anything but country, and I found it a most pleasing surprise just how well country combines with jazz in a relaxed setting like on "The Christmas Song", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas". The album has a pleasing mix of old favorites and three new originals including "There's a New Kid in Town" featuring Alan Jackson on vocals. Brad Paisley plays guitar and sings on "The First Noel" and Boyz II Men sounds quite nice singing with Young on "Silent Night". The Ronnie Spector signature song "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is an unexpected treat, a full production number and Young's twang is irresistible. I liked everything about It must Be Christmas.
Listen to: "The Christmas Song", "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", and "I'll Be Home for Christmas".

My personal favorites:  First, my Top 10.
01. Kacey Musgraves - A Very Kacey Christmas
02. Candace Bellamy - Santa Baby
03. Leslie Odom, Jr - Simply Christmas
04. Brett Eldredge - Glow
05. Kylie Minogue - Kylie Christmas
06. Chris Young - It Must Be Christmas
07. Wonderlux - Christmas Eve
08. Rita Wilson - The Christmas Sessions
09. Sarah McLachlan - Wonderland
10. Various Artists - Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs From the Season


And 20 more (alphabetical), just because there is so much good new Christmas music in 2016:
David Arkenstone & Charlee Brooks - Winter Fantasy
Andra Day - Merry Christmas From Andra Day
Janet Devlin - Little Lights
Neil Diamond - Acoustic Christmas
Cara Dillon - Upon A Winter's Night
Tommy Emmanuel - Christmas Memories
Exile - Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas
Jessy J - California Christmas
Natalie MacMaster- A Celtic Family Christmas
Katie Melua - In Winter
Lisa Osland - Christmas Saxophones: SaXmas
Laura Pausini - Laura Xmas
She & Him - Christmas Party
Straight No Chaser - I'll Have Another...Christmas Album
The Oak Ridge Boys - Celebrate Christmas
Various Artists - A Capitol Christmas
Various Artists - A Silverado Family Christmas
Various Artists - Joyful Jazz! - Christmas With Verve! - Vol. 1: The Vocalists
Various Artists - Joyful Jazz! - Christmas With Verve! - Vol. 2: The Instrumentals
Various Artists - The Classic Christmas 80's Album

Bonus Videos

Kacey Musgraves - Christmas Makes Me Cry (Live from CMA Country Christmas)


Brett Eldredge - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Live


Kylie Minogue - Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here (Live from the Royal Albert Hall)


Chris Young - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)


Laura Pausini - Noël Blanc (White Christmas) from the French edition of Laura Xmas