(Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives)
Sleigh bells in the air
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there
Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
The lyrics, above, are from "Christmas Time Is Here" (lyrics by Lee Mendelson, music by Vince Guaraldi) from the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. This first Peanuts special appeared on CBS; sometimes the big networks get it right. The writing struck just the right tone and the music was perfect. When I first saw this as a kid, I think the combination of Christmas and jazz went over my head. It was a few years later when I heard the soundtrack album that I began to appreciate what they had done. Now, fifty years later, that record remains at the top of my list of favorite Christmas music, a position that it has held all that time. It's one of those traditions that sounds better every year.
The New Albums:
Journeyman singer (Ace, Squeeze, Roger Waters, Mike and the Mechanics, & Solo) has released Christmas with Paul Carrack. I was excited when I ran across this because I always liked the guy's vocals and never found an album with the consistent quality that's on display here. Recorded live last year in London, Carrack performs with the SWR Big Band. The combination of Carrack's soulful voice and the band's jazz capability sounds just about perfect. One of my all time favorite soul Christmas records is Let it Snow, a longish EP by AWB co-founder Hamish Stuart. This Carrack record has a very similar vibe to it and it kept reminding me of Hamish until late in the album when all of a sudden I started hearing Harry Connick Jr. in Carrack's voice. High praise indeed (Carrack did a similar Christmas album in 2013 entitled Swinging Christmas, mostly recorded live, again with the SWR Big Band). The twenty one tracks (71 minutes) are terrific and Christmas with Paul Carrack is a must for any Carrack fan.
Don't confuse it with the old Chicago Christmas album that was released in 1998 and expanded and reissued in 2003 with the additional name What's It Gonna Be, Santa?. Their all new record is also called Chicago Christmas, featuring mostly new, originals. Chicagophiles most likely know how many original members are left, I count three, at least for recording. The good news is that they still sound like Chicago. If you're into Christmas music, you might find the original compositions refreshing as compared to Chicago putting their stamp on the familiar Christmas repertoire. The lead single “Merry Christmas, I Love You,” was written by founding member and album producer Lee Loughnane with John Durrill of The Ventures. This new record is technically Chicago XXXVII and is their third proper Christmas album, their fourth if you count the 2003 expansion.
When I first heard the debut album from Martina DaSilva and Dan Chmielinski, I knew it was something very special. DaSilva sings and Chmielinski plays upright bass with jazz arrangements so deceptively simple and as deliciously melodic that all of the songs on A Very ChimyTina Christmas are up there with the best renditions that you will ever hear, song for song. The album has one original, "Diamonds and Pearls", as well as some familiar favorites that you might expect, and a few tracks that you might not. There are some guest musicians too. Even songs that may not have needed new versions sound amazing, like "My Favorite Things", which adds a gorgeous solo on vibes played by Joel Ross, likewise "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" excels and features accompaniment by Lucas Pino on sax. These young jazz artists (in their twenties) started with some Youtube videos that have gone viral, and undoubtedly have a bright future. This record is so delightful that I dialed up DaSilva's other band, The Ladybugs, see below.
Mary Fahl has no doubt been receiving high praise on her exquisite voice dating back to her initial success as the lead singer of the October Project. There have been Christmas albums before that featured winter songs, but none with the creativity of song selection and programming as Winter Songs and Carols. Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going" is here as a song of winter complete with its extraordinary songwriting. The combination of seasonal songs on this record makes for one of the more enjoyable listens you could have with a Christmas album.
With vocals in both English and traditional Irish, Órla Fallon creates the quite enchanting A Winter's Tale. The program is traditional songs of the season, some unfamiliar, some less so. Fallon, formerly a founding member of Celtic Woman, showcases her gorgeous voice and harp on this, her third Christmas release, her ninth overall.
With the sound of the multi-part vocals that fill this record, it reminds me so much of those jazz-pop vocal groups of the 1930s and '40s that I had to double check to verify that this is, in fact, something new. The vocal excellence is no happenstance. Ernie Haase's ensemble includes the traditional gospel vocal lineup: the baritone voice is amazing. You may not immediately realize listening to it, but this outfit also does gospel, releasing under the Gaither label. What makes it all work is the superb jazz and how it combines with the traditional Christmas tunes and even some originals. The performances, arrangements, and production make A Jazzy Little Christmas a happy one indeed.
Actual sisters, the McCrarys come by their music gifts honestly. Their father, Reverend Samuel H. McCrary, was once a founding member of The Fairfield Four. The girls grew up in a house of music where each listened to whatever they wanted but at church they learned to sing the gospel. With electric instrumental performances and vocal excellence that sometimes evokes Aretha Franklin, soulful southern gospel doesn't get any better than this. This album must be heard to be believed; check out "Away In A Manger". I don't think I've ever recommended that particular song before, but then again, I'd never heard it done like this. They completely reconstruct the song with a sweet electric guitar line. They are joined on vocals by Keb' Mo', one of a number of guests who appear on this fine record. The McCrary Sisters' first Christmas album is one of this year's best offerings.
If your family includes any youngsters, you probably already know the voice of Idina Menzel who performed the lead role of Queen Elsa in Disney's Frozen and Frozen 2. The selections on this record are good; mostly familiar favorites with some interesting surprises along the way, such as the title track, from Rent, which Menzel was in both on the stage and in the movies. There are a pair of originals, one a Menzel co-write, the other from the composers of Frozen. Christmas: A Season of Love features four duets with guests such as Billy Porter ("I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm") and Ariana Grande ("A Hand For Mrs. Claus"). This Christmas album even has a Spanish Hanukkah song, by way of Argentina, complete with the Hanukkah prayer that precedes it. The arrangements and production tend to be Broadwayish, while the big band /orchestra backing is traditional New York, as befits a stage and screen star who has won a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. I have just one question: Can a live television production starring Menzel be far behind?
One of my favorite moments in the movie "New Year's Eve" is when Lea Michele's back up singer character does a duet with Jon Bon Jovi on John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith In Me." Bon Jovi is singing live on New Year's Eve in Times Square while Michele is stuck in an elevator with Ashton Kutcher, a bah humbug curmudgeon New York City apartment dweller. Like Idina Menzel, Michele started out on Broadway. She is best known for her television role in Glee. In fact, this album was produced by Alex and Adam Anders, also from Glee, who gave the music a throwback vibe to the middle of the last century. The tracks represent Michele's favorite songs with the addition of the original "Christmas in New York" and a couple of songs from Glee. There are also some guest duets that feature stars from both Broadway and Glee. Christmas in The City is a well made album that celebrates Christmas in her native New York.
With two albums released (this and Oklahoma), 2019 is shaping up to a very good year indeed for Keb' Mo'. Moonlight, Mistletoe & You is one of the best sounding records I've heard in many a day. Veering from the typical Christmas release, Mo' covers only three songs, preferring instead to include seven new compositions; this one can be played all year and not just during December. They have Mo' classified now as an Americana artist, which may be technically true as it is really an umbrella genre. More specifically, Mo's music is a combination of blues, soul, a little jazz and a little soft rock for the most part. While you might debate labels, there's no denying the result when you play it. The incredible sound hits you right on track one, which is a cover of the Charles Brown classic, "Please Come Home For Christmas" (most folks think of this as The Eagles' Christmas tune, which it is, but they are covering Brown, too). The sound of the electric guitar over the tight rhythm section combines with a sweet, sweet organ tone and a vocal that's smooth as silk for a track that's a new standard. Produced by Keb' Mo' himself, the sound he achieves is no small accomplishment. When needed these songs also get piano, horns, woodwinds, and even some strings. Guests stop by, too; Charles Albright adds his sax to the title track and Melissa Manchester sounds superb singing with Mo' on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm".
Norah Jones formed Puss N Boots as a side project playing covers of country songs, the greasier the better. Think of them as an all female version of her other side project The Little Willies. When Puss N Boots first began, they were so crazy good that I managed to catch them four times during October 2008. Over the years, they've done one full length album and lots more great live shows, and now this holiday EP, Dear Santa.... It's nice to see that the lineup hasn't changed. Jones and Sasha Dobson play electric guitars and Catherine (Cat) Popper plays electric bass; all three sing. In the studio Jones and Dobson add drums and other instruments. This EP consists of four original compositions plus a live recording of "Silent Night". This threesome's Dear Santa... EP will make your holiday spirits bright.
If you're looking for a holiday album that doesn't sound like one, look no further. Josh Rouse has written nine new holiday themed tunes. Rouse is a talented singer, songwriter and musician, and he co-produced the recording. The sessions sound as warm and friendly as Rouse's voice. This is a holiday album that you could play beyond the holiday season. The CD comes with a bonus disc that contains three covers and three demos. One of the covers is of Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You", which is having somewhat of a resurgence this year (see below). I have never heard a Josh Rouse record that I didn't like and The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse is no exception.
Kate Rusby is a longtime favorite singer of traditional English folk. Her vocals have a quality of purity and precision that is rarely heard. The twelve tracks on Holly Head are mostly traditional songs of the season. Finally illustrating (for me, at least) the principle of the exception that proves the rule, Rusby includes "Hippo For Christmas", and it makes me smile every time. The seeming contradiction of that sweet, delicate voice singing that song is utterly ridiculous (in a good way). I can't say that a sense of humor is something that I would associate with a Kate Rusby record, and therein lies the charm. By the way, the rest of the record is great, too.
This is a first class jazz outing and here again the combination of jazz and Christmas music works so well that I'm there. Stanley has a voice that's not easy to pin down. She's definitely a pro, maybe jazz, maybe pop; it might be 2019 or it might be sometime in the last century. She's singing with a top flight band, they say it's the best of L.A. musicians, and it sounds like it. Considering all that, the relatively personal production style is well suited to the music. The song selection includes a cover of Elvis Presley's "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)", an interesting choice for a jazz album. The entire record sounds good, but the last track is the one that really knocks it out of the park for me. You don't hear "What Are You Doing Christmas Eve" that often, and this piano based rendition gets it just right.
Unless you live in Nashville, you're unlikely to have heard of many of the artists on Sorted Noise Records: A Holiday Album, Vol. 5. I found this by way of an email from Hannah Miller, an artist who I've listened to for some time now. She does a nice job on "Christmas Time is Here" with a very intimate sounding version of the classic from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This seven track EP features mostly familiar Christmas tunes as done by independent artists. All of these tracks have something different about them. But, what they all have in common is that the recording quality is exceptional, as are the voices, arrangements, and production. These are the kind of tracks that you might not hear about, so I am glad to include them here.
If you are familiar with Rick Wakeman it is probably because of the keyboard wizardry he brought to Yes and others back in the 1970s, including a solo career. If so, you may surprised to hear this solo piano recording. Wakeman takes a batch of some of his favorite Christmas songs and makes them his own with his original arrangements, his variations, and the way that he weaves two songs into one. The grand piano sounds simply beautiful and I am definitely liking this record. Wakeman has commented, "Christmas is my absolute favourite time of the year. I love every aspect of it, especially traditional Christmas music and songs which have wonderful simplistic melodies that are perfect for adaptation to produce variations on the piano. That is something I love to do and that is exactly what this album is".
Also Check Out:
Molly Burch – The Molly Burch Christmas Album: The singer-songwriter penned a batch of original tunes, seasoned with a few familiar standards and a few guest artists.
Jonathan Butler – Christmas Together: The Grammy nominated guitarist/vocalist brought a veritable who's who of smooth jazz royalty to his home studio to produce this pleasing set of vocal and instrumental tracks including one new original he wrote with Sheléa.
Celtic Woman – The Magic Of Christmas: This is the latest Christmas album from the Irish powerhouse and it consists mostly of familiar favorites.
Ana Gasteyer – sugar & booze: The SNL comedian can sing, and after the clever title track it's upbeat jazzy big band and inspired song choices all the way.
Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra – Big Band Holidays II: Christmas jazz hits the big time with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra along with invited guests including Catherine Russell, Veronica Swift, Denzal Sinclaire, Audrey Shakir, and Aretha Franklin (who sang O Tannenbaum in both English and German while accompanying herself on piano).
Libera - Christmas Carol With Libera: Starting out as what has been described as a "YouTube sensation", Libera is now a top flight operation with music sales and television appearances all over the world, and the distinctive sound of a South London boy's choir on this 17 song array of Christmas carols.
Michael Lington – A Foreign Affair Christmas: A pleasing smooth jazz Christmas record in which Michael Lington plays familiar favorites on the saxophone.
Tatiana Eva-Marie – Wintertime Dreams: A Parisian Christmas: Tatiana Eva-Marie is a masterful Parisian style singer of jazz-pop. This album includes some swinging gypsy jazz and is sure to please.
Robbie Williams – The Christmas Present (Deluxe): The British pop star takes this double CD way beyond the usual Christmas album, with originals and covers, some guests like Rod Stewart and Jamie Cullum, and the deluxe package offering a hardcover book and four bonus tracks.
Something Old, Something New (reissues, expansions and such):
Mariah's mix of soul, gospel, and pop helped to make this album an indispensable part of most holiday collections, and it still sounds great today. Along the way, "All I Want For Christmas Is You" has been covered so often that it has become a modern standard. For the 25th anniversary special edition there is a bonus disc chock full of alternate mixes and live tracks. For the casual listener, the bonus disc may be overkill, but for the collector, it's essential.
The good news is that for the first time since its release 25 years ago, Carey's “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has finally reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. As part of the 25th Anniversary celebration, the Christmas classic has also been reissued on this new CD single. In addition to the iconic track, two remixes, and a live performance from the year it came out, 1994, it also includes a previously unreleased version of “Hero”, performed live at St. John the Devine.
I am normally totally opposed to the idea of altering old recordings of artists who are deceased and can't give their approval. But like other old recordings that have been updated by the LSO, Bing At Christmas in this new incarnation really does sound great. Christmas collections these days can certainly do with some Bing Crosby; there's no one out there quite like him. This upgrade isn't limited to new instrumentation, there are vocal guests on it too, including Pentatonix and the Puppini Sisters. Don't worry, "White Christmas" is on there twice, with and without Pentatonix. It's nice that Bing At Christmas includes the duet with David Bowie, which was recorded for a British TV special in 1977 shortly before Crosby's death. The combination of "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Peace On Earth" offers up a true gem and one of Bowie's best vocal performances.
Martina DaSilva (A Very ChimyTina Christmas, see above) produced and shared lead vocal duties in The Ladybugs and they released this album in 2017. Although it may be a little more produced than DaSilva's new one, it has much of the same charm. Blue Christmas includes a fantastic cover of the Elvis Presley signature song and six additional tracks, old favorites all.
John Legend's A Legendary Christmas, originally released last year, has been reissued in a deluxe edition that adds four new tracks. The new songs include a duet with Kelly Clarkson on "Baby, It's Cold Outside", which features new lyrics that have some fun with the premise while remaining socially appropriate. Legend does equally legendary versions of the other new songs, namely “This Christmas,” “My Favorite Things” and “Christmas in New Orleans.”
Eugene Ormandy's long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra (44 years) saw both of their reputations skyrocket. At the top of their game, they recorded The Glorious Sound of Christmas (1962), which has everything you could want in a traditional orchestral Christmas album, some songs even have vocals by the Temple University Concert Choir. This may be the first Christmas album I ever bought, back in the day when records were only pressed in vinyl. Real Gone Music has remastered this album together with its sequel, A Christmas Festival (1964), on one CD with truly glorious sound and new liner notes.
It is remarkable what five human voices can do and Pentatonix regularly pushes the limit. With most of their success coming from their four previous Christmas albums, this year's entry is The Best of Pentatonix Christmas. In addition to a superb set of songs, this record adds four new tracks that are equally excellent. Even though it's not customarily a Christmas song, Pentatonix does such a nice job with "God Only Knows" that you'll be glad it's here. In addition to a couple of medleys, there are guest artists such as Maren Morris, Kelly Clarkson, and even Whitney Houston (on tape). This record is so good that you won't even worry about which are the new tracks.
Leon Redbone's 2019 death has spurred the reissue of many of his albums that have sadly gone out of print. His Christmas Island has nothing new or different in its reissue, but I was so glad to see it back in print that I am listing it here. His voice and his entire persona was so unique, goodnatured, and good to listen to that this record holds down a spot in my Christmas essentials playlist. When reporting the news of his passing, NPR Weekend Edition offered this description, "Redbone's obscurantist tendencies, including his ever-present, masking uniform of sunglasses, bushy mustache and Panama hat, gave Redbone the aura of a quixotic time-traveler, someone who simply stepped onto the stage fully formed."
This curious collection has artists of varying progressive accomplishment covering Christmas tunes, rock and otherwise. There are some artists who are must hear such as Martin Turner of Wishbone Ash, Thijs van Leer (keyboardist, flutist, and leader) of Focus, to name two. Steve Morse is on here, Geoff Downes, too. I never knew there was a cover of Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas" but that's Martin Turner's track. His largely acoustic version makes the pomposity of the lyrics a little more down to earth. I could say that we didn't need a cover of "Wonderful Christmastime" or "The Twelve Days of Christmas" done straight, but that would be nitpicking. If you're a fan of both prog and Christmas music you're gonna want A Prog Rock Christmas.
Although these two reissues were not available to preview, you may wish to check them out as well.
The band leader and composer of "Sleighride" gets the complete reissue treatment from Real Gone Music.
The good folks at Real Gone Music have remastered this country classic adding two more tracks.