The Best Christmas Music of 2020; All the Scoop On New Holiday Treats from The Bird and the Bee, Karla Bonoff, Terri Clark, the Goo Goo Dolls, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, Pentatonix, Chrissi Poland, Straight No Chaser, Meghan Trainor, Carrie Underwood and Much, Much More
As strange as 2020 was for the music business, that didn't seem to carry over to the holiday releases. Oh, there are probably exceptions to that, but by and large Christmas albums came out sounding pretty much like what we might expect.
In the description below, I will once again not harp on songs that aren't really Christmas songs like Joni Mitchell's "River," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and the like. I do really love those songs in their normal non-holiday context. I'm even starting to get used to hearing "My Favorite Things" as a Christmas song. It's easy to say that this year because two of those songs are absent from this year's crop, and the version of "River" that's on the Karla Bonoff album is so good that I am compelled to love it in spite of its inclusion.
The 2020 holidays are already weird in the sense that we will not be with most of our family and friends due to the coronavirus. Longtime traditions are hard to break, even for just one year, even with the goal of resuming these traditions next year. So, what's left in this fractured year but to let music do all the things it does, only more so.
I hope you find this little guide useful for navigating this year's offerings and I wish you the best for a safe, healthy and happy holiday season and a better new year.
For their first ever holiday album, Barnaby Bright has brought together five originals, five classic covers, and a Chanukkah song. The album, Bleak Midwinter, sounds anything but. The arrangements and production are nicely uncluttered. The vocals by Becky Bliss are the main attraction. The band surrounds her with accompaniment that sets this album apart from most others. The original compositions are as good to listen to as the covers, and the ones they selected sound extraordinary. The five covers include "In the Bleak Midwinter," which has never sounded better. They cover Vince Guaraldi and Charles Brown, two of my personal favorites, but the album's real standout is their version of the gospel tune "Mary, Did You Know?".
Sounding a lot like a lock-down project, It's a David Benoit Christmas! offers Benoit's jazzy solo piano tribute to Vince Guaraldi's seminal soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Totally instrumental and totally solo, Benoit plays all of the songs that Guaraldi wrote and played with his trio for that groundbreaking Christmas special that first aired in 1965. That music is so good it sounds as if it has not aged a day in all these years. Guaraldi was tapped to then provide the music for the next sixteen Peanuts specials. Interspersed with the Christmas tunes are seven songs from other Peanuts specials, six of them written by Guaraldi. The other ones composed by Guaraldi's official successor for Peanuts movie and television productions, David Benoit.
If you're Greg Kurstin and your day job consists of writing, playing on, and/or producing for the most major of artists from Adele to Paul McCartney, having a side project like the bird and the bee with the singer Inara George (daughter of Lowell), has to be great fun. Kurstin and George wrote two originals for this, their first Christmas record, the rest being familiar favorites. I have to say that I have not previously connected with this band as much as I have with this album. The opening track "You and I At Christmas Time," which is original, is tremendously good. Can it really be as simple as that? George's voice is sounding ideal throughout this record, and Kustin provides varying musical styles in which to cast these otherwise well known tunes. Kurstin has worked with Dave Grohl before and Grohl returns the favor guesting on "Little Drummer Boy." Listening to Put up the Lights is a total delight.
Karla Bonoff may be my gold standard, in terms of songwriting and performing her songs, and during her nearly fifty year career she has never released a Christmas album, until now. Comprised of a few recent songs and mostly old favorite Christmas carols, the real attraction here is Bonoff's excellent voice and the ideal arrangements and production provided by Sean McCue. The accompaniment is mostly acoustic with the exception of some gorgeous lap steel (played by McCue) and pedal steel guitars that appear throughout the record. Her version of "River", written by Joni Mitchell, sounds so good that I don't even mind its inclusion here. What's also exciting is that the record closes with an original song, "Everybody's Home Tonight", which Bonoff wrote with Kenny Edwards. Having all these tracks sung in Bonoff's sweet, clear voice is something to treasure.
Often identified with smooth jazz, bassist and producer Brian Bromberg has made a new recording called Celebrate Me Home: The Holiday Sessions, that blurs the line between so called real and smooth jazz. With his formidable collection of basses and top notch group musicians, Bromberg and his band take simplistic sounding melodies as a jumping off point for virtuosic solos. The pandemic caused Bromberg to record much of this record virtually, calling his backing string and horn section "The Social Distancing Orchestra." 2020 also guided Bromberg to select "Celebrate Me Home" by Kenny Loggins as the title track, featuring a guest vocal by Chris Walker that sounds just right. If you play this on a good sound system, the potential rewards might astound you, especially the deep strong bass coming from your subwoofer. Music is such an integral part of the holidays for me, and I find that this album offers a type of relaxation that you won't find in most holiday releases.
This album features the smooth and appealing voice of Terri Clark set amongst western swing backing, primarily fiddles and pedal steel. This production sounds especially good on mid-tempo material such as "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts...)" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." "Cowboy Christmas" may not yet be a country Christmas standard, but it ought to be. The musicians on this record are so good that it might be Nashville's band of session players, the Time Jumpers. The guest list leans in that direction and includes Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Pam Tillis and The Oak Ridge Boys. I should also mention that a few of the songs, such as "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", which is a duet with Dierks Bentley, sound so slick that they might have been lifted from a network TV special. It’s Christmas…Cheers! is one eminently listenable record.
Even though Jamie Cullum is way more well known in his native England, his releases do make their way to our shores. Cullum is another entrant in the Sinatra style sweepstakes, such as Michael Bubble and Harry Connick, Jr., but with a difference. Cullum generally prefers to do his own, original compositions instead of covering the classics. This is also the case on Cullum's Christmas album. His chosen instrument is the piano (hence the title). These tunes all benefit from the big band orchestration that makes the entire record sound special. As Cullum himself explains, "So I set myself the task to try and write ten, original Christmas songs that used these skills and obsessions to create something uncynical and adventurous, full of the joys and complexities of the season..."
I was quite impressed by the Goo Goo Dolls' It's Christmas All Over. The two original compositions really started to sound like Christmas songs after just a few spins, and good ones at that. Kid vocals are never advisable, but there's something about the singing on "Better Days" that's endearing (it turns out that the kid in question is actually related to producer and multi instrumentalist Jim McGorman). The song "Better Days" is a new version of one that the Goo Goo Dolls released ten years ago. They even update the Chipmunks' "Christmas Don't Be Late" to make it more grown up- friendly. There are several of the old favorite warhorses and it's remarkable both how good they sound and how normal a Christmas album this is. Which, judging by some of the other criticism I've read may not be such a good thing for the Goo Goo Dolls, but I like it. They put a cherry on top of this very palatable platter with the live "Christmas Party" sounding all rough and impromptu.
Former Spandau Ballet lead singer Tony Hadley first released this album in his native England in 2016. Now it has been expanded and released domestically here in the U.S. Hadley makes it sound easy, whether he is doing traditional fare like "White Christmas" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" featuring Kim Wilde (as his duet guest), or covers of modern songs that have become Christmas songs from the 1950s, 60s, to now. I really enjoyed the tracklist of this record, which includes numerous songs that are more well-known in Britain than here. I'm talking about songs like "Chris Rea's "Driving Home For Christmas" or the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York", featuring guest Nina Zilli. This album contains the only cover I've heard of Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas". Hadley also covers, quite competently I might add, Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know". Although that song appears to be unrelated to Christmas, a wee bit of research uncovers the fact that in 2013 Lily Allen covered the song in a British Christmas commercial, and that (my friend) is how this song is connected to Christmas.
The meld of jazz and Christmas always makes for a reliable holiday treat. Check out Lauren Henderson the vocalist and arranger, whose Brontosaurus Records has just released her EP titled Classic Christmas. She sings four of her favorite Christmas songs accompanied by a superb jazz trio consisting of piano, bass and drums. You'll notice right away the updated lyrics to "My Favorite Things." Henderson wrote these and updated one other song as well to better reflect the culture and some of the issues of our time. The EP closes beautifully with a rendering of the Louis Armstrong classic "What A Wonderful World," performed as a duet with frequent collaborator Sullivan Fortner on piano.
This version of The Nutcracker is exceptionally well performed, recorded, and produced, and is well worth your listening. The recording is somewhat unusual in that it has introductions to each part expertly narrated by Derek Jacobi. You can listen, of course, with or without the narration depending on your wish. Note that this is listed as excerpts from the Tchaikovsky ballet. As such, it gives you more than the typical Nutcracker Suite, but something less than the complete ballet score. The music by Septua (a brass septet) is exciting and gorgeous and it may be just the ticket for listeners who want a little more Nutcracker.
Christmas Anyway is a six track EP by singer-songwriter Heather Maloney that offers two superbly written originals and four well chosen covers. It is one of the more interesting releases that I've come across. Of the covers, the only one that's widely known is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". On the very dramatic "The Secret of Christmas," Maloney's naturally appealing voice is up to the task. She does a nice job with Dar WIlliams' "The Christians & The Pagans"; Williams fans will know it immediately, others might scratch their heads wondering where they've heard it before. Maloney takes David Pomerantz's "It's In All Of Us" and infuses a bit of the melody from "Rainbow Connection" to close the record with a positive sentiment for Christmas.
This lovely four track EP comes from Nashville based singer-songwriter Hannah Miller. Miller has had many of her songs placed in movies and in TV shows, such as This Is Us. She also wrote some songs for the production of the TV series Nashville. Here, she surrounds her two originals with two excellent cover choices. The originals have a quiet Christmasy charm to them."Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" solves the original/revised lyrics question in the same fashion that I thought might be unique (see Chrissi Poland, below)."Christmas Time Is Here" is a nice take on the Vince Guaraldi classic from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
You may have seen this show last year on Amazon Prime Video. What they did for this release was to take the audio from that special and edit it down to just the musical numbers. So in a sense it's a new album but the program is not. This record contains all of the scripted schtick that made the tv special so endearing, or annoying depending on your point of view. I'll go out on a limb here and say that the intent of the special was to send up the traditional format of Christmas music specials. Only, in this case the production may have been so good that it became what it parodies. If you're looking for a Musgraves Christmas album, she's already got one and it's good, too. For me, Kacey's voice sounds intrinsically happy, and when she sings with a trace of wistfulness such as on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (fea Lana Del Rey) or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that's when the magic happens. In addition to all of the guests, and despite the dialogue and stuff, this is a live Christmas album, and it may be just what we need in 2020.
Although she may have a number of earlier Christmas albums, A Holly Dolly Christmas is Dolly's latest contribution. This one plays like a Nashville Christmas party with Dolly as the host and primary vocalist along with luminaries who guest, such as Willie Nelson, Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Jimmy Fallon who sings the Mariah Carey standard "All I Want For Christmas Is You". A good time was had by all, but I must comment on the title track. Granted that the allure of rhyming "Holly Jolly Christmas"with her name was inescapable, however, I submit that the original version by Burl Ives is one that does not need any cover versions. There has not been much recent activity on this tune, but the numerous new covers this year suggest that it has become "a thing". There's even an a cappella version by Straight No Chaser. All this should not take away any of the pleasure you'll get from listening to A Holly Dolly Christmas.
There seems to be a special affinity for a cappella music at the holidays. By my count, this would be their sixth Christmas album. It's named particularly well considering that it came out during 2020. Their vocal excellence never fails to impress, even with what sounds like backing instruments coming out of someone's mouth. To really generalize, I'll say that when you hear We Need A Little Christmas it sounds like a cross between the best vocal bands of the 1940s and the best doo-wop bands of the 1950s. On "White Christmas" Pentatonix pays tribute (in a way) to Bing Crosby by using his recorded voice to provide the lead vocal in this new rendition. Ordinarily, I am against messing with records when the artist is no longer with us, but here it sounds kind of cute and what the heck, it's Christmas.
On Happy Christmas, Chrissi Poland offers covers of five impeccably chosen Christmas songs, essentials all. She opens with the superlative singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway, who left us way too soon, and a track from the groundbreaking Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. On "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Poland solves the question of whether to sing the original or revised lyrics in a way that I never heard before, and it's a keeper. Poland then covers the king, Elvis Presley, and finishes with the John Lennon Christmas classic, another brilliant singer-songwriter who was taken from us way too soon. Chrissi describes these piano /vocal covers as "chill", something we can always use at the holidays in this or any other year. Read the full review.
You've never heard an orchestral holiday album like this. It sets you up with some conventional holiday music, but soon you realize that this is a live album, very live. I'm talking Frampton Comes Alive, only the crowd is even bigger and they are well miked, According to the press release fans came from all over the world to Maastricht, Netherlands, the home of André Rieu, for this event. On record, the crowd sounds huge. Rieu is yelling, cheerleading, and encouraging the audience from the stage to the point that they become a significant partner in this project. By the time the program gets to the song "Amen" the entire crowd is singing along with the gospel choir onstage, and it sounds like an old fashioned revival meeting; they continue the good feeling right into "Oh Happy Day". A couple of songs later, they play the Louis Armstrong classic "What A Wonderful World", and I don't know if this was meant as a closer, but the effect sure feels like a denouement. I won't even tell you what comes next... Jolly Holiday was not what I expected, but I'm happy to say that this joyous record totally won me over.
Everything I wrote about Pentatonix (above) also goes for Straight No Chaser. The vocal precision of both groups is awe inspiring. That said, it is only natural to want to differentiate, so I'll say that of the two, Straight No Chaser sounds more soulful and there's more humor in their records. You can hear both in this new one, Social Christmasing, the title being the first example. The humor is in the music as well. When you hear them cover "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (see, it is a thing), it sounds as if they are about to sing live on the radio when the DJ....; well, you'll just have to listen. There's a good selection of songs, including a number of great sounding originals. Old favorites, including some you don't hear all the time, like "Happy Holidays" and a couple of my favorites, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and the Charles Brown composition made famous by The Eagles, "Please Come Home For Christmas." They also cover the Counting Crows' "A Long December." Recorded during quarantine, each of the nine members recorded their parts separately, although you'd never know by listening. Seggie Isho said, "As we sang about families and Christmas, it was a daily reminder of what is truly important in life..."
A Very Trainor Christmas sounds a lot like ... surprise, a Meghan Trainor album. Perhaps it's the half dozen or so originals that sound like they might come from her next album (which this is). The remaining dozen or so tracks are well done covers of classic Christmas songs from "Winter Wonderland" to "Last Christmas." This album credits eight different producers and only three are named Trainor. There are lots of family all over this record, brothers, cousins, even Dad shows up on piano. Adding to the feel of a network TV special, Earth, Wind & Fire guests on "Holidays" and Seth MacFarlane sounds his Sinatra-era best singing with Meghan on "White Christmas." Trainor makes all these songs her own, so much - if you're a fan, this is essential.
On her first Christmas album, Carrie Underwood offers up eight traditional favorites, both songs and carols, along with three new originals. She co-wrote two of them, the other was cowritten by guest duet partner John Legend. One of the old favorites, "The Little Drummer Boy" features another guest duet partner, Underwood's young son Isaiah, whose contribution is decidedly cute. In addition to the well chosen tracklist, what really stands out about this record is the strength and quality of Underwood's voice. On some of these songs, the backing music is so low that the track may be 75% voice, or more. She carries (so to speak) a tune so well that you almost don't need the musicians. This album blows me away every time.
Progressive rock keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman has often stated that Christmas is his favorite time of year and this album is the followup to Christmas Variations (2000). The main difference between these two fine recordings is that the new one offers mostly well known songs and carols. The other major difference is that Christmas Portraits is strictly piano; there are no other instruments on the record. Wakeman is so good that he can take a simply melody and make it sound both complex and familiar at the same time.
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Although Old English Christmas tunes might seem a far cry from the kind of music Richie Blackmore is known for, wife Candice Night is clearly in charge on Here We Come A-Caroling, an excellent EP by Blackmore's Night. Nicki Bluhm may have gone solo, but her strong appealing vocals sound unchanged on her new EP, Buon Natale. Fans of Calexico won't want to miss Seasonal Shift, which has new originals and covers of classics, such as by John Lennon and Tom Petty, on this Tucson band's first foray into Christmas. A very chilly christmas by Chilly Gonzales may sound slightly off to the untrained ear, but it is lauded as a work of genius; just listen to the WBGO podcast. Dust the Halls: An Acoustic Christmas Holiday! sounds just as good as it's name, by the bluegrass-tinged Americana darlings The Infamous Stringdusters. Tori Kelly wraps up a very melodic set of tunes that sound all ready for the singles chart including guest Babyface on A Tori Kelly Christmas. Leslie Odom Jr.'s all new second Christmas album, which like his first, features his beautiful voice with impeccable production on The Christmas Album.
Reisssues & Other Goodies:
This digital only three track EP from 2015 is the kind of thing that you might not know about unless someone plays it for you or tells you about it. In this case, I just happened to hear Larry Kirwan (Black 47) play it on his Celtic Crush radio program on Sirius XM. John Bryne was born in Ireland and is currently based out of Philadelphia, hence the song "Christmas In Philadelphia", which is the track that caught my ear on the radio. Bryne's field is Celtic folk and this captivating trio of tunes is certainly worth checking out.
Fans of Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum) will surely want to grab this new deluxe reissue of their 2012 Christmas album, if only for the four new tracks that were added. They include the Christmas hits by Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys, and two originals. One of which, "Christmas Through Your Eyes", was written by the three principle members of the group and may just be the best track on the album. Overall, the tracks focus more on popular tunes and most of them sound polished with the possible exception of the Elvis hit "Blue Christmas", which sounds mostly like a county classic. On This Winter's Night now contains sixteen tracks.
This year we don't need someone who sounds like a throwback to the golden age of jazz/pop, because now you can hear the real thing on Peggy Lee's Ultimate Christmas. In the pre-Beatles era, the go to label for Christmas recordings was always Capitol. This 22 track collection includes her sides from Capitol, Decca, and Disney Records. Collected here are all ten tracks from her 1960 Christmas album along with a number of singles and her soundtrack from Lady and the Tramp. If you've listened to any of Capitol's excellent vault releases from this period, you know that singers were generally paired with bandleaders and orchestras. This record puts Lee with some excellent orchestras with very strong backing singers. Added to that is guest singer Bing Crosby, sounding his coolest on "Little Jack Frost Get Lost" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." The pleasures of this record are wall-to-wall, but I'll just mention a couple more. Six of the songs were written or co-written by Lee. Her "Peace On Earth, making its digital debut here, features a chorus singing her composition, while she (at the same time) sings the traditional carol "Silent Night." This charming mash-up was used in Lady and the Tramp. Take a little trip back to the last century with Peggy Lee's Ultimate Christmas.
The Christmas Trilogy collects the three Christmas albums by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) and also includes a DVD. Despite the image created by the name, TSO is an American rock band that specializes in big, dramatic productions with a large cast of musicians and singers. It doesn't stop there with lighting, sound, and staging that makes for a total experience. With a strong dose of Christmas music, their approach runs the gamut from delicate to bombastic, think Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd rolled into something like a Cirque du Soleil show without the acrobats. Fans may want to know that the three CDs in the set (Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas) are the same as the original albums without additional material. Likewise, the DVD, "The Ghosts of Christmas Eve," is previously released.
An album such as this is only as good as it's track list, and this one is superb. I'd like to write about virtually every track, but in the interest of time and space, I will simply direct you to your nearest platform for streaming and/or purchase. In addition, the original versions of songs that get covered on lots of Christmas albums are here, including Stevie Wonder's "Some Day at Christmas" and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas", among others. The degree to which this album overlaps with others is remarkably small. I do have to mention "Silent Night" by the Temptations. Generally, that song is one that I don't need to hear by every different artist, but this version is a showstopper. The bass singer gets to sing an entire verse; he is someone who we have heard only rarely and he is a total delight. I could say the same about all of the performances on this great track, and I might point out that this is only one of the eighteen tracks on this disc.
Rick Wakeman has the supreme pedigree of being the keyboard player of Yes during their progressive peak. As such, playing the piano seems to come easy for him. He is able to express his stated love for Christmas musically. Christmas Variations offers a handful of well known carols along with some selections that are less so. It's primarily a piano album with organ and synthesizer applied judiciously for maximum effect. This album, first released in 2000, has been remastered and expanded in a deluxe reissue. The two bonus tracks include a nice live version of “Amazing Grace”.