The Best Christmas Music of 2021; Unwrap Holiday Gifts from Paul Gilbert, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Tenille Townes, The Sweeplings, Shaggy, Orleans, Kristin Chenoweth, Brett Eldredge, Pentatonix and Many More Including Putamayo's Christmas Jazz Mix & A Single by A New Mariah Carey Supergroup
So, at least 2021 was a better year than 2020. At least you might think that if you didn't watch the news. I could never actually do that, but that's a story for another day, possibly another blog. Maybe the solution is to just surround yourself with music.
Just when you thought that nothing could be new in holiday music, that is all been said and done before, along comes this year's batch of holiday creations. I genuinely like all of the new releases listed below, but if you'd like to see my top ten, they're shown within the title of this article.
Below, you will find select titles from the 2021 releases. Listen to them on your favorite streaming service, download them from your favorite platform, or swim upstream and buy a physical copy (direct from the artist, if you can) and enjoy. Here at Music & More, we wish you a safe, happy and healthy holiday season with our best wishes for a happy new year in 2022.
New goodies for 2021:
Cain is also the last name of the three siblings from Alabama who formed this successful Christian country band. With a full length debut album already to their credit, Wonderful seems poised to expand their audience. On the two original compositions, all three Cains co-write and harmonize, and each track features a guest artist. They open with a solid version of Phil Spector's "(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home". They also sound good on Kenny Loggins' "Celebrate Me Home" and on the rarely covered "Grown-up Christmas List", a song that's hard not to love once you've heard it. They close the record with a more traditional rendering of "O Come All Ye Faithful". Wonderful features Logan on lead vocals with harmony from her brother and sister making for a very listenable Christmas EP.
Mariah Carey, Khalid, Kirk Franklin - Fall in Love at Christmas
A beautiful, original Christmas tune by a new supergroup consisting of Mariah Carey, who needs no introduction, R & B singer Khalid, and gospel musician Kirk Franklin. The three of them sound great together and Franklin adorns the song with the sound of a gospel choir. This single comes in three versions, whether you steam, download or purchase it on CD.
Don't miss Kristin Chenoweth's new holiday entry HAPPINESS is…Christmas!. If you do, you will miss one the most inventive, well selected, and surprising albums of this season. Chenoweth opens the album with the title track medleyed with "Christmas Time Is Here", the Vince Guaraldi classic, which starts and ends the track, setting a nice tone for the album. Chenoweth medleys like that a couple times on this album. She does The Carpenters' (rarely covered) "Merry Christmas, Darling", sounding good too. There's also a Hanukkah tune here, the lovely "We Are Lights". At one point, Chenoweth totally shifts gears into a great sounding blues version of "Merry Christmas Baby", singing duet with Keb' Mo'. This is a very well thought out and well executed record, destined to surely make your holiday spirits brighter.
On Kelly Clarkson's second Christmas album, she shows why her pipes won her the first season of American Idol and why she's a coach on The Voice. The album is comprised of mostly originals. On three of these, she sings duets with special guests Chris Stapleton on "Glow," Ariana Grande on "Santa, Can't You Hear Me," and on the first bonus track "Under the Mistletoe" she sings with Brett Eldredge. In addition to the originals, there are also four familiar favorites: "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Santa Baby," and "Last Christmas." Clarkson sounded excellent performing much of this album on a network television special in prime time that followed the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Heady stuff to be sure, but a great way to get into the spirit of the season.
When Brett Eldredge released his first Christmas album Glow in 2016, he surprised everyone because the album sounded so much like Frank Sinatra. On his new album Mr. Christmas, he expands his musical horizons to include some reasonable R&B. A very Sinatra-esque "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" opens the album. The two R&B songs follow with the first being the title track "Mr. Christmas" (the only original), then the classic "Merry Christmas Baby." Other than those two, there are three traditional Christmas carols on which, although Eldredge sounds more like himself, you can still hear how much his natural singing voice sounds like Sinatra. The other six songs (including the opener) are mostly familiar popular songs. One that may not be so familiar is Louis Armstrong's "Cool Yule," which may be the most interesting track on the record. Originally released by Armstrong in 1955, Eldredge not only makes the song his own but he makes it sound new. Incidentally "Cool Yule" was written by Steve Allen, yes that Steve Allen. In addition to being the first host of the Tonight Show, a comedian, an actor, and a writer, he was also an accomplished songwriter. Eldridge sings it in his own voice and although there's nothing specifically country about it, this could be a sleeper hit on country radio. Brett Eldredge is undoubtedly Mr. Christmas.
I am happy to include this album because it is not only enjoyable, but it is unlike most other holiday albums you've probably heard. Paul Gilbert is primarily known for being a heavy metal and hard rock guitarist. He also started the band Mr. Big and recorded with Racer X. This new holiday project is his 17th solo album. Although Gilbert is immensely talented, his name might be more well-known to aficionados of the genre. He can shred, slice, and dice with the best of them. In my experience, high speed guitarists have amazing technique, but melody is often left in the dust. 'Twas, however, is overflowing with melody, which he plays to the hilt on his red, white, and green Ibanez guitars. Gilbert plays instrumental versions of his favorite Christmas tunes along with two new originals. On the well known Christmas classics, Gilbert's lead guitar takes the place of the vocals, all with maximum sustain. Here is Paul Gilbert talking about this incredible record: "Ten of the songs are classics. I was inspired by the Christmas recordings of Nat King Cole, Loretta Lynn, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Ventures. And of course, inspiration came from my guitar heroes, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Lifeson, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Pat Travers, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page, to name a few. I also wrote some of my own new Christmas songs. As I have been doing recently, I begin with lyrics and a melody. Then I let my guitar take over, as it sings better than I do."
If you feel like you haven't lived until you hear Mr. White Wedding sing "White Christmas", you are in luck because it's included in Billy Idol's new Happy Holidays album. Idol's always had a strong voice and even though he has sounded slightly ironic on recent guest appearances on other people's albums, it sure sounds like he's being sincere here (the opening "Frosty the Snowman" notwithstanding). This album romps through fourteen familiar favorites plus one new original that Idol co-wrote. Otherwise, the songs on this record are old and older, including some fine rock and roll classics. It may not be what you were expecting, but maybe it is.
In preparation for this blog, I listened to a lot of holiday albums all the way through. But, in the case of Cody Johnson, I don't mind saying that he had me at the first three songs. "Christmas All Year Long" opens proceedings with a lyrical message that can't be beat, with strong vocals, performances and production. As a Texas country artist, Johnson's next priority is covering Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper", which he does quite nicely. For his trifecta, Johnson sings "I'll Be Home For Christmas" wringing out all the joy and regret that the song is worth. All told, Johnson gives us two originals (written by his producer Trent Willmon, including the aforementioned opening track), two carols (with his family on "Silent Night"), and the rest are his versions of favorite songs including one by Merle Haggard and an arousing "Feliz Navidad" featuring Roger Creager and Kevin Fowler.
Fans of Norah Jones are going to love this one. Roughly half the tracks are new holiday themed originals, showing why Jones has worked at the top of her game ever since her first album netted her a boatload of Grammys nearly two decades ago. Jones does the familiar selections her way without sacrificing the melodies. "Christmas Don't Be Late" features an interesting contradiction. A kids' song by Alvin and the Chipmunks until recently, Jones gives the tune a decidedly New Orleansian swagger. You may ask why "White Christmas"?, and I will tell you that it is reputed to be the most recorded song of all time; so why not? "Run Rudolph Run" gets more of a shuffle than the straight ahead rock that you hear on most versions of the Chuck Berry classic. The Elvis hit "Blue Christmas" sounds ideal in this jazzy blues version. Jones is a natural to sing Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here", and not just because it was written as a jazz composition. Here she captures the joy mingled with sadness that makes the song great. "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" is made for the jazz treatment that closes the album quite nicely. Note: Completists may want to know that there is an extra track "O' Holy Night" that is on a Target Exclusive and she also did "The Christmas Waltz" that you can purchase on MP3. *The digital deluxe edition features three new songs. The title track, 'I Dream of Christmas,' plus 'Last Month of the Year' and the classic 'I'll Be Home for Christmas.'
Here are five more holiday-themed originals, none of which are on I Dream of Christmas. You may be familiar with "Peace" because it's been on various artists' holiday albums for many years. This five track EP is only available for streaming.
Orleans sounds so good on this, their first holiday album, you might be tempted to wonder where they've been since their big hits in the '70s. The answer, according to John Hall, is that other than a fifteen year hiatus they've been making music all along. John, who was a most interesting subject of a detailed interview on The Bob Lefsetz Podcast, explains that he has represented his area as a US Congressman and directed his local school board. Over the years, there have been records by Orleans as well as solo projects, but this Christmas album is a first. The sound is a nice combination of acoustic and electric instruments with drums that complete the Orleans sound. Most of the tracks here will be unfamiliar except two that you might know, the traditional "Mary Had a Baby" and the well known "Winter Wonderland." The other ten tracks are either originals or they are songs that they picked up along the way. Orleans has the knack for making songs that sound like they may become part of future holiday seasons. This is one album that suggests the warm glow of a wood fire (to borrow a phrase) along with the warm feeling you get from seeing a Christmas tree with its lights on. I get all that, and more, just listening to New Star Shining.
Evergreen is their fifth Christmas album if you don't count their "best of" Christmas album. They have been one of the premiere a cappella groups releasing holiday albums, and they've never sounded better than they do on Evergreen. Even the sound of instruments, which is all generated from the mouth, sounds so realistic that on some of these tracks you'd swear that they were using real drums or real violins. Some of the songs are not really holiday songs persay (classics written by Stevie Wonder, Sammy Cahn /Jules Styne), I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a popular song that everyone knows may be preferable to an obscure holiday tune. Even with as many albums as they've done, I don't think that they're running out of Christmas songs.
With voices this good it's all about the voices, or so you might think listening to Hell of a Holiday. First things first; this is the group's first Christmas album and their fourth album overall. The Pistol Annies are Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Along with the Pistol Annies, each one has a career as a country singer-songwriter. As great as they sound at full tilt like on the excellent title track, they get even better when they slow it down as they do on several tracks here, like the gorgeous "Joy" (and it has an equally expressive organ solo to boot). If you're of a mind to hear some holiday music that doesn't draw, for the most part, from the well-known holiday repertoire, you've come to the right place. Hell of a Holiday features ten originals, one cover that you might not know, plus their take on "Winter Wonderland", and they close the record with an a cappella rendering of the Robert Burns classic "Auld Lang Syne".
A duo comprised of Cami Bradley and Whitney Dean, they've been recording as The Sweeplings since about 2015. Their holiday EP has a great relaxed production style that relies primarily on voice (hers) and piano. The Sweeplings open with the very infectious Mariah Carey hit "All I Want For Christmas Is You." You know a song has become iconic when there are not only many covers, but artists start doing it all kinds of different ways. Their inventive version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" follows and diverts from the expected melody in the middle, most agreeably so, and gives the EP its name. Then they offer two excellent originals before closing with an acoustic "O Holy Night." Very nice indeed.
Despite the high powered commercial nature of most mainstream country records, Tenille Townes has released a mostly acoustic four track EP for your holiday enjoyment. The relaxed vibe and her vocals and production make this one of the best things I've heard this year. Although I am still a strong proponent of the full length album as an art form, Townes' Songs for Christmas makes a good case that with well-selected songs you can get in, get out, and make your point in four tracks. In this case, she opens and closes with excellent new originals, and along the way she gives us Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song", winning our hearts in the process.
...in which a loosely defined string quartet plays classical sounding versions of the recent Christmas repertoire. As I was enjoying this, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Hampton String Quartet's What If Mozart Wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". In addition to the treatments being different, the album by the Vitamin String Quartet (after playing "Carol of The Bells") concentrates on more recent holidays hits. They do songs by Kelly Clarkson, Mariah Carey, Coldplay, Ariana Grande, Wham!, Kanye West, Alessia Cara, Sia, Queen, Justin Bieber, The Pogues, and John Williams. Some of these may tickle you like "All I Want For Christmas Is You" or "Fairytale of New York". I've been really getting into that Pogues' classic the last few years and it's cool to hear it covered on It Feels Like Christmas. Never mind that the group behind this is actually a factory of sorts with teams of arrangers, producers, and players with a total of over 400 albums to their credit. I say never mind all that because all the experience makes the end result so entertaining.
On this, jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum's second Christmas album, he hoped to avoid the usual overplayed Christmas tunes and the result is a most enjoyable set of holiday sax interpretations. Whalum is a family man, thus most of the guests on this record are relatives. He's also serious about Christmas, to the point that a number of selections are devotional in nature; even Mariah Carey's hit song inspired Whalum's slowed down version in terms of religious rather than social context. Being that it's instrumental, you might not even know that unless you'd seen Whalum's interview on the subject. Whalum strikes a good balance between vocals and instrumental tracks.
This Christmas album should be automatic for fans of Lucinda Williams. From the start, Williams has always had the best taste in guitarists dating back to Gurf Morlix who also produced her early work. Have Yourself A Rockin' Little Christmas is part of a series of live in-studio performances called Lu's Jukebox, in which Williams and her band do covers on a theme. This one is very electric guitar-centric. Lucinda lives at the intersection of country blues and rock, and this record is very bluesy. If you're into any of the things I've mentioned, you will take delight from these tracks. From what I've heard, all six volumes of this series are that way and I just can't get enough of all of it, especially the guitar work.
Also of note...
You may also be interested to know that Steve Perry, the original lead singer of Journey, joins the holiday fray this year with The Season. Similarly, Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty sounds particularly smooth on Something About Christmas Time, and he features a boatload of guests. Fans of alternative rock may want to check out A Drummer Boy Christmas by for KING & COUNTRY and Christmas Songs Vol. 1 by Manchester Orchestra. Country songwriter Phil Vassar recorded Noel and Steve Wariner offers up Feels Like Christmas Time. Darren Criss, veteran actor from Glee and American Crime Story, gives us A Very Darren Crissmas. Lee Aaron rocks it up on Almost Christmas. Singer/songwriter Lori McKenna released the fetching EP Christmas is Right Here with five of its six tracks McKenna originals. Pop, R&B, and hip-hop songstress Alessia Carra released an EP called Best Holiday, notable for her jazzy version of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)."
Reissues, Remasters, Collections, Expanded Deluxe Editions, and Etc.
Candace Night and (her husband) Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore collaborate as Blackmore's Night. They have been responsible for recording much Christmas music, specializing in British carols, many of which are centuries old. Her clear and melodic voice combines with his masterful acoustic guitar in mostly traditional backing. Winter Carols was first released in 2006 and this year it has been remastered and expanded to 27 tracks.
Christmas by Michael Bublé has been reissued in a deluxe edition and has been expanded to twenty five tracks. This album is reputed to be the biggest selling Christmas album of the current millenium. Christmas has also been the recipient of a 10th anniversary super deluxe edition, which contains all manner of exclusive doo-dads. With a price tag of $199.98, it's only for those with very deep pockets. Both the deluxe and the super deluxe contain the same seven extra tracks. For fans, the good news is that the deluxe edition contains two additional bonus tracks that are absent from the super expensive set. These tracks were contained on the original deluxe edition of Christmas when it was first released in 2011. This deluxe edition is only available for streaming and as an MP3 download. Bublé, who has often been compared to Frank Sinatra, has been gifted with a remarkable voice. On some songs that golden voice comes out sounding incredibly smooth and relaxed. His version of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" leads off Spotify's playlist of the 100 Greatest Christmas Songs Ever. Christmas Deluxe contains guest appearances by Shania Twain, The Puppini Sisters, Thalia, and Rod Stewart. Every collection needs an album of standards and you can't go wrong with this one.
June Christy had an incredibly smooth voice and she performed mostly with backing by a jazz orchestra or big band from the mid forties to the late sixties. The height of her success was during the 40s and 50s with her discography listing about 150 entries. It might be surprising then that she only recorded one Christmas album, This Time of Year (1961), which has now been reissued as Christmas With June Christy. This reissue contains all the tracks from the original album, although they have been resequenced. This Time of Year was a jazz-pop concept album according to Marc Myers on All About Jazz. Although I can't find any evidence that it was a single, some listeners may be familiar with the song "The Merriest," which was included among Capitol Records excellent series of various artists' Christmas albums.
Brit favorite Jamie Cullum's The Pianoman at Christmas started out as ten tracks that Cullum composed. That original 2020 release has be expanded to include two new originals and eleven mostly familiar holiday tunes recorded this year and also seven bonus tracks from last year. The jazzy pianoman approach works perfectly on songs like Mariah's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" or "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." He gives a good try on Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas," but that song really needs all the orchestra, chorus and bombast that Lake's single had to offer. Now a triple CD, fans will delight in these 30 tracks.
This is another unusual sounding Christmas record because it is authentic Jamaican reggae. Shaggy has been nominated for the Grammy Award a bunch of times, winning best reggae album of the year two times, one of which was for his duet album with Sting. On this deluxe edition, the 2020 album of 15 tracks expands to 19 tracks, including a Sting duet on "Silent Night." In addition to Joss Stone was also guest on it, Jamaican stars are all over this record joining Shaggy on one song or another. Stone sounds good on "Sunny Celebration" as does CARYS on "Catch Me Some Rays." There are also reggae versions of the familiar "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and "We Three Kings," each sung by Shaggy sans guests, and he does a standout job on these old favorites. The title track is cool, too, and features Rayvon's guest vocal. The best thing about this album is that the more you listen to the unfamiliar tunes, the more you may find yourself liking them. For reggae fans, Christmas in the Islands is essential, but I'd recommend it to everyone without reservation.
Last year's My Gift has been reissued in a special edition, which contains three extra tracks. Two of the three are new originals, which were featured in her HBO Max Christmas special. One of these, “Let There Be Peace/Something In The Water", is an exclusive live track that also features the McCrary Sisters. The other bonus track is a new studio recording of a classic Michael Smith tune.
This is a great concept for a Christmas album and the song choices are impeccable. From the press release: "This December, you'll be able to stand under the mistletoe or gather around the Christmas tree and hear the greatest holiday songs of all time like you've never heard them before – in true, glorious state-of-the-art stereo. Celebrate the Yuletide with both ears, as your 30 favorite hits of the season truly sound better than they ever have before with 15 songs making their stereo debut, including Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," the Harry Simeone Chorale's original "Little Drummer Boy," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home For Christmas" and the Drifters' smooth doo-wop take on "White Christmas." Plus 5 new stereo remixes of all-time Spector Christmas greats like the Ronettes' "Frosty The Snowman," "Sleigh Ride" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" as well as Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". And last, but certainly not least, the stereo debuts of 3 Elvis Christmas classics. One of the best stereo collections of seasonal sensations ever released." (Not previewed)
With the history of recorded music dating back over 100 years, there have been periods when spoken word recordings were important. Today, there are such a myriad of music recordings out there that spoken word can easily get lost in the shuffle. On this collection, there are voice actors and there are poets reading their own work. In the latter category, we have Dylan Thomas reading his own "A Child's Christmas in Wales," plus you hear Robert Frost reciting two of his own poems. In the former category, you get to hear Basil Rathbone reading the classic "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," as well as Richard Burton and Dulcie Gray intoning "Frost At Midnight." There are several other voice artists (including Claire Bloom, Alec Guinness and others) who read the rest of the works, which total 34 tracks running 75 minutes. The works on this collection preserve some historic voices and these tracks can't help adding a little drama to your holiday.
28 versions of "White Christmas" is not as ridiculous as it might seem. From the press release: "WHITE CHRISTMAS' is arguably the most famous song of all time; certainly it's the biggest seller, and it's probably also the most-recorded. The original recording was, of course by Bing Crosby, whose version has sold in it's countless millions over the ensuing seventy-nine years. Its writer, IRVING BERLIN, was famously the only Oscar presenter ever to open the envelope to read out his own name as the winner, when it won the Academy Award for "Best Original Song" in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. It soon became established as a "Standard" and was regularly revived throughout the 50s, by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, The Ravens, Ella Fitzgerald, Mantovani, Emile Ford, Peggy Lee, Chet Atkins, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Mahalia Jackson, The Drifters, Walter Brennan, Big Maybelle, Bobby Vee, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and many more. This inspired compilation presents twenty-eight memorable versions; nine male vocalists, seven female vocalists, seven vocal groups/duos, five instrumentals." (not previewed)
Here's another great label sampler LP that has just been remastered for CD. From the press release: "There is some debate as to whether this 1956 release from Hollywood Records was the first LP to compile Christmas music singles. But there is no debate that it's one of the best. Subtitled 'Intimate Christmas Music for Young Lovers,' its headliners were the original versions of two of the biggest R&B holiday hits of all time, Charles Brown's 'Merry Christmas, Baby' and Lowell Fulson's 'Lonesome Christmas (Parts 1 & 2),' but with other standouts like Mabel Scott's 'Boogie Woogie Santa Claus' (also a chartmaker), Jimmy Witherspoon's 'Christmas Blues' (formerly entitled 'How I Hate to See Xmas Come Around'), and a quartet of tunes from Johnny Moore's Blazers, there is not a weak track on the album. Bill Dahl's detailed notes and artist photos round out this first-ever CD reissue. And with a new remastering by Mike Milchner at Sonic Vision, never have the Christmas blues sounded so good!" (Not previewed)
Putumayo samplers are always superbly chosen and their Christmas jazz collection is no exception. Christmas music goes so well with jazz that it has been a valuable sub-genre for a long time. This mix works just as well as an introduction for the new listener as it will also delight the jazz fan. This full length album contains many types of jazz from great artists. It's mostly instrumental, but there are a couple of fine vocal tracks, too. I especially like that they chose to conclude the record with an original song by Charles Brown.