From Ne-Yo to Lea Michele to Chicago, there's a little something for everyone.
Ne-Yo, “Another Kind of Christmas” (Motown/Compound Entertainment)
When it comes to holiday albums, Ne-Yo’s got two great things going for himself: a beautiful voice, plus a merry and bright charisma that makes him a shoe-in for anybody’s holiday TV special. For that reason, the singer’s latest release, “Another Kind of Christmas,” comes as no surprise, though it is a bit of a shocker that this is Ne-Yo’s first Christmas album.
The set includes a handful of yuletide classics, which Ne-Yo manages to modernize, without messing up. He combines beautiful harmonies with a bit of beatboxing on “The Christmas Song”; plays his own backup on a slightly slowed down and swagged up version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”; and he is moving on his cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” — a song delivered from the perspective of a prisoner of war.
Ne-Yo also introduces his own original holiday tunes, including the fun reggae-influenced “Christmas Vibez” featuring Satori and Dre Island. Naughty jam “Open Mine Tonight” — about a little Christmas night nooky — is another standout. And then there’s “Talk About It,” where Ne-Yo paints a spirited picture of holidays at home, complete with aunties in the kitchen, mama’s spiked eggnog and squabbles that get squashed just in time for dinner.
“Another Kind of Christmas” packs a couple holiday gems, and it's just the kind of Christmas gift Ne-Yo fans deserve.
Lea Michele, “Christmas in the City” (Sony Masterworks)
It might be hard to believe, but Lea Michele has never put out a Christmas album.
That changes this year with the 11-track “Christmas in the City,” which is exactly what you’d expect when the former “Glee” star tackles holiday classics — graceful, tasteful and lushly produced (by “Glee” songwriters/producers Adam Anders and Peer Astrom.) Alongside “Silver Bells” and “Silent Night,” Michele even offers a new one she co-wrote, “Christmas in New York,” where she sings that “from Harlem to the Battery/Every corner’s bustling.”
Michele doesn’t mess with the classics, she just perfects them, blessed with a crystal-clear voice and slathering them with a childlike, sugary joy. Darren Criss stops by for a lovely “White Christmas” and Jonathan Groff for a twangy “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
One rare stumble is her cover of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from “Frozen” that seems too lounge-y. But stick around for her sublime “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and a knockout duet with Cynthia Erivo on “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Michele has delivered a modern treasure.
Los Lobos, “Llegó Navidad” (Rhino)
Chicano rock pioneers Los Lobos waited 47 years to record their first Christmas album and, perhaps not surprisingly, the work takes the veteran group back to its beginnings, the years when members grew up fusing rock ‘n’ roll with sounds they heard echoing from backyard gatherings in largely Latino East Los Angeles.
The result is “Llegó Navidad” — Spanish for “Christmas is Here” — a collection of traditional mariachi, salsa and son jarocho songs infused with a dose of rock ‘n’ roll to create a holiday recording pretty much like no other.
The musicians manage to hit all the traditional themes — from the birth of Jesus to decorating the tree in “La Rama” to the sadness of being alone during the holidays in “Amarga Navidad.”
All the while, they move effortlessly from traditional Mexican instruments to electric guitars as their vocals vary from Spanish to English.
They also throw in a few more recognizable tunes like the Tex-Mex rocker “It’s Christmas Time in Texas,” the comical ‘50s novelty hit “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” and the José Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad.”
Their best, however, is the album’s only original, “Christmas and You,” from Lobos songwriters Louie Perez and David Hidalgo.
For heartbreak, it puts Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” to shame.
Chicago, “Chicago Christmas (2019)” (Rhino)
If you’re curling up near the fireplace and the Christmas tree in an amorous mood with a loved one, there may be no better holiday album to listen to this Christmas than “Chicago Christmas (2019).”
But if you’re driving in your car listening to it, there may not be a more dangerous one: it could easily put you to sleep, making you drive off the road and crash. In their latest stab at Christmas music, the ‘70s supergroup whose iconic horn section helped define the sound of a generation of pop music plays it slow and gentle here, one track after another of what used to be called “easy listening” music that should prove unavoidable in dentist office waiting rooms throughout the world.
In an earlier Christmas album, Chicago penned an enduring holiday standard in “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” which most fans know by its chorus of “What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?” That track was rocking, up-tempo, tongue-in-cheek fun. Sadly, there’s nothing like that here. A salsa version of “Here We Come A Caroling” finally shows a pulse, but all in all, this album is strictly couples’ therapy.
The McCrary Sisters, “A Very McCrary Christmas” (Rounder)
Joy is just a three-letter word, as gospel legend Shirley Caesar notes in a spirited riff on “Joyful, Joyful” from the McCrary Sisters’ new holiday album. But if you were looking to wrap the season into one joyful package, “A Very McCrary Christmas” would do it.
The sisters, renowned Nashville background singers, range around in styles under the gospel canopy, from a spirited, bass-driven “Joy to the World” to a movingly somber take on “What Child Is This?” featuring Americana mainstay Buddy Miller.
The album pulsates with classic and modern gospel arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sunday morning church service at the height of the holiday season — if the house band featured big-time talent from across the music spectrum.
Alison Krauss lends stellar vocals to a majestic take on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Bluesman Keb’ Mo’ shares lead vocals with Regina McCrary on a soulful version of “Away in a Manger” that also features elegant playing by lap steel virtuoso Jerry Douglas.
The reason the sisters did the album, according to Deborah McCrary, was to “put the reason back in the season.”
Consider it done, joyfully.
Rob Halford, “Celestial” (Legacy Recordings)
The man they call the Metal God is famous for writing songs like “Devil’s Child,” “A Touch of Evil,” “Sinner” and “Saints In Hell.” But if you think that’s all Rob Halford thinks about, you’ve got another thing coming.
“Celestial,’’ his latest foray into Christmas music, is chock full of reverential religious lyrics about God, Jesus, salvation and the nativity. It might seem a bit jarring to hear the leather-clad, Harley-riding metalhead singing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” But he puts it over with a startling sincerity and sense of innocent fun.
It kicks off with a roar on “Donner and Blitzen,” one of three original tracks on the album, and one that would be at home on the best Judas Priest albums. And lest the “Fa-la-la-la-las” of “Deck the Halls” skew too lightweight, the backing track and melody are pure minor-chord mayhem.
His treatment of Christmas classics covers a wide range, with the most interesting being a complete reworking of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with a new melody and backing chords that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the traditional arrangements. But they captivate in their originality.
And the twin guitar solos that help many a heavy metal track shred are employed to devastating effect on “Joy to the World.”
Keb' Mo', “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You” (Concord Records)
Now that he’s all grown up, Keb’ Mo’ is fed up with Christmas. He has great holiday memories about family gatherings, caroling, sledding, Santa Claus and gifts.
But the stressed-out adult in him is weighed down by maxed-out credit cards and all he wants is to move further along the calendar.
Thankfully, it’s just a charade and Mo’ even makes “Christmas Is Annoying” the shortest by far of the 10 songs on the first Christmas album of his career.
The rest of the tunes may be more serious, but only just, as Mo’ keeps sentiments on the light side as he blends a variety of blues styles with pop, R&B and jazz with the guest vocals of Melissa Manchester and some oh-so-cute backing from singing children.
There are also quality guests among his songwriting partners, like Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mac Davis, while covers include tunes by Koko Taylor, Teddy Edwards and Irving Berlin.
Mo’ sounds at home in all genres, but he excels here on the blues tracks, including “Santa Claus Blues,” “Merry, Merry Christmas” and “Santa Claus, Santa Claus.”
Ana Gasteyer, “Sugar & Booze” (Henry's Girl Records)
If the season is bringing you too much sweetness, turn to Ana Gasteyer. The “Saturday Night Live” alum brings a tasty tang — in one song she encourages us to “pour a nip into that nog” — to her 15-track Christmas collection, “Sugar & Booze.”
Gasteyer’s album, which includes some songs she co-wrote as well as classic tunes, has a retro, 1950s feel, with big band horns and jazzy drum brushes. Her quirky humor is arch, often subversive toward the very holiday she’s celebrating. “He's Stuck in the Chimney Again” is about an overweight Kriss Kringle, “Blue Black Friday” complains about “family drama, nothing new” and she insists “Nothing Rhymes with Christmas” but finds one word at least — isthmus.
Fellow “SNL” cast-member Maya Rudolph joins her on the Cuban-based, hysterically rude “Secret Santa” and Gasteyer includes her Hanukkah song “In the Market for a Miracle” from the live TV version of “A Christmas Story.” When it comes to classics like “Let It Snow,” Gasteyer makes them all her own, somewhat maniacally.
This is the perfect soundtrack to a holiday party filled with fun, saucy people.
Various artists, “Hanukkah +” (Verve Forecast)
Why should all the music love go to Christians over the holidays? Music supervisor Randall Poster has come to Hanukkah’s rescue by spearheading a song collection inspired by the Jewish holiday.
The 12-track “Hanukkah +” is wonderfully strange, ranging from jokey and folky to confessional, all bookended by two traditional songs performed by Jack Black, who brings his off-kilter, disruptive energy.
His take on “Oh Hanukkah” leads off the collection, which is heavy on references to latkes, dreidels and menorahs. The trio HAIM sing Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” and Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches turns his tune, “Dreidels of Fire,” into a look back at heartbreak. “She turned my festival of lights into a festival of pain,” Green sings.
Alex Frankel from the electronic duo Holy Ghost! sings in a computer-altered voice about a specific holiday memory in “Hanukkah in ‘96.” The Flaming Lips offer their original “Sing It Now, Sing It Somehow.”
The standout is Loudon Wainwright III’s “Eight Nights a Week,” a hysterical tune from a gentile that references Irving Berlin, alternate-side parking and how Hanukkah “seems less fraud and more fun to me” than Christmas. It deserves a place in your rotation beside the classics.
Warren Haynes, "Warren Haynes Presents The Benefit Concert Vol. 16” (Evil Teen Records)
Since the late 1980s, Warren Haynes has made a tradition of his Christmas Jam, an annual event in Asheville, North Carolina, benefiting the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
Haynes has also made a tradition of releasing albums from the concerts, usually years after they were recorded.
Volume 16 of the series continues in that vein, presenting the 2014 show in more formats — from CD and DVD to vinyl and Blu-ray and beyond — than you’ll find Christmas jelly bean colors. The album includes 10 songs, the film, 16.
A who’s who of jam bands and Southern rockers — from Haynes’ own Gov’t Mule and Bill Kreutzmann’s Billy & the Kids to Jason Isbell, Hard Working Americans, Col. Bruce Hampton, Duane Trucks, Paul Riddle and many others — perform spirited renditions of songs from the Marshall Tucker Band (“Can’t You See,” “Southern Woman”) Neil Young (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Tonight’s the Night”) the Grateful Dead (“Shakedown Street”), The Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and more.
They may not have much, if anything, to do with traditional Christmas songs, but it’s the thought that counts — and the millions of dollars raised so far for a great cause.
Bryan Adams, “Christmas” (Polydor/UMe)
It’s not easy to write an original Christmas song that will be remembered from year to year. Bryan Adams has already done it twice, penning two recurring Christmas staples with “Christmas Time” and “Reggae Christmas.”
With “Joe and Mary,” one of two new tracks on this 5-song EP, Adams may have done it again. The song, set to classic Chuck Berry chords and riffage, updates the nativity scene to the modern day. The young couple travel “in a beat-up Buick” to a Motel 6, hoping there will be room for Mary to have her baby. You know the rest.
The other new track is his version of the children’s Christmas song “Must Be Santa,” which has been a staple of countless kindergarten holiday recitals. This version comes complete with child backup singers and should be good for a few smiles.
Together with his ‘80s Christmas anthems, also included here, Adams cuts like a knife through the morass of mediocre holiday music out there.
Andrew Bird, "HARK!" (Loma Vista Recordings)
Whether whistling, singing or playing the violin, Andrew Bird rarely takes the straight and narrow path, whether it’s salvation or damnation at play. Or great music.
“HARK!” is capitalized, as if to grab your attention, and while there are no herald angels about, Bird bookends the record with a pair of inspired originals — the pleading “Alabaster” and the rousing, encouraging “Night’s Falling.”
In between are a pair of fabulous instrumental covers of compositions from Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — the flowing, billowy “Skating” and “Christmas is Coming,” which is jazzy and partly whistled. Both have guitar solos that appear to require what so many family band performances around the Christmas tree need: more practice.
Also on hand are takes on even older classics, including “White Christmas,” where Bird’s voice is enveloped in the 1950s style of Buddy Holly.
Bird's whistling on some of the songs begs the speculation that had he been born a few decades earlier, it could have been him making the eerie sounds on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” not the notoriously capricious theremin.
Josh Rouse, “The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse” (Yep Roc Records)
Full of pure sentiments, from nostalgia and mirth to melancholy and heartbreak, Josh Rouse’s holiday album is too cool for Yule.
Including nine original tunes written over several years, Rouse’s decision to mostly avoid typically wintry sounds gives him the freedom to approach the holidays with his personal style.
Emphasizing acoustic, or barely electric, arrangements, the band — including returning producer and keyboardist Brad Jones, bassist James Haggerty and musician-brothers Marc and Joe Pisapia — is as nimble as Santa’s helpers.
Opener “Mediterranean X-Mas” has its roots in Rouse’s many years in Spain, while “Letters in the Mailbox” is a Chris Isaak-style lament.
“Lights of Town” quotes the “Baby Just Cares for Me” bass and piano and feels, along with several other songs and the cover art, like something from the first few seasons of “Mad Men.”
“Easy Man” is about enjoying domestic bliss without quite slipping into docility, while “Heartbreak Holiday” is a chirpy take about getting dumped.
The songs here sound like they could have been included on any of Rouse’s excellent “regular” releases. It’s what makes them so enjoyable and fitting for many occasions.