Gift Guide: The Best New Christmas Albums

Neal Pawley and Thomas Foyer are two highly-schooled musicians who have worked with everyone from Quincy Jones to Willie Nelson. As 11 Acorn Lane, they let their quirky, decidedly non-commercial sides shine, with a delightful Christmas album called Happy Holy Days (Wooden Hat Records), which includes such carols as “Silent Night” and “Deck the Halls” along with their own original compositions. Their website accurately describes their music as “a buoyantly Esquivelian Sixties lounge aesthetic with modern electronica,” although it’s also infused with a high klezmer sensibility.

One of the most sadly unheralded guitar players ever, former Stray Cat Brian Setzer has spent the past two decades playing on and off with a big band. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Christmas Comes Alive! contains live versions of tunes from the ensemble’s previous Christmas albums, including “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” which features Setzer playing a smokin’ blues guitar that he’s not normally known for. It’s not just for Christmas – this one belongs in the CD player year ’round of anybody who likes great guitar playing and in-your-face horns.

Ronnie Spector is still kickin’ it after, what, 50 years in the business, and she’s celebrating the holidays with Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Ever (Bad Girl Sounds). There are five nice tracks here, four produced and arranged by veteran Philadelphia hit songwriter Bobby Eli, with sax player Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News sitting in on his original “My Christmas Wish.” Spector is indeed a living legend who set the standard for female vocalists in the early ’60s, and she’s obviously feeling the holiday spirit here.

Dave Barnes, known to many as a contemporary Christian singer-songwriter, has put together a nice collection of both originals and covers on Very Merry Christmas (Razor & Tie). Featuring tunes like Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” and Harry Connick, Jr.’s “I Pray On Christmas,” Barnes is assisted here by Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and India.Arie producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders. A really nice holiday record from a guy who namechecks Jesus first in the liner notes.

The Puppini Sisters, who have made it cool again to sing jazz and swing harmony, bring their bouncy, though decidedly 21st century, sound to the holidays on Christmas With the Puppini Sisters (Verve). While the trio can be reverent and straight on “O Holy Night,” they mostly go for the fun on tracks like “Santa Baby” and “Mele Kalikimaka.” Like Dave Barnes (but totally unlike him), the Puppinis also cover Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” showing that it’s not only still possible to write a song that can become a Christmas standard, but that it’s possible to write one so good that two such dissimilar artists can successfully cover it.

Titled simply Merry Christmas, and issued on her own Everso Records label, Shelby Lynne’s holiday offering features mostly traditional Christmas carols, with a couple originals and a version of Tex Logan’s country/bluegrass classic “Christmastime’s A-Coming.” No vocalists besides Lynne are listed, so it’s assumed she’s doing the nice vocal arrangements and harmonies by herself on tracks like “Santa Clause (sic) Is Coming to Town.” Saxman Dave Koz stops by to blow on Lynne’s jazzy original “Xmas.” It’s an album that doesn’t really feel all that Christmas-y, but is still a good, solid recording nonetheless.

Dan Hicks is as left-of-center as ever on his mostly original Crazy For Christmas (Surfdog), wearing his influences on his sleeve as usual: the Hot Club of France, Chicago blues and real country and western music tossed into a blender in an alley somewhere near the intersections of Haight and Ashbury Streets. Hicks and the Hot Licks create a sound that evokes images of Mr. Natural truckin’ along and Django Reinhardt puffing on a cigarette, playing music so rhythmic and bouncy that it could make a cadaver dance. In addition to Hicks’ own tongue-in-cheek, and often complex, ditties, the Christmas covers here include “I Saw Mommy Kissin’ Santa Claus” and Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Not much holiday reverence here, but lots of Christmas cheer.

For Happy Holly Days (Vanguard), the Indigo Girls spent a couple weeks in Nashville putting together what they wanted to hear in a Christmas CD, and they largely succeeded. With some help from banjoist Alison Brown and bassist Viktor Krauss (Alison Krauss’ brother), the Indigo Girls make their best effort to go bluegrass on several tracks, and they do a pretty good job of capturing the Appalachian Christmas spirit. They also do a nice cover of Chely Wright’s “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” and Woody Guthrie’s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah.” It’s kind of hard to listen to their arrangement of the great Christmas classic “O Holy Night,” but they absolutely nail most of the traditional Christmas songs on this album.

are a hilarious group of some of Nashville’s finest under-appreciated vocalists (Joanna Cotton, Perry Danos), performing songs by Nashville songwriting legends Don Pfrimmer, Mike Reid and Will Robinson on Merry Ex-Mas (Merry Ex-mas Records), a CD of “Holiday songs for the divorced and soon-to-be.” With excellently-written tracks like “Santa Claus Is Foolin’ Around,” “Frosty My Ex-Wife” and “Hark the Hell Has Just Begun,” this album belongs in the stocking of everyone who’s ever had a bad divorce, which means that it would be a good gift for about half of the adult population.

While most of the above were done for pleasure, camaraderie and worship, and in the hopes of breaking even, corporate America has to claim its piece of the Christmas pie. So, in the spirit of the crass commercialism that unfortunately ends up ruling during this supposedly sacred holiday, the cast of Glee has recorded a Christmas CD of its own with Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album (Sony). These folks can sing, and the production of a dozen carols and other Christmas classics, of course, is top-notch. But, except for kd lang’s appearance on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” there are no surprises here. Nevertheless, this will likely end up under a lot of Christmas trees.

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  1. Interesting recommendations, Rick. But, I think your readers might also find “A Christmas Cornucopia” by Annie Lennox worth consideration. She has crafted a beautiful album of the songs of her youth, in Scotland, with emphasis upon the qualities of the music which are independent of adherence to any particular dogma. Her commitment is to the music itself.

    Her songs are so lovely, they almost move me to agree with her claim that “Music is THE international language.” It is not. Love is the only language that speaks to all. Ask Nabokov. He would agree that music is not sufficient, which is all I need. It matters not that he, also, misunderstood love.

    To see the power of love, I would suggest listening to Ariana Grande’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” After considering the original lyrics, and Judy Garland’s change in same because they were “too depressing,” and Frank Sinatra’s later alteration, to suit his needs, I find Ariana’s astonishing, and breathtaking. It is hard to believe she is so young, and so beautiful, and so talented, and so full of love and joy. I imagine her brother Frankie has a lot to do with it. And her mother.

    In “As The Spirit Moves Mahalia,” Ralph Ellison, in the first two paragraphs of the essay, attempts to describe the love evoked by some female singers. He fails. I know, because I have have had similar experiences. I also know Miranda Cosgrove. Ralph Ellison did not. And, even though he was an extraordinary writer, and described aspects of the phenomena well, there was just not enough love to capture his heart. Miranda manages to do so with mine whenever she desires, even in her version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” with Big Time Rush and Fabio along for the ride. Her version of “Hey You” is the best there is.

    Joy to you, Rose.

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