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Christmas albums: The good, bad, and bah humbug!

| December 17, 2012

Merry Christmas, Baby
Rod Stewart takes the standards crooner-era of his career to the next level with *Merry Christmas, Baby*, a capable collection of Christmas favorites. He doesn’t break any new ground and even turns “Blue Christmas” into a snoozer, but when he gets together with the album’s guests he comes through with a few worthy finding under the tree. Cee Lo, Trombone Shorty, and a ’70s Motown beat wrap around like a warm blanket on the title cut while Ella Fitzgerald adds the Christmas cheer on the “virtual” duet, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” For most, the prospect of matching voices with Michael Bublé would be intimidating, but Stewart holds his own with the Canadian superstar for “Winter Wonderland.” “When You Wish Upon A Star” sounds out of place among the holiday classics. But the lone original, the ’50s rocker “Red-Suited Super Man,” sounds fresh with a story that doesn’t turn into holiday cheese. Makes you wish a few more had made the list.
Rating: 6
Rob LaFrentz

Christmas with Scotty McCreery
(Mercury Nashville/19/Interscope)
Spending Christmas with Scotty McCreery wouldn’t be so bad. A small-town boy at heart, he’d probably take you on a tour of his North Carolina environs then invite you to dinner with his family (who’d no doubt be playing his renditions of “Jingle Bells,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland” on the Bose). Then, maybe you’d go with everyone to church. You could even pew up next to Scotty during the singing of “O Holy Night” and “The First Noel” and verify whether his baritone twang as captured on his recordings is Auto-Tune free. Finally, later on by the fire after the eggnog had kicked in – but only then – he’d sing “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and his grandma would roll her eyes. But she’d be smiling.
Rating: 5
Arsenio Orteza

Silver And Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vols. 6-10
(Asthmatic Kitty)
Introductions to Sufjan Stevens came not via his acclaimed early “state” CDs (Michigan, Illinois) but, rather, his 2006 five-CD Songs For Christmas – a personal endeavor undertaken to better appreciate the holiday – and since then is annually challenged only by The Roches’ 1990 We Three Kings for holiday turntable dominance. Thus, this year’s follow-up, Silver And Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vols. 6-10 was greeted with great anticipation and, once again, Stevens delivers the goods with all the reverent and irreverent musical revelations engendered by (to quote from the copious liner notes) “the boundless Potential Energy inherent in this bastard holiday so fitfully exploited, subverted, confounded, expounded, adopted, and adapted with no regard for decency.” In the process, Stevens serves up carol/chorale classics and modern chestnuts in equal doses – both faithfully rendered and lovingly deconstructed. But, the originals among the 58 songs really stand out – some that could even rival “White Christmas” were they to attract mainstream holiday rotation. Instances of overwrought indulgence do creep in, but the truly inspired moments (cue: the musical saw) more than compensate.
Rating: 7
David C. Eldredge

Holidays Rule
(Hear Music/Concord Music)
Bing, we love ya, but the Crosby Christmas classics need to take a backseat to a new generation of yuletide renditions. This collection sports a who’s who of Daytrotter favorites and one Beatle. Paul McCartney further settles into his role as elder statesman on a comfy-as-a-pair-of-worn-in-slippers “The Christmas Song (Chesnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” while The Shins take on his “Wonderful Christmas Time” like a Beach Boys cover band. Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom bests Elvis on “Blue Christmas,” the ache in her voice conveying the deep funk of spending the holiday alone. Eleanor Friedberger’s tropical “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” sounds like an outtake from Roy Orbison’s 1988 television special, “A Black And White Night” filmed at Los Angeles’ Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Donning a pair of cowboy boots to shovel seems plausible thanks to Fruit Bats’ pedal steel drenched “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” Was Willie Nelson unavailable? “O Come O Come, Emmanuel,” under the tutelage of the Punch Brothers, ripples with Danny Elfman whimsy filtered through the tradition of Fiddler On The Roof. Andrew Bird closes out the album and the season with a plucky “Auld Lang Syne.”
Rating: 7
Janine Schaults

Ultimate Christmas Collection
Take 2003’s What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? in a jewel case and last year’s O Christmas Three in a digipack bound together by an outer slipcase and that’s exactly what’s inside Chicago’s Ultimate Christmas Collection. In other words, it’s completely pointless to purchase for fans who already own both offerings, although those who don’t are sure to find a deal with 34 horn-flanked holiday hits for under ten bucks. As for the tunes contained therein, they range from the vibrant “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and the funky “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the somewhat forced Dolly Parton duet “Wonderful Christmas Time” and the almost unbearably goofy “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”
Rating: 5
Andy Argyrakis

This Christmas
(Universal Music Enterprises)
Spend the holidays with Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsen. Only fond memories of the Grease twosome and the pair’s undeniable chemistry keep this vanity project (all for charity, of course) from tanking (the album cover’s Botox smiles repel more than invite.) John Travolta delivers “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” as Pulp Fiction’s unruffled hitman Vincent Vega while Olivia Newton-John pounces in leather-clad Sandy mode on “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” where she’s the one pleading to extend the date into a sleepover. A guest appearance by Barbra Streisand turns “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” into an uneven ménage à trois (never choose an outsider hotter, or in this case one more vocally dominant, than the primary couple) and Tony Bennett regulates Travolta to third wheel status for the jazzy, brushed beat of “Winter Wonderland.” The actors shine on the title track, but bland instrumentation sucks the soul right out of the classic. John Farrar, who penned “You’re The One That I Want” for Grease’s climatic scene, contributes “I Think You Might Like It,” which finds the duo crossing over into Bon Jovi’s Lost Highway territory.
Rating: 6
Janine Schaults

A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years
(Big Machine)
Most of the performances on this all-new, pop/rock collection do right by the season. Devout delicacy (Jewel’s “Angels We Have Heard On High,” Rascal Flatts’ “Mary, Did You Know?”) balances trifling catchiness (Wonder Girls’ “Best Christmas Ever,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” rewrite, “I Want You For Christmas”). And Dave Matthews Band’s “Christmas Song” still sounds like Jesus Christ Superstar condensed into five minutes and 11 seconds (a good thing). It’s too bad that Train’s “Joy To The World” kicks off both this album’s standard and deluxe editions. Pitched beyond Patrick Monahan’s vocal range, it suggests that someone really should give these guys the gift of transposing.
Rating: 6
Arsenio Orteza

Cheers, It’s Christmas
(Warner Bros.)
Blake Shelton taps friends and family for his seventh release, a collection of Christmas classics alongside a group of hit-or-miss originals. He shines when paired with wife Miranda Lambert for “Jingle Bell Rock” and his version of “Blue Christmas” with Lambert’s girl group Pistol Annies is so much fun even The King would be swaying along. But, when Xenia joins her “Voice” mentor for “Silver Bells” they collide like a scratchy 45 and an Auto-Tuned ingénue. Three of the 14 tracks give Shelton co-writing credit. “Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train” is a toe-tapper, but it just feels like a throw-away track with some Santas thrown in while “The Very Best Time Of Year” features some great slide guitar. But, it’s not until he duets with co-writer and mother, Dorothy Shackleford on “Time For Me To Come Home,” that his true Christmas spirit comes through.
Rating: 4
Rob LaFrentz

Choral singing is par for the course at Christmastime, especially in churches where Santa and his elves have no place in the seasonal celebration. But, imagine walking into a holy space and hearing the strains of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The Kolacny Brothers brought their rotating cast of Belgian songbirds to the forefront with their haunting version of Radiohead’s “Creep” in the transfixing trailer for The Social Network. Now, December finds the collective of roughly 40 putting their unique stamp on some not-so-obvious holiday fare along with a few selections that just feel like winter. The sterile, contemplative “My December” washes away any trace of Linkin Park while a perfect-on-paper interpretation of Damien Rice’s “Eskimo” underwhelms until the final operatic push where the all-female chorale’s voices reach the stratosphere. Sarah McLachlan’s “Wintersong” loses some of its desperation in the pristine arrangement, but the heavenly harmonies land like fresh snow. The stiff “Downton Abbey” theme “Did I Make The Most Of Loving You?” suits the group exquisitely while the hushed Kolacny original “Tears Can Sparkle Too” deserves a spot at midnight mass.
Rating: 7
Janine Schaults

Christmas Spirit
On his first ever full-length holiday recording, Richard Marx blends engaging originals and well-crafted covers, united by his smooth singing style and tasteful arrangements. Though the project periodically takes a poppy and festive approach, much of the collection is steeped in understated simplicity that favors timelessness over timeliness. Marx’s most moving moments come throughout the gorgeous acoustics of “O Holy Night” and the richly textured “Little Drummer Boy,” while the jazzy “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and the catchy title cut (co-written with The Tubes’ Fee Waybill) stir up the most joyful sentiments. Yet, it’s the Kenny Loggins duet, “Let There Be Peace On Earth” that simultaneously soothes with its serene beauty and uplifts with a message that poignantly summarizes the season.
Rating: 8
Andy Argyrakis

Cee Lo’s Magic Moment
With the glut of holiday albums flooding the stores finding one that’s not just a retread of the usual Christmas fare can be tough. And then there’s Cee Lo. The favorites are featured: a rollicking version of “White Christmas;” “Run Rudolph Run” is funked up with a soulful dose of a Hammond organ; Rod Stewart lends his sandy vocals to a catchy “Merry Christmas, Baby,” new life is given to “Please Come Home For Christmas;” and Christina Aguilera’s voice is a beautiful contrast on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” But what makes Cee Lo’s Magic Moment shine are the touches he puts on other Christmas classics. “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” still scares with a cappella all-stars Straight No Chaser. “What Christmas Means To Me” oozes Motown doo-wop and Kermit, Miss Piggy, and other Muppet regulars riff “Mah Nà Mah Nà” on “All I Need Is Love.”
Rating: 7
Rob LaFrentz

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