It’s been a rather prolific year for holiday albums — the 17 titles covered in this column even omit a few 2019 releases. And there aren’t any real duds, either. Here’s a look at this year’s best selections.
Idina Menzel – Christmas: A Season Of Love
If one 2019 Christmas album is likely to become a big seller year after year, it’s probably Christmas: A Season Of Love. Menzel, whose role in the Frozen movies has made her one of the world’s most popular vocalists, applies her considerable vocal talents to 18 songs, most of which are time-tested favorites. They’re given big, brassy treatments (that on occasion go just a bit overboard), but Menzel brings plenty of enthusiasm to this entertaining disc.
Keb’ Mo’ – Moonlight, Mistletoe & You
Keb’ Mo’ has never been strictly a bluesman, so it’s no surprise that this isn’t a one-trick holiday album. The title cut and “Better Every Day” have a good bit of Soul, while “Christmas Is Annoying” (about how perspectives on Christmas change when you grow up) has a jazzy feel and “One More Year With You” adds some Pop to the equation. The variety is welcome. One thing this warm, enjoyable holiday album won’t give you this season is the blues.
Los Lobos – Llegó Navidad
This great band from East Los Angeles brings a good bit of Mexican influence to its first Christmas album. But other locales — Colombia, Puerto Rico and Texas — also figure into the entertaining album, with most songs sung in Spanish. Llegó Navidad doesn’t feel like a holiday album, enabling it to play just as well when it’s sunny and 90 degrees out as when snow blankets the ground.
Chicago – Chicago Christmas
On their third Christmas album, Chicago goes primarily with songs penned by the band members. The group, which shows a bit more of an R&B slant in its horn-laced sound, deserves credit for taking such a risk. Some of the songs work well (“All Over The World,” “I’m Your Santa Claus” and “Bring My Baby Back,”), but a few others fall flat. Even with the duds, I find an album of originals more interesting than one of oft-covered standards.
Ne-Yo – Another Kind of Christmas
This refreshing effort also favors original songs and has its share of creativity. The funky “Just Ain’t Christmas” is a break-up song that gets a twist because it happens on Christmas Eve. “Open Mine Tonight” has some clever wordplay in its tale of Christmas Eve romance after the kids are asleep. On the other hand, “Christmas Vibez” goes for a tropical feel, but comes up a bit light in the song’s Reggae styling. But that’s one of the few flaws on the R&B singer’s fine holiday effort.
Mariah Carey – Merry Christmas: Deluxe Anniversary Edition
Carey’s hugely popular holiday album gets a 25th-anniversary expansion with a second disc that includes six tracks recorded in December 1994 at a benefit concert, plus remixes and a few other bonus tracks. If not essential, these extra goodies should entice many of the six million buyers of the original album to spring for the new version.
Lea Michele – Christmas in The City
The star of Glee has made a classic-sounding Christmas album, employing Big Band/orchestral arrangements. The collection is mostly made up of holiday standards, including her duets with Darren Criss (“White Christmas”) and Jonathan Groff (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”).
Josh Rouse – The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
For years, Rouse has been writing a Christmas song annually for his family. Eventually, he realized they would make up an interesting Christmas album. So here we have nine originals that feature Rouse’s familiar folky sound blended with dashes of Pop, Rock and Jazz and offer (mostly) lighthearted stories related to the season. Glad Rouse decided not to keep these songs in the family.
Silent Winters – Christmas Morning
This holiday album from the Canadian duo of Olenka Bastian and Jonathan Chandler is described in a press release as “fireside harmonies for a sparkling Christmas morning.” That pretty much captures the sound and feel. If you like spare Folk music, this album might get multiple spins while you’re roasting chestnuts this season.
Dave Koz – Gifts of the Season
Gifts of the Season offers more of what Koz’s previous six Christmas albums have delivered. It’s a set of Christmas standards given a smooth Jazz makeover. Koz’s accomplished and tasteful saxophone work often takes the lead, but guest vocalists, including Melissa Manchester, Jonathan Butler and Chris Walker, also provide highlights on this solid effort.
Rob Halford with Family & Friends – Celestial
Halford may be the turbo-lunged singer of Judas Priest, but Celestial, his second holiday album, isn’t strictly a head-banging affair. “Away in a Manger” has considerable ambience. “Morning Star” is a rootsy and gentle original tune, while another original, “Protected by the Light,” is an Irish-accented hymn complete with accordion. Of course, Halford can also crank it up, particularly on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Joy To The World” and “Deck The Halls.” Suffice it to say, the “fa-la-la-la-las” of the latter standard have never sounded quite like this.
The Oak Ridge Boys – Down Home Christmas
Working with in-demand producer Dave Cobb, this latest Oak Ridge Boys holiday album favors heartfelt and humorous contemporary songs co-written with the likes of Anderson East, Jamey Johnson and Mando Saenz. Cobb keeps the instrumentation lean and puts the four Oaks and their signature vocal harmonies out front, a wise approach that works well.
The Imaginaries – Hometown Christmas
Husband-and-wife duo Shane Henry and Maggie McClure have made minor waves as solo artists. Now paired up as The Imaginaries, they’ve made one of 2019’s best Christmas albums. Hometown Christmas is split evenly between familiar holiday tunes and equally strong original songs. With a cheery brand of organic Pop (think Sheryl Crow or Sara Bareilles), their songwriting chops shine on such appealing songs as “First Thing on My Christmas List,” “Christmastime Again” and “Kiss For Christmas.”
Meg & Dia – December, Darling
This sibling duo takes an intimate and low-key approach here, keeping instrumentation spare and their vocals out front. The effect is quite charming, if a bit simplistic. The renditions of favorites like “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow” and “White Christmas” are fine. But it’s the four originals that stand out, as the two sisters bring some memorable Pop hooks to the party on “Lights Blown Out” (a tender, lyrically creative ballad about holiday loneliness) and the title song (about the sights, sounds and feelings that make the season special).
Danny Gokey – The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Collection
Gokey offers both the expected (standards like “Silent Night” and “Come Let Us Adore Him”) and less predictable fare on this outing. It’s the latter selections, like the epic ballad “Until You” and the bouncy “The Holidays Are Here” (both Gokey co-writes), that elevate the album.
Jonathan Butler – Christmas Together
This singer/guitarist’s second Christmas release is a guest-filled affair that sticks mostly to established standards. Things work because of the fresh elements in many of the arrangements. “Winter Wonderland” gets a bit of a Hip Hop twist, while the instrumental versions of “Joy To The World” (with sax man Dave Koz) and “We Three Kings” (with trumpeter Rick Braun) showcase nifty elaborations on their base melodies.
Michael Lington – A Foreign Affair Christmas
Touted as having a global sound, the smooth Jazz saxophonist indeed brings some Latin, Afro-Caribbean and European flair to a few tracks on this collection. But most of the album sounds quite domestic. That’s fine, because Lington and guests (including Vince Gill, Russ Freeman and Rick Braun) deliver heartfelt performances of nine familiar holiday tunes.