Tinsel tunes: Holiday music reviews

Thu. December 19, 2013 9:07 AM by Gregg Shapiro

kelly clarkson: wrapped in red

The soul of Christmas

The reissue of the Cotillion Records compilation Funky Christmas (Real Gone Music) gets off to a fabulously funky start with "May Christmas Bring You Happiness" by a quintet called Luther. Led by the late Luther Vandross (shortly before his disco breakthroughs with Bionic Boogie and Change, and subsequently soaring solo career), both of Luther's tracks (including the other Vandross original "At Christmas Time") are the main reasons to unwrap this disc. Margie Joseph's "Christmas Gift" and "Feeling Like Christmas" are also pleasant.

Comprised of songs culled from Gladys Knight & The Pips' Christmas discs The Christmas Album (1975) and That Special Time of Year (1982), The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Buddha/Legacy) makes the season bright. Knight and company's renditions of "Do You Hear What I Hear?," Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," "It's The Happiest Time of the Year" and "That Special Time of Year" are standout. A pair of cuts featuring Johnny Mathis, including "When A Child Is Born" and "The Lord's Prayer," wraps everything up with pretty bow.

Speaking of Johnny Mathis, the legendary (and out) vocalist has been releasing Christmas albums since 1958. His latest, Sending You A Little Christmas (Columbia) is a delightful addition. More than half of the seasonal selections are duets with a stellar array of guests including Billy Joel ("The Christmas Song"), Natalie Cole ("Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"),  Gloria Estefan ("Mary's Boy Child") and Jim Brickman (the title tune, co-written by Brickman), to mention a few.

From snowballs to matzo balls

A Mary Christmas (Verve/Interscope/Matriarch) by Mary J. Blige could just as easily be included in the above category, but her bright "When You Wish A Star" duet with none other than Barbra Streisand (featuring horn hottie Chris Botti) earns her a special slot in this category. In fact, Blige should be commended for her choice of duet partners throughout the disc, including bi Brit Jessie J (on the popular "Do You Hear What I Hear?"), gospel goddesses The Clark Sisters (on "The First Noel") and Marc Anthony (on the bilingual "Noche De Paz/Silent Night").  Blige's "The Little Drummer Boy" is also spectacular and her reading of "My Favorite Things" indicates that she ought to consider doing an album of standards.

What self-respecting homosexual doesn't have both of Barbra Streisand's Christmas albums – 1967's A Christmas Album and 2001's Christmas Memories in their holiday music collection? So as not to make Streisand's The Classic Christmas Album (Legacy/Columbia) completely superfluous, think of it as a good way to initiate the next gay generation in the joys of Barbra at the time of the winter solstice. The disc, featuring 16 selections, split almost evenly, between the two source albums, would also make a lovely gift for straight friends and family members.

Nice Jewish boy Joshua Bell fiddles with friends on Musical Gifts (Masterworks). Bell jingles the holiday songbook with Alison Krauss ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"), Straight No Chaser (on the "Nutcracker Medley"), Kristin Chenoweth ("O Holy Night"), Renee Fleming ("I Want An Old-Fashioned Christmas"), Placido Domingo ("O Tennenbaum"), Branford Marsalis ("Amazing Grace"), fellow NJB Michael Feinstein ("The Secret of Christmas") and Steven Isserlis and Sam Haywood ("Baal Shem, Simchat Torah").

Released in time for Hanukkah, the double disc set It's A Scream How Levine Does The Rhumba (The Idelsohn Society), subtitled The Latin-Jewish Musical Story: 1940s-1980s, tells the tale of "Jews falling in love with Latin music." From resorts to Bar Mitzvah parties and weddings, from mambo to limbo to cha-cha, Jews and Latin music go way back (can you say Spanish inquisition?). The 41 tracks compiled here feature both Latino and Jewish musicians, such as Xavier Cugat, Ruth Wallis, Perez Prado, Carole King, Tito Puente, The Barry Sisters, Celia Cruz, Mickey Katz, Willie Colon, Eydie Gorme, Eddie Palmieri, Abbe Lane, Ray Barretto, and of course, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, among others. The spicy collection is suitable for playing at any winter holiday gathering.

Christmas past

Like the aforementioned Johnny Mathis, for many people Andy Williams' name is synonymous with Christmas music. Williams' three Christmas recordings, The Andy Williams Christmas Album from 1963, Merry Christmas from 1965 and Christmas Present from 1974, along with a few singles and unreleased tracks have been compiled on the two disc set The Complete Christmas Recordings (Real Gone Music). Questionable politics aside, the late Williams had one of the most distinctive singing voices in mid-20th century popular music and that's the reason these renditions of seasonal favorites are classics.

You may already have The Original Sound Track of the CBS Television Special A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy) by the Vince Guaraldi Trio in one of its previous configurations. However, the latest one includes a make-your-own Snoopy doghouse, complete with festive trimmings and Peanuts characters cut-outs. Of course, the music, consisting of jazzy renditions of "O Tannenbaum" and "What Child Is This," as well as Guaraldi originals "Christmas Time Is Here" (both the instrumental and vocal versions), "Skating," "Christmas Is Coming" and "Linus And Lucy," are the real reason to make this part of your holiday music library.

If you have a hankering for some country this Christmas then The Classic Christmas Album (Epic/Legacy) by George Jones & Tammy Wynette should fill the bill. Bookended by a pair of duets – "Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus" and "The Greatest Christmas Gift" – this set mainly consists of Jones and Wynette's solo recordings from the `60s and early `70s.

Almost worth owning for the cover alone, Christmas with Patti Page (Real Gone Music), "the singing rage," is as much of interest for a novelty recording such as "The Mama Doll Song" as it is for Page's renditions of traditional holiday music. Six bonus track, including three songs from her short-lived TV program The Patti Page Show, fill up this musical holiday stocking.

Patti Page wouldn't be out of place on the 12-song compilation soundtrack Mad Men Christmas: Music From and Inspired by the Hit TV Series on AMC (Lionsgate/Concord). Mostly comprised of vintage holiday recordings (in keeping with the show's retro theme), such as "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by Teresa Brewer and "White Christmas" by Rosemary Clooney, the disc also features newer recordings including "Christmas Waltz" by Nellie McKay, "Zou Bisou Bisou" sung by cast member Jessica Paré and RJD2's Mad Men theme "A Beautiful Mine."

Christmas present(s)

Along with the aforementioned Blige disc, Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped In Red (RCA) ranks among the best of this year's new seasonal music offerings. One of those rare occasions when the original tunes, including the title cut, "Underneath The Tree," "Winter Dream (Brandon's Song)" and the "Santa Baby" update "4 Carats," are worthy of standing alongside the more familiar numbers. Clarkson is also radiant on "Silent Night" (on which she is joined by Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood), as well as the jazzy readings of  "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "Baby It's Cold Outside," "My Favorite Things" and "White Christmas."

Branden James, the gay classical crossover artist who wowed audiences with his glorious vocal abilities on the 8th season of America's Got Talent and made it all the way to the finals, makes his CD debut with the aptly titled The Voice of Christmas (MCON). The ideal showcase for James' boundless skills, The Voice of Christmas, featuring traditional tunes including "O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night," also features James performing lighter fare including "Jingle Bells" and "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" (making its debut on the album). James wisely included his rendition of Leonard Cohen's timeless "Hallelujah," a song that made him popular with AGT viewers.

Is there anything better than holiday music sung phonetically? You can answer that for yourself when you hear Buon Natale – The Christmas Album (Interscope) by Italy's trio of teen tenors Il Volo.  Combining traditional Christmas fare ("Silent Night," "Ave Maria," "O Holy Night") with more contemporary titles ("I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree"), Il Volo continues to aim for crossover success, this time with an accent on the holidays.

Contemporary country diva Mindy Smith must love Christmas. After all, the five-song EP Snowed In (Giant Leap/TVX) is her second holiday-themed release this century. Smith's lighthearted originals ("Tomorrow Is Christmas Day" and the title track) balance out the seriousness of the more traditional selections including "Silent Night" and "Auld Lang Syne."

File this under: Oh, no she didn't! Susan Boyle opens Home For Christmas (SYCO/Columbia) her second Christmas CD in three years with "O Come, All Ye Faithful," a duet with none other than Elvis Presley (gulp). Not best or most festive idea. The previously mentioned Johnny Mathis reprises his "When A Child Is Born" duet duties when Boyle teams up with him on the song. It's one of the more pleasing moments on the album. Also a joy is Boyle's version of "The Christmas Waltz" (written by two Yids, no less!).

Not sassy or brassy enough, despite the implied wackiness of the cover, Christmas Time Is Here (Steinway & Sons) by Canadian Brass features thoroughly delightfully playing throughout. The horns shine, particularly on Guaraldi standard such as the title cut and "Christmas Is Coming." "Bach's Bells" trumpets the arrival of the holidays and you could even say "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" glows. But when all is said and done, it's a bit too restrained.

"YouTube sensations" (now that's a gift you can't return!) The Piano Guys take the holidays seriously on A Family Christmas (Portrait). It's not clear what it is about the song selection – including traditional and popular Christmas favorites, as well as a handful of originals by piano guy Jon Schmidt – that qualifies it as "family," but even chosen families will find something to like here.

Not their first time at the Christmas music rodeo, the four Celtic women of Celtic Woman come to your home for Christmas with their fittingly named CD/DVD set, you guessed it, Home For Christmas (Manhattan). The 12-song studio CD features their renditions of beloved Christmas selections. Expanding considerably on the CD, the DVD, recorded live in Dublin, adds more songs and also features four more songs from an "intimate acoustic" performance.

Not quite The Nutcracker the Broadway musical Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical (Masterworks Broadway) has the potential to become an annual holiday theater event. Consisting of recognizable songs written by Dr. Seuss and Albert Hague (i.e. "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch") and new tunes by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin, the Grinch lives on (stage).

It isn't specifically a Christmas album, but the self-titled debut album by multi-cultural America's Got Talent finalists Forte (SYCO/Columbia) does close with the trio's version of "Silent Night," and also includes their interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Pie Jesu."