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2014's Caravan of Christmas Music

The first flurries of new holiday music were spotted in September. By Thanksgiving, we were up to our elbows.


THE FIRST FLURRIES of new holiday music were spotted in September. By Thanksgiving, we were up to our elbows. Whatever your musical preference, there's an album or three of holiday cheer attuned to your taste. Let's take a look.


Thanks to the "Frozen" connection (she's the voice of Elsa, wailing "Let It Go"), kids of all ages will be taken by Idina Menzel's vocal blasts of wintry wonder on "Holiday Wishes" (Warner Bros.).

Charted by Walter Afanasieff (he did the same for Mariah Carey), the stage and screen belter gives best on ballads like "The Christmas Song." She also pairs OK with Michael Buble on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (nobody's ever going to top Ray Charles and Betty Carter's treatment) and dares to rock out (sort of) "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which Mariah did first and Justin Bieber did worst.

Renee Fleming's "Christmas in New York" (Decca) is a PBS special still to be made. In the crossover vein of Audra McDonald, this mostly opera singer puts on an urbane, bluesy, sophisticated tone for collaborations with such jazz talents as trumpeters Wynton Marsalis ("Winter Wonderland") and Chris Botti ("Merry Christmas Darling"); her most compatible vocal partner, Kurt Elling ("Snowbound"); and keyboardist Brad Mehldau (in concert here Friday at World Cafe Live) for "Who Knows Where the Time Goes." (Who knew this was a Christmas song?)

"A Michael Feinstein Christmas" (Concord) finds the trad-pop crooner treading gracefully on the sheet music of "White Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Pianist Alan Broadbent accompanies with simple elegance. Feinstein first issued his salute as a private pressing 10 years ago. Glad he's finally sharing.

Soulful seasonals

African-American vocalists often take creative risks with holiday music, drenching it in vocal emotion and rhythmic punch to make even the stalest material seem fresh and wondrous.

Anthony Hamilton has done all that and more on "Home for the Holidays" (RCA). A classic R&B stylist (as well as composer) in the vein of Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, Hamilton offers a half-dozen strong originals, such as "Spend Christmas With You" and the title track.

Equally strong are his down-home, just-gritty-enough rephrasings of perennials like "Away in a Manger" (with ZZ Ward), "The Christmas Song" (Chaka Khan's on that) and James Brown's "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto."

This is our pick for top set of the season.

But wait, there's more

Soul sensation Maysa warms the house well with "A Very Maysa Christmas" (Shanachie). You'll hear right away why Stevie Wonder is an admirer.

"Motown Christmas" (Motown Gospel) kicks up the celebration with dynamo performances by India.Arie, Kem, Ne-Yo with Tasha Cobbs, and South Jersey's own Tye Tribbett (on a banging "The Little Drummer Boy").

"Gotta Have Gospel! Christmas: O Holy Night" (RCA) rallies the faithful - including Marvin Sapp, Mary Mary and Donnie McClurkin - and isn't afraid, on the bookends of Fred Hammond's "His Name Is Jesus" and Hezekiah Walker's "Born to Die," to underscore the reason for the season.

At the other extreme, the glossy Earth, Wind & Fire "Holiday" (Legacy) stamps classic Christmas music with such a brassy, sassy signature, you might think "Away in the Manger," "Winter Wonderland" and "Sleigh Ride" were written by bandleader Verdine White and lead vocalist Philip Bailey.

EW&F also transforms its own hits: "Happy Feeling " is now "Happy Seasons"; "September" becomes "December."

A guilty pleasure.

Vox populi

A cappella hipsters Pentatonix work flashy vocal harmonies, human beat-box trickery and some auto-tuning to define "That's Christmas To Me" (RCA). You'll find the efforts either way contemporary and fun (the spacey "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and holiday-frosted "Let It Go") or annoyingly hard-edged and artificial.

To date, it's the biggest-selling new release of the season.

Craving earthier a cappella? Check out "Full of Cheer" (Columbia) from country cousins Home Free, likewise stars and winners on TV's "The Sing-Off."

Jazz notes

West Philly gets a major, extended shout-out (Yo, ho, ho!) from Christian McBride on "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto," a high point of the mostly straight-ahead, jazz-flavored "It's Christmas on Mack Avenue" (Mack Avenue).

Saxophonist Dave Koz is hoping to score as well as Kenny G did (biggest-selling Christmas-album artist of all time) with "The 25th of December" (Concord), even bringing in KG himself for "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!"

Not as sappy as expected, the set's ripe with distinctive vocalists - Johnny Mathis, Eric Benet, Gloria Estefan, Heather Headley, Richard Marks, Be Be Winans, India.Arie (again!), Jonathan Butler and Fantasia.

Best of the jazzed bunch are Pee Wee Ellis' "The Spirit of Christmas" (Minor Music) and the extra-fine, good-time "A New Orleans Creole Christmas," by Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse (Basin Street).

The trumpeter transforms "Winter Wonderland" into a Mardi Gras mambo. "O Tannenbaum" gets infused with joyous, second-line struttin'.

For quirkier fun, check out the Nino Rota-Italian-soundtrack-inspired "Molto Groovy Christmas" (Molto Groovy Records). May be best in small doses to shake up a mixtape.

Slickly swinging (to the verge of unctuous) are the new big-band bashes thrown by Seth MacFarlane, "Holiday for Swing!" (Republic), and Tim Rushlow and His Big Band, "Classic Christmas" (Row Entertainment). Have you totally lost your sense of humor, Seth?

Down-home holidays

Former rocker (Hootie and the Blowfish) turned country singer Darius Rucker brings plenty of vocal warmth, kindness and surety to "Home for the Holidays" (Capitol). Like a new-generation Burl Ives.

Young 'uns (and parents) will delight in Bobs & LoLo "Wave Your Antlers" (Nettwerk), a beguiling, kid-centric set of folked-up classics and originals, including "Chris Moose," "Little Light" and "Up Up Up" (which asks, "Who gets to put the star on the top of the tree we love?") .

The duo Over the Rhine keeps it real, struggling nobly through the season on "Blood Oranges in the Snow" (Over the Rhine). The mostly original songs echo the bleak wintry ruminations of Joni Mitchell's oft-covered "River." If you're already depressed, approach with caution.

Same warning holds for Mark Kozelek's solo voice and guitar session, "Sings Christmas Carols" (Caldo Verde). Maybe you know his edgy, imperfect voice from Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon?

Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal are "Talkin' Christmas" (Masterworks). This rustic and righteous collaboration stirs gospel, ragtime and calypso acoustic flavors and meaningful new message songs written by the group with producer Chris Goldsmith.

As they remind, the holiday's about humanity not commerce, people: "If you see somebody sad, you oughta try to make 'em glad."

An extra-worthy selection.

"Christmas With Nashville" (Big Machine) puts the "Nashville" TV series cast onto the hit parade of perennials. Pleasant enough but nuttin' new. Sure to score a show episode.

Old-world charm

An even bigger TV tie-in, the double disc "Christmas at Downton Abbey" (Warner Bros) does find the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) bravely taking on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Lady Mary suitor Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) trills "Silent Night," and our favorite head butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), recites "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

But the bulk of caroling work (45 classics in all) is doled out to mere underlings like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the Choir of Kings College Cambridge and the Taverner Choir and Consort.

For an easier swim through foreign waters, dive into Celtic Thunder's tastefully wrought "Holiday Symphony" (Legacy).

Or, even better, embrace "The Wexford Carols" (Heresy), a lovely collection of Ireland's greatest Christmas music, as performed by singer Caitriona O'Leary, with help from Tom Jones and Rosanne Cash, and delicate production by Joe Henry.

Over the top!

Do you relish those grandiose Trans-Siberian Orchestra prog-rock holiday spectacles? (Another lands Dec. 23 at the Wells Fargo Center.)

If so, lend (or lose) your ears to "Ragnarok Juletide" (Spinefarm Records). Heavy up with second-tier, hard-rocking talents, this pounding (and melodic) assault aims to evoke the "chaos and mad rush" of the season (on "We Celebrate at Christmastime"), an evil-fighting pagan "Elf" of Finnish lore, and the most passionately bellowed "Ave Maria" ever.

Hyperbole also rules, at least in the title, with "Ellen's The Only Holiday Album You'll Ever Need: Volume 1" (Watertower/WB).

It's not a bad collection, tracking historically from Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" to the Waitresses cult classic "Christmas Wrapping" and the oft-aped Wham hit "Last Christmas," then on to newbies from Lady Gaga (featuring Space Cowboy) on "Christmas Tree" and She & Him "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."

But if this is the "only" set we'll ever need, why is it "Volume 1"? Only Santa and Ms. DeGeneres know. And only Target has it.