Every year I'm interested in hearing some new Christmas and holiday music. When I asked folks for some of their (non-kids-music) favorites on my Facebook page, I got a ton of different responses (and even more on my personal FB page). And while I listened to a few of them on Spotify (liked the Shawn Colvin, the Roches and Low didn't do much for me, didn't get a chance to listen to much of Stevie Wonder), adding comments on those in addition to the nine disks below was just going to be too much. Some of the albums below are new, some old, and I'm pretty sure you're gonna find at least one you like.
I'd also note that my distinction between Christmas/holiday albums from kids' musicians and those from non-kids' musicians (below) is artificial at best, seeing as three of the artists below have released full-on albums for kids (and a fourth isn't yet a teenager herself). I think mostly I couldn't bear the thought of reviewing 15 or so albums in a single review.
We'll start off with the newest album, released just a couple weeks ago. It's called Of a Rose, and it's a collection of holiday recordings from the Grammy-winning Phoenix Chorale. (Full disclosure time: not only did they give me a copy for possible review, I'm friends with a number of the Chorale's members, including Executive Director and Assistant Conductor Joel Rinsema, who I interviewed a few years back.) I am not a choral expert -- heck, I'm not even a choral novice -- but the collection of live recordings of seasonally appropriate music led by artistic director and conductor Charles Bruffy is well done and very much satisfies my need at this time of year for music that puts in me in a contemplative mood under dark and/or cloudy skies. There are a handful of familiar songs -- "Lo, How a Rose" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" -- but the Chorale has in recent years programmed adventurously and the selection reflects that. But don't be afraid of that if you're chorally deficient -- this is good stuff. You can order the disk here (and if you're reading this this weekend, yes, they'll get it to you in time for Christmas).
While we're on the subject, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Chorale's other holiday disk, A Southwest Christmas, released back in 1997 under their previous conductor and when they were still known as the Phoenix Bach Choir. We've had the album for a couple years, and what I appreciate about this album is how it indeed has a "Southwest" feel. I can't say the Native American Flute-accompanied "Noel Sing We!" is a favorite of mine, but it's appropriate. (I much prefer the set of traditional Christmas songs in English and Spanish called "Milagros de Navidad.") It makes for a nice contrast with Of a Rose -- more traditional songs, but with arrangements you might not hear as often this time of year.
As much as I've enjoyed the Chorale disks this month, if there was one Christmas album I've been particularly obsessed with this year, it would be the 2011 album Seven Songs of Comfort and Joy by the Twin Cities supergroup The New Standards. One piano, one bass, and one vibraphone -- that's all the trio needs to create instantly memorable instrumental jazz renditions of seven Christmas songs secular and religious. The arrangements aren't so unfamiliar that your relatives will wonder what it is you're listening to, but create their own space that holds up to repeated listening. (I should know, having engaged in high levels of "repeated listening" with this album already.) Seriously, just take 5 minutes and listen to "Silent Night." You'll be charmed, I promise.
Staying in the Upper Midwest a little while longer, the New Standards' fellow Haley Bonar released her Only Xmas EP in 2008, long before she released her fabulous kindie EP Sing With Me. Not as much comfort and joy as the New Standards, though Bonar's voice is a comfort, even in singing unhappy lyrics. (OK, maybe her rendition of "Rudolph" meets both criteria.) But very wintry; her cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" is simple and beautiful. It's brief, but I like the EP quite a bit.
I'm obviously a big fan of Lori Henriques' album Outside My Door, so I was eager to hear her Christmas EP Playing for Christmas. The album is actually a number of years old, but has been freshly packaged. I particularly liked the re-working of a couple songs in different time signatures than the original ("Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella in the relatively uncommon 7/8 time, and the waltz of "Away in a Manger" turned into standard 4/4 time). But all six solo piano tracks will work well in a relaxing holiday mix, perhaps paired with a December by George Winston, a holiday classic. You can listen to the album here -- it's available on iTunes and elsewhere. (Or give the leadoff track a spin below.)
All you really need to know about Moat Jumper's holiday album is encapsulated in its title: Christmas at the Renaissance Fair. Now, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure tracks like "Jingle Bells" weren't actually around at, you know, the Renaissance; that's probably just nitpicking on my part, though. Lots of eclectic instruments are used (the first five listed: hurdy gurdy, bladder pipe, pipe & string drum, pipe & tabor, and shawms) to give the familiar tunes a new coating. This wasn't a favorite of mine, but it wasn't because it was bad -- I'm sure there are others who'll appreciate it more.
Like many of the albums here, Celtic Christmas, the latest collection of Putumayo-approved holiday tunes benefits the reviewer listening to a lot of Christmas by having slightly different arrangements of very familiar tunes. If you have a tin whistle sensitivity, you might want to steer clear, but I was surprised at how relatively restrained the arrangements were -- this wasn't a collection that totally screamed "Riverdance" to me. (I mean, there's a Celtic rendition of "White Christmas," so you can tell that they're not straining for some level of imagined authenticity.) While I wouldn't call this essential, the 34-minute album is warm enough to satisfy the dark days of the season but fresh enough that it'll play nicely with a wide range of other holiday music in your collection.
Without a doubt, the most lushly produced album here is from 11-year-old wunder-voice Jackie Evancho. With an orchestra that probably numbers in the dozens, I'm sure it cost more to produce than any album here -- maybe more than all of them combined. Evancho has one of those voices that would be pretty impressive generally -- the fact that it's coming from someone who's not yet a teenager is almost disconcerting. As you might expect with a vocal prodigy, there are a few vocal pyrotechnics, such as on "The First Noel," that I could really do without. My favorite track is probably the least traditional one -- "Walking in the Air," from the 1980s animated special The Snowman -- it just doesn't seem quite as show-offy. The best way I can sum it up is to say that my mom would probably really like this. That's not a slam, just a note that I'm probably not the target audience for this release. (Note: the album is a Walmart exclusive, though you can probably track it down on the secondary market.)
Finally, if all these albums play it a little too safe for you, I'll wrap this review up with a less-than-full-relevant (or soothing) take on the holiday season. The Barenaked Ladies' 2004 album Barenaked for the Holidays won't change your opinion of the band. If you love their quirky-yet-hook-filled, alternately sarcastic and heartfelt pop-rock, you will probably like-to-love this. If you find them cloying and silly, this sure as heck won't win you over. (For the record, I'm much more in the former camp than the latter.) It's a mixture of sacred ("O Holy Night") and secular ("Rudolph" on the tinniest keyboard you'll ever hear), earnest ("Snowman") and less-than-reverent (a deconstruction of "Jingle Bells" kicking off the album). I probably wouldn't include all the tracks in a holiday mix, and sometimes the production seems pretty cheap, but there are more good tracks than bad -- I particularly like their duet with Sarah McLachlan on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / We Three Kings." (And "Deck the Stills" is brilliantly deranged. I'm totally going caroling with that one.)
Disclosure: I received copies of Of a Rose, Playing for Christmas, Christmas at the Renaissance Fair, Celtic Christmas, and Heavenly Christmas for possible review.