Christmas Album Reviews 2013

We are a family that often writes our annual holiday letter long past Christmas.  (This year: not yet written.)  So as long as I can get out these Christmas album reviews before Christmas Eve night, I feel OK with it.  The 12 Days of Christmas, after all, start after Christmas, not before.

Having said all that, this was definitely a low-key year when it came to kindie and kid-friendly Christmas music.  Oh, sure, Todd McHatton added to his Christmas canon, and there were a handful of songs here and there, but compared to prior years, the haul was low.  Even Noisetrade, a reliable source for good holiday music samplers, didn't have anything this year I felt like passing along.  So this'll be a briefer look at just a half-dozen albums (because, hey, Christmas Eve is tonight and you don't have time to read a lot, right?).  They're not necessarily targeted at kids, but like most Christmas songs, they're perfectly appropriate for folks ages 4 through 94.

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First up, Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends' Smithsonian Folkways album The Sounding Joy, which to my ears was the one album most likely to join the regular rotation in our household.  In my review of the album, I noted that it didn't really sound like a "kids' album" (as opposed to Mitchell's other work over the past 10-15 years), but at this time of year, that isn't as necessary.  (There's only one what I'd call "kindie" album on this list this year.)  Christians will definitely appreciate this more than non-Christians (no songs about Santa here), but those with a deep interest in folk music will also appreciate it.  Definitely for hushed midwinter nights.

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Next up, the only real kindie album on the list, Felix Navidad, from Tara Scheyer & the Mud Puppy Band.  This 2011 album is the third (and most recent) album from the Augusta, Georgia band.  Scheyer has an appealing voice that meshes well with the pop-rock sound.  While there are a few Santa-based tracks (I really like "Santa's Chimney Slide," a band original), the majority of the songs are not -- while it's got a popper sound, because it draws from a number of less well-known songs, there is actually a fair amount in common with the Mitchell disk.

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The folks at North Carolina's Merge Records sent me their label's 3 holiday albums, and they are a unique trio.  The first (oldest) of the 3 is 2008's The Singing Saw at Christmastime from Julian Koster.  A singing saw is the poetic term for a saw played with a bow.  The resulting sound is ethereal and, depending on your attitude, magical or annoying.  I can't imagine listening to this 29-minute album straight through as there isn't a lot of variety to the sound of these familiar Christmas songs, secular and not.  But sprinkled through an eclectic holiday mix?  Most definitely.

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Merge album #2 is from She & Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.  It's their 2011 album A Very She & Him Christmas.  Fans of the duo's retro-pop sound won't be disappointed with this release (though if you're not a fan of the band, this won't change your mind, either).  Deschanel's winsome voice is an appropriate vessel for these secular songs of Christmases past ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Blue Christmas").  While there are a few uptempo tracks, for the most part, this is an album you'll want to play after the kids are in bed and you're recovering from the Christmas Eve activities looking at the tree.

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The most recent Merge holiday release is from Tracey Thorn.  Her 2012 album Tinsel and Lights is what I'd call a Christmas album, but not in the usual meaning of the term.  Instead of singing about the holiday, the album focuses on the emotions of the season, with Christmas as a backdrop.  (Thorn's lovely-yet-slightly-weary voice is perfect for this.) There are a few nice covers -- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" makes an appearance, and Thorn also covers two modern Christmas classics, Joni Mitchell's "River" and Sufjan Stevens' "Sister Winter."  This is not a Christmas album your kids will ask you to play often, but it is one you'll probably dig out even after the tinsel and lights have been put away.

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Finally, Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped in Red made its way into our holiday music collection this year.  This 2013 release features Clarkson tackling a broad range of Christmas songs wrapped in glittery pop-rock sheen.  The originals and less-specifically-Christmas songs stand out on this album.  The "Wall of Sound"-era sound of the title track and the poppier "Underneath the Tree" show off Clarkson's voice to best effect, but I personally liked "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)" and her take on "Silent Night" with Reba (McEntire) and Trisha Yearwood.  And whatever demerits Clarkson she gets for the silly "4 Carats," she gets earns kudos for covering Imogen Heap's Christmas breakup song "Just For Now."  The album isn't a classic, but it's good enough to pack away and pull it out when you set up the tree next year.

Note: I was provided copies of all albums except the Kelly Clarkson album for possible review.