It's a holiday tradition as etched into our memories as a well festooned Christmas tree or a Hanukkah bush, as intrinsic to our celebrations as a spinning dreidel or the stockings hung on the mantle, presumably with care. We're referring of course to the annual barrage of holiday albums featuring the old seasonal standards and brand new songs penned about the wintery season.
Frankly, many of them truly suck. They're just painful. Trust us, we listened to a lot of them to compile this list. Fortunately though, 2014 had a few occasional gems that transcend the norm and actually provide the possibility of pleasant listening year round.
Here are ten examples of new holiday releases definitely worth discovering.
10. The Living Sisters - Harmony Is Real
Shades of the Andrews Sisters, the Pointer Sisters and, hell, even Sister Sledge (although not really), the Living Sisters -- who are not really sisters at all but four individually adept solo singers, Eleni Mandell among them -- deliver impeccable chirpy harmonies that add new meaning to the term "holiday cheer."
Drawing from a selection of standards -- like "Jingle Bells," "Little Drummer Boy," and "Silver Bells" -- and various originals that fit the tone and temperament of the season, the Living Sisters add fun to the festivities with an approach that's both rocking and reverent.
The giddy "Christmas in California," with a hint of cooing Beach Boys-like harmonies, and the equally sassy and facetious "Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas," rev things up. And bows to diversity via "Hanukkah" and "Neon Christmas Eve" help broaden the Sisters' ceremonial stance. Harmony Is Real is pure pop fun.
9. Darius Rucker - Home for the Holidays
Rucker's classic croon makes Home for the Holidays a perfect fit from the get-go. He's so confident, in fact, that he's opted to enlist his kids Dani and Jack for a spirited rendition of the Dr. Seuss classic "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."
Rucker also tries his hand at writing a a pair of originals -- "Candy Cane Christmas" and "What God Wants for Christmas."
"I couldn't believe that nobody had ever written the song before," Rucker told Billboard of the latter. "We wanted to write a religious song and put God back in Christmas." And maybe put some money in the bank as well?
We wouldn't be surprised.
8. Caitriona O'Leary - The Wexford Carols
Leave it to the Irish to instil sentiment in the season. And while Caitriona O'Leary isn't exactly a household name, guest artists Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash, and Rhiannon Giddens add an iconic element to this future classic.
The traditional carols that populate this twelve song set add finesse and finery to the holiday trappings, all solemn, sedate, and soaring with grace and reverence. Consider these cathedral tunes worthy of midnight mass with spiritual appreciation.
7. Michael Bublé - Christmas
It was inevitable of course that Canada's all-American entertainer would offer his own tribute to this special season. And then deliver it with a set of songs as simple, direct, and familiar as the title itself, Christmas.
Shania Twain lends a hand on "White Christmas," but it's Bublé that puts the ring-a-ding ding in most of the tunes. Think: "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." You clearly can't go wrong with a line-up like that.
6. Various Artists - Christmas with Nashville
Okay, we realize that Nashville is musical soap opera, and that Rayna, Deacon, Juliette, Gunner, Avery, Will, and the rest are only characters that we've glommed on to. Still, there's no denying that the actors portraying those players really, really can sing.
This holiday album offers definitive proof. It's a collection of holiday favorites sung with fervor, conviction, and complete credibility.
5. Soundtrack - A Merry Friggin' Christmas
One of the final films by the late great Robin Williams, A Merry Friggin' Christmas has more in common with Bad Santa than with It's a Wonderful Life as far as holiday happenstance is concerned. Nevertheless, the impressive cast of crooners that contributes to the soundtrack -- participants include Rufus Wainwright, Ben Kweller, the Belle Brigade, and Chuck Meade -- plays it straight for the most part in terms of interpretation of various seasonal favorites.
Any movie about spending the holidays with a houseful of misfits is bound to get a little frisky at times. You hear that with the California Feetwarmers' jazzy version of "Up on the Housetop," which is a hoot, and Kweller lights a fire under the giddy "Here Comes Santa Claus." All in all, this is a fine soundtrack for the festivities, offbeat or otherwise.
4. Tom Dyer - Xmas-30 Years in the Making
So who is Tom Dyer? His singing credentials may be a bit sketchy, but as the proprietor of Seattle's Green Monkey Records, he ranks up there with Santa in terms of delivering some mighty fine music over the course of the past three decades. This includes the incredible catalogue by psych-pop greats Green Pajamas.
Xmas-30 Years in the Making is a compilation of original holiday-themed music Dyer's done on an annual basis. It is of the decidedly unconventional variety, but as songs like "No Lou This Xmas" and the reggae-style "Jingle Bell Ska" prove, this accumulation of Christmas recordings also showcases venerable rockers at their best.
And while tracks like "It's A White Mule Christmas," "Propane Santa," and the Grinch-like "Christmas Time for Sailors" suggest Dyer's got his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Xmas-30 Years in the Making is a holly jolly collection all around.
3. Various Artists - An Americana Christmas
Despite the festive theme, An Americana Christmas is really a set of one-off recordings and weird rarities designed to appeal to the completest. Big names abound -- Dylan, Prine, Cash, Emmylou Harris, the Band and Old 97's among them -- making it a must-get based on marquee value alone.
The songs themselves reflect that variety, with tunes that run the gamut from the rocking revelry of Dwight Yoakam's "Run Run Rudolph" to the Bobster's crazy and confounding "Must Be Santa."
2. Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal - Talkin' Christmas
A dream team pairing that draws from the roots of soul, gospel, and genuine R&B, this set of specially selected songs featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal is equal parts sacred celebration and holiday happenstance.
Although it shows the artists involved testifying to their faith with steadfast spiritual devotion, it's likely to manifest ample secular appreciation as well. Indeed, even non-believers will find themselves singing along with the infectious refrains of "Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn" and "What Can I Do?"
The holiday harmonies that enrich "Merry Christmas to You" and a stirring read of "Silent Night" clearly proclaim universal appeal, but it's the soulful sensibility that rings through songs like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" "The Sun Is Rising," and "There's a Reason We Call It Christmas" which ought to entice even the surliest Scrooge.
Considering the unabashed sentiment that ignites each of these serenades, Talkin' Christmas could be considered a timeless treasure even at its release.
1. Over the Rhine - Blood Oranges in the Snow
It should be clear by now that holiday albums generally fall into one of two categories -- seasonal standards reinterpreted with a pop approach or original offerings that take a spiritual slant. Blood Oranges in the Snow has Over the Rhine bridging the divide with a set of tunes that sound like immediate Christmas classics. Although they eschew a wholly religious regimen, they evoke the spirit of the season with crisp images of snow-covered fields and the nostalgic glow of home and hearth.
Much of the album is given to wistful reflection -- the beguiling title track, a hopeful "First Snowfall," the quietly yearning interpretation of Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December," et.al. -- but none so specific as to deter year-round enjoyment.
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