Gift Guide: Menzel, Rucker among artists with holiday albumsWritten by Alan Sculley | | ASculley@toledofreepress.com
In many years, when November arrives, it’s time to brace for the onslaught of Christmas albums. Often, the selection is filled with the usual by-the-numbers versions of holiday standards that add nothing to the hundreds of holiday albums that have come before them. This year, we get a break. Sure, there are a few predictable releases, but just as many boast some inspired and original approaches to Christmas music. Here are some releases to add — and delete — from your holiday album shopping list:
Taj Mahal/The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Talkin’ Christmas!” (Sony Masterworks): This holiday summit between blues legend Mahal and the equally venerable gospel/soul vocal group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, is a rousing success. Featuring several fine original songs and inspired and unique versions of a few holiday favorites, “Talkin’ Christmas!” rates as 2014’s best holiday album.
- Earth, Wind & Fire, “Holiday” (Sony Legacy): The veteran group does exactly what one would hope with a holiday album — remakes a set of Christmas classics in its own rousing horn-laced R&B image, while rounding out things with a few spirited originals.
- Farmer Jason, “Christmas on the Farm” (Courageous Chicken): Jason Ringenberg (of Jason & The Scorchers fame) adapts his kids-music persona for this collection of originals and standards. Ringenberg keeps things fun and clean for the kids, but rocks enough and shows enough cleverness that grown-ups will also get some kicks out of “Christmas on the Farm.”
- Heart & Friends, “Home For The Holidays” (Frontiers): For the December 2013 concert captured on this CD/DVD, Heart played a warm and inviting set of holiday-related songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Harry Nilsson. Heart also rocks out on “Barracuda,” “Even It Up” and a cover of “Stairway To Heaven.” Then Train’s Pat Monahan, Richard Marx and Shawn Colvin join in on Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” a stirring finale for a fine — and unique — holiday show.
Over The Rhine, “Blood Oranges in the Snow” (GSD): This isn’t a holiday album per se. It’s a collection of mostly original songs set to a backdrop of the holiday season. Not exactly cheery, these are mostly tales of everyday struggles, small joys and wishes for better days ahead, housed within Over The Rhine’s familiar elegant folk-pop sound.
- The Roys, “Bluegrass Kinda Christmas” (Rural Rhythm): There’s nothing “kinda” here. The Roys have made a true bluegrass Christmas album that happily leans toward lively lesser-known tunes (“Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” “Christmas Time’s Comin’”) plus several solid originals.
- Home Free: “Full of Cheer” (Columbia): Winners of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” this a cappella group sounds like a cross between the Oak Ridge Boys and Straight No Chaser — with some comedy thrown in (note the title track, a rare happy Christmas breakup song). The vocal arrangements are fun and frequently inventive, making for an entertaining album that lives up to its title.
- Dave Koz & Friends, “The 25th of December” (Concord): The smooth jazz star’s latest holiday effort is a star-studded vocal-oriented affair. Johnny Mathis, India.Arie, Jonathan Butler and Heather Headley are among the guests who give inspired performances and add some sizzle to a nice mix of traditional classics and newer holiday songs.
- Jim Brickman, “On A Winter’s Night” (Green Hill): This is Brickman’s eighth holiday album, but he sounds invested in the season. He sets the famous poem “Night Before Christmas” to music (with John Oates nicely handling the vocals) and creatively reinvents “Blue Christmas” and the Mariah Carey hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in his signature gentle piano sound.
Darius Rucker, “Home For The Holidays” (Capitol Nashville): The Hootie & the Blowfish singer, who has gone country as a solo artist, plays it safe here, performing agreeable, if predictable, versions of standards like “Let It Snow,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
- Idina Menzel, “Holiday Wishes” (Warner Bros.): The Broadway/film star’s holiday effort is heavy on the usual standards given familiar orchestrated treatments. Menzel’s voice is amazing, but she over-sings her way through most of the songs.
- Various Artists, “Christmas At Downton Abbey” (Warner Bros.): There’s no reason this double album exists except to sell it to fans of the BBC series. Mostly, it’s some actors singing (some competently, some not that well — with the choir frequently carrying the performances) songs that have nothing to do with the fine television series.