By Alan Sculley
It’s been a particularly prolific year for holiday albums – so much so that I’ll stop the introduction here to save space and just get right to reviewing the albums themselves.
Kelly Clarkson: “When Christmas Comes Around…” – Clarkson’s second holiday album opens with a real show stopper – “Merry Christmas Baby” (one of seven Clarkson co-writes on the album, not the familiar R&B standard) that disguises some thorny emotions within a richly soulful melody that shows why Clarkson’s singing wowed judges all those years ago on “American Idol.” The song signals that “When Christmas Comes Around…” is anything but the typical holiday album. Clarkson has quipped that it’s a breakup holiday album (she, of course, recently went through a highly publicized divorce), and that describes songs like light-hearted “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” or the more serious big ballad “Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know)” – two of the other strong originals on the album. But Clarkson also includes some familiar upbeat material, such as “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Santa Baby” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” Whatever the songs, they often come with full orchestration and plenty of studio polish, yet don’t sound overproduced. Now with two stellar holiday albums to her credit, fans will be ready whenever another Clarkson Christmas album comes around again.
Pistol Annies: “Hell of a Holiday” – Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley put their stamp on the holidays with their distinctive blend of country, rock, soul and even a little gospel. Ten of the 13 songs on “Hell of a Holiday” are originals, which in itself gives the album its own musical character. And of course, the Pistol Annies bring the sass and humor that has helped define their three excellent non-holiday albums, but there’s also tenderness and emotional depth on songs like “The Only Thing I Wanted” and “Believing.”
Norah Jones: “I Dream of Christmas” – Jones’ first holiday foray is the relaxed effort one would expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s boring. On “White Christmas,” for instance, her sprightly piano parts put some fizz into the song. And while Jones slows the already ambling tempo of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” (yes, the song by Alvin and the Chipmunks), she gives the song some punch with some rather bold horn parts. In addition to such familiar tunes, “I Dream of Christmas” features five originals, and they provide some highlights on this winter warmer of a holiday album.
Morgan James: “A Very Magnetic Christmas” – Originals like “I Wanna Know” and “Long As I Got You” are standouts, but James also absolutely transforms “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night” and other standards into her signature sound that’s bluesy and soulful with some jazzy swing. And oh yes, she sings the hell out of these songs. This is my pick for best 2021 Christmas album.
Amanda Shires: “For Christmas” – The talented songwriter/violinist delivers one of the year’s best holiday albums. “For Christmas” encompasses pop, soul, rock and folk with effortlessly melodic (mostly) original tunes and creative subject matter (“Gone For Christmas” and “A Real Tree This Year” being prime examples).
Paul Kelly: “Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train” – The year’s most ambitious holiday album belongs to the accomplished songwriter Paul Kelly, who assembled 22 songs from across centuries and countries, some familiar, some obscure, to create a holiday album that’s charming, reverential to irreverent, very diverse and entertaining.
Other worthy releases
Josh Turner: “King Size Manger” – Turner keeps it country, while being plenty creative with song arrangements on “King Size Manger.” A prime example is “Angels We Have Heard On High,” with its surprisingly propulsive backbeat and frisky guitars.
G. Love: “Coming Back Home For Christmas” – Love brings his unique mix of blues, rap, soul and rock to 10 original holiday songs that set a rootsy, good-time mood on this refreshing holiday album.
Hiss Golden Messenger: “O Come All Ye Faithful” – Singer/songwriter M.C. Taylor has crafted an inventive, introspective and soulful, folk-centric holiday album that includes three fine original songs, three reinvented standards and inspired covers of songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Spiritualized and Woody Guthrie.
Brian Fallon: “Night Divine” – The Gaslight Anthem frontman goes spare and largely acoustic as he effectively reshapes a set of well chosen religious Christmas standards to fit an intimate setting that feels authentic and emotional.
Brett Eldredge: “Mr. Christmas” – The high point on Eldredge’s second Christmas album is the title song, an original that starts out slinky and builds into a jazzy romp. He sticks to the big band formula of his first holiday offering, 2016’s “Glow,” and with some smart arrangements and his warm baritone, Eldredge might give Michael Buble a run for his money as music’s leading Sinatra-esque Christmas crooner.
Steve Wariner: “Feels Like Christmas Time” – The country singer/songwriter’s new holiday album is largely a low-key and highly successful affair, as his version of “Silent Night,” the rustic original “Christmas In Your Arms” and instrumental take on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” show Wariner needs little more than his acoustic guitar to make a song sing.
Steve Perry: “The Season” – Perry’s voice sounds a bit grainier on “The Season” than it did during his days fronting Journey, as he croons eight Christmas classics. But it’s the added backing vocals on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the Motown-ish treatment of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and the playful reworking of “Silver Bells” that elevate this album.
New Found Glory: “December’s Here” – The veteran band puts some cheery hooks into the season with 10 originals that offer a humorous and fond look at the Christmas holidays. The songs lean more to the pop side of New Found Glory’s pop-punk sound, but they’re plenty energetic and catchy.
Paul Gilbert: “TWAS” – Guitar and rock music fans will find plenty to like in “TWAS,” as Gilbert shows his considerable playing skills on 11 Christmas standards and two original songs.
Vitamin String Quartet: “It Feels Like Christmas” – Looking for a little forward-looking classical? There’s plenty to like about VSQ’s instrumental holiday album, “It Feels Like Christmas.”
Kat Edmonson: “Holiday Swingin’ (A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1)” – With these jazzy piano-based arrangements, Edmonson brings plenty of swing and pep to this collection of holiday standards. That said, her mousy vocal tone may not be for everyone.
Orleans: “New Star Shining” – The band famous for songs like “Dance With Me” and “Still The One” bring their familiar folk-tinged, harmony-laden brand of pop to a set of appealing original holiday songs and a couple of covers.
Jose James: “Merry Christmas From Jose James” – The young genre-crossing artist draws on his ‘50s jazz influences on his first Christmas album to craft easy-going and enjoyable (though not exceptional) renditions of classics supplemented by a pair of decent originals.
We Banjo 3: “A Winter Wonderful” – The string band from Ireland plucks and bows their way through a mix of holiday standards (they’re OK) and originals (they’re better, with “Christmas In Prison” taking this year’s prize for most creative holiday subject matter).
Tyler Shaw: “A Tyler Shaw Christmas” – The Canadian pop singer’s holiday album boasts a standout original, “Christmas In Your Eyes” (and a couple of other enjoyable originals), while he also brings some flair to the standards he chose for this outing.
Alejandro Fuentes: “Soulful Christmas” – More pop than soul, this is a buoyant and enjoyable holiday effort.
Missed The Cut – Here are some other albums that, while not total fails, don’t jingle the bells: Steve Holy: “A Christmas To Remember”; Brett Young: “Brett Young & Friends Sing The Christmas Classics”; Pentatonix: “Evergreen”; Manchester Orchestra: “Christmas Songs Vol. 1.”