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For better or worse: Our annual roundup of Christmas CDs

Published December 13, 2010 11:23 am

Music • The Tribune listens to all the new holiday releases — so you don't have to.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

To paraphrase John Lennon: So this is Christmas, and what have musicians done?

The Salt Lake Tribune has been receiving new Christmas albums since late summer, and members of the features staff have listened to all of them, ranging from the awful to the transcendent. Listening to Annie Lennox was a pleasure; hearing not just one but two Celtic-influenced albums made some want to encourage Britain to subdue Ireland.

We have arranged the songs in three categories: the great, the good, and the ones we wanted to pitch into a chimney with a fire still lit.



"The Great" are albums that present usually overplayed tunes in a unique way. These collections demand to be listened to rather than just being background music as you string lights or wrap presents. The result is, quite often, the listener feeling that peculiar, unfamiliar sensation that some people call "the Christmas spirit."

"The Good" are albums that are pleasant but unremarkable. In another season, we might have called these "Fair" or merely "Average," but after listening to some albums in "The Great" category, we are feeling some Christmas spirit and will label these "The Good."

The final category is something we like to call "The Ugly," or less succinctly, "The Ones We Wanted to Pitch Into a Chimney With a Fire Still Lit." There is not enough Christmas spirit in the world to make these listenable.

The Great

"A Christmas Cornucopia," Annie Lennox

Grade • A

Variety is the keyword for this stellar effort from Annie Lennox. The 11 tracks feature popular Christmas songs from Britain, France and Germany. "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant" quickly became the favorite in my house from the four albums I reviewed. "Lullay Lullay" is a little dark for a Christmas carol, but carries an important message. My kids noticed young voices in the background behind Lennox, and so we visited her website to learn the singer included the African Children's Choir in this production. Lennox's clear and powerful voice delivers emotion that helps this album rise above other collections.

Brett Prettyman

"Naught Christmas," Theta Naught

Grade • A-

The most intriguing and endlessly rewarding holiday album I've heard all season comes from local band Theta Naught, who employ mathematical principles to guide their miminalist instrumental music. Tunes such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "I Saw Three Ships" benefit from jazzlike departures that are appropriate but never radical enough to turn you off. It's a wonderful album that soothes the nerves while challenging your perception of what Christmas music can be.

David Burger

"Now That's What I Call Christmas 4," various artists

Grade • A-

If you can't find something to like on this two-CD, 36-song album, well, you must hate the holidays completely. CD No. 1 includes recent renditions of familiar songs by the likes of Rihanna, Sheryl Crow, Carrie Underwood, Toby Keith, Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé; CD No. 2 collects older stuff from Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams and more. We could have done without Alvin and the Chipmunks and Band Aid, but there's a lot of great stuff here.

Scott Pierce

"The Perfect Gift," The Canadian Tenors

Grade • A-

This is an assured new American release, after becoming a home-country hit last holiday season. "Gift's" 12-pack of carols works a bit too hard at offering something for everyone, though it delivers what you might expect from a classical quartet: expansive arrangements, swelling strings and honey-rich harmonies. Highlights are the unexpected contemporary jewels that will make you hit repeat over and over again, from the exquisite "Wintersong" with Sarah McLachlan to a rich take on Leonard Cohen's oddly rhymed, infectious "Hallelujah."

Ellen Fagg Weist

"Christmas With the Puppini Sisters," The Puppini Sisters

Grade • B+

This UK-based trio applies its playful retro-swing and Andrews Sisters-inspired harmonies to 10 standards. The ladies' range —from danceable up-tempo numbers (Elton John's "Step Into Christmas" and Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas") to sultry and cozy ballads ("Santa Baby," Wham!'s "Last Christmas") — is impressive. But they're also smart enough to play it straight on soulful versions of "White Christmas" and "O Holy Night."

Sean P. Means

"December Songs," Sonos

Grade • B+

Pick this 10-song CD if you enjoy holiday music without all the references to Santa and his sleigh. Based in LA, the six-member group uses electronics, as well as impressive a cappella vocals, to inspire us into a winter mood. The lineup includes a mix of unique carols and traditional favorites, all with modern arrangements, including a rendition of "I Saw Three Ships" that would make even Scrooge do a little toe-tapping.

Kathy Stephenson

"Songs of the Season," U.S. Marine Band

Grade • B+

If you're looking for instrumental arrangements of mostly standard Christmas and Hanukkah fare as wonderful background when wrapping presents, decorating the tree or cooking holiday treats, this disc is for you. Arrangements such as "Sleigh Ride" and several medleys including numerous holiday standards work well.

Tom Wharton

"The Crosby Christmas Sessions," Bing Crosby

Grade • B+

Few, if any, artists represent traditional Christmas songs better than Bing. Producers say they dug deep into the Crosby vaults, yet it seems I've heard them all before. The 19 songs include guest appearances from Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and that little ditty with David Bowie.

Brett Prettyman

"Christmas Comes Alive," Brian Setzer Orchestra

Grade • B+

If you are looking for some razzmatazz and electronics in your audio Christmas files, this is definitely worth consideration. Some songs carry over from the Setzer Christmas album last year, but there's enough fresh material to consider it a new effort. Noteworthy is the rendition of "Stray Cat Strut" that morphs into "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Brett Prettyman

The Good

"Holly Happy Days," Indigo Girls

Grade • B

It's hard to believe that this folk duo that has been around for more than 20 years is releasing its first "holiday" recordings, yet only two of the 12 songs include the word "Christmas" in the title. That's no reason to avoid the CD, as three of the songs were written by the Indigo Girls, and they've even included a Hanukkah song.

Brett Prettyman

"The Music, The Christmas Album," Glee

Grade • B

The kids from the hit Fox series strike up a typically polished blend of old and new Christmas tunes for this passable holiday collection. Most will be a hit with fans, even if some sound overproduced. The highlight is Matthew Morrison's whimsical rendition of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" with k.d. lang.

Vince Horiuchi

"My Christmas Wish," Alex Boyé

Grade • B

British native Alex Boyé's onstage charisma, honed as a boy-band singer, makes him a standout taking gospel riffs with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And his first holiday album, released by Utah's Shadow Mountain Records, deserves to find a devoted following. Boyé's throaty voice is most successful on up-tempo numbers such as Harry Connick Jr.'s "I Pray on Christmas," the spirited "Go Tell It on the Mountain" or his own gritty "My Christmas Wish." Less distinctive are his traditional carols such as "The First Noel," "O Holy Night" and even "The Christmas Song," which are lovingly delivered, yet lack the singer's fresh originality.

Ellen Fagg Weist

"The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Natalie Cole

Grade • B

This year's Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas CD, recorded live in December 2009, isn't up to the stellar standard of the previous edition featuring guest star Brian Stokes Mitchell. Still, Natalie Cole's musical interpretations of holiday standards, including "The Christmas Song," offer considerable charm. The best reason to buy this disc is the organ solo by Richard Elliott, who seems to outdo himself in wit and virtuosity every year: an audacious mash-up of "Good King Wenceslas" with selections from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite.

Catherine Reese Newton

"O Holy Night," Jackie Evancho

Grade • B-

The 10-year-old mezzo-soprano from Pittsburgh impressed the judges of "America's Got Talent" when she finished in second place in the most recent season. You could carp that her operatic arias don't have the world-weary ache of Maria Callas, but the real thing to complain about is that the CD only has four songs. A DVD comes with it, though, featuring songs she sang on the TV show, as well as an interview with the cute-as-a-button missy. I'm a big fan of "Pie Jesu" from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Requiem, so that earns Evancho some points.

David Burger

"The Gift," Susan Boyle

Grade • B-

Despite mammoth sales and an incredible back story, Susan Boyle is often dismissed by the music world and has become a punchline for many comics. But she has proven to be a masterful interpreter of songs both secular and religious. Beyond Christmas carols such as "O Holy Night" and "Away in a Manger," the 10-song collection includes a bittersweet take on Leonard Cohen's "Hallejuah" and Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." Boyle rarely oversings these songs, and restraint is a virtue this season.

David Burger

"Christmas With the O'Jays," The O'Jays

Grade • B-

The men who minted that legendary Philly Sound of luxurious strings over funky soul bring you a bevy of holiday favorites, with results that range from mediocre to mixed. The problem isn't original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, who still deliver vintage vocals after all these years. Instead, it's the approach. Do you really want to hear "Silent Night" via a syncopated, silky funk beat that makes the song sound more seductive than solace-filled? The world hasn't exactly beaten down The O'Jays' doors for a similar approach to "O Holy Night," either. The results are far better when the duo offer their own compositions, " 'Cause It's Christmas" and "I'm What You Want This Christmas," where the groove fits the Christmas glove. Given a holiday that emphasizes tradition, The O'Jays might have been better off saving their talent for a New Year's Eve album.

Ben Fulton

" 'Tis the Season," Duehlmeier-Gritton Duo

Grade • B-

Proceeds from this effort recorded at the University of Utah's Libby Gardner Concert Hall will be donated to benefit music programs in the Title I schools of Salt Lake City. Overall, this holiday collection by Susan Duehlmeier and Bonnie Gritton is a mixed bag, with the best cuts those that put a jazzy spin on classics such as "White Christmas," "Silent Night" and "What Child Is This." A nice effort is "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," where clarinet and flute are added to the mix.

Tom Wharton

"Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You," Katharine McPhee

Grade • B-

This is a pleasant, if not particularly innovative, collection of classics such as "Jingle Bells," "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas." McPhee, the former American Idol finalist, has a sultry voice that makes this a decent choice for a couple looking for a romantic holiday night in front of the fireplace.

Tom Wharton

The Ugly

"Merry Christmas II You," Mariah Carey

Grade • C+

The best thing about Mrs. Nick Cannon's new holiday offering is the re-recorded, "extra festive" version of her 1994 Christmas hit, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which nine out of 10 dentists prefer to "Glitter." Other than that, it's a generally upbeat blend of the old ("Here Comes Santa Claus") and the new ("Oh. Santa," written by Carey with collaborators Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox), with some interesting medleys and mash-ups. It's lushly orchestrated, which dims some of the fun, but at times Carey sounds the best she has in years.

David Burger

"Winter Wonderland," Mandy Barnett

Grade • C+

"Marshmallow World," a winter carol made popular by distinctive stylists such as Frank Sinatra, Brenda Lee and Dean Martin, extols a "whipped cream day" in a "yum-yummy world made for sweethearts." Those cheesy lyrics offer a fine example of Mandy Barnett's retro flair. The singer has pipes reminiscent of Patsy Cline, and she successfully covers swingy classics such as "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Jingle Bell Rock" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" in this 12-pack of Nashville Sound 1960s classics. Lounge lovers and midcentury moderns might dig this vintage spin, but the rest of us will crave a contemporary update or a new twist or two.

Ellen Fagg Weist

"Celtic Christmas," Orla Fallon

Grade • C

David Archuleta isn't releasing a Christmas album this year, but he guests on "Silent Night" with the former harpist of Celtic Woman. The album includes an All Saints Day song, "A'Soalin (Soul Cake)," but most are traditional Christmas carols, such as "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger," with the expected Celtic garnishes. This will please any Celtic Woman fan, as well as anyone who likes sanitized Irish music. — David Burger

"Voices: Chants from Avignon," The Benedictine Nuns of Notre-Dame De L'Annonciation

Grade • C

I was tricked into thinking this was Christmas music. It's a female version of "Chant," the album of Gregorian chants recorded by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who became the rage in the early 1990s for their monophonic liturgical music. The nuns do evoke a sense of serenity, especially after you've endured Christmas albums from the histrionic Mariah Careys and Jessica Simpsons. And it does put the Christ back into not-Christmas.

David Burger

"Bluegrass Christmas," Dr. Elmo

Grade • C-

Thirty years ago, Dr. Elmo (Shropshire) inflicted upon an unsuspecting public one of the most annoying holiday songs ever. Sing it with us: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." He's recorded it (again) for this CD, which is better than you might expect, because there's only one other annoying novelty number, "Grandpa in the Santa Suit Show." The rest of the CD offers decent bluegrass carols.

Scott Pierce

"Visions of Christmas," David Arkenstone & Friends

Grade • C-

New Age keyboardist David Arkenstore follows in the footsteps of Mannheim Steamroller (and at times Trans-Siberian Orchestra) with an altogether pleasant but unremarkable holiday album. It would sound acceptable as background music during a holiday meal that's more boring than appetizing. But at least divergent song choices such as "Arabian Dance" recognize that even Christian Arabs need holiday tunes, too. And for the most part, the musician's Emerson, Lake & Palmer influences are submerged here.

David Burger

"Celtic Thunder Christmas," Celtic Thunder

Grade • C-

The name Celtic Thunder may sound like a Vegas act perfect for bachelorette parties, but rather it's six male soloists who perform solo and ensemble numbers. Much like Orla Fallon's album, this 14-song collection includes standard Irish-fusion fare, though the song "Christmas 1915" is an affecting war lament. Perhaps stripping would have been more interesting.

David Burger

"Happy Christmas," Jessica Simpson

Grade • D

Back in 2004, Simpson recorded "Rejoyce," so this counts as her second holiday rodeo. Although she was more talented than many of her contemporaries when she was a popular tween pop singer, here she sounds overly breathy, making slower religious songs sound — gasp — sexy. Also, she's overdramatic and theatrical. Nearly every song is ramped up, with Simpson trying to beat our ears into submission with her clear but overpowering voice. This album is so over.

David Burger

 

 

 

 

 

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