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In a recent interview with musician Chris Isaak, he said he spent six months on his 2005 album "Christmas."In the holiday album business, that length of time is unheard-of. Virtually no one spends that much time on a holiday album.Isaak recalled talking to his friend, a fellow musician, about the time Isaak spent perfecting his superb holiday album, and Isaak's friend couldn't believe it. Isaak's friend told him that his band had recorded a holiday album in less than a week, and only did it in the first place because it was a contractually obligated to the record label.Once again, staff members of The Salt Lake Tribune have reviewed most of the new holiday albums released in time for Christmas (and Hannukah) to separate the whole-grain wheat from the white-bread chaff.As in past years, there were a number of high-profile musicians releasing new holiday albums this season, including Lady Antebellum, Cee Lo Green, Scotty McCreery and Colbie Caillat.As in past years, it becomes very obvious to see what albums people like Isaak release, and what albums people like Isaak's friend release.The Good
Barry Manilow, "The Classic Christmas Album"Grade: AThis isn't new material the 16-track compilation features songs from Manilow's three previous Christmas albums but that's OK. This is a great collection of songs that you can appreciate, play as background music or sing along to. Scott D. PierceAmy B. Hansen, "Piano Noel Classics"Grade: A-Hansen, a Utah native and a gifted pianist, performs nine familiar yet fresh sounding Christmas carols from "Away in a Manager" to "Silent Night." It's the perfect music for anyone who want to slow down, sit by a fire, sip a hot drink (or glass of wine) and simply watch the twinkling lights on the tree. Kathy StephensonTracey Thorn, "Tinsel and Lights"Grade: A-As one-half of the British pop duo Everything but the Girl, Tracey Thorn always showed exquisite taste, and that quality appears over and over again on this delightful collection of songs that does its best to stay away from the tried-and-true-and-boring. With two new holiday songs, the album includes well-selected cover songs from Randy Newman, Sufjan Stevems, Jack White and Martin Sexton, as well as one of the prettiest renditions of Joni Mitchell's "River" that I have heard in recent memory. Understated but comfortably confident, this album is one of this season's best. David BurgerJonathan Coulton & John Roderick, "One Christmas At a Time"Grade: A-The quirky duo got together in August to record a traditional holiday album, until they realized they hated traditional holiday songs. So they wrote their own, and created one of the most fun holiday albums in recent memory, with songs such as "2600" (about getting an Atari 2600 video-game system under the tree), "Christmas in Jail," and the off-the-charts oddball "Wikipedia Chanulah," which features a Casio-generated dance beat with Roderick reciting the Wikipedia entry for Hanukah. While much of the album sounds like it was recorded quickly without a filter which isn't necessarily a negative it is refreshing to hear people not take themselves, or the holidays, too seriously. David BurgerVarious Artists, "'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah"Grade: A-Subtitled "The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights," this two-CD set presented by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is fascinating as well as pleasant. The first CD features 17 Hanukkah songs (including one by Woody Guthrie), many of them thought long-lost. The second CD features 17 Christmas songs sung by, and in some cases, performed by Jewish performers (including Bob Dylan, The Ramones and Sammy Davis Jr.). This compilation could be more admired than enjoyed if it was done too seriously, but this fun collection is a songbook that tells a uniquely American story. David BurgerVarious voice actors, "It's a SpongeBob Christmas! AlbumGrade: A-Yes, this is a collection of gimmick Christmas songs. But they're such good gimmick songs. They include numbers from the new stop-motion animation special along with some older songs and it's a hoot. You'll be hooked by the time you hear the second track "Don't be a Jerk (It's Christmas)." Adults will have fun and kids will love this.Scott D. PierceJenny Oaks Baker, "Noel: Carols of Christmas Past"Grade: A-The Utah-born violinist presents 10 traditional carols in new arrangements by frequent collaborator Kurt Bestor. There's a cross-cultural twist on several tracks, such as former Celtic Woman vocalist Alex Sharpe's performance of "Silent Night" and the Balkan stylings of the Kitka women's choir on the Irish carol "Patapan." But Baker really shines on her own, on tracks such as "We Three Kings" and the Vivaldi-inspired "Angels We Have Heard on High." Catherine Reese NewtonVarious Artists, "An Average Joes Muddy Christmas"Grade: B+Average Joe's Entertainment is a record label specializing in country music, founded by the unconventional country rapper Colt Ford in 2008. As expected, this is an unconventional holiday album, with Christmas tunes and new songs from artists such as Montgomery Gentry (who welcomingly present their rendition of Robert Earl Keen's gut-busting new classic "Merry Christmas From The Family"), Bo Bice, Josh Gracin, and LoCash Cowboys. "Nappy Holidays," by Nappy Roots, is the best Christmas rap song since Run-DMC's "Christmas In Hollis." Good fun all around. David BurgerRod Stewart, "Merry Christmas, Baby"Grade: B+It's something of a mild shock to hear the foremost progenitor of 1970s disco hits turn in a menu of Christmas tunes. Stewart's sandy, yet sultry voice makes an awkward fit for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but it's more than intimate enough for "Silent Night." That fact that Stewart acquits himself more in style than suspicion throughout the repertoire is due in part to the tantalizing cast of duet partners that grace this disc. If partnering with Michael Bublé and Ella Fitzgerald doesn't float your holiday tune-boat, there's always Mary J. Blige singing "We Three Kings" to look forward to. Ben FultonMormon Tabernacle Choir with Nathan Gunn and Jane Seymour, "Once Upon a Christmas"Grade: B+Opera star Nathan Gunn brings his easy charm and rich baritone to the Tabernacle Choir's 2011 Christmas concerts, released on CD and DVD just in time for this Christmas season. He's equally appealing whether singing Bach or Berlin. Jane Seymour is perfectly cast as the narrator, the choir is in top form and Richard Elliott delivers another show-stopper on the Conference Center organ. Catherine Reese NewtonCee Lo Green, "Cee Lo's Magic Moment"Grade: B+Here's the song I've got on repeat: Singer-producer-rapper Cee Lo Green lays down a sexy, compelling vibe in a duet with Christina Aguilera on "Baby It's Cold Outside." That song alone is enough to make this CD a keeper plus there's a credible rendition of another unlikely cover, Joni Mitchell's folky "River." Throughout this 14-song set, Green works best when he's working straight on Christmas classics, such as "Mary, Did You Know?" or "White Christmas." The downers are the mood-killing novelties, like "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Run Rudolph Run." Ellen Fagg WeistCaleb Chapman's Crescent Super Band, "A Crescent Christmas, Vol. 1"Grade: B+The American Fork-based, high-school-aged band with a specialty in the Great American Songbook is a jubilant, high-spirited tour through the Christmas songbook that swings. The ensemble has gone beyond its beginnings as a jazz-dominated project by expanding its palette under the guidance of one of Utah's best music educators, Caleb Chapman, and has earned a spot at Carnegie Hall in late spring. Of special note are the young singers (Chloe Johnson, Tessa Hadley, Sierra Dew, Tessa Norman, Isaac Major and Madi Christensen) who sound too talented to be under 18. David BurgerDonna Ulisse, "All the Way to Bethlehem"Grade: B+Bluegrass singer-songwriter has made a concept album about the journey to Bethlehem made by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus, and it works surprisingly well, even though agnostics, atheists and non-Christian listeners might be off -put by the excessive levels of piety. But if you are willing to give this a try, Ulisse's rootsy music, along with her confident and strong voice, make this a much more interesting exercise in Biblical history than just a retread of traditional Christmas music. David BurgerLuther Vandross: "The Classic Christmas Album"Grade: B+The late singer's slinky voice is showcased in interesting R&B arrangements, which makes Christmas chestnuts like, well, "The Christmas Song" sound rich and velvety. Standouts on this compilation includes the sentimental "With A Christmas Heart," and a swinging duet with Chaka Khan of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Many of the 14 songs have a similar mood, which means the CD can slip into backdrop mode. The most significant misstep is the trying-too-hard funk "The Mistletoe Jam (Everybody Kiss Somebody)," but overall this is a nice collection for fans of the legendary R&B voice. Ellen Fagg WeistThe Eastern Sea, "First Christmas"Grade: BThe Austin-based prog-pop six-piece Eastern Sea doesn't take the expected route by adding hipster irony to traditional Christmas songs. But they do take chances with new arrangements by leader Matthew Hines, who created the band in his bedroom back in 2005, and the chances pay off. While I would have preferred the band to have stayed away from old standards (though there are two originals) that have been done to death, there is a whimsical pop spirit to these tunes that elevate the material. Extra points for tackling "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." David BurgerBenedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, "Advent at Ephesus"Grade: BNow for something entirely different: an album about Advent, rather than Christmas. Leave it to the Catholics at this rural Missouri convent to remind the rest of us about the significance of the close of the Liturgical year. The women's choir's music is very pious and even divinely beautiful at times, but your tolerance for 16 voice-only songs can be tested. But I would never give a bad grade to a bunch of nuns, but that is possibly because I never went to Catholic school (unlike my father, who tells me horror stories about some nuns and his knuckles). David BurgerVarious Artists, FM100.3 and Deseret Book present "White Christmas"Grade: BA dozen favorite Deseret Book artists offer their spin on popular carols and seasonal songs. It's light, poppy and just a tad sugary. Highlights include violinist Jenny Oaks Baker's elegant take on "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and singer Alex Boyé's tender performance of "What Child Is This?" Proceeds benefit The Road Home homeless shelter. Catherine Reese NewtonColbie Caillat, "Christmas in the Sand"Grade: BChristmas originals are about as appreciated as year-old fruitcake, and while Caillat's title track will never become part of the holiday canon, "Christmas in the Sand" blends nicely with classics such as "Winter Wonderland" talk about your polar opposites and an extra-tart "Santa Baby." Country crooners Brad Paisley and Justin Young are featured, but it's erstwhile rocker Gavin DeGraw, as Callait's counterpart on "Baby It's Cold Outside," who shines. Bill OramChristina Perri,"A Very Merry Perri Christmas"Grade: BThe 20-something Philadelphia singer-songwriter had her first (and so far only) breakout hit with "Jar of Hearts" in 2010 after it was showcased on the Fox reality show "So You Think You Can Dance." That's what makes this well-curated six-song Christmas EP such a surprising find. Perri's textured voice finds her own groove in covering Karen Carpenter's classic "Merry Christmas Darling," and updates Lennon/Ono's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" after kicking things off with the sly charm of her own "Something About December." The virtue of this release is also its vice: It leaves you longing for more. Ellen Fagg WeistThe Average
Gary U.S. Bonds, "Christmas is On!"Grade: B-The 73-year-old R&B rocker shows you exactly where Bruce Springsteen got his inspiration for his rollicking Jersey Shore bar-band style on Bonds' first Christmas album. (Bonds' "Quarter to Three" was a favorite Springsteen cover in the early years.) While Bonds' voice sounds a little tired, the energy on this high-energy rock 'n' roll album is front and center, and the record is at its best when Bonds and his tight band trot out originals (written by collaborator Paul Zuno) rather than the traditionals. David BurgerKenny Vance & The Planotones, "Mr. Santa"Grade: B-An original member of Jay and the Americans (who opening for The Rolling Stones and The Beatles on both's first U.S. tours), Kenny Vance's musical tastes haven't evolved much from the 1960s, but that is not an entirely bad thing. In addition to three original holiday songs, Vance brings an air of nostalgia to the proceedings, with recordings that sound straight out of the doo-wop era. But any album that has not just one but two songs about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer automatically gets grade demotions. David BurgerLady Antebellum, "On This Winter's Night"Grade: C+With only one original song (the title track), the album from the country trio features 11 of the most over-played holiday songs in Christian history, like "Silver Bells," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the execrable "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (which should be banned). The saving grace is that lead singers Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott are, bar-none, the best co-ed singing duo in the Christian world, regardless of genre. But as you listen to the album, a question begs: Why turn "Blue Christmas" into a holly, jolly up-tempo dance track? David BurgerElvis Presley, "The Classic Christmas Album"Grade: C+This compilation from recordings from 1971, 1966 and 1957 (plus a remasters duets album) is mainly for Elvis fanatics. Though many of the songs seem dated, there are a few gems including "The First Noel" and "Silent Night." The more rock-sounding tunes don't work quite as well. Tom WhartonFrancesca Battistelli, "Christmas"Grade: C+The fourth album by Christian singer Francesca Battistelli is an overproduced pop confection, a mix of forgettable new songs and some Christmas classics (like her faux-jazz renditions of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song"). Battistelli's lucid voice shines when she lets the songs speak for themselves, like a country-ish "Joy to the World" that truly sounds joyful. Sean P. MeansRita Coolidge, "A Rita Coolidge Christmas"Grade: C+It's interesting that perhaps the best of the 12 cuts on this disc are not true Christmas songs. "Circle of Light" and a Spanish version of "Amazing Grace" (that features the St. Genevieve High School Choir) are highlights. The more classic Christmas songs are done well, though changes in style from jazz to even country make the effort a bit uneven. Tom WhartonVarious artists, "A Christmas Story: The Musical"Grade: C+"A Christmas Story" was a really great 1983 movie. And the Broadway show got pretty good reviews. But this CD is just OK, and less than OK if you haven't seen the musical. Guess you had to be there. Meh. Scott D. PierceChicago, "O Christmas Three"Grade: C+Chicago sounds like a bunch of old guys at a nursing home. Guest Dolly Parton sounds like she had a cold when the recorded her song. That makes it hard trying to work up the courage to listen to the other Chicago Christmas CD. (It's a double-album.") Ouch. Brett PrettymanScotty McCreery, "Christmas with Scotty McCreery"Grade: CIt is requisite for every country artist to record a holiday album, but "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery (who opened for The Beach Boys at this year's "Stadium of Fire") gets an early jump by releasing one just a few months after he graduated from high school. It's safe to say that this was probably not Scotty's idea; it has "record-label's wish list" written all over the album, and the songs don't stray from the predictable. But, despite all of the naysayers, winning "American Idol" is not easy, and Scotty has the smoothest baritone since George Strait, and it's a pleasure to hear him sing. Really. David BurgerJohn Denver, "The Classic Christmas Album"Grade: CDenver's soothing voice is perfect for holiday songs about crackling fires and that special baby in a manager. But those who compiled the 16-song collection should have steered clear of the singer/songwriters hillbilly alter ego, because a few of the offerings specifically "Please, Daddy (Don't get Drunk This Christmas) just spoil the holiday mood. Kathy StephensonPumpYouUp, "Christmas Nutcracker Dubstep & Techno Classics"Grade: CAt the very least. putting traditional holiday tunes through the EDM blender is an innovative idea. Twenty-three instrumental tracks, though, get to be too much for personal listening, even though some of the work-outs are entrancing. But this is best heard at a club for holiday-themed parties. David BurgerRick Braun, "Swingin' in the Snow"Grade: CThe Pennsylvania-based smooth-jazz trumpeter generally gives the genre "smooth jazz" a good name in this lively set, though the 57-year-old's song selection of tired traditionals is questionable. (Do we really need another rendition of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"? Really?) A previous holiday CD, "Peter White Christmas with Mindi Abair and Rick Braun," featuring Braun, was a little more adventurous and enjoyable. David BurgerRichard Marx, "Christmas Spirit"Grade: CEven though are two original songs, this album of mostly traditional songs is average in every single way. Duets with Sara Watkins and Kenny Loggins do nothing to enliven the proceedings in this unnecessary album. Marx is actually a better songwriter than singer, so I would have expected more original material. In his song "Christmas Spirit," he croons "I'm sure you must be busy / So I'll try to end this story fast." Not fast enough. David BurgerThe Ugly
Nickelodeon stars, "Merry Nickmas"Grade: C-It's clear that the target audience for this collection of traditional songs (except for SpongeBob Squarepants' "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas) is not for adults like I, so I can be a little forgiving of generally music-by-numbers productions from the likes of Victoria Justice, Big Time Rush and Rachel Crow. But it's cheerfully bland, and there is little fun to be shared in this offering, which sounds like it was made in a hurry to cash in on the talents of kids who will be hitting puberty soon. David BurgerEarnest Pugh, "Christmas with Earnest Pugh & Friends"Grade: C-Of all of the Christmas albums released this season, none boast the vocal chops of gospel singer Earnest Pugh, who has a five-octave range and uses all in rapid frequency. The Army veteran too often interrupts the proceedings with as many "interludes" as those found on a rap album, and the slickness of the production gets grating after a while. There is no denying Pugh's singing talents, but the vocal acrobatics and pyrotechnics too often overshadow everything else. David BurgerJohn Travolta & Olivia Newton John, "This Christmas: Grade: C-If you're a huge fan of Travolta and/or Newton-John, this is for you. And even you may groan at how cheesy it is. The music itself isn't awful, but then you've got Travolta gasping and sighing in "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (among others), saying, "Oh, gosh, Liv, I really do have to go." And Newton-John replies, "Oh, you don't really, do you?" Gag. Scott D. PierceAndre Rieu, "Home for the Holidays"Grade: C-Classical bandleader Andre Rieu can play a mean violin solo, and his Johann Strauss Orchestra can make you waltz even if you don't know a waltz from a fox-trot. However, it is hard to muster up much enthusiasm for this largely instrumental record, which sounds like it would be right at home inside an elevator. The 63-year-old Dutchman selects some long-hidden holiday chestnuts such as "Old Toy Trains" and "December Lights," but "Go Tell It On the Mountain" is such a lackluster rendition of the gospel number that Satan must be smiling. David BurgerThe Polyphonic Spree, "Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. One"Grade: C-This Dallas-based choral symphonic pop rock band takes on ten tedious standards and two original instrumental compositions. While much of the album features alternate melodies to standards, either you like the dreamy, lush over-productions, or you don't. I don't. I admire the ambition, but I get the sense that these work better in a live setting. Playing these next to a fireplace on a cold winter's night would just irritate me with too much going on. But they get extra points for performing John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." David BurgerKatherine Jenkins, "This is Christmas"Grade: C- Is it right to give points for the visual prettiness of the performer? If so, this would be an A-plus. But the Welsh mezzo-soprano's music isn't as desirable, with the blond 32-year-old's classical-trained voice not blending well with traditional, uninspired musical backing to these traditional, uninspired songs. Even her "Santa Baby" isn't sexy, like it should be. This past spring, she competed on "Dancing with the Stars," finishing in second place, but maybe she should stick to her night job (dancing) when it comes to Christmas time. David BurgerBlake Shelton, "Cheers, It's Christmas"Grade: DIt becomes clear early on that the best tracks on this album are the ones where women duet with Shelton, who is one of the most uninteresting singers in Nashville. The Pistol Annies (with wife Miranda Lambert) guest on "Blue Christmas," Kelly Clarkson joins him on "There's a New Kid in Town," and Dolly Parton links up with Shelton on the best number, "Oklahoma Christmas." While Shelton gets some credit for co-penning some original songs, most are only tolerably pleasant but uninspired in every way. Cash in your check now, Blake. David BurgerKenny G, "The Classic Christmas Album"Grade: DYou might say to yourself, isn't this repetitive? After all, this collection of Kenny G's holiday recordings supplements two prior compilations, both featuring highlights from his three albums. The 16 tracks are the epitome of background music much like music you would like to be played low when having an interesting holiday-party conversation with the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt. But those conversations with those dead Presidents probably won't happen. The only time you would want this to be played at a normal volume would be when you try to drown out Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party (a recurring character on "Saturday Night Live.") David Burger