Stuff your stocking

Holiday hits and misses

By Alan Sculley

 

Many years, when December arrives, it’s time to brace for the onslaught of Christmas albums, fearing the selection will be 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:

 

Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal: Talkin’ Christmas

TajMahal

This holiday summit between blues legend Mahal and the equally venerable gospel/soul vocal group, The Blind Boys, 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.

Rating: 4/5

 

Earth, Wind & Fire: Holiday Legacy

earth_wind_&_fire_holiday-portada

The veteran group does exactly what one would hope with a holiday album – remake a set of Christmas classics in its own rousing, horn-laced R&B image while rounding out things with a few spirited originals.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

The Roys: Bluegrass Kinda Christmas

TheRoys

There’s nothing “kinda” here. The Roys have made a true bluegrass Christmas album that happily leans toward lively lesser-known tunes (“Santa Claus Looked a Lot Like Daddy” and “Christmas Time’s a Comin’”), plus several solid originals.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Darius Rucker: Home for the Holidays

DariusRucker

 

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.”

Rating: 2.5/5

 

Over the Rhine: Blood Oranges in the Snow

OvertheRhine

 

Blood Oranges in the Snow 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. It makes for a compelling, and frequently lovely, listen.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Various Artists: Christmas at Downtown Abbey

VariousArtists

 

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 quite that well – with the choir frequently carrying the performances) songs that have nothing to do with the fine television series.

Rating:1/5

 

Farmer Jason: Christmas on the Farm with…

FarmerJason

 

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 grownups will also get some kicks out of Christmas on the Farm.  

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Heart & Friends: Home for the Holidays

Heart and Friends

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. Before the proceedings end, though, Heart rocks out on “Barracuda,” “Even it Up” and a cover of “Stairway To Heaven.” Then Richard Marx, Shawn Colvin and Train’s Pat Monahan join in on Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” a stirring finale for a fine, and unique, holiday show.

Rating: 4/5

 

Home Free: Full of Cheer

HomeFree

 

Winners of NBC’s The Sing-Off, this a cappella group sounds like a cross between The Oak Ridge Boys and Straight No Chaser on Full of Cheer – 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.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Idina Menzel: Holiday Wishes

IdinaMenzel

 

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. Of course, Broadway isn’t known for vocal nuance and subtlety, so maybe that’s to be expected.

Rating: 2/5

 

Celtic Thunder: Holiday Symphony

CelticThunder

 

The male Irish vocal group is back to cash in on the holiday CD season with its third holiday album. Holiday Symphony doesn’t sound particularly Irish or original, but it does sound calculated.

Rating: 2/5

 

Jim Brickman: On a Winter’s Night

JimBrickman

 

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” (made famous by Elvis Presley) and the Mariah Carey hit “All I Want for Christmas is You” in his signature gentle piano sound.

Rating: 3/5

 

Dave Koz & Friends: The 25th of December

DaveK0z

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.

Rating: 3/5

 

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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