Christmastime is here, and stores are bursting with bargain-sniffers and a fresh batch of holiday releases from our friends in the music industry. There’s no shortage of options this year; the shelves verily explode with possibilities, some good, some mediocre and some just plain awful.
As a service and gift to budget-conscious readers, The Entertainer sampled ten sonic tonics from the Class of 2009 — even checked a few twice — to separate the humbug from the ho-ho-ho.
David Archuleta, “Christmas from the Heart” — In typical manufactured-teen-wailer fashion, the “American Idol” groomsman coughed up snow for his sophomore venture, in a move we record-biz vets called a stopgap between discs. (If he drops a live album next, call a mortician.) Here his tenor works well, in an earnestly straightforward setting removed from the contemporary chirps and whistles seeping from his eponymous 2008 debut. No jaw-droppers here, but “Cheer” makes for pleasant company as you watch the pretty lights blink and fade.
Andrea Bocelli, “My Christmas” — It may be his Christmas, but, man, it’s crowded. When the Italian tenor’s not expanding his considerable lungs alone, he passes time with a who’s-who of houseguests, from Natalie Cole (“The Christmas Song”), herself the daughter of a holiday giant, to the Muppets (“Jingle Bells”), notorious for their less-than-harmonious harmonies. The best entrance, however, arrives on “What Child Is This”; after Bocelli purrs, “What child is this/who laid to rest/On Mary’s lap is sleeping,” in sidles Mary J. Blige. You meant her lap?
Neil Diamond, “A Cherry Cherry Christmas” — As the title would indicate, with its knowing wink at a 1966 Diamond smash, Neil’s in good cheer these days. Last year he snagged his first No. 1 Pop album ever (hard to grok, but it’s true), and as a thank you he’s offered this holiday effort, which struts with Sin City panache through yuletide perennials and droll nods to his own sacred text: “Let’s raise a Christmas toast of red, red wine/We’ll even sing ‘Sweet Caroline’” — that’s two references in as many breaths. Did we mention his take on Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song”?
Bob Dylan, “Christmas in the Heart” — Leave it to Dylan to get everyone riled up over, of all things, a holiday record. Wags on both sides of the critical divide have been hurling salvos since its release: Bob’s gone nuts, Bob’s more relevant than ever, Bob’s playing our pocketbooks and memories for chump puppet suckers and laughing all the way up the chimney. Whatever. On “Christmas in the Heart,” he’s whipped up a spirited treat like the ones he used to know (Patti Page, Gene Autry, etc.). Plus, it’s for charity, so what the hell. He may have the voice of boiled cigarettes and the look of a rakish uncle for whom restraining orders were made, but Bob Dylan remains a living national treasure.
A Fine Frenzy, “Oh Blue Christmas” — As a gushing admirer of the lovely Alison Sudol, the “A Fine Frenzy” of A Fine Frenzy, I will refrain from commenting on this six-song Target exclusive. Except to note that you can hear the sultry frost in her breath as she twirls through standards and originals (highlight: “Red Ribbon Foxes”) and pours a lonely glass of wistful rumination in the most bone-chilling take on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” you’re bound to encounter.
Wynton Marsalis, “Christmas Jazz Jam” — Wynton takes a refreshing breather after the heady “He and She,” which explored the complex male/female dynamic from birth to death, to frolic in the gap between joy and cheer on this, his first yuletide offering since 1990’s “Crescent City Christmas Card.” New Orleans gets plenty of play here, with Dixieland stomps down holiday roads, with a quiet stop at bar’s end to contemplate “This Christmas.”
Michael McDonald, “This Christmas” — Rumor has it that McDonald began going gray in the ’70s in order to one day resemble a Christmas sweater. The ex-Doobie loves this time of year. This is his third such excursion this decade, following 2005’s “Through the Many Winters” (not so many since that last one, eh, Mike?). He ladles his sleepy blue-eyed soul over a crackling fire of 12 original and holiday staples, all warmly assembled under a cover shot of Mr. Smooth in his rustic finery.
Sting, “If On a Winter’s Night…” — Good news: The last truly great Sting album also bore ellipses (“…Nothing Like the Sun”). Bad news: That was 22 years ago. But Sting does wintry well; the ex-English instructor attacks the project with academic ambition, sweeping the centuries for season-appropriate balladry. So while it’s been marketed for Christmas, “Winter’s Night” is actually valid into March. Sting dots the traditional pastiche with a pair of his own numbers, the previously released “Lullaby for an Anxious Child” and “The Hounds of Winter.”
Straight No Chaser, “Christmas Cheer” — Uncorked in ’96 at Indiana University, these a capella fellas take their handle from a 1967 Thelonious Monk number, but they can’t quite match the jazz man in inspiration: this is their second Christmas disc since last year’s “Holiday Spirits.” Round 2 coughs up “The Christmas Can Can,” plus versions of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Brian Setzer’s “Hey Santa” and a question asked in the better holly-decked halls, “Who Spiked the Eggnog?” Among the ranks of Straight No Chaser, there are at least ten possible culprits.
Sugarland, “Gold and Green” — Sugarland recuperate from a decade of truculent country pop to drop a stale holiday treat like that mummified gingerbread house Grandma’s lugged downstairs since 1981. The Jennifer Nettles/Kristian Bush duo nestle down with traditional material and new tunes, beginning with “City of Silver Dreams,” a treacly evocation of a lit-up metropolis that’ll inspire you to get lit up too.