If you're looking for some brand-new Christmas music this year, you'll have to look hard. While some years it seems that all of Hollywood goes into the studio to record new holiday carols, this year, the shelves seem largely populated by re-issues of old Christmas CDs.
The only new offerings to cross my desk are from Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé and Chicago (all reviewed below).
In the old-but-back category, Legacy has re-pressed Merle Haggard's 1982 album Goin' Home for Christmas with a bonus track ("White Christmas") recorded in 1986. The label has also remastered Elmo & Patsy's 1984 classic Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (which features mainly traditional carols, aside from its ever-popular comedic title track).
Johnny Mathis recorded a new holiday disc a couple of years ago, but now his 1958 holiday release, Merry Christmas, is also back on the shelves with a couple of early '60s-recorded bonus tracks. And for the first time, a survey of Gene Autry's holiday recordings appears all on one disc as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & Other Christmas Classics.
Probably the best of Columbia's new compilations comes from the late Johnny Cash. Christmas With Johnny Cash features songs from three different Cash Christmas albums recorded in three different decades (1962, 1972, 1980). The Man in Black's heavy bass adds a warm, woodsy feel to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "Blue Christmas" and "Away in the Manger," as well as to two spoken word pieces, which have never before appeared on CD.
Legacy has also issued a new collection of old recordings called Singers and Songwriters Christmas Songs. The album features Rosanne Cash performing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," Dan Fogelberg singing "What Child Is This?," John Denver strumming "Away in a Manger," Willie Nelson and his trademark performance of "Pretty Paper" and Joan Baez performing "The Little Drummer Boy." Other artists include Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, The Judds, America, Jim Croce, Linda Ronstadt and more.
A more current collection comes from Warner Bros. in Gotta Love the Holidays. Produced to benefit the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, the disc includes new recordings from Renee Olstead ("Blue Christmas"), Shawn King with Kenny G ("Gotta Love the Holidays"), Michael Bublé ("White Christmas") and Sharon Stone, Larry King and Jim Brickman performing "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." The collection also includes recent Christmas recordings from Barry Manilow, Jim Brickman and Celene Dion.
Rhino offers a nicely ambient mix of recently recorded holiday tracks in Heavenly Christmas, which mixes the instrumental New Age sounds of John Tesh, Linda Eder, Mannheim Steamroller, George Winston and Kitaro on songs such as "We Three Kings" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" with the ethereal vocal tributes of Sarah Brightman ("Ave Maria"), Linda Ronstadt ("River"), Natalie Cole ("Mary, Did You Know?") and Loreena McKennitt ("Coventry Carol").
Harry for the Holidays
Opening with a snappin' swing take on "Frosty the Snowman," Connick handles a host of classics on his big band holiday disc. It's a slick by-the-book production with a variety of styles, from the Cajun spice of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" to the slow hepcat groove of "Blue Christmas" to the classic late-night jazz club crooning of "I'll Be Home For Christmas."
Connick is in fine "Rat Pack" style voice throughout and offers a couple of original holiday songs amid the classics, the best of which is the snappy horn-punctuated "The Happy Elf."
Let It Snow
It sounds pure schmaltzy Vegas all the way, but Michael Bublé's EP Let It Snow does deliver five enjoyable Christmas classics with exaggeratedly smooth crooning, jazzy piano, sweet strings and cool high-hat hits. Included are the title track, "The Christmas Song," "Grown-Up Christmas Wish," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "White Christmas."
Christmas * What's It Gonna Be, Santa?
Rhino has re-issued Chicago's mediocre Christmas album from five years ago, but has also upgraded the disc by including five newly recorded tracks, including "This Christmas" and a version of "Sleigh Ride." The other new songs include a soulful take on "Winter Wonderland," and the disc's best overall track, a punk-rock-with-horns take on "Jolly Old St. Nicholas," which includes the line "What's It Gonna Be, Santa?" (hence the new addition to the old album's title). The CD is definitely not among the top offerings of the band's catalog (vocally, they all sound a bit anemic on these carols), but Christmas * What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? does offer servicable covers of “Silent Night,” “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas” and others. The revised disc now includes a total of 20 Christmas songs performed with Chicago’s inimitable horn, guitar rock-jazz fusion style.