It seems just about every artist records a holiday album at least once in their careers … so at Christmastime, the question is — "Who do you want to hear sing the carols from the Christmas Top 40?"
Here are a couple of the new holiday releases (or re-releases) you can choose from this year:
Steve Lukather & Friends
Without a doubt, this is the coolest new holiday disc this year, pulled together by the Grammy-winning guitarist of '80s pop heroes Toto.
Lukather's friends on this disc, pulled together in a week of recording sessions, include Steve Vai, Slash, Eddie Van Halen and Edgar Winter. Obviously, with the wealth of guitarists, the CD has plenty of jammy six-string solos (though surprisingly, it's more jazzy than hard rockin'), and sticks largely to instrumentals, allowing the players to create a warm groove of a yuletide soundscape.
The disc brings a jammy vibe to "Joy to the World," "Greensleeves," "Jingle Bells," "Carol of the Bells," "Winter Wonderland" (sung as "Edgar Winter Wonderland") "Silent Night," "Angels We Have Heard on High" and more.
The tracks all crackle with energy, and a wry humor at times, but one of the most fun songs is "Jingle Bells," which features the sampled vocals of Sammy Davis Jr. to create a posthumous duet with Lukather. There are also original holiday songs, "Broken Heart for Christmas," a crunchy blues-rocker co-written by Lukather and Stan Lynch, and "Look Out for Angels," co-written by Lukather and Jeff Babko, which sounds like a blue-tinged Toto track from 20 years ago.
The venerable New Age-y light jazz label Windham Hill has released many CDs of holiday and "wintery" music over the years, and this year, in partnership with Legacy, it has issued two collections.
Night Before Christmas features 14 new recordings by Windham Hill artists, and "Essential Winter Solstice" culls songs from the six previous Winter Solstice collections. Both sets spotlight the crystalline, icy tones of the piano and the gentle string-bending warmth of the acoustic guitar, and both are perfect for playing as background music for Christmas parties or around the tree on Christmas Eve, or just as late-night contemplation music.
Some of the tracks will be un- or less-familiar to many listeners, as the artists frequently offer older traditional carols or new compositions, rather than the pop standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph."
The Night Before Christmas collection features quiet, relaxing renderings of "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Wassail Song," "The First Noel," "O Tannenbaum," "Good King Wenceslas," and more from the likes of George Winston, Will Ackerman, Liz Story, Philip Aaberg and Jim Brickman.
The Essential Winter Solstice set offers two CDs that mine many more obscure holiday hymns from the above mentioned artists, as well as from Mark Isham, Michael Hedges, Alex DeGrassi and the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Included are "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "The Holly and the Ivy," "Carol of the Bells," "Northern Nights," "Little Drummer Boy," "Wexfor Carol," and more.
If you like your holiday cheer with an operatic flair, the male vocal quartet of Il Divo offer it in spades on this disc. Included, with dramatic vocals and symphonic backing, are renditions of "O Holy Night," "White Christmas," "Ave Maria," "Adeste Fideles," "Silent Night," and oddly, "Over the Rainbow" (when did that become a holiday song?).
I'm not sure why Philbin started exercising his vocal chops in the recording studio decades after he could probably deliver his best work (last year he released his first studio album in 36 years), but his latest offering covers a dozen holiday tracks with swing overtones. This is the kind of music you expect to hear played in department stores and, outside of an embarrassing cameo by Donald Trump (who turns up in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to pronounce "Rudoph, you're hired"), there's little of interest here. Philbin croons on "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and more.
One of the biggest selling holiday titles of all time, the late John Denver's 1975 Christmas ode to the Rockies is available on CD in a newly mastered edition with two bonus tracks — "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas" — in addition to its original folky, airy renderings of "The Christmas Song," "Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Silver Bells," "Away in a Manger," "Coventry Carol," "Oh Holy Night, "Silent Night," and more. The album also includes a quiet rendition of Denver's "Aspenglow," and one song written just for this release, "A Baby Just Like You," penned in 1975 for his new son. If you want some holiday music with a troubadour, back porch strumming flair, this is the album to discover…or rediscover.
On the Internet:
Ethereal pop duo Lovespirals offers a dreamy take on Denver's "Aspenglow," available for free download at www.myspace.com/lovespiralsdownwards. Likewise, your intrepid Pop Stops columnist offers an original John Everson Christmas song, recorded several years ago in collaboration with members of local bands SXBeat and Paddlefoot, for free download at www.johneverson.com/xmas.htm.
If you want some cornball Christmas humor, check out the Completely Cracked Christmas collection released by Park Forest native Dave Rudolf a few years ago (and still available, with song samples at www.daverudolf.com). From his swing band re-writing of "Silver Bells" to "what's that smell/I can tell/we're getting fruitcakes for Christmas" to the reggae spin on "Folly, Old St. Nicholas," or the shambling arrangement of "Oh Tanenbaum" (re-lyriced as "Oh Tom Got Bombed — and threw up on the Christmas tree") you're bound to find both a groan and a smile or two here.
Likewise, Hannukkah Rocks, the new Reprise Records release from The Leevees (a combo of Guster's Adam Gardner and The Zambonis' Dave Schneider). The novelty act brings a Beach Boys-to-Kinks array of pop-rock flair to nine songs celebrating the holidays from the Jewish perspective, from "Goyim Friends" and "How Do you Spell Channukkahh?" to poking fun at all the older Jews who head to Florida condos for the season in "At the Timeshare."