Speaking of Peanuts, one of the offerings this year is a remastered version of the soundtrack to that seminal animated special. Vince Guaraldis creations remain staples of the holiday season, whether its Schroeders I mean Guaraldis Linus and Lucy or the immortal Christmas Time Is Here, heard here in not only instrumental and vocal versions, but an alternate vocal take, one of four bonus tracks on the disc.
Andreas Vollenweider, Midnight Clear (Kin Kou): Swiss harpist Vollenweider still has it, as he demonstrates on this holiday collection. Special guest Carly Simon sings on four tracks, but they are not the highlights. No, its Vollenweiders unique instrumental combinations of harp, laud, bells, bass clarinet, frame drum, and other occasionally exotic instruments that make this one of the most appealing of his albums, the holiday focus notwithstanding.
The Klezmatics, Woodie Guthries Happy Joyous Hanukkah (JMG): Who says holiday music cant be danceable? Certainly not the father of American folk music, who wrote these tunes that are irrepressible and instantly singalongable. The Klezmatics, todays most popular klezmer band, does them all justice.
Simply Christmas Home for the Holidays (Sony): This compilation brings together various jazz and classical performers, including clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and two former Spyro Gyrans, Jeremy Wall and Dave Samuels, on a delightful Ding Dong followed by harpist Ayako Shinozaki on O Christmas Tree. Unexpected joy abounds throughout.
The Nativity Story: Sacred Songs (New Line Records/Word Records): The soundtrack to the movie is another compilation, this one featuring a host of Christian and country stars. Point of Grace, Kenny Rogers & Wynonna, Amy Grant, and BarlowGirl are among the contributors, producing a very mixed bag.
Joy To The World, The Ultimate Christmas Collection (INO Records): This labels compilation includes many of its Christian rock/pop performers: Darlene Zschech, 4Him, MercyMe, SONICFLOOD, etc. Reminiscent in places of the Trans Siberian Orchestras metallic pomp and others of whiny folk, this is perhaps the least successful and least engaging of any of this years releases. Not the kind of thing to put on at the family get-together, in other words.
Jazz Yule Love II (Mack Avenue Records): Its always difficult to create jazz versions of Christmas tunes. If the artist improvises too much, the songs soul is lost; not enough, and its not jazz. This Detroit-based label is nevertheless as successful in creating Volume II as Volume I, with the Hot Club of Detroit, guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and vocalist Ilona Knopfler. An unqualified success, with Knopflers Ill Be Home for Christmas the signature track.
Christmas Break, Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays (Telarc): This sounds like a paean for smooth jazz aficionados, but its really a selection of classic tracks from the vaults of one of the genres most respected labels. Thus we get Oscar Petersons White Christmas, Mel Torme recreating Christmastime is Here, guitarist Jim Halls O Tannenbaum, and nine other tracks.
Steve Oliver, Snowfall (Koch Records): This set is more in line with what radio programmers prefer. Guitarist/vocalist Oliver is best served by his six-string. Its when he sings that he typically treads closest to pop, and this is no exception. He even comes off as country at times, as on a twangy version of Silent Night.
Brian Culbertson, A Soulful Christmas (GRP): Keyboardist Culbertson does himself and the music a disservice with this mish-mash of smooth jazz, gospel, and pop. Even Michael McDonald, heard here in an original entitled All Through the Christmas Night, cant save this. But the Tower of Power-style horns on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are fun, if out of place.
John Fluker, J is For Joy (Retribution Records): Why is this more successful than the Culbertson, as it essays approximately the same territory? Well, its more consistent and just plain better done. Fluker sings, plays keyboards, and is responsible for almost every sound here, apart from an occasional sax, guitar and some programming.
Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Christmastime Is Here (Telarc): A host of guests, including Ann Hampton Callaway, John Pizzarelli, Tierney Sutton, even the Singing Hoosiers from IU, dont do a whole lot for this recording.
Celtic Woman, A Christmas Celebration (Manhattan Records): This is surprisingly un-Celtic, featuring tunes like White Christmas and The Christmas Song alongside more expected songs like The Wexford Carol. Well done, but only Carol of the Bells is transformed into something Celtic-like, with the fiddle the focus. And the swinging big band version of Let It Snow is just outré.
Todd Agnew and Friends, Do You See What I See? (SRE Recordings/Ardent Records): Christian rocker Agnew apparently decided that a Christmas CD wasnt good enough. No, it had to be a musical with guests such as Mike Weaver of Big Daddy Weave and Christy Nockels of Watermark. Each of the guests plays a different role in the musical: Weaver as Simeon, Nockels as Mary, and so on. The contemporary-gospel sound is a refreshing change from Agnews regular rock vibe.
Carl Tanner, Hear the Angel Voices (Timeless Media): Tenor Carl Tanner delivers the goods on holiday music secular and sacred. Little Drummer Boy, Agnus Dei, O Holy Night and The Christmas Song all receive the operatic treatment, with Tanners marvelous voice atop the orchestra and backing choirs. If this is your cup of tea, you wont find anything better. But pop enthusiasts will be out of their league.
Jill Parr, Christmas Maxi Single (Whiplash Records): This may be nothing more than repackaged material (the two songs were offered last year as free mp3s from Parrs website), but its worth the 99 cents. Parr proves her versatility by first screaming out a pop-rock version of Do You Hear What I Hear and then slowing down considerably for O Come All Ye Faithful, more reminiscent of Amy Grants first two Christmas albums than anything else.
Of course, in this age of digital downloads, many of the above are available at iTunes. But also available are some tracks previously available only on full non-holiday albums. So George Michael and Whams heartbreaking Last Christmas, Greg Lakes I Believe in Father Christmas, Basias Angels Blush and the Waitresses witty Christmas Wrapping are easy to purchase by themselves. So too is Uncle Carls fun and festive Have A Hap, Hap, Happy Christmas apart from the rest of the soundtrack of Trust the Man, and the new Christmas EP by Leigh Nash (formerly of Sixpence None the Richer), which is elevated to mediocrity by her versions of Last Christmas and O Holy Night. And finally you can find any number of settings of Do They Know Its Christmas, including not only the original by Band-Aid but various others, including a music-box version.