March 3, 2024

Your 2018 Holiday Soundtrack

The best — and a few to bypass
By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 15, 2018

No matter how many times we’ve heard “Deck the Halls” or “Winter Wonderland,” each year sees artists trying to (re)capture the holiday spirit by putting their stamp on songs of the season. The appeal of holiday music crosses all genres, from country to pop, big band to new age. And as long as it doesn’t get too treacly, the more the merrier, right? Right?
 
Pentatonix               
Christmas Is Here
Perhaps this group is an acquired taste. This is the third(!) Pentatonix Christmas recording, and maybe the group should have stopped at two. Some of the cuts are interesting and engaging in a vacuum, but the end result sounds more like “Hey, look what we can do with our voices!” rather than engaging the music and its spirit. It’s also relentlessly upbeat, so much so that the listener starts to long for a tender ballad for a change of pace.
 
John Legend            
A Legendary Christmas
“What Christmas Means to Me” kicks off this festive, fun recording with flair. Legend even enlists Stevie Wonder for a cameo on harmonica. Esperanza Spalding duets with him on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The recording features both classics and new compositions. Seems John Legend can do no wrong, as this is a winner for sure.
 
Martina McBride    
It’s the Holiday Season
Country star McBride plays it straight with a studio production right out of pop’s golden age. The orchestral stylings, complete with strings and woodwinds, find their way to classics like “Winter Wonderland” and “Home for the Holiday” as well as kids’ favorites like  “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph.” She wisely refrains from treating the latter as novelties, and though she’s been dubbed a country artist, she’s just as comfortable with grown-up pop. Henry Mancini would approve.
 
Ingrid Michaelson  
Songs For The Season
Indie-pop singer Ingrid Michaelson mixes her approaches to a program of mostly familiar fare. Her breathy voice is oddly, perfectly suited to both “Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter” with a ’30s-sounding orchestra and “Mele Kalikimaka” with ukulele and clarinet. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gets a poignant treatment, and Michaelson’s take on “Auld Lang Syne” alone is worth the price of admission.
 
The Mavericks        
Hey! Merry Christmas!
If the holidays are a time to make merry, the Mavericks are the band of choice.
Fusing rockabilly, Latin grooves, folk, swing and blues, the Grammy winners up the ante by including eight originals alongside two Yule favorites. The first five songs are winners before “It’s Christmas Without You” falls flat. The title track could be from bands Asleep at the Wheel or Roomful of Blues, proof enough of this band’s versatility.
 
Eric Clapton 
Happy Xmas
Slowhand fans were ready to pick this up as soon as it was released in mid-October. Clapton’s takes on “Home for the Holidays” and an original treatment of “Jingle Bells” are first-rate, but much of the rest is just a bit too honky-tonk. Course, if that’s the Clapton you prefer, then this set of both well-known and little-known holiday tunes may be just what you ordered.
 
Brett Eldredge        
Glow
Apparently the trend this holiday season is for the big production, with strings and orchestra, as demonstrated by McBride and Michaelson. And by country crooner Brett Eldredge, who delivers one of the best traditional Christmas collections of this (or any) year. Especially enjoyable are “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” the latter dripping with nostalgia. Make sure you get the Deluxe package, with 18 songs, as opposed to 11 on the non-deluxe version.
 
Lindsay Stirling      
Warmer in the Winter
Violinist and occasional vocalist Lindsay Stirling presents a varied program of big band, orchestral, pop, bluegrass and electronica, sometimes all together. “Carol of the Bells” gets a stipped-down Trans-Siberian approach, with big beats and Stirling’s violin, while “Warmer in the Winter” features Trombone Shorty.
 
Straight No Chaser 
Holiday Spirits (10thAnniversary Edition)
A capella stars Straight No Chaser’s latest features only two new cuts. But you cannot go wrong with “The 12 Days of Christmas” — either their highly original version or the new 2018 remix. Who else would sing a song of snowy delights with an ode to the rains of Africa?
 
Old 97s                     
Love the Holiday       
The alt-country band foregoes the traditional route, instead opting for a set of holiday originals. OK, “Auld Lang Syne” makes an appearance, and a quartet of traditional bonus tracks round out the recording, but for the most part, it’s a set of twangy Americana songs that pack a Christmasy crunch.
 
Antonn Walker       
A Soulful Christmas
Detroit’s own Antonn Walker gives the holiday season a soulful spin. “Mary Did You Know” and “The Christmas Song” are maybe the best bets here, but the entire recording deserves a listen. Available online only — go to nimbitmusic.com/antonnwalker.
 
Engelbert Humperdinck   
Warmest Christmas Wishes
About what you’d expect. Smooth orchestrations and Humperdinck’s similarly silky voice ride to the edge of syrup and schmaltz but seldom go over the line.

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