Your 2019 Holiday Soundtrack
The best new releases — and a few to bypass
By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 21, 2019
No matter how many times we’ve heard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or “Sleigh Bells,” each year a new crop of artists puts their stamp on songs of the season. This year’s holiday music crosses all genres, from jazz to rap, metallic to country. If you’re looking to update your longtime Christmas soundtrack or curate an all-new one, start here.
For their fourth holiday assortment, the members of the “rock band with horns” turn in a set of original holiday tunes plus a couple ringers. “Sleigh Ride” fits like a comfortable old scarf. Founding member Robert Lamm thought “What the World Needs Now” would fit in lyrically and musically, and maybe it does – though it would definitely have stuck out among a host of familiar holiday tunes. As to the originals, it’s tough to break through the Christmas clutter with something new. They all sound like Chicago, but it’s unlikely any of them will be played ad nauseum on the radio.
Another Kind of Christmas
Five new songs take their place alongside some reimagined Christmas classics, like “Someday at Christmas,” a plea for peace by Stevie Wonder during the Vietnam War, and Marvin Gaye’s “I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” inspired by the plight of prisoners of war. Ne-Yo documents a Christmas Eve breakup on “Just Ain’t Christmas” and takes us to the islands on the reggae-tinged “Christmas Vibez.” He channels Luther Campbell more than Wonder or Gaye on the R-rated “Open Mine Tonight;” Candice Boyd guests on a spirited rendition of “Carol of the Bells.”
Christmas: A Season of Love
Nothing says Christmas like overproduced odes to holiday favorites, whether it’s “Sleigh Ride” or “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Or anything else on this recording.) If you miss the orchestrated classics of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis or the like, you’ll find this right up your alley. Others may opt for something more intimate without being so overbearing.
Christmas in the City
Menzel’s former Glee castmate essays similar territory but fares considerably better. At least, until “Silver Bells,” which becomes cloying with its swooping strings. She does give Brenda Lee’s twang a run for its money on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” You will get a sentimental feeling indeed.
Jazz guitarist Stryker has released three 8-Track albums, looking back on the organ-based jazz stylings popular when eight-track cartridges were all the rage. Here he adds vibes to the classic organ trio sound and gets points for originality. That said, holiday music is notoriously difficult to pull off in a jazz vein with tradition and familiarity often at war with improvisation. So, “This Christmas” is a winner, but “What Child Is This?” is less so. “Sleigh Ride” is a delight, and the gentle, wistful “Christmas Time Is Here” is great for guitar and vibes – but not for organ, which makes it sound too much like a lounge act.
HARK! is a quick shot of Christmas classics rendered as warm folk songs, courtesy of Illinois-based singer-songwriter Andrew Bird. Bonus points for including “Skating” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. The fiddle on that tune and “Christmas Is Coming” give them a retro, down-home feel, which is further accentuated by Bird’s whistling on “White Christmas.” He does the same on “O Holy Night” — albeit less successfully.
Rob Halford With Family and Friends
AKA a Judas Priest Christmas. That’s right, the longtime Priest frontman celebrates the birth of the Christ child with a family band including his brother Nigel, his nephew Alex, his sister Sue, and close friends. The most surprising thing isn’t that this holiday recording exists, it’s how well much of it works, at least if you’re in the mood for some holiday metal. Some — OK, most — is shriekingly metallic, from a full-on assault of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to “Away in a Manger.” Then along comes “Morning Star” to change the mood completely before Halford and crew turn it up to 11 on “Deck the Halls.”
Basile plays guitars. Lots of guitars, with digitized, MIDI-ed backing to his nylon string and electric guitar. None of it sounds canned or forced – on the contrary, it’s lovely, melodic and where he drifts off the well-known melodies into improvisation, it’s never too off-the-wall. His version of “Christmas Time Is Here” has a gentle Latin vibe, while “The First Noel” is appropriately melody-based. The title track benefits from piano, presumably MIDI-produced by Basile, the only musician credited.
The titles may be unfamiliar to the uninitiated, but they are all traditional — just not U.S. traditional. The band researched nearly 150 Christmas-related songs from across the Americas for this collection. Most are sung in Spanish, which probably limits their appeal.
Moonlight, Mistletoe, and You
Bluesman Keb’ Mo’ has crafted a winner from this 50-50 mix of new and familiar holiday music. “Christmas Is Annoying” paints an amusing picture of the holidays, while “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” and “Merry, Merry Christmas” are engaging electric blues. His duet with Melissa Manchester on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” is a highlight.
The Oak Ridge Boys
Down Home Christmas
We’ll end where we began, in a sense: Like Chicago, the Oak Ridge Boys opted for a nearly all-original program. They gather round “The Family Piano” for a good old time, then go for more of the same with “Angels.” Of the two non-originals, “Silent Night” is given an almost gospel treatment, while “Amazing Grace” is even more so. Best bet: “Reindeer on the Roof,” featuring the amazing rich bass of Richard Sterban. The “buh-booms” and “that’s right” rival “oom poppa mow mow” from the Oak Ridge Boys’ classic song “Elvira.”