Here our jazz editor encourages you to broaden your holiday music horizons and offers up five new Christmas albums that are ready to accompany your eggnog sipping and gift giving.
For those of us that consider music to be an important part of the holidays, the tunes that we choose to listen to can be a pretty personal decision. We have our favorites that we come back to year after year because of the memories associated with those songs. When I play Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” for instance, I’m flooded with memories of my childhood at Christmas and a distinct feeling of being home.
But it wouldn’t be very adventurous of us to stick with what we know and not check out the tons of new music being released every holiday season, would it? Forget for a moment that Christmas is another opportunity for the music industry to make some money and consider that each piece of new music is another opportunity to capture our new memories. You’ll hopefully find a couple to complement your holidays well, and it may just become part of your life like you never expected.
Here are five new Christmas albums out that are ready to accompany your eggnog sipping and gift giving, each with my holiday rating that considers both musical value and holiday appropriateness.
Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O: 7/10
The great thing about drummer Matt Wilson is that he’s for everyone. And even though the hippest families will be spinning this one on Christmas morning, it’ll also spell holiday cheer for the squarest of squares. It’s a jazz album for sure, but with some of the most recognizable songs ever composed, it becomes accessible for everyone. With saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikivie, Wilson shows reserve on some of the album’s Christmas favorites (like John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”) and goes berserk on others (even with timpani on “Hallelujah Chorus”). The track list says a lot: they’re not reaching to redefine Christmas with new tunes. But with arrangements like intricate swinging tunes filled with solo breaks (“The Little Drummer Boy”) and those that solidly groove under great solos (“Winter Wonderland”), Wilson and his crew are just being themselves.
Track list: Winter Wonderland; The Chipmunk Song; Angels/Angels We Have Heard On High; Christmas Time Is Here; You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch; Happy Xmas (War Is Over); O Come O Come Emmanuel; Mele Kalikimaki; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; I’ll Be Home For Christmas; Hallelujah Chorus, Snowfall; Little Drummer Boy; We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks – Crazy For Christmas: 5/10
Hicks’s Arkansas-bred casual crooning and a slew of acoustic old-timey instruments are front and center on Crazy for Christmas. Most are tunes you would never have heard before, and the funny and cutesy lyrics seem like your grandpa might have written them (Hicks was born in ’41, after all). The elf’s refrain in the peppy “Santa’s Workshop” speaks to this: “Come on gents, we got to get the job done / On Christmas day we’ll get our pay, but right now we’s under the gun.” Hicks is a little bit “cowboy folk,” a little bit jazz, a little bit country. It’s a blend that doesn’t scream Christmas, but he works it and actually comes out with a few tunes that I could see living on some holiday playlists. Be sure to shuffle, though. A couple of these in a row might make you loopy.
Track list: Christmas Mornin’; Santa Gotta Choo Choo; Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit; Carol of the Bells; Run Run Rudolph; Santa’s Workshop; Old Fashioned Christmas; Cool Yule; I’ve Got Christmas by the Tail; I Saw Mommy Kissin’ Santa Claus; Here Comes Santa Claus; Under the Mistletoe.
Brian Setzer Orchestra – Christmas Comes Alive!: 6/10
Remember “Jump Jive An’ Wail”? It’s that on too much eggnog. Setzer’s act, his big band rockabilly schtick, just works with Christmas, though. Maybe it was Duke Ellington or Ray Charles that put blaring brass in holiday music first, but Setzer follows that trend with electric guitar, wailing vocals, and a freaking loud ensemble on these live recordings. Given that most of these songs could be of any season without the Santa-themed lyrics, they’d still make good musical accompaniment for getting handsy under the mistletoe. Some tunes do the trick (“Angels We Have Heard On High”), and then some are just blasé reproductions of older ditties (“Jingle Bell Rock”). It’s not getting me in the Christmas spirit, but it might keep me there if I already was.
Track list: Dig That Crazy Santa Claus; Sleigh Ride; Boogie Woogie Santa Claus; Winter Wonderland; Santa Claus Is Back In Town; (Everybody’s Waiting For) The Man With The Bag; Stray Cat Strut/You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; ‘Zat You Santa Claus?; Angels We Have Heard On High; Run Rudolph Run; Jungle Bell Rock; Blue Christmas; Fishnet Stockings; The Nutcracker Suite; Jingle Bells.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. – Christmas With The Rat Pack: 10/10
It’s been fifty years since the Rat Pack recorded these Christmas favorites, and eight years since Capitol re-released the classics from the crooning masters. Nothing has changed, so don’t feel compelled to buy this compilation if you already have the tunes. That said, nearly everything Frank, Dean, and Sammy did was timeless, and their Christmas music is no exception. The three guys (and the arrangers, orchestrators, and musicians that made it all possible) redefined the Christmas songs they took on. The arrangements seep with Christmas cheer like on Dean’s “Let It Snow” (if he were a fictional character, he’d be Ron Burgundy), Sammy’s “The Christmas Song,” and Frank’s “The Christmas Waltz.” Frolicking flutes, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, children’s choir, classic holiday songs! All the ingredients are here for spirited music, but it’s of course each singer’s unmistakable voice that makes it great.
Track list: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; Mistletoe And Holly; Christmas Time All Over The World; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Silver Bells; The Christmas Waltz; Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer; Jingle Bells; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Peace On Earth/Silent Night; It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; Winter Wonderland; The Christmas Song; The First Noel; White Christmas; I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams).
Dave Barnes – Very Merry Christmas: 8/10
Along with lead vocals, Dave Barnes credits himself in the liner notes for “acoustic guitar, background vocals, and overall Christmas spirit and excitement.” You can feel it, which is especially commendable considering these songs were probably recorded in the middle of the summer. The singer-songwriter who dabbles in contemporary Christian music and who has a history connecting with Hanson and John Mayer contributes mostly original songs in addition to Mariah Carey’s seminal “All I Want For Christmas,” Harry Connick Jr.’s “I Pray On Christmas,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” With singer Hillary Scott on “Christmas Tonight,” Barnes and band softly swing. Otherwise, it’s Norah Jones-styled pop jazz (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”), gospel funk (“I Pray On Christmas”), or any other number of styles that suits his soulful voice.
Track list: Very Merry Christmas; Christmas Tonight (with Hillary Scott); All I Want For Christmas; Meet Me At The Mistletoe; I’ll Be Home For Christmas; I Pray On Christmas; Family Tree; Holiday Made For Two; The Christmas Song; Mary & Joseph.