Whoever says the full-length album is a dying art form hasn't been watching the Christmas music. This year brings another sleigh full of full-length albums. Here's my take on this year's albums vying for your Christmas music dollars.
Lindsey Stirling: "Snow Waltz" – Stirling brings her unique signature mix of classical, electronica and pop to "Snow Waltz," crafting this year's most innovative holiday albums. What also works is the hint of a dark undercurrent Stirling brings to "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" and the title track. They play nicely with cheerier tracks (like "Sleigh Ride" and "Joy to the World" and the originals "Crazy For Christmas" and "Magic.")
Switchfoot: "This Is Our Christmas Album" – The popular alt-rock band tries its hand at Christmas music with mixed results. "Scrappy Little Christmas Tree" sounds like the Sex Pistols meet the Beach Boys and somehow it works, while "New Year's Day" is a catchy mid-tempo rocker. But a couple of originals fall flat and at times Jon Foreman's raspy vocals come up a little creaky.
Kelley Hunt: "Winter Soulstice" – Hunt has quietly established herself as one of music's better roots music artists, deftly blending blues, soul and gospel while showcasing her considerable talent as a singer and pianist. Now she's made this year's best Christmas album in "Winter Solstice." Her bluesy and soulful version of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" may be the swingingest take ever on that famous song. Hunt's reinterpretations of other classics are just as fresh and inspired. There are also three worthy originals, including the rich ballad, "Bright Lights," which extends the Christmas season's spirit of harmony into a call for lasting unity and respect that's fitting in these divisive times.
Alicia Keys: "Santa Baby" – Keys has always made classy music, and "Santa Baby" is no exception, as she gives the songs restrained accompaniment – mainly her piano playing, bass and light percussion. The approach works because Keys' supple and sweet voice pairs well with Christmas music and is enough to carry songs like "Christmas Time Is Here," "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and the flirty title song. Keys, though, ups the ante with four original songs, including the stellar ballad, "You Don't Have To Be Alone," which sounds like it could become a favorite song to cover in the years ahead, while "Old Memories On Xmas" is nearly as good.
Dave Koz & Friends: "Christmas Ballads" – Saxophonist Koz celebrates the 25th anniversary of his Christmas tour by reuniting on "Christmas Ballads" with the three musicians who helped him launch the tour: keyboardist David Benoit, guitarist Peter White and trumpeter Rick Braun. With a nice mix of Christmas standards and lesser-known seasonal songs, this warm effort is firmly in Koz's smooth jazz wheelhouse.
Joss Stone: "Merry Christmas, Love" – A Christmas album seems like a natural vehicle for Stone, but her soulful, bluesy vocals and sound doesn't often materialize. While she brings the sass to "What Christmas Means to Me," and to a lesser extent on "Bring On Christmas Day," for the most part, "Merry Christmas, Love" is a standard-issue Christmas album, complete with orchestration and some heavy-handed choir-like backing vocals — while Stone's musical personality goes mostly missing in action.
Crowder: "Milk & Cookies: A Merry Crowder Christmas" – One of the best artists in Christian music, Crowder's first holiday album is made up mostly of original songs, with fun fare like "Elf Song," "Your Praise Goes On" and "The Ballad of Mrs. C (She's Sick of the Beard)" fitting Crowder's familiar blend of folk, country and rock and roll with the occasional touch of hip-hop and a good bit of humor.
Chris Isaak: "Everybody Knows It's Christmas" – Isaak, given his vocal ability, his songwriting chops and his roots in early rock and roll, surf and soul, seemed capable of making a refreshing Christmas album. But his originals (aside from "Almost Christmas" and "Wrapping Presents For Myself") are lackluster and he doesn't bring much originality to the covers.
Tasha Layton: "This is Christmas" – On one of this season's better efforts, the Christian music singer goes big and brassy on fun originals like "Diddly Squat" (about not even getting a lump of coal) and "Hang Up Your Stocking" while also including warmer, more musically restrained tunes like "Giving Christmas Away" and "Make It to Christmastime."
Other notable releases worth hearing:
Pentatonix: "Holidays Around the World"
Debbie Gibson: "Winterlicious"
Jamie O'Neal: "Spirit & Joy"
Jessy J: "California Christmas, Vol. 2"
Regina Belle: "My Colorful Christmas"
Loreena McKennitt: "Under A Winter's Moon"
Gloria Estefan/Emily Estefan/Sasha Estefan-Coppola: "Estefan Family Christmas"
Chris Ruggiero: "Christmas with Chris Ruggiero"
Louis Armstrong: "Louis Armstrong Wishes You a Cool Yule"
Chris Standring: "Silent Night"
Sarah Partridge: "A Partridge in a Pear Tree"
Axelle Red: "The Christmas Album"
Girl Named Tom: "One More Christmas"
Sarah Connor: "Not So Silent Night"
Williamson Branch: "Very Merry Christmas"
Craig Duncan: "Bluegrass Christmas 2"