Every year seems to bring a big ol’ Santa bag full of new Christmas CDs for gift giving. So when my editor asked me to pick the 10 best holiday CDs of the millennium, it was a challenge to whittle the options down.
I met it, however. So, here are your music critic’s choices for the recording that will best put the holiday spirit into MP3 — or whatever device you may be listening through.
One note: I avoided albums that repackaged material from earlier holiday releases and limited the list to all-new recordings for the year they were released.
The bounty of holiday CDs for this year is nothing if not eclectic, with some jazz, pop, country, high-energy rock, soul, bluegrass, and even a CD from 11 Acorn Lane that defies any easy categorizing.
The mood of the releases covers the gamut as well, from reverent to serious, to some of the most irreverent holiday music one will ever hear. Most of it is quite good. Here are 10 that stand out.
1) “Jingle All The Way” by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (Rounder Records, 2008)
This became the rare holiday album to top a “Billboard” magazine album chart when it went No. 1 on the Top Contemporary Jazz chart. It was with good reason, as banjo virtuoso Fleck and his equally talented band members reinvented a collection of mostly familiar Christmas songs, putting their own jazzy blue-bop signature on the material. A highlight is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is done in 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures over the course of the song. Needless to say, such ambition is rare for a holiday album.
2) “At Christmas” by James Taylor (Columbia Records, 2006)
Taylor puts a jazzy spin on the holidays with his (believe it or not) first holiday release. Backed by such notable players as Dave Grusin (who produced and arranged the CD), guitarist John Pizzarelli and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Taylor lends his laconic vocals to a 12 tunes, most of which are often-covered standards. Taylor and Grusin play it straight on some songs, but on a few others –- such as “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland” (featuring trumpeter Chris Botti) and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”(sung with Natalie Cole) -- they freshen things with some spiced-up tempos and creative arrangements.