By Alan Sculley
---- — 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.
3) “A Skaggs Family Christmas” by Ricky Skaggs, the Whites & Others (Skaggs Family Records, 2005)
Though this CD features two of the first families of bluegrass – Ricky Skaggs, his wife, Sharon and the other two members of her group, the Whites, and other family members – this CD actually falls under the broader definition of acoustic music. Songs like the peppy version of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” the Irish-accented “What Child Is This?” and the lushly orchestrated “Christmas Time Is Here” make this a varied effort that sounds like it could become an enduring holiday classic for years to come.
4) “Harry For The Holidays” by Harry Connick Jr. (Columbia Records, 2003)
“Harry For The Holidays” was the clear winner for 2003’s most ambitious holiday CD by a solo artist. Connick goes the extra mile by recasting several holiday classics (such as “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”) with imaginative New Orleans-accented jazz arrangements. Then he ups the ante even further with several original tunes, including the playful, kid-friendly tune, “The Happy Elf” and a duet with George Jones on the country-ish song “Nothin’ New For New Year.”
5) “Snow Globe” by Matt Wertz (Handwritten/Essential Records, 2011)
With an emphasis on original tunes, Wertz delivers some buoyant rocking pop on “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (Without You)” and a bit of classic Motown on “Wake Up Wake Up.” He also gives “White Christmas” a nice bit of a retro/big band touch, making “Snow Globe” one of year’s most satisfying efforts.
6) “Merry Christmas!” by Shelby Lynne (Everso Records, 2010)
Given the rebellious nature Lynne has shown throughout her career, it’s surprising that her 2010 holiday CD stuck mostly to very familiar material. But that’s pretty much where any conservatism ends. Lynne puts her stamp on most of the songs here, turning the famous “Peanuts” song, “Christmas Time Is Here” into a smoky low key ballad; giving “Silver Bells” an acoustic country/bluegrass spin; and going spare on the gently swinging “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
7) “Holly Happy Days” by the Indigo Girls (Vanguard Records, 2010)
It took Amy Ray and Emily Saliers more than two decades to make a holiday CD, but they got it right with “Holly Happy Days.” A smart collection of Christmas classics, more contemporary holiday covers and three original songs, the CD hews toward bluegrass and rootsy folk. That makes sense, considering it’s part of the Indigo Girls’ musical vocabulary and their backing musicians include bluegrass stalwarts such as Alison Brown, Victor Krauss and Luke Bella. Add harmony vocals from Brandi Carlile and Julie Wolf. It all makes for a rustic Christmas-time gem.
8) “Silver & Gold” by Vanessa Williams (Lava Records, 2004)
In the liner notes Williams writes about trying to bring warmth and tenderness to “Silver & Gold,” and this CD sounds like a labor of love and not a hastily assembled product meant to cash in on the holiday season. Highlights include a jazzy and funky version of “Joy To The World” (with Brian McKnight adding guest vocals), the Latin-tinged “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” the jazzy “Winter Weather” (first made famous by Peggy Lee) and the gospel-influenced “Rise Up, Shepherd And Follow” – all of which also find Williams’ showing that she is one of pop/R&B’s finest vocalists.
9) “Everything You Want For Christmas” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Vanguard Records, 2004)
The big band swing of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy turns out to be a great format for holiday music on this energetic first-rate CD. Fun is the word throughout this CD, as songs like Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Is Zat You Santa Claus?” and “Blue Christmas” translate nicely into Big Bad Voodoo’s swinging horn-filled sound. The band’s smart sense of humor is obvious on a pair of original tunes, “Rockabilly Christmas” and “Last Night (I Went Out With Santa Claus)” – the latter of which tells of some rowdy times with Ol’ St. Nick -- and the obscure nuggets “Mr. Heatmiser” and “A Party For Santa.”
10) “Merry Ex-mas: Holiday Songs For the Divorced and Soon To Be” by The Irreconcilables (self-released, 2010)
What’s the holiday season without a little mirth – especially if it takes a little sting out of a breakup? Most of the songs are written by Will Robinson, Mike Reid and Don Pfimmer, and performed by a collective of singers and musicians united under the name the Irreconcilables. Consistently funny, the CD hits its peak with the final track, “Hark The Hell Has Just Begun,” a colorful tale about being behind the divorce court eight ball (I’m looking for a four-leaf clover/Now that I’m this bent over”). Even Santa himself isn’t immune, taking some lyrical slings and arrows on the bluesy “See Ya Santa” (“See ya Santa/You’re not getting down my chimney anymore.”) Never has the holiday season and romantic breakups gone so well together.
Linda Ronstadt: “A Merry Little Christmas” (Elektra/Asylum, 2000);
The Brian Setzer Orchestra: “Boogie Woogie Christmas” (Surfdog, 2002);
Joan Osborne: “Christmas Means Love” (Time/Life Records, 2007);
Raul Malo: “Marshmallow Christmas” (Universal Records, 2007);
The Marcus Roberts Trio: “Celebrating Christmas” (self-released, 2011);
The Reverend Horton Heat: “We Three Kings” (Yep Roc Records, 2005);
The Klezmonauts: “Oy To The World!: A Klezmer Christmas” (Satire Records, 2006);
Hall & Oates: “Home For Christmas” (DKE Records, 2006);
Bette Midler: “Cool Yule” (Columbia Records, 2006);
Mark O’Connor: “Appalachian Christmas” (OMAC Records, 2011).