Every year, a few recording artists decide that it’s time get Christmas-y
They slap together a collection of holiday tunes and market them to the many in need of accompaniment for their shopping trips, hall decking and gift wrapping activities.
You’ve likely already seen and heard a sampling of this year’s contributors, who’ve been making appearances on morning shows and Christmas specials since before Thanksgiving.
Our staff listened to many of the 2016 offerings to bring you this report, which we hope will aid you in your shopping.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Christmas Together”
☆☆☆ (Pearl Records)
Song selections: This is not your father’s country Christmas album. Sure, there’s a healthy dose of fiddle and steel guitar but there are also horns, lots of horns, making this 11-track holiday collaboration between husband-and-wife duo Brooks and Yearwood a playful and upbeat take on this most wonderful time of the year in a not-so-traditional country way.
Ear candy: “What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song)” is probably the single-biggest reason to listen to this album because it sounds like a traditional Brooks song – and it features James Taylor. Yearwood’s rendition of “Hard Candy Christmas” comes in as a strong second. And “Ugly Christmas Sweater” is just fun.
Lumps of coal: “Santa Baby” and “Feliz Navidad.” Why do so many artists insist on covering these songs?
Listen to it: At any holiday gathering.
Sarah McLachlan, “Wonderland”
☆☆☆☆ (out of four) (Verve Records)
Song selections: Eleven holiday favorites – including traditional carols and secular tunes – by the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter.
Ear candy: McLachlan’s ethereal vocals lend a lullaby quality to this album, and there’s not a bad track in the bunch. Particular highlights are “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” which features Lilith Fair buddy Emmylou Harris, and the moving, majestic “Huron Carol,” with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. McLachlan’s version of “O Holy Night” is even more lovely than you’d expect.
Lumps of coal: This album is solid through and through. Worth noting, however, that it’s a departure from the darker, more austere “Wintersong,” which McLachlan released a decade ago, so fans looking for a similar sequel may be disappointed.
Listen to it: On a snowy winter night with a fire blazing.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Neil Diamond, “Acoustic Christmas”
Song selections: Everyone’s favorite “Jazz Singer,” who just announced he’ll perform at Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena on July 14, offers this collection of 10 holiday tracks. About half are classics like “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” The others are less obvious choices like the spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and a bagpiped-and-fluted “Christmas in Killarney.”
Ear candy: Diamond, whose voice is still strong and full of emotion at age 75, gives extra feeling to an understated version of “Do You Hear What I Hear.” And who wouldn’t want to hear Diamond find the high note on “O Holy Night?” He does it as flawlessly as ever.
Lumps of coal: Too many of the songs, with their somewhat lazy acoustic arrangements, could ably occupy a spot on the soundtrack at any Branson Christmas tree store. “Christmas Medley,” with its strange tuba bass line, is particularly dippy.
Listen to it: Every single day as you await Diamond’s glorious summer return to a Wichita stage. See you there?
Kacey Musgraves, “A Very Kacey Christmas”
☆☆☆☆ (Mercury Nashville)
Song selections: A Texas-born multiple Grammy and Country Music Awards winner, Musgraves follows in the footsteps of a cavalcade of country artists to come out in recent years with their own Christmas album. But unlike her peers, Musgraves offers a refreshing new take on standards like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Let It Snow” and “Mele Kalikimaka.” The big difference between her and them are four songs on this 12-song album that are original and co-written by Musgraves. What’s more, they may be the best songs on this album.
Ear candy: Nearly every song on this album is strong and unique, be it Musgraves’ Don Ho-esque treatment of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or her waltz-like arrangement of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” (think Lawrence Welk, but in 2016). The real treat, however, are the Musgrave originals: “A Willie Nice Christmas,” “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” “Present Without a Bow,” and “Ribbons and Bows.” In “A Willie Nice Christmas,” besides hearing the voice of the legend to whom the song pays tribute, Willie Nelson, we’re advised to wrap presents in red bandanas and “stay higher than the angel in the tree.”
Lumps of coal: There really are no bad songs in this album, which I dare say is the best original Christmas album I’ve heard in at least the past 20 years. The only thing it left me wanting was a song that would test the power and range of Musgraves’ silky voice. I’m betting hers is a mighty voice.
Listen to it: Whenever and wherever. This album is that good.
Pentatonix, “A Pentatonix Christmas”
Song selections: Eleven mostly traditional Christmas carols arranged a cappella by vocal group Pentatonix, one-time winners of “The Sing-Off.”
Ear candy: Sometimes, original Christmas songs can be hit-or-miss. Pentatonix’s “The Christmas Sing-Along” is one of those that hits. The harmonies throughout the album are well-constructed and innovative, especially its vocal percussion. It’s not a Christmas song, but Pentatonix’s cover of Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter” was especially well-done.
Lumps of coal: “Good to Be Bad” – a Pentatonix original – while fun lyrically, doesn’t feel quite as inspired as the other arrangements on the album.
Listen to it: When you’re driving around in the holiday spirit. I’d guess most of these songs will end up on Christmas radio stations anyway.
Amy Grant, “Tennessee Christmas”
Song selections: Thirteen songs – some classics, some originals – by one of the undisputed queens of holiday music. This album, Amy Grant’s fourth holiday collection, was recorded at her family’s home in Nashville, and several family members lend vocals to the mix.
Ear candy: The reworked title cut, written by Grant and former husband Gary Chapman more than three decades ago, opens the album with nostalgic flair. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a duet with hubby Vince Gill, is a highlight, as are the Irving Berlin tune “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and a bouncy original, “To Be Together.”
Lumps of coal: Spoken voice-overs in “Christmas Don’t Be Late” about how Grant’s family members found themselves weaving pot holders one Christmas, are a little kitschy, like an around-the-fire storytime during a television special. Two of the original tunes, “Melancholy Christmas” and “Another Merry Christmas,” speak to people’s losses around holiday time and may come off as morose to listeners wanting lighter fare.
Listen to it: While decorating the tree – or weaving pot holders? – with family members who appreciate nostalgic, Christian-contemporary music.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Jennifer Nettles, “To Celebrate Christmas”
☆☆☆ (Big Machine Records)
Song selections: Half of country music duo Sugarland belts out 10 Christmas classics in her strong, soulful voice.
Ear candy: Nettles has an energetic, cheery take on “Go Tell It On The Mountain” that’s nice start to the album and her version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” with Idina Menzel, has an R&B feel. “Oh Holy Night” showcases her powerful vocal chords.
Lumps of coal: While all of the songs are good, this listener was left wanting more upbeat songs on the album – more along the lines of Sugarland’s peppier hits.
Listen to it: With a cup of cocoa and your honey curled up at your side on a quiet, cold night.
Amy Renee Leiker
Jane Lynch, “A Swingin Little Christmas”
☆☆☆1/2 (KitschTone Records)
Song selections: Ten swing arrangements of Christmas staples plus five original tunes make up this 15-track wonderland by award-winning actress Jane Lynch of TV’s “Glee.” The CD also features Kate Flannery and Tim Davis – who lend their voices for some impressive three-part harmonies – and the Tony Guerrero Quintet.
Ear candy: The album opens cheerfully with “A Swingin’ Little Christmas Time” and Lynch’s arrangement of “Good King Wenceslas” is delightful. “Winter’s Never Cold (When You’re Around)” and her pairing of “The First Noel” with “Canon in D” are nice slower-paced tracks.
Lumps of coal: None. Lynch wins with this album.
Listen to it: If you feel like adding some swing to your Christmas step.
Amy Renee Leiker
Various Artists, “Now That’s What I Call Merry Christmas”
☆☆☆1/2 (NOW Music)
Song selections: Twenty old and modern-day holiday classics from artists including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Josh Groban.
Ear candy: If you can buy only one Christmas album, this should be it, because it contains all the regulars – Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” And who doesn’t love the Pentatonix version of “Mary, Did You Know?”
Lumps of coal: Fans of George Winston’s “Carol of the Bells” may not appreciate the Wham! and Justin Bieber tunes, and vice versa. But honestly, every track here is somebody’s fave.
Listen to it: When you’re hosting a party and want to offer a little something for everyone.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
Brett Eldredge, “Glow”
Song selections: Ten Christmas songs you’ve probably heard before and one called “Glow” by the recent country singer who helped warm up the crowd for Taylor Swift on her Red Tour.
Ear candy: The best song on the album is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in part because of the inspired vocals of Meghan Trainor, which are like a single strand of tinsel strung across a largely barren tree. “I’ll be home for Christmas” is appropriately doleful. “Silent Night” is adequately spiritual and “Winter Wonderland” has some bratpack pop.
Lumps of coal: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has the poorest execution even though it’s the prettiest song on the album. The sound-mixing is off, so Elderedge’s voice gets lost and instead of one of the great flirty banters of holiday music, Eldredge become the backup singer to Trainor: her voice in the spotlight, his sipping a rum in the corner. They all are technically proficient but uninspired.
Listen to it: The songs would do well as background music in an elevator or as mood music for a holiday-themed party, but if you already have holiday music you like, there is nothing original about this to give you reason to add it to your collection.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir, “Hallelujah!”
☆☆☆1/2 (Mormon Tabernacle Choir)
Song selections: Recording of 2015 live Christmas performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, featuring Broadway star Laura Osnes and narrator Martin Jarvis
Ear candy: All of the tracks featuring Osnes – a Tony Award nominee for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Cinderella” – are hits. Tracks arranged by Mack Wilberg, the choir’s current musical director – “Come All Ye Children, Singing,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” among others – are artfully arranged vocally.
Lumps of coal: The choir’s Christmas adaptation of “Over the River and Through the Wood” was an odd change of pace and seemingly didn’t fit with the rest of the album.
Listen to it: After you attend one of the fine choral Christmas concerts in Wichita and leave desiring more choral music.
Straight No Chaser, “I’ll Have Another… Christmas Album”
Song selections: Fifteen Christmas songs – a few original – arranged by a cappella male group Straight No Chaser, perhaps best known for its “12 Days of Christmas”
Ear candy: Original number “Feels Like Christmas,” featuring country singer Jana Kramer, is a legit pop hit. I especially enjoyed Straight No Chaser’s arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The basses – often the most important part of an a cappella arrangement – are impeccable.
Lumps of coal: Nothing stood out to me as a dud – even the band’s non-traditional arrangement of “Joy to the World.”
Listen to it: When you’re tired of hearing the same old Christmas songs on the radio all the time. Recommended purchase for any Christmas music lover.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve”
Song selections: What do you get when you take away TSO’s lasers, fire, video wall and techno-hydraulic stage platforms? You get 11 songs, a mix of original music written for TSO’s popular stage performances and Christmas classics performed in the band’s inimitable fusion of symphonic, rock and metal sounds.
Ear candy: The enduring masterpiece of the TSO sound is “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” It’s a medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells,” performed as a crashing duel between the symphonic and rock sides of the band. The song was inspired by the true story of a lone cellist who sat amid the rubble of Sarajevo’s town square, playing Christmas carols while the city was bombed in the Bosnian War.
And like a great baseball pitcher, every band needs a great change-up. TSO’s is “Canon,” (On This Very Christmas Night), where the group goes full Pachelbel with pure symphonic instrumentation and hauntingly angelic children’s-choir vocals.
Lumps of coal: The album should come with a laser pointer so you can do your own special effects at home.
Listen to it: When you’re not with people who think The Osmonds are what Christmas music should be.
R. Kelly, “12 Nights of Christmas”
☆☆☆ (RCA Records)
Song selections: A dozen silky smooth tracks from R&B legend R. Kelly, who gave the world “I Believe I Can Fly” in the eternal classic “Space Jam.”
Ear candy: “The Greatest Gift” has the catchiest beat and is probably the fastest song on the album, making it my personal favorite. Tracks such as “Snowman,” “Christmas Lovin’” and “Mrs. Santa Claus” are slow, jazzy and romantic. They probably belong on a romantic playlist if you have one on iTunes. “Once Upon A Time” is also an interesting one because Kelly ditches his normal style and sings it as a traditional Christmas song like he’s in a network Christmas special. But closing track “12 Nights of Christmas” mails the whole thing home like true R&B.
Lumps of coal: “My Wish for Christmas,” which serves as the opening track, is largely forgettable. “Letters” also falls flat because of uncreative lyrics and a weird dripping noise used as part of the song’s main beat.
Listen to it: When you’re home making a nice meal for yourself and your significant other, preferably with a fire in the fireplace raging. Don’t listen to this if you’re single.
She & Him, “Christmas Party”
Song selections: A fun, easy-going collection of standards with a folksy twist from the typically easy-going duo of Zooey Deschanel (yes, the actress) and M. Ward (this is their second Christmas release after 2011’s “A Very She & Him Christmas”). Guests include Jenny Lewis, the Chapin Sisters and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley.
Ear candy: Deschanel’s effortlessly nimble vocals kick things off right with an upbeat “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Ward’s low-key, playful guitar turns “Let it Snow” into a vintage-sounding treat. Pedal steel gives “Mele Kalikimaka” a fun, almost surf sound. Enthusiastic harmonica and horns give the bouncy “Must Be Santa” a worldly, almost zydeco flavor. And an atmospheric steel guitar adds tender texture to a silky rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” layered with Lewis and Deschanel’s beautifully intricate harmonies.
Lumps of coal: Deschanel’s wistful vocals make “Christmas Don’t Be Late” a bit too melancholy, and an odd way to close an otherwise perfectly pleasant experience.
Listen to it: To chill.
Jordan Smith, “’Tis the Season”
☆☆☆ (LightWorkers/Republic Records)
Song selections: Twelve Christmas staples by Season 9 “The Voice” winner supported by background choir vocals and a smooth orchestra.
Ear candy: “You’re A Mean one, Mr. Grinch” has a jazzy feel that will make you shimmy in your chair. Smith’s vocals shine as he hits all the right notes.
Lumps of coal: “What Child is This” starts out with a synthesizer that doesn’t match the other traditional arrangements.
Listen to it: The smooth favorites will warm your heart like a traditional Christmas album, and the toe-tapping tunes will wake you up from your winter slumber. Smith’s voice covers a wide range that will keep you intrigued.