ROD STEWART, “MERRY CHRISTMAS, BABY”
Three and a half bells (out of four), Verve
Song selections: Thirteen holiday songs, including classics such as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings” and “Auld Lang Syne,” several performed with duet partners ranging from Mary J. Blige to Michael Buble
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Ear candy: Rod Stewart’s gravelly voice lends itself surprising well to this low-key, jazzy, bluesy collection of holiday tunes. His “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a quiet gem, and he harmonizes nicely with Blige on “Winter Wonderland” and on a dramatic rendition of “We Three Kings.”
Lumps of coal: Most of the tracks are keepers, but the sort of silly “Red-Suited Super Man” harshes the holiday mellow with its horn section.
Listen to it: All Christmas long. Stewart is the season’s most unlikely musical hero.
JOHN TRAVOLTA AND OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN, “THIS CHRISTMAS”
1 bell (out of four), Universal
Song selections: Duet versions of 13 Christmas tunes such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” High-powered guest singers include Barbra Streisand on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and James Taylor on “Deck the Halls.”
Ear candy: The utterly irresistible duo that made “Grease” so great is utterly resistible on this terribly awkward collection of classic Christmas songs. Newton John’s voice is as beautiful as ever, but Travolta’s – God love him – is as off-tune and strained as ever. The least Travolting song is probably the low-key “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” even though Streisand’s appearance feels random and gratuitous.
Lumps of coal: Most of the album is painful, but the worst songs are the ones where the duo “banter” with each other over the opening or closing notes of the songs, and there are several. The worst is at the end of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in which the two playfully argue over the biggest present under the tree. Both sound like they’ve just awoken from eggnog-induced naps.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “HOLIDAYS RULE”
Two and a half bells (out of four), Hear Music
Song selection: The album includes 17 traditional Christmas songs in styles ranging from jazz to folk, sung by a variety of talented artists, including Paul McCartney and Andrew Bird.
Ear candy: The album’s mesmerizing version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” includes the enchanting vocals of Sharon Von Etten; however, Rufus Wainright lacks vocal depth and soulfulness compared with Bing Crosby.
Lumps of coal: The track “Senor Santa” lacks tonal quality while the recording itself sounds hollow.
Listen to it: Overall, the album was not horrible, but it will leave you nostalgic for the classics.
CEE LO GREEN, “CEE LO’S MAGIC MOMENT”
Three bells (out of four), Elektra
Song selections: Cee Lo adds some soul to old standards and a couple of newer songs.
Ear candy: “What Christmas Means to Me” and “All I Want for Christmas” will make you dance off those extra Christmas pounds. For those of a certain generation, “All I Need Is Love,” featuring the Muppets, will leave Mahna Mahna stuck in your head for days.
Lumps of coal: Christina Aguilera probably isn’t the first person to pop into your head when thinking of a female vocalist who will coo lyrics, so it’s no surprise her duet on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” annihilates any sultry appeal the track might have had.
Listen to it: A decent, fun mix of old and new. The up-tempo songs are worthy additions to your party playlist.
COLBIE CAILLAT, "CHRISTMAS IN THE SAND"
Two bells (out of four), Universal Republic Records
Song selections: Twelve Christmas tunes with the pop singer-songwriter and guitarist’s trademark laid-back spin.
Ear candy: Caillat’s original songs, including "Christmas in the Sand," with its breezy lilt and fun, albeit slightly PG-13 lyrics; the country music-influenced "Merry Christmas Baby" featuring Brad Paisley; the poignant but upbeat (and a bit preachy) "Happy Christmas"; and especially the sweet romantic duet "Every Day Is Christmas" featuring Jason Reeves. Also, instruments and a touch of vocal harmony lend a fresh, sophisticated sound to "Auld Lang Syne."
Lumps of coal: The unoriginal and karaoke-sounding standbys that weigh down the album, including "Santa Baby," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Silver Bells." She’s got a great voice, but, well, yawn.
Listen to it: When you’re trimming the tree with someone you love. Take eggnog/mistletoe breaks during the Caillat-penned offerings to enjoy and appreciate the talent and music that makes her shine.
Lori O’Toole Buselt
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS: 25 YEARS BRINGING JOY TO THE WORLD”
Three bells out of four, Big Machine Records
Song selections: Sixteen tracks – some classics, some newbies – that mark the 25th anniversary of this holiday album series, which has raised more than $100 million for Special Olympics.
Ear candy: Jewel offers a tender rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." OneRepublic’s "Christmas Without You" is a lovely contemporary addition. And you can’t go wrong with a live Dave Matthews Band jam ("Christmas Song").
Lumps of coal: Christina Aguilera does to "O Holy Night" what she did to "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 2011 Super Bowl: overdone vocal acrobatics that squeeze all the beauty out of the song. And Cheap Trick’s "I Want You for Christmas," to the tune of "I Want You to Want Me," is cheesier than the cheddar corn in that holiday tin.
Listen to it: At a get-together for friends with eclectic musical tastes.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL TODAY’S CHRISTMAS”
Three bells (out of four), Capitol
Song selections: A collection of modern Christmas tunes by artists such as Coldplay, Justin Bieber, Train, Demi Lovato, Rascal Flatts and others.
Ear candy: Listeners young or old will appreciate Sara Bareilles’ original "Love Is Christmas," which rises well above the modern-pop madness. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ bluesy version of "Please Come Home for Christmas" is a delight as well. And this reviewer’s teen daughter gave highest praise to Carly Rae Jepsen’s "Mittens."
Lumps of coal: Lady Gaga’s "White Christmas" (live from "A Very Gaga Holiday") is forgettable at best.
Listen to it: With kids, tweens, teens or other young family members who will recognize and probably appreciate the pop artists featured.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
CHRISTINA PERRI, “A VERY MERRY PERRI CHRISTMAS”
Three bells (out of four), Atlantic Records
Song selections: New takes on five Christmas classics with an original first track, “Something About December.”
Ear candy: A pure and beautiful “Ave Maria” is not overdone.
Lumps of coal: The synthetic, unsyncopated instrumentation in “Please Come Home for Christmas” clashes with Perri’s soulful voice.
Listen to it: Even though Christina Perri is considered a pop artist, most everyone will like at least one song on the album because of the mix of genres.
KATHERINE JENKINS, "THIS IS CHRISTMAS”
Two bells (out of four), Reprise
Song selections: A very traditional-sounding album by the Welsh mezzo-soprano who also was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Ear candy: Jenkins’ lovely voice brings stateliness to such classic carols as "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and the less-common "Sleep Quietly My Jesus."
Lumps of coal: A laudable stab at remaking "Deck the Halls" fails to hit all the fa-la-las, and "Santa Baby," while probably the least ridiculous version of the song, breaks the solemnity of the record. "I Wish You Christmas" takes us back to the 1960s (in a bad way). A love-song duet with Placido Domingo, "Come What May," ends the short-ish CD on a jarring note, short-changing Christmas.
Listen to it: When you need a dose of gravitas in your playlist.
CHRIS MANN, “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”
Four bells (out of four), Wal-Mart
Song selections: Mann, the finalist from ABC’s singing competition “The Voice” who hails from Wichita, partnered with Wal-Mart to release this six-track holiday CD sold exclusively at the chain. It’s selling now for $5 at www.walmart.com or in the stores, and copies are popping up on eBay and the like as well.
Ear candy: Mann’s operatic voice lends itself perfectly to a beautiful, a capella, choir-backed version of “O Holy Night. (And yes, he nails the high note.) Equally beautiful: Mann’s soaring “Ave Maria.”
Lumps of coal: No lumps on this one. The other four tracks – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noel,” “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – are all pitch perfect as well.
Listen to it: During weak moments when you find your hometown pride faltering.
CELTIC WOMAN, “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”
Two bells (out of four), Manhattan Records
Song selections: Twelve Christmas staples in the group’s usual shopping-in-a-candle-store sound.
Ear candy: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Adeste Fideles” and “Joy to the World” layer orchestra and chorus atop the titular women to wonderful, bombastic effect.
Lumps of coal: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” are more Irish Lawrence Welk than sounds of the season.
Listen to it: The album has some standout tracks and beautiful harmonies, but it’s like Aunt Fiona’s spiked eggnog: a little goes a long way.
BARRY MANILOW, “THE CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM”
Three and half bells (out of four), Arista
Song selections: A best-of hodgepodge from Manilow’s previous Christmas albums.
Ear candy: “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” are the tops of several standout songs.
Lumps of coal: Manilow is a bit too full of pep on the melancholy “River,” sounding like he’ll be doing figure-8s as he skates away.
Listen to it: This is a buoyant, polished, jazzy album that doesn’t ask you to do much more than listen and be happy.
BLAKE SHELTON, “CHEERS, IT’S CHRISTMAS”
Four bells (out of four), Warner Bros. Records
Song selections: We counted nearly every song on this 14-hit CD as a favorite. Blake’s wife, Miranda Lambert, Michael Buble, Kelly Clarkson and Reba join in the fun.
Ear candy: "Jingle Bell Rock," "White Christmas" and "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" top the list, but the less-familiar "There’s a New Kid in Town," "Santa’s Got a Choo Choo Train" and rewritten "Home" are tough to pass up.
Lumps of coal: The last two tracks are somewhat anticlimactic, but only because the rest of the songs were so good.
Listen to it: If only for the rich, crooning nature of Shelton’s voice, if not for the cool duets and amazing guitar riffs and instrumentals throughout the album.
Will and John Boogert
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “AN AVERAGE JOES MUDDY CHRISTMAS”
One bell (out of four), Average Joes Entertainment
Song selection: A mix of 12 whimsical country and hick-hop songs with one traditional Christmas song provided by Josh Gracin.
Ear candy: The bright, light-hearted “Christmas Time” inspires one’s inner child to dance throughout the house. It’s a track worth leaving on “repeat.”
Lumps of coal: “Muddy Christmas,” “Nappy Holidays” and “Home for Christmas” are good reminders for artists to recognize the limits of their talents because — quite frankly — rapping isn’t for everyone.
Listen to it: The album lacks the amusement found in other redneck-type Christmas CDs, which is disappointing for someone expecting a CD reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy.
LADY ANTEBELLUM, “ON THIS WINTER’S NIGHT”
Four bells (out of four), Capitol Records
Song selections: Even non-country fans will love this 12-song mix blending cherished holiday classics with a few new twists.
Ear candy: Lady A delivers its trademark rich harmonies throughout. Extra thumbs up for "A Holly Jolly Christmas," "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," a bluesy "Blue Christmas" and the title cut.
Lumps of coal: Even the 20-something classic rock fan in our house could barely find coal dust, much less any lumps.
Listen to it: You’d never know from listening to this CD that the band is country. This album is a great choice for all musical tastes.
Will and John Boogert
SCOTT MCCREERY, “CHRISTMAS WITH SCOTT MCCREERY”
Four bells (out of four), Mercury/19/Interscope
Song selections: Eleven mostly Christmas standards delivered in a contemporary country format.
Ear candy: Bluesy but upbeat execution of “Jingle Bells,” rollicking, Steve Earle-esque version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” and a tip of the hat to Elvis in “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.”
Lumps of coal: “O Holy Night” strains McCreery’s range and shows he’s got some work to do on carrying higher notes.
Listen to it: The smooth and powerful voice of “American Idol’s” season 10 winner combined with unexpected arrangements on these Christmas standards make for 31 minutes of enjoyable listening – even for someone who doesn’t like country music.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS”
Four bells (out of four), Curb Records
Song selections: A generous 16-song collection of Christmas classics and original songs with a spiritual influence.
Ear candy: Highlights are Sidewalk Prophets’ energetic "Because It’s Christmas," For King & Country’s inspiring and meaningful "Baby Boy," and Dara Maclean’s touching Christmas lullaby "Bethlehem Skies." Barlowgirl’s tight vocal harmonies are simply lovely on "For the Beauty of the Earth (Nativity Version)." But the songs that produce goose bumps (if not tears) are Natalie Grant’s moving "I Believe" and Mark Schultz’s lyrical "When Love Was Born."
Lumps of coal: Group 1 Crew’s "O Holy Night" and Chris August’s "Jesus, Savior" have a sound that seems too poppy for their stoic lyrics.
Listen to it: When you want to reflect on the miracles of the season with the help of a mix of singers and musical styles.
Lori O’Toole Buselt
FRANCESCA BATTISTELLI, "CHRISTMAS”
One bell (out of four), Merge Records
Song selections: The contemporary-Christian singer introduces four original songs while showing her fondness for the retro in "Marshmallow World." (The physical CD itself is a darling reproduction of a record album – including grooves.)
Ear candy: “The Christmas Song" leads off the CD in a jazzy way. "You’re Here" is the best of the original songs, in true contemporary-Christian style.
Lumps of coal: Battistelli says in the liner notes that she had a cold for most of the recording, and her voice often sounds whiny. Arrangements of the CD’s solemn songs are glum.
Listen to it: If you’re a fan of the singer.
STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN, “JOY”
Three bells out of four, Reunion Records
Song selections: The Grammy-winning contemporary Christian singer-songwriter offers a collection of 13 tunes – some originals, some classics.
Ear candy: Chapman’s original tunes, particularly "Christmas in Kentucky," "Christmas Card" and "I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)" are delightful additions to any Christmas playlist. The final track, "Happy New Year," implores listeners to pack up the decorations, reflect on blessings and look forward to "all things new."
Lumps of coal: Nothing terrible here, but Chapman’s arrangements of traditional carols ("Joy to the World," "Let It Snow," "What Child Is This?") aren’t likely to replace the timeworn classics.
Listen to it: If you’re a fan of contemporary Christian music or just want to remember what Christmas is all about.
Suzanne Perez Tobias
MANDISA, “IT’S CHRISTMAS: CHRISTMAS ANGEL EDITION”
Four bells (out of four), Sparrow Records
Song selections: Mandisa delivers a shimmery mix of 12 new and well-known holiday tunes, set to R&B, jazz and gospel backgrounds.
Ear candy: Every song delights. Mandisa’s rich, powerful voice is especially good on “It’s Christmas,” her upbeat “Feliz Navidad” and “Christmas Bell Medley,” which blends a jazzy version of “Silver Bells” with more traditional-sounding snippets of “Carols of the Bells” and “Caroling, Caroling.” The artist’s soulful, moving renditions of “What Child Is This?” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” hearken to religious aspects of the season.
Lumps of coal: The CD has only a dozen songs. Twenty (or more) wouldn’t be too many.
Listen to it: Perfect for a holiday party with family and friends. Everyone will be singing along — even the littlest elves at your Christmas gathering — and begging you to press the “repeat” button.
Amy Renee Leiker
KEM, “WHAT CHRISTMAS MEANS”
Three and a half bells (out of four), Motown Records
Song selections: A mix of 10 contemporary holiday songs and Christmas classics set to a slow R&B beat that’s as smooth and sweet as hot cocoa.
Ear candy: “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Doo Wop Christmas” add a peppy twist to KEM’s usually slow-paced, laid-back R&B sound. Christmas staples “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “We Three Kings” are also delightful.
Lumps of coal: Many of the Christmas references are hidden in the songs, almost making this CD good for year-round listening if you’re paying more attention to your sweetheart than the lyrics.
Listen to it: The album is perfect for slow dancing by the Christmas tree or cuddling with your sweetie on the couch, fireside. Make sure there’s plenty of wine, low light and mistletoe nearby.
Amy Renee Leiker
BENEDICTINES OF MARY, QUEEN OF APOSTLES, "ADVENT AT EPHESUS”
Four bells (out of four), Decca
Song selections: The Benedictine Sisters of rural Gower, Mo., north of Kansas City, draw attention to the neglected music of Advent, the liturgical season that prepares for Christmas. The best-known Advent song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," is among the 16 tracks, which also include Gregorian chant and traditional English, German and French songs, in Latin and English.
Ear candy: Hear the Sisters’ unaccompanied voices on just the first song, "Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth," and your blood pressure will drop 20 points.
Lumps of coal: The ear that is unaccustomed to unaccompanied voices may tire early, but even a small dose is rewarding.
Listen to it: When things start to get really crazy and you need to quiet down and focus on what’s important.