Eagle staff reviews holiday CDs

Wilson Phillips, "Christmas In Harmony"

Two and a half bells (Sony Masterworks)

What's on it: New and classic Christmas songs — and three "sing-along" tracks ready for karaoke — featuring the early-'90s pop trio known for harmonic hits such as "Hold On" and "Release Me."

Joyful noise: Several of the songs, particularly "Silver Bells" and the a capella "Our Prayer," feature shimmering vocals and harmonies. Others are bouncy, fun and quintessentially Wilson Phillips. The trio's version of "Sleigh Ride," for instance —"ring-a-linga-linga-ding-dong-ding!" —may have you humming along despite yourself.

Bah, humbug: The whole album is a time-warp ride back to 1991, which is great for Wilson Phillips fans who've been craving a comeback. Others, though, could find it dated and silly.

Perfect for: Bunco night with your middle-aged gal pals, who might say, "Wait a sec, is this ... Wilson Phillips?!"

— Suzanne Perez Tobias

“Glee” cast, “Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album”

Three bells (Digital Boy Studios)

What’s on it: Twelve renditions of holiday classics, featuring the cast of one of television’s hottest shows.

Joyful noise: Lea Michele (Rachel) and Amber Riley (Mercedes) sing clearly and beautifully on “O Holy Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” respectively. Chris Colfer (Kurt) and Darren Criss (Blaine) offer a fun rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Deck the Rooftop” is a rousing, “Glee”-style mash-up. And fans of the show will appreciate a nod to the Island of Misfit Toys — aka Glee Club! — in “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.”

Bah, humbug: Guest artist k.d. lang’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” would be stellar if it weren’t for the cheesy, read-aloud interludes by Matthew Morrison (Will). And despite being pictured in the liner notes, Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester) doesn’t lend her voice to any songs.

Perfect for: Gleeks, of course. Or as the soundtrack for your teen or tween’s holiday-break sleepover.

— Suzanne Perez Tobias

Indigo Girls, “Holly Happy Days”Four bells (Vanguard Records)

What’s on it: Twelve tracks, including three original tunes, Appalachian-flavored standards and lesser-known fare such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Happy Joyous Hanukkah.”

Joyful noise: The album showcases the folk rock duo’s distinctive harmonies — particularly “Peace Child” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The buoyant “Your Holiday Song,” written by Emily Saliers, is the best salute to interfaith understanding since Dar Williams’ “The Christians and the Pagans.”

Bah, humbug: Those unfamiliar with the duo’s sound — particularly Amy Ray’s gritty vocals — may not like their take on classics such as “O Holy Night.” Fans and folk loyalists, though, will delight.

Perfect for: A casual holiday get-together with friends of all faiths.

— Suzanne Perez Tobias

Annie Lennox, “A Christmas Cornucopia” Three bells (Decca)

What’s on it: The Grammy-winning pop singer offers contemporary arrangements of such holiday classics as “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” “The First Noel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Joyful noise: Lennox’s harmony-laden take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a treat, and sparkles with up-tempo, world-beat rhythms. “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)” is beautiful, with Lennox’s silky voice accompanied by acoustic guitar and striking drums over background harmonies. “Universal Child” is sweetly inspiring and rousing.

Bah, humbug: Not all arrangements work: “The First Noel” is a tad overdone and veers toward being noisy, while “As Joseph Was A-Walking” done in overlapping rounds is almost grating.

Perfect for: Fans of Lennox, who won’t be disappointed by her expressive vocals.

— Rod Pocowatchit

Pink Martini, “Joy to the World”Three and a half bells (Heinz Records)

What’s on it: You’d be hard-pressed to find a collection of seasonal songs as traditional yet as unexpected as these 14 tracks. This “little orchestra” from Portland, Ore., takes a multicultural yet joyfully uncynical approach to the holidays, celebrating not only Christmas but also Hanukkah and even the Chinese New Year. Traditional songs are delivered with a global twist, such as “White Christmas,” sung first in the mellow original version, then in Japanese by that country’s star Saori Yuki. “Silent Night” is sung in German, Arabic and English.

Joyful noise: Beautiful arrangements, stellar vocals and unusual song choices — such as a portion of a Hebrew prayer set to music (“Elohai, N’tzor”) and “Congratulations — A Happy New Year Song,” sung in Chinese — lift this CD above the usual holiday fare.

Bah, humbug: “Joy to the World” may not satisfy listeners looking for very traditional Christmas music. While certainly eclectic, it also has a surprising unity and, in the end, seems to make perfect sense.

Perfect for: Background music for a holiday dinner or smallish gathering. By the time “Auld Lang Syne” is delivered in celebratory fashion in English, French and Arabic, your guests will almost certainly feel “Joy to the World.”

— Lori Linenberger

Susan Boyle, “The Gift”Two bells (Sony Music)

What’s on it: The frumpy Scot who captured the attention and affection of millions last year by taking second on “Britain’s Got Talent” (many think she was robbed) has defied the odds again. With this CD, she became the first person ever to have two No. 1 albums in under a year in both the United States and the United Kingdom. “The Gift” has 10 tracks of mostly seasonal tunes. A couple, including the infamous cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” are nontraditional (and oddly so at that).

Joyful noise: The highlight in an otherwise somber outing is Boyle’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” duet with Amber Stassi, a New York mother of three who won “Susan’s Search,” a contest to find an unknown talent to sing with Boyle on this CD.

Bah, humbug: Most of the other holiday tunes are tepidly delivered, although Boyle’s voice is in fine enough form. One hardly expects Boyle to belt out “Santa Baby,” but she could have delivered a little more holiday cheer with her “Gift.”

Perfect for: Periods of quiet reflection, maybe while writing Christmas cards; or as a peaceful way to fall asleep each night of the season.

— Lori Linenberger

Various artists, “Now That’s What I Call Christmas 4”Three bells (EMI)

What’s on it: This two-CD collection has one disc filled with Christmas classics and standards sung by the likes of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Burl Ives, and another featuring 18 contemporary pop artists like Rihanna and Lady Gaga offering their take on Christmas caroling.

Joyful noise: Disc No. 2 is an 18-track collection of must-have Christmas tunes, including Cole’s gorgeous take on “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” and Crosby’s “White Christmas.” It also include Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and a very pretty Norah Jones track called “December.”

Bah, humbug: The pop songs are a little harder to take. Particularly unbearable are Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps one of the most grating songs ever recorded, and Lady Gaga’s “Christmas Tree,” which is far too bizarre to be remotely festive.

Perfect for: Grown-ups who want to split the CD with their tweens.

— Denise Neil

Celtic Thunder, “Celtic Thunder Christmas”One bell (Decca Label Group)

What’s on it: A collection of 14 Christmas songs, both whimsical (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) and traditional (“Silent Night”), performed by Celtic Thunder, a group formed in Dublin in 2007 that’s found success in the “world music” genre.

Joyful noise: More serious, traditional songs at the end of the CD, including “Ave Maria,” are beautiful and moving, and a song called “Christmas 1915” has a classic Irish sound.

Bah, humbug: Otherwise, there’s nothing Celtic about this CD other than the origin of the singers. Most songs, including “Last Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” sound like typical canned department store Christmas Muzak.

Perfect for: People who like very limited Irish-ness on their Irish Christmas CDs.

— Denise Neil

Katharine McPhee, “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You”Two bells (Verve Forecast)

What’s on it: A combination of romantic, spiritual and secular holiday songs by the “American Idol” finalist, including one co-written by her.

Joyful noise: McPhee’s mixes go down mostly easy and warm, if forgettably. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Who Would Imagine a King” book-end the album in understated fashion. The song that McPhee co-wrote, “It’s Not Christmas Without You,” provides a welcome shot of romance, as does her version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Bah, humbug: While McPhee’s “Jingle Bells” is catchy, her vocals sound more harsh than oh-what-fun. “Silver Bells” clang.

Perfect for: When you’re preparing to pour your third eggnog.

— Annie Calovich

Point of Grace, “Home for the Holidays”One bell (Word Entertainment)

What’s on it: The Christian-music trio puts a country spin on Christmas classics for half of the album, while the other half is devoted to music written within the past few years.

Joyful noise: The three women’s harmonies are their signature. The new swingy “Candy Cane Lane” tickles the senses with some sweet word play _ “Just a couple licks from that minty sugar stick and everything turns wintergreen.”

Bah, humbug: “White Christmas” and other standards are countrified almost beyond recognition, while the doleful, 21st-century “Labor of Love,” “Immanuel” and “Not So Silent Night” suck the peace and joy out of “Silent Night.”

Perfect for: Celebrating Christmas in July.

— Annie Calovich

Shelby Lynne, “Merry Christmas”two bells (Everso Records)

What’s on it: The singer/songwriter puts her usual interpretative stamp on nine Christmas standards and two originals in her first holiday effort, released on her own label. Though something of a ho-hum effort (like its title), the CD does have a few surprises.

Joyful noise: Among them is Lynne’s stirring renditions of “Silver Bells” and “White Christmas,” as well as an almost dreamy version of “O Holy Night,” one of the most overdone holiday tunes, but one that Lynne manages to make her own.

Bah, humbug: Lynne is known for her melancholic style, and certainly she’s entitled to it after a pain-filled childhood. Yet it seems odd on a Christmas album. Though she seems to try to infuse songs like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” with joy, what comes to mind instead is her sad-looking face on the CD cover. And any song that starts out “Christmas makes me sad, and Daddy’s being badæ.æ.æ.,” as her original “Xmas” does, can be admired for its unflinching candor, and that’s about it.

Perfect for: Whenever you need an antidote to canned mall music and karaoke-like carols.

— Lori Linenberger

Mariah Carey, “Merry Christmas II You”2½ bells (Island)

What’s on it: The pop songstress is back with her second Christmas CD, 16 years after 1994’s “Merry Christmas,” which gave us her holiday mega-hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” “Christmas II” features nine holiday standards and four originals, including the lushly romantic “Christmas Time Is in the Air Again,” an understated but heartwarming showcase for the vocalist.

Joyful noise: Carey delivers plenty of holiday cheer in this mix of the reverent and the festive. Traditional songs such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” (which includes a terrific cameo from her opera singer mother) are richly sung. Anyone who liked her first holiday CD will like this, as both are similar in tone and content.

Bah, humbug: “Here Comes Santa Claus” starts out promising but disintegrates into a mess of hip-hop and house party noise. “Charlie Brown Christmas” seems an afterthought. And “Oh Santa!” (written by Carey) falls far short of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” the gem it seems to want to be. (Speaking of which, Carey includes what she calls an “extra festive” version of “All I Want,” but it is virtually the same song.)

Perfect for: With its mix of religious and secular tracks, this CD would be a welcome accompaniment to a sentimental but fun holiday pastime like decorating the tree.

— Lori Linenberger

The Crowsons and Friends, “æ’Round Christmastime”Three bells (Digital Boy Studios)

What’s on it: Thirteen tunes, including four written by Richard Crowson, a local banjo-picker and Wichita Eagle editorial cartoonist. The album also features Crowson’s wife, Karen, daughter, Haley, and local musicians Phil Burress, Dennis Hardin and Rob Loren.

Joyful noise: Crowson’s humor shines in the title track — “I’d pitch a fit, but they made me sit on the laps of the guys with the bloodshot eyesæ.æ.æ.” — and in his bluegrass send-up of “Blue Christmas.” Instrumentals “Sleigh Ride” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are a delight, and fans of Aselin Debison’s “The Gift” will love 16-year-old Haley Crowson’s youthful voice on several numbers.

Bah, humbug: The CD’s not on iTunes or widely available. You can get one for $15 at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas, or Artworks Gallery, in Piccadilly Square at Central and Rock Road.

Perfect for: A good old-fashioned Christmas reunion with the folks you camped with down in Winfield.

— Suzanne Perez Tobias