The signs of Christmas are all around us: The air has turned chilly, Starbucks has resumed serving gingerbread lattes in seasonal red cups, and countless recording artists have released holiday albums. This year's crop contains some diverse offerings and unexpected gems from Hall of Famers (Bob Dylan), faerie goddesses (Tori Amos) and heavy-metal icons (Rob Halford). These discs might not replace your well-loved LPs by Nat "King" Cole or Mitch Miller & the Gang, but they will add a little variety and idiosyncrasy to your Christmas playlist.
A Fine Frenzy
Oh Blue Christmas
Alison Sudol makes records as A Fine Frenzy, and her piano-based, mid-tempo style is perfectly pitched for this snow-drifted holiday EP. Bookended by an appropriately bluesy "Blue Christmas" and a swaying version of "Christmastime Is Here," Sudol adds a few of her own songs to the collection. "Winter White" sets a broken-heart tale in the coldest month of the year, and "Wish You Well" addresses an estranged relative during a season that's normally marked by togetherness and unity. Sudol's songs aren't exactly caroling material, but her additions make the disc a must-hear for fans of her strident piano pop. The EP is only available at Target stores and through iTunes.
To say that Tori Amos has a complicated relationship with Christianity is to put it lightly. Whether positing that Jesus was a woman (on Boys for Pele's "Muhammad My Friend") or labeling herself a "recovering Christian," Amos' back catalog, rife with religious questions and dogma-shaking confrontations, makes Midwinter Graces a pleasant surprise. In addition to several original songs, Amos has taken some well-loved carols and rearranged them in a way that leaves her indelible stamp without stripping the songs of their essences. She keeps a reverent tone on the "Greensleeves"-based "What Child, Nowell" and strips "Silent Night" to a piano-and-vocal prayer. Midwinter can be hit-or-miss, but the album's few lighter moments, like the big-band glide of "Pink and Glitter," are enough to win back some old-time Amos fans who've lost the faith.
A Cherry Cherry Christmas
Those who thought that Neil Diamond's recent work with famed career-restoration expert Rick Rubin had erased the crooner's love of schmaltz need not worry: Just one listen to A Cherry Cherry Christmas is enough to remind you why Neil is everyone's favorite cheeseball. In the song, Diamond references many of his biggest hits — "Holly Holy," "Song Sung Blue" and of course "Cherry Cherry" — as he wishes his listeners a merry Christmas. The song is so hokey and tongue-in-cheek that it's almost unlistenable. Christmas is his third holiday offering, but it's more of a greatest-hits collection of these previous releases: Nine out of the fourteen songs have been previously released, including the treacly "You Make it Feel Like Christmas." Of the new songs, Diamond stays true to his Jewish roots by closing the disc with Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song."
Christmas in the Heart
Bob Dylan has used the moniker "Jack Frost" for his producer credits on his last few albums, and the name change finally makes sense on Christmas in the Heart. Actually there's not much that makes sense about a Bob Dylan Christmas album at first blush: We want him to exist outside of space and time, away from such snares as a potentially cred-killing Christmas album, and we sure as hell don't expect him to sound so damned reverent singing "Little Drummer Boy." So maybe it's this twist that makes his disc such a treat. The fifteen songs are arranged as genteel country classics, with light pedal steel, twinkly piano and tasteful choir accompaniment reminiscent of those old Ray Conniff Christmas records. Dylan's voice is still ragged as ever, but he treats these sacred and secular songs with equal parts grace and good humor.
Have A Crazy Cool Christmas
(Basin Street Records)
As a founding member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, singer and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins has done more than most to maintain the musical tradition of his native New Orleans. For his first Christmas record, that means swinging jazz, bold brass-band excursions and plenty of Louis Armstrong-inspired crooning. Ruffins mainly sticks to the classics: "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" has a low-lit elegance that gives way to some nice trumpet/trombone interplay, and "Silver Bells" adds a sweeping Hammond B3 organ behind his delightful rasp. The original "A Saints Christmas" has an easy second-line shuffle as Ruffins implores Santa for a Super Bowl win from the Saints (which, if the team continues on its tear, is a real possibility). There's not a dud on this album, and it's a genuinely joyful offering from the Big Easy's ambassador of goodwill.
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra
A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats from Santa's Bag
Composer Shawn Lee has amassed a catalog of instrumental records that mine the rich terrain of '70s funk, with a special ear toward the lush, orchestral sounds of Philly soul. On A Very Ping Pong Christmas the melodies remain sacred, but all the other arrangements are up for grabs. Lee uses dusty breakbeats, vintage keys and horn charts last heard on Blaxploitation film scores, lending no small amount of funk to well-worn songs. There are curveballs around every corner, from the sitar lead on "Little Drummer Boy" to the "House of the Rising Sun" take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Fans of Beck's Odelay would do well to pick up this disc — Lee's intricately arranged oddball funk goes a long way to invigorate these Christmas chestnuts.
If on a Winter's Night...
The two versions of Sting — the bass-playing Police singer and the lute-slinging new-age folk star — never seem to intersect, and his latest album is firmly in the folk tradition. For If on a Winter's Night..., Sting has assembled a crew of English folk artists, symphony-caliber string players and jazz sidemen to create a hushed, sometimes ponderous album that mixes medieval melodies with his increasingly husky voice. If Sting's latest doesn't quite sound like a Christmas record, that's because it isn't one: The disc is more a meditation on the season itself, with the only overt references to the Christian holiday coming through centuries-old English carols such as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and "Cherry Tree Carol."
Rob Halford, the Judas Priest singer best known for his four-octave range and for being metal's most famous gay icon, returns to his solo project with this collection of holiday gems, all decked out with meedly-meedly-mee riffage. In addition to the four original songs here, Halford picks carols with an appropriately mysterious, sacred bent to them — the minor-key march of "We Three Kings" is ramped up with double-time drums, and "Oh Come O Come Emanuel" even quotes the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Halford pulls out "Winter Song" by MOR goddess Sara Bareilles (of "Love Song" fame) and maintains the song's solemn, piano-ballad vibe. Two of Halford's original songs, "Christmas for Everyone" and "I Don't Care," shake and boogie like a T. Rex update; both inject a little metal-edged glam-rock into the holiday season.
The Sounds of Christmas 2009
The particulars of this Christmas comp are as good as (and maybe even better) than the music itself: Not only does William Shatner close out the disc with a typically tortured spoken-word version of "Good King Wenceslas," but the proceeds go to benefit the over-actor's Hollywood Charity Horse Show (which is apparently a real event). Aside from Shatner, the big names on The Sounds of Christmas were last heard on your local soft-rock radio station. Huey Lewis & the News turn out to be a credible a cappella act, as its doo-wop take on "Winter Wonderland" proves. Former Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung contributes "When I Hear a Christmas Song" with his trademark golden pipes and plenty of saccharine sentimentality. Richard Marx channels Chuck Berry with "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," but Hayseed Dixie takes the fruitcake with its bluegrass mashup of "Winter Wonderland" and Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop." Now, if someone would only turn "Stairway to Heaven" into a carol, this season would be a lot more rocking.