Some music fans will argue that the art form of the Christmas Album achieved perfection with Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas; others will argue for the supremacy of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Either way, each year artists mine the rich cache of holiday songs for themed albums, while adding originals of their own to the mix. Here are a few of the best Christmas albums released this year. Some tinker with the classics and some remain reverent to the spirit of the season, but all are worth a spin.
It's Christmas (Verve)
New Orleans-born soul singer Ledisi may have lost to Amy Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, but this collection (and Winehouse's appetite for destruction) may prove Ledisi a strong contender for the title of Soul Queen. Her brand of soul is more neo than retro, and on It's Christmas she works through a mix of originals and low-lit classics. Ledisi's new songs won't necessarily make it into the modern Christmas canon, but her take on the Motown chestnut "Give Love on Christmas Day" is worth hearing, as is her duet with Keb' Mo' on "Please Come Home for Christmas."
We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year (Armoury Records)
Nothing (and nobody) says "happy holidays" quite like Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister — a fact that appears to be the impetus behind this collection of metal-ized Christmas songs. Lemmy takes the lead on Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" as Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) back him up. That unholy trinity alone should sell you on the disc, but that's just the tip of the hard-rocking talent assembled here. Black Sabbath 2.0 partially reunites, as Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi team up for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and elsewhere Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate, Damn Yankees' Tommy Shaw and Ratt's Stephen Pearcy get in on the fun. Credit the producers of the album for making it sound more like a heavy-metal Christmas pageant than a compilation — there's a sonic coherence to the production, and the good cheer that runs throughout makes the disc less irreverent than it might seem.
BÉLA FLECK & THE FLECKTONES
Jingle All the Way (Rounder Records)
Béla Fleck has the distinction of taking two divisive, oft-maligned forms of music (banjo-pickin' and jam-band explorations) and making them both respectable. His compositions have always seemed both erudite and freeform, and that combination is at play on Jingle All the Way. Kicking off with a demented take on "Jingle Bells," Way finds maestro Fleck and his equally skilled Flecktones never taking themselves too seriously and never straying too far off the beaten path. Jeff Coffin's soprano sax guides a swinging "Silent Night," while "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies" lets Fleck show off his chops. Of all the holiday albums reviewed here, Fleck's contribution is certainly the most fun.
A Very Rosie Christmas! (Sing-A-Long Records)
Rosie Thomas is best known as a soft-touch indie artist, but her holiday album showcases her crystal-clear voice and refined, jazz-like phrasing. Thomas leads a small indie-pop orchestra through carols and modern Christmas favorites. Damien Jurado pops in for a guest spot as the narrator on "Sheila's Christmas Miracle," and Thomas' original compositions are both jubilant ("Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?") and lugubrious ("Alone At Christmastime").
Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents Christmas A Go-Go (Wicked Cool Records)
E Street Band ax man and Sopranos alum Little Steven Van Zandt has long used his clout to promote underground garage bands through festivals and his satellite radio show. This comp continues that trend, matching lesser-known acts like Norway's all-female Cocktail Slippers with legends like the Kinks and the Ramones. Christmas A Go-Go wins points for collecting some rare tracks, including Bob Seger's "Sock It To Me Santa" (which is built on numerous allusions to James Brown's catalogue) and Darlene Love's "All Alone on Christmas," a song performed with the E Street Band.
Christmas (Rhino Records)
Jazz and R&B singer Al Jarreau has many credits on his C.V. (he scored seven Grammy awards and had a huge hit with "We're in This Love Together"), but Christmas is his first collection of holiday standards. On it, he lends his nimble, elastic voice to thirteen holiday classics, giving his smooth-jazz sensibilities a little kick of soul and funk. Christmas alternates between reverent carols and sentimental favorites. "Winter Wonderland" kicks the disc off with a suitably jaunty lilt, while the next track reconfigures "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" into 5/4 time with penny whistles and the African udu drum. The a capella gospel group Take 6 drops in for "I'll Be Home for Christmas," making this disc a must-hear for fans of slick, refined vocal jazz.
This Christmas (www.marthastrouble.com)
Husband and wife Rob and Jen Slocumb make up the duo Martha's Trouble by combining her country-flecked sweetness and his rock-derived guitar work. This eight-song disc is a relaxed, mellow affair, well-suited for the season's first snowfall. The pair removes the synth-tastic production from Wings' "Wonderful Christmastime" and changes the tune into a folksy sing-along, while the pair of originals ("Christmas in the City" and the title track) fit nicely alongside the classics. This Christmas may be hard to find in record stores, but the disc is available on the band's website and on iTunes.
SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER
The Dawn of Grace (Nettwerk)
It comes as no surprise that Sixpence None the Richer (whose 1999 hit "Kiss Me" was a little gem of 10,000 Maniacs/Innocence Mission folk-pop) has released a Christmas record; the band was always forthcoming about its Christian influences. Accordingly, the band sticks largely to holiday hymns. The original "The Last Christmas" is a lovely lullaby to the narrator's unborn child, and singer Leigh Nash has the right amount of fragility in her voice to take a stab at Joni Mitchell's ubiquitous "River."
The Singing Saw at Christmastime (Merge)
Fans of the long-dormant Neutral Milk Hotel have a few reasons to smile these days. Reclusive frontman Jeff Mangum has been making public appearances lately, and NMH bassist (and Music Tapes leader) Julian Koster has collected these twelve Christmas songs. But the "singing saw" in the title is no joke: A pair of musical saws is all that can be heard on this instrumental album. The shivering tone of the saws is most akin to the wavering pitch of a theremin, and accordingly, these songs toe a thin line between exquisite beauty and ear-raking annoyance. Koster fares better on more reverent hymns like "O Little Town of Bethlehem," as the high, lonesome saw tone sounds as if it's being carried on the wind from a nearby church on Christmas Eve.