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CD Reviews:
The 12 discs of Christmas 2010

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2010

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They’re as inevitable as neckties, sweaters and toys that come with Ph.D-level instructions.

Holiday albums are part and parcel of the season, a big-business concern that unleashes artists from all genres of music on a repertoire that’s loved and limited — albeit growing. And they make great business sense, a perennial release that has renewed sales appeal every year. A tuneful annuity, if you will.

This year’s crop of holiday fare runs a gamut from pop stars to hit TV shows, classic rockers to jazz vocalists — and even to dead folks whose estates continue to repackage their recordings, sometimes to good effect. With Christmas around the corner, here’s a look at the 12 new titles that provide the best soundtrack for the season...

Mariah Carey, “Merry Christmas II You” (Island): Carey’s second seasonal project gives her plenty of opportunities to show off that big, virtuosic voice. Four of the songs are original — including the single “Oh Santa!” — and we also get a refreshed, “extra festive” treatment of her 1994 holiday hit “All I Want For Christmas is You,” a live take of “Oh Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” with the Hallelujah chorus featuring Carey’s mother Patricia.

Orla Fallon, “Celtic Christmas” (Elevation): It’s hard to beat the holidays with a brogue, and this former Celtic Woman member brings a rich flavor to these 11 songs, including collaborations with Vince Gill, David Archuleta, Anuna and Meav.

“Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album” (Columbia): It doesn’t take much to get the team “Glee” to release an album. A Madonna guest appearance? Sure! Britney? Sure! “Rocky Horror” for Halloween? Why the heck not! Christmas, then, is an obvious fit, and this set, the sixth “Glee” title of the year, brings a dozen Yuletide favorites, many heard on the Dec. 7 holiday episode, with k.d. lang guesting on “You’re a Mean one, Mr. Grinch.”

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, “Crazy For Christmas” (Surfdog): The irreverent veteran of the San Francisco counter culture scene is overdue in the Christmas canon, but he makes the wait worthwhile with high-spirited originals such as “I’ve Got Christmas By the Tail” and “Santa’s Workshop,” and parodies like “Santa Got a Choo-Choo” (“Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”) and “Christmas Mornin’” to the tune of Hicks’ own “Where’s the Money.” The night surely won’t be silent when you put this one on.

Indigo Girls, “Holly Happy Days” (IG Recordings/Vanguard): The veteran duo takes a stripped-down, almost bluegrassy approach on this holiday — and are more ecumenical than many of their peers with material such as Woody Guthrie’s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” and Chely Wright’s philosophical “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life).” The Indigos wrote three of their own songs as well, while Janis Ian and Mary Gautier guest on backing vocals.

Annie Lennox, “A Christmas Cornucopia” (Decca): The class of this year’s Christmas crop isn’t exactly lighthearted but has the jaw-dropping beauty we’ve come to associate with Lennox. She dips deep into the canon for more obscure carols such as “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Lullay Lullay” and the French “Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant” and also contributes one new song, “Universal Child” — all bolstered by a 30-piece orchestra and the African Children’s Choir.

Shelby Lynne, “Merry Christmas” (Everso): Another sublime female voice, this one from Alabama and the same clan as half-sister Alison Moorer, delivers the goods like a singing Santa Claus. Her two originals include the uptempo “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas” and the more dramatic “Xmas,” and she clicks whether she’s rocking “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or solemn “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” The “Sleigh Ride/Winter Wonderland” medley is also a highlight.

Pink Martini, “Joy to the World” (Heinz): The 12-piece “little orchestra from Portland, Ore.” goes to a tinsel-covered town with a clever and unique collection that includes “White Christmas” sung in both English and Japanese, a Chinese New Year song, a Hebrew prayer, a Ukranian version of “Carol of the Bells” (“Shchedryk”) with a youth choir and handbell group, an Afrobeat treatment of “We Three Kings,” “Silent Night” with verses sung in German, Arabic and English, and “Auld Lang Syne” in English, Arabic and French. Dizzying ... and delightful.

The Puppini Sisters, “Christmas With the Puppini Sisters” (Verve): No, they’re not really sisters, and there’s only one Puppini, but the London-based trio’s 1940s-style close harmony vocals are as tight as Santa’s belt on these 10 favorites, including “Step Into Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Clause,” “White Christmas” and the Hawaiian-flavored “Mele Kalikimaka.”

REO Speedwagon, “Not So Silent Night...” (Sony Legacy): The classic rock Christmas album of choice adds three new tracks to the original 2009 release, with REO treatments of “Sleigh Ride,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and the original “I Believe in Santa Claus.” Fortunately, they have yet to write “It’s Time For Rudolph to Fly” — but just you wait.

Various Artists, “Gift Wrapped Vol. II: Snowed In” (Warner Bros.): Artists such as Devo (“Merry Something to You”), Regina Spektor (“December”), the Goo Goo Dolls (an acoustic “Better Days”) and the Flaming Lips (a live “Little Drummer Boys”) put their spin on the holiday repertoire. Tegan and Sara’s version of “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” is a hoot, while the late Ben Keith’s “Les Trois Cloches” with Neil and Pegi Young, is particularly moving.

Various Artists, “NOW That’s What I Call Christmas! Vol. 4” (EMI): This two-disc, 36-song set has a little something for nearly everybody, from oldies (Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin) to classic rockers (Sting, James Taylor), to country (Toby Keith, Faith Hill, Darius Rucker) and current hitmakers (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Sean Kingston). Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Manheim Steamroller’s “Deck the Halls” finish it out in style.

Six More Worth Considering: Susan Boyle, “The Gift” (Columbia); James Brown, “The Complete James Brown Christmas” (Hip-O Select); 11 Acorn Lane, “Happy Holy Days” (self-released); Jessica Simpson, “Happy Christmas” (Eleveneleven/Primary Wave); Frank Sinata, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., “Christmas With the Rat Pack” (Capitol); Take 6, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Heads Up International).

Annie Lennox's album a Christmas present to herself

Annie Lennox considers her first-ever holiday album, “A Christmas Cornucopia,” a present to herself.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” the Eurythmics singer and Academy Award-winning solo star says about the 12-song set, which came out Nov. 16. “I’ve sung all the carols since I was a kid, so they’re part of my lexicon, and they’re so beautiful. I just always thought it would be a really nice creative challenge to explore them and see what my take on these songs would be. And I had the best time recording this album, really.”

Lennox and co-producer Mike Stevens started working on “A Christmas Cornucopia” during October 2009 at Stevens’ home studio in West London, subsequently recording with a 30-piece orchestra at Pinewood Studios and with the African Children’s Choir in South Africa. “I have a very busy schedule, and so does (Stevens),” Lennox notes. “So we would just slot in times to meet whenever we could and worked on the album that way.”

Though it contains Lennox’s stylized versions of holiday “hits” such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel,” “A Christmas Cornucopia” focuses mostly on less common selections like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Carol)” and the French piece “Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant.”

“This is like deep traditional in a way,” Lennox notes. “This is stuff that goes back for decades. A lot of these carols were written in the Victorian times, and some of them go back even further than that. It’s interesting because quite a few of the carols are new to people ... but I didn’t have any sort of a formula or a structure or a stratagem. I would just sort of think, ‘Oh, what would I like to do next?’ It was what was in the jukebox in my head, if you like.”

Lennox says she “never intended” to write anything for the album but nevertheless came up with “Universal Child,” its closing track. “This title came to mind, and it wouldn’t leave me alone,” Lennox recalls. “I sat down at the keyboard while we were recording another carol, and all of a sudden I was playing around and something emerged, like a melody line and some chords, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is the beginning of a song.’ So we stopped what we were doing and started pursuing that song, and by the end of the day I had written it.”

Royalties from “Universal Child” will go to the Annie Lennox Foundation, which funds her SING Campaign for AIDS/HIV aid and education in Africa as well as other charities.

Indigo Girls mutually in the holiday spirit

“We just both had a desire to do it at the same time,” Emily Saliers says of the Indigo Girls’ holiday album, “Holly Happy Days.” “That doesn’t always happen with us.”

Saliers and musical partner Amy Ray “spent a long time listening through Christmas songs” for the 12-song set, which features bluegrass- and Appalachian-flavored versions of standards such as “Oh Holy Night,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (with Julie Wolf) and “Angels We Have Heard on High” as well as less celebrated fare such as “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Chely Wright’s “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life),” Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “There’s Still My Joy” and Mike Burn’s “Peace Child.”

“Both Amy and I love Appalachian and bluegrass music,” Saliers says, “and we just thought it would be so much fun to have it be of that ilk.”

As for material, Saliers notes that “our manager gave us a million different Christmas songs, Hanukkah songs. We went through everything and started out with a bunch of songs we were super, super excited about. Singing someone else’s songs are easier than recording your own for whatever reason, although there’s a lot of self-pressure in that you want to make them your own song.”

Nevertheless, she and Ray did write three brand new songs for the album — “The Wonder Song,” “Misteltoe” and the buoyant “Your Holiday Song.”

“It was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had making a record,” Saliers says of the sessions, which were done in Nashville with producer Peter Collins and an all-star band, as well as good pal Brandi Carlile singing harmonies on several tracks. “It was great just loving your job and getting excited every morning to get up and go into the studio. It was a joy.

“And to have those players who are just world-class, incredible, inspiring players, you can’t believe the stuff they come up with. It makes you want to never play guitar again!”

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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