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CD Reviews:
The 12 Discs of Christmas, 2013

21st Century Media/Digital First Media, @GraffonMu

Posted: Monday, November 25, 2013

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There's not a lot of waiting for Christmas anymore.

Radio stations have been playing holiday tunes since just after Halloween. And in some quarters of the music industry they even wonder what took 'em so long.

The annual parade of holiday music albums starts in mid-September, and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around the shelves -- physical and digital -- are filled with dozens of new titles to join their perennial predecessors. "The one thing about a Christmas album is that it last forever," says country singer Trace Adkins, who released his first, "King's Gift," in October. "Because nobody cares about it for the first nine months of the year, it's like every year it comes out new all over again."

This year, of course, has brought plenty of other material to the holiday music party, from pop stalwarts such as Kelly Clarkson and Johnny Mathis to regular Christmas merchants like Mannheim Steamroller and Straight No Chaser and even some surprising entries -- including punk rockers Bad Religion and hip-hop icon Mary J. Blige. Combing through them can be as hard as picking out a winner from the tie rack (as if there really is one), but we've done the holiday heavy lifting for you. Here's the best 12 discs of Christmas, with enough variety to keep everyone around the tree happy, at least for three or four minutes at a time...

Trace Adkins, "King's Gift" (Caliburn): There's no badonkadonk Christmas from the Baritone country singer here. He handles a few of the standards but spices his first holiday outing with older and more traditional arrangements, assisted by the Chieftains on "I Saw Three Ships," Kevin and Lily Costner on "Silent Night" and drum virtuoso Kenny Aronoff for "Carl of the Drum."

Bad Religion, "Christmas Songs" (Epitaph): After releasing "True North" earlier this year the veteran punk rock troupe looks towards the North Pole on this nine-song set, blazing through eight holiday favorites and tossing in a new mix of its "American Jesus" just for the snotty heck of it.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, "It Feels Like Christmas Time" (Savoy Jazz): The swing revivalists find plenty of fresh fare in their third trip down the holiday path, including joyful romps through "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" and Chuck Berry's "Run Run Rudolph." The zoot suit is red, white and green this year.

Mary J. Blige, "A Mary Christmas" (Matriarch/Verve): Being the queen of hip-hop soul doesn't mean Santa can't be a little fly, too. Blige turns up the soul quotient of her musical equation here, putting her pipes up alongside formidable guests such as Barbra Streisand, Chris Botti, Jessie J, Marc Anthony and Detroit's iconic Clark Sisters.

Kelly Clarkson, "Wrapped in Red" (RCA): The inaugural "American Idol" champ has plenty to celebrate this season, with a new marriage and a newly announced pregnancy. She wraps up her first holiday album with some less-obvious selections -- including Charles Brown's "Please Be Home For Christmas (Bells Will be Ringing)" and Imogen Heap's "Just For Now -- as well as five new songs and a team-up with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood on "Silent Night."

Jewel, "Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection" (Reflections): Jewel's first Yule set, "Joy: A Holiday Collection," went platinum in 1999. Now she comes back with another dozen musical bobbles that mixes seasonal favorites such as "Let It Snow!...," "Sleigh Ride," "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" -- the latter with Vince Gill on guitar -- with a pair of new tunes, "It's Christmastime" and "Blue Crystal Glow." If you can't do jewelry this year, Jewel may suffice.

Leona Lewis, "Christmas, With Love" (Syco/RCA): The fourth album from the British "X Factor" winner takes a seasonal turn with a few surprises -- Roy Wood's "I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday" -- and three originals. But, of course, Lewis' "Mr. Right" is not necessarily about Santa Claus.

Nick Lowe, "Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection" (Yep Roc): The veteran British troubadour has big fun on this 12-song set, coming out with a reindeer-worthy gallop on "Children Go Where I Send Thee" and cherry picking ace material from Roger Miller, Roy Wood (also "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday"), Ron Sexsmith and Boudleaux Bryant. Lowe's own three contributions include the sly "Christmas at the Airport" and a collaboration with Ry Cooder on "A Dollar Short of Happy."

Mannheim Steamroller, "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, Symphony II" (American Gramaphone): You can't go too wrong with Mannheim Steamroller when it comes to Christmas, and its sequel to 2011's "Christmas Symphony" weaves together plenty of the expected favorites along with group leader Chip Davis' "Christmas Lullaby" and "Traditions of Christmas." For those who want something grand but a bit less bombastic than, say, Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The Piano Guys, "A Family Christmas" (Sony Masterworks): The irreverent piano and cello duo is particular adept at mash-ups, and there's a killer here with combinations of "Carol of the Bells" with "God Rest Ye Gentlemen" and "Winter Wonderland" with "Let It Snow," on top of standards such as "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Silent Night."

The Robertsons, "Duck The Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas" (Capitol Nashville): Don't think we're quackers, but the "Duck Dynasty" clan's 14-song set -- which has topped Billboard's Country as well as Holiday Albums chart -- is more fun than you'd expect, though some choice guests (George Strait, Alison Krauss, Luke Bryan) provide a bit of musical ballast for the more artistically limited family members.

Straight No Chaser, "Under the Influence: Holiday Edition" (Atlantic): Christmas has long been this a capella group's calling card, and it comes back this year with a eight-song EP that includes guest appearances by Paul McCartney, Cee-Lo Green, Colbie Caillat and, posthumously, Otis Redding, as well as a "Nutcracker" mash-up that's a welcome alternative for our holiday playlists.

Some of the season's other holiday albums include: Joshua Bell, "Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends" (Sony Masterworks); Susan Boyle, "Home For Christmas" (Columbia); Moya Brennan, "An Irish Christmas (2013 Edition)"; Jonathan Butler, "Merry Christmas to You" (Artistry); Celtic Woman, "Home For Christmas" (Manhattan); Judy Collins, "Christmas With Judy Collins" (Wildflower); Vince Guaraldi Trio, "A Charlie Brown Christmas (Snoopy Doghouse Edition)" (Fantasy); Brandon Heath, "Christmas Is Here" (Reunion); J.J. Hrubovcak, "Death Metal Christmas -- Hellis Renditions of Christmas Classics" (Independent release); Il Volvo, "Buon Natale: The Christmas Album" (Interscope); Libera, "Angels Sing: Christmas in Ireland" (Warner Classics); Chris Mann, "Home For Christmas: The Chris Mann Christmas Special" (Universal Republic); Johnny Mathis, "Sending You a Little Christmas" (Columbia); Mormon Tabernacle Choir, "Home For the Holidays featuring Alfie Boe" (MTC); New Christy Minstrels, "Merry Christmas! The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings 1963-1966" (Real Gone); Anita O'Day, "Have a Merry Christmas with Anita O'Day" (RED); Marvin Sapp, "Christmas Card" (RCA Inspiration); Mindy Smith, "Snowed In" (Giant Leap/TVX); Various Artists, "Psyche-Out Christmas" (Cleopatra); Various Artists, "Punk Goes Christmas" (Fearless); Various Artists, "Putamoyo presents Putamayo Christmas" (Putamayo); Andy Williams, "The Complete Christmas Recordings" (Real Gone); Gretchen Wilson, "Christmas in My Heart" (Redneck)

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