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CD Reviews:
The 12 Discs of Christmas -- 2014 edition

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2014

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The members of Earth, Wind & Fire didn't need their arms twisted too hard when they were approached to make a Christmas album this year.

"After 43 years, it's something we've never done, so we liked the idea of that," explains the group's Philip Bailey. "And, you know, these seasonal records have a life of their own, and you can resurface them every year, forever. If you put out a decent one it's not like, 'Oh, yeah, that one's old.' Every year it has a new lease on life, which is a great thing to have."

EWF's "Holiday," which came out during October, is among the myriad new releases for the 2014 holiday season, a veritable stuffed sonic stocking brimming over with new entries from pop singers, rock stars, crooners, instrumentalists and any others hoping to, as Bailey says, add an annual musical annuity to their catalog. This year's offerings range from pop icons to hard rockers, from the woman who sang "Frozen's" "Let It Go" to the cast of "Downton Abbey."

There's enough music to fill 12 days of Christmas, and then some. So we've combed through the latest releases to come up with the best -- our 12 discs of Christmas, if you will. Joyeux Noel, y'all...

Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal, "Talkin' Christmas" (Sony Music Masterworks): A bold, brash and brassy romp through the holiday, mixing soulful Southern grit with gospel reverence for the kind of Christmas celebration you never thought you'd hear -- which is a good thing.

Earth, Wind & Fire, "Holiday" (Legacy): As joyous as any of the group's secular collection, this 13-song set features an ebullient "Joy to the World," some originals and the EWF hit "September" recast as "December."

Farmer Jason, "Christmas on the Farm with...Farmer Jason" (Courageous Chicken): Did you now "Santa Drove a Big John Deere?" That's just one of the lessons Jason Ringenberg has in store on this family-friendly disc, which instructs us to "Eat Your Fruitcake," too.

Dave Koz & Friends, "The 25th of December" (Concord): The saxophonist has become a holiday staple with his annual Christmas shows, and his latest excursion into the musical repertoire features vocals by BeBe Winans, Johnny Mathis, Gloria Estafan, India.Arie, a guest shot from Trombone Shorty and a summit with fellow saxman Kenny G on "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"

The Living Sisters, "Harmony Is Real: Songs For a Happy Holiday" (Vanguard): Harmony is definitely real -- and infinitely sublime -- on this quartet's exceptional entry into the December canon, with plenty of fresh material ("Neon Chinese Christmas," "Baby Wants a Basketball For Christmas") sitting next to staples such as "Jingle Bells" and "Little Drummer Boy," all beautifully rendered.

Mannheim Steamroller, "30/40 Ultimate Collection" (American Gramophone): Chip Davis' unstoppable musical juggernaut celebrates two anniversaries at once -- 40 for his other incarnation, Fresh Aire, and 30 since the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album. Both are sampled generously here, and the three-disc "Ultimate Collection" stacks up 19 holiday favorites on a dedicated Christmas disc.

Over The Rhine, "Blood Oranges in the Snow" (Great Speckled Dog); The folk duo from Cincinnati takes a spin through the holiday season on this set, which is comprised mostly of its own originals and song contributions from friends -- including touring member Kim Taylor -- and arrangements fleshed out by a corps of guest players.

Pentatonix, "That's Christmas To Me" (RCA): The a capella champions from the third season of "The Sing-Off" sleigh-ride through a unique 11-song collection that covers Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal," fuses "Winter Wonderland" with Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and nods to the inevitable with "Frozen's" "Let It Go."

Joe Perry, "Joe Perry's Merry Christmas" (Unison): The Aerosmith guitarist enters the holiday fray with a four-song EP that's short but sweet -- especially his nimble instrumental take of "Silent Night." Fans will also feel some sweet emotion for the talk box-laced "White Christmas," a rockin' "Run Run Rudolph" and a bluesy "Santa Claus is Back in Town."

Various Artists, "An Americana Christmas" (New West): Fresh-sounding takes on the Yule by an all-star cast that includes Bob Dylan, the late Johnny Cash, John Prine, Ben Keith with Neil and Pegi Young (ironic in light of their pending divorce), The Band, Emmylou Harris, Luther Dickinson and more.

Various Artists, "Christmas at Downton Abbey" (Warner Bros.): Celebrate the season and get ready for the fifth season of the popular PBS drama with this well-timed two disc set of period-appropriate pieces that features vocal performances by cast members Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) and Julian Ovenden (Charles Blake) and a recitation of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Jim Carter (Mr. Carson).

Various Artists, "It's Christmas on Mack Avenue" (Mack Avenue): The Grosse Pointe Farms label gathers its merry men (and women) -- including Christian McBride, the Hot Club of Detroit, Tia Fuller, Sean Jones and Warren Wolf -- for jazzy takes on holiday favorites and originals (dig especially the McBride Trio's "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto").

Other notable new releases for this holiday season include: Jim Brickman, "On a Winter's Night: The Songs and Spirit of Christmas" (Green HIll); Larry Carlton, "Four Hands & A Heart Christmas" (335); Felix Cavalierie, "Felix Cavaliere's Christmas Joy" (self-released); Celtic Thunder, "Holiday Symphony" (Legacy); Rosemary Clooney, "Irving Berlin's White Christmas (Expanded Edition)" (Real Gone); Frank DeVol and the Rainbow Strings, "The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas" (Real Gone); Michael Feinstein, "Michael Feinstein Christmas" (Concord); Renee Fleming, "Christmas in New York" (Universal Music Classics); Peter Furler and David Ian, "Peter Furler Christmas featuring David Ian" (Prescott); Robert Goulet, "The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings" (Real Gone); Anthony Hamilton, "Home For the Holidays" (RCA); Heart & Friends, "Home For the Holidays" (Caroline); Il Divo, "The Classic Christmas Album" (Sony Music); Karajan, "The Christmas Album" (Universal Music Classics); Johnny Mathis, "The Classic Christmas Album" (Columbia/Legacy); Seth MacFarlane, "Holiday For Swing" (Universal Republic); Idina Menzel, "Holiday Wishes" (Warner Bros.); Sandi Patty, "Christmas Blessings" (Reflections); Gus Penrod, "Christmas" (Gaither Music Group); LeAnn Rimes, "One Christmas: Chapter 1 (Red General); Darius Rucker, "Home For the Holidays" (Capitol Nashville); Frank Sinatra, "The Classic Christmas Album" (Columbia/Legacy); Michael W. Smith & Friends, "The Spirit of Christmas" (Sparrow); Barbra Streisand, "The Classic Christmas Album (New Master (Columbia/Legacy); Various Artists, "A Merry Friggin' Christmas: Original Soundtrack" (Lakeshore); Various Artists, "Christmas With Nashville" (ABC/Big Machine); Various Artists, "The Classic Christmas Country Album" (Legacy); Various Artists, "The Classic Christmas Pop Album" (Legacy); Various Artists, "Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever" (Caroline); Various Artists, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" (Epic); Kim Walker-Smith, "When Christmas Comes" (+180); Tom Wopat and John Schneider, "Home For Christmas" (Tom Wopat Inc.);

In lieu of full albums, some artists deliver an individual track to celebrate the holidays. Here are five of this year's most noteworthy, which can all be found online:

* British singer Sam Smith, nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist, is getting plenty of hits for his stark, intimate rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

* Tuxedo, a new collaboration between Ann Arbor's Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One, will put out its first album next year but has posted a version of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" to tide us over.

* Being Jewish didn't stop David Lee Roth from posting a new, bluesy and untitled Christmas song on his YouTube channel The Roth Show, with a message "Happy holidays from Diamond Dave's Tiki Bunker."

* 80s metal lampooners Steel Panther fill "The Stocking Song" with lots of sly sexual double entendres -- and a hook from "Deck the Halls" played on kazoo.

* Christopher Lee, the 92-year-old British actor and star of horror movies, "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," has released a heavy metal version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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