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Hearing Christmas: It's our annual round-up of the year's holiday releases
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For many of us, hearing someone tell us to have a "Happy New Year" is a blessing, because that means we won't have to listen to Christmas music for another 11 months. (Or, at some local retailers and malls, just 10 months.)

But every so often, we hear a catchy new holiday song, or a different twist on a traditional classic that reminds us that gifts often come in the smallest ways.

Once again, Tribune arts and entertainment writers took it upon themselves to review the high-profile holiday albums released this year.

In the process, we relearned a few things:

1. Sometimes, big names singers don't do justice to some of the most beautiful music ever written.

2. Sometimes, smaller acts can inspire us to actually play their holiday albums on Christmas Eve.

3. And, then there's the lesson of Justin Bieber, who pleasantly surprised us.

Here we go:

"This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 2" • Various artists of Brushfire Records

Grade: A-

This 13-track compilation features folk-rock artists, including G. Love, Matt Costa, Neil Halstead and of course, Jack Johnson, the man behind Brushfire Records. If you're the type of listener who feels nauseated from the onslaught of Christmas songs throughout the holiday season, then this record is for you. There are a few traditional holiday songs on the album, but the surprises are the covers that sound as different and fresh as, well, fresh air. The album is perfect for any Jack Johnson fan, teens or adults, and makes listening to Christmas music much more bearable.

Autumn Thatcher

"Christmas with Cantus" • Cantus

Grade: A-

Known as one of the premier men's vocal ensembles, the nine members of Cantus display excellent song choices spanning many time periods and genres, including English, French and carols from the 15th and 16th centuries. The focal point of the album are the sublime harmonies. This is a pure, deceptively simple collection that will serve as a tonic to weary ears and spirits at this overwhelming time of year.

David Burger

"Under the Mistletoe" • Justin Bieber

Grade: A-

Don't listen to the naysayers, or anyone claiming to have Bieber's baby. This is a fine effort that, while perhaps a little heavy on wistful singing and vocoder-like effects, that in 11 tracks conspires to give you the most bang for your Christmas music buck. That your young daughters may like it too is a mere bonus. The album kicks off in style with "Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas," continuing its "all I need is you girl" theme through to the very end. Thankfully, there are plenty of thematic reprises in between, most notably on "Fa La La," which features Boyz II Men. Bieber ends it all with "Silent Night," nodding not just to tradition, but taking stylistic risks in the process. All holiday respect, then, to "The Bieb."

Ben Fulton

"The Classic Christmas Album" • Tony Bennett

Grade: A-

If you're looking for one disk to put on the stereo on a cold winter night with a fire glowing and Christmas tree lights twinkling, you could do far worse than this one. The 85-year-old Bennett, the last great crooner of his generation, sings 18 classics — including a previously unreleased version of "What Child Is This." Some of the big band numbers might be a bit-over-the-top jazzy for some tastes, and the duet of "The First Noel" with Placido Domingo seems overdone, but these are minor quibbles. If this CD doesn't put you in the Christmas spirit, few will.

Tom Wharton

"A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume Two" • Ricky Skaggs and family

Grade: A-

Talented singer and musician Ricky Skaggs leads his family through a set of 10 bluegrass and Christian songs that feature impressive vocal harmonies and instrument picks. Skaggs may be the headliner, but he lets the rest of clan shine, including his wife, Sharon White, their two children, Molly and Luke, and White's father and sister. The best tracks come from the offspring: "What Songs Were Sung" is a solo featuring Molly's angelic voice and "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel" is a successful trio that includes Molly, Luke and cousin Rachel. Roots fans also will enjoy the bonus DVD that includes the entire 23-song concert from which the DVD was made.

Kathy Stephenson

"All I Want for Christmas" • Tommy Emmanuel

Grade: A-

I had never heard Tommy Emmanuel, and based my selection on which CDs to review to on which covers I thought were the cheesiest. Emmnauel in a jolly holly-berry hued shirt holding a Christmas tree-adorned mug with his guitar in the foreground did it for me. I was pleasantly surprised by the music. "All I Want For Christmas" features the Grammy-nominated Australian guitarist's take on 14 timeless Christmas songs including "White Christmas," "Jingle Bells," "Winter Wonderland,"and "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town." He calls his technique "finger style," akin to playing guitar the way a pianist plays piano, using all ten fingers. Ably backed on rhythm guitar by veteran finger picker John Knowles, Emmanuel's compilation is a pleasure to listen to and will become a Christmas staple in our home.

Daisy Blake

"Heavenly Christmas" • Jackie Evancho

Grade: A-

Her second place finish on "America's Got Talent" in 2010 launched Jackie Evancho into the musical spotlight, but some of us are still taken aback when we hear such a strong, womanly voice float out of an 11 year-old child. On this CD, Oprah's favorite "lil" soprano performs familiar holiday carols, including "White Christmas" "What Child is This" "The First Noel" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." She stays close to the original arrangements on all 10 tracks, which — due to her age — is expected. Her best offering is the cherubic "Believe."

Kathy Stephenson

"50 Words for Snow" • Kate Bush

Grade: A-

Technically, this isn't a holiday album, but with a title and a sound like this, it deserves recognition. Over 65 minutes, the influential British singer and songwriter creates a secular and serene — yet evocative — soundscape that totally envelops the listener, wrapping them up like a fleece blanket. Elton John guests on this, which is one the better albums I've listened to this year.

David Burger

"Glad Christmas Tidings" • Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Grade: B+

If you were one of the thousands of fans who couldn't get into last year's Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concerts, rejoice. The choir has released a recording of the wildly popular event featuring Utah's own David Archuleta. There's something for everyone on this program. Hard-core music connoisseurs can feast their ears on the glorious "Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres" from Ralph Vaughan Williams' oratorio "Hodie"; organ buffs will get a kick out of Richard Elliott's ingenious "Holiday Hoedown for Organ (Deck Them Halls)"; and Archuleta's legion of fans will thrill to his sweet, breathy tenor on carols such as "Los pastores a Belén" and "Joy to the World." The DVD version includes interviews with Archuleta and narrator Michael York.

Cathy Reese Newton

"The Heart of Christmas" • Matthew West

Grade: B+

"The Heart of Christmas" is a TV film debuting this winter, inspired by Christian contemporary singer West's viral hit "One Last Christmas," which in turn was inspired by the sad, true story of cancer patient Dax Locke. Vince Gill and Amy Grant add some class to this collection, and "One Last Christmas" is alternately heart-warming and depressing. West shows a jazzy knack for arranging new takes on standards, and in addition contributes original songs that illustrate the pop craftmanship that has led him to be covered by Rascal Flatts.

David Burger

"Never a Brighter Star" • Salt Lake Vocal Artists

Grade: B+

Dan Forrest is the latest big thing in choral music. Brady Allred's Salt Lake Vocal Artists present eight original Forrest carols, along with his arrangements of five Christmas favorites. The arrangements are lovely, and the performances by the 50-voice choir (with tasteful instrumental accompaniment) are meticulously polished, though not always highly expressive. Consequently, a certain sense of sameness starts to set in after a few tracks. So put this album on shuffle along with your other favorite holiday choral music.

Cathy Reese Newton

"An Appalachian Christmas" • Mark O'Connor, OMAC Records

Grade: B+

If you're in need of holiday music classier than a big-box store soundtrack, but a little more approachable than King's College Cambridge "Once in Royal David's City," well-performed hillbilly music is just the ticket. Grammy Award-winning fiddler and mandolinist Mark O'Connor, who is critically acclaimed for his blue grass and American roots productions, offers a distinctly American holiday sound (which also features Renee Fleming, Sharon Isbin, Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma). Oddly, three of the best cuts on the CD have little or nothing to do with Christmas: "Appalachian Waltz," "Amazing Grace" (with Renee Fleming) and"Ol' Blue," (with James Taylor), an ode to a coon hound.

Glen Warchol

"Come Let Us Adore Him" • The Lower Lights

Grade: B+

This group of 20 prominent Utah-rooted musicians, each busy with their own respective projects and careers, recorded 13 songs during five days in August. The result is a rootsy, reverent collection of standards, filled with the sounds of guitars, banjos, mandolins, piano, pump organ, Hammond B-3, and more than a few handclaps. Usually too many cooks in the kitchen overdo the musical soup, but this is an admirable example of restraint. (Musicians include Paul Jacobsen, Mindy Gledhill, Sarah Sample, Cherie Call, members of Fictionist, Late Night Alumni, The Rubber Band, The Moth & The Flame and "American Idol" album Brooke White).

David Burger

"The Christmas Album, Vol. 2" • Glee

Grade: B

This collection represents everything you'd expect from a second "Glee" holiday collection: slick production, smooth harmonies, perky pacing, and enough thumping bass to keep the kids hooked. Overall, the production drives the collection, and after multiple listens, the songs fade into sameness. There's too many cloying romantic selections (example: "All I Want for Christmas is You" and "Christmas Eve With You"), while Lea Michele/Rachel's rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River" is solid, and Naya Rivera/Santana's "Santa Baby" offers a sprinkle of flirty charm, even if neither covers are particularly distinctive. This is a perfect selection to keep the teens happy, and most songs (except the annoying "Christmas Wrapping"; just skip it) won't put off the adults.

Ellen Fagg Weist

"Christmas" • Michael Bublé

Grade: B

Bublé is scores more hits than misses on this holiday foray, with songs like "Ave Maria" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" serving as a mellow soundtrack for wrapping presents or decorating the tree. His "Mis Deseos/Feliz Navidad" duet with Thalia is a stand out, and while the original "Cold December Night" may not be a new classic, it's pleasant listening. Bublé gets downgraded, though, for his weird take on "Santa Baby" — addressed to "Santa Buddy" — and his duet with a straining Shania Twain on "White Christmas, where he channels Bing Crosby, which would have worked fine as a solo.

Katie Blake

"The Gathering" • Rhiannon Giddens, Laurelyn Dossett, Joe Newberry, Mike Compton, Jason Sypher

Grade: B

This is a collaboration by notable bluegrass players including Rhiannon Gidden (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Mike Compton (Nashville Bluegrass Band) and Laurelyn Dossett (Polecat Creek). Half of the album is a song cycle commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony, but the entirety is an enchanting and fun blend of Appalachian bluegrass and Piedmont blues. The energy level at times drags, but overall the song cycle revolves around a journey home on a cold night, which makes the album as comforting as the cycle's dénoument.

David Burger

"Sing We Now of Christmas" • Salt Lake Men's Choir

Grade: B

Recorded at Salt Lake's First Baptist Church, this is a mostly irony free, mostly traditional holiday album. It's filled with the expected ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Sleigh Ride," "White Christmas"), the unexpected ("African Star Carol," "Landlord, Fill the Flowing Bowl") and the just plain fun ("Christmas … In About Three Minutes" — a mash-up of a couple dozen carols). It's nicely done, albeit with the sort of imperfections you might expect — which adds to its charm.

Scott Pierce

"My Kind of Christmas" • Dean Martin

Grade: B-

Martin, who died on Christmas Day in 1995, has one of the greatest voices you will ever hear. And Scarlett Johansson's posthumous duet recording of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" offers a bonus in this remastered album of 14 classic holiday tunes. The problem is that many of the arrangements seem dated, while the background music detracts from Martin's voice. Still, for Dino fans, this disk could be a great pre-holiday gift.

Tom Wharton

"Christmas with The Celts" • The Celts

Grade: B-

The Celts do a good job mixing traditional European Christmas songs with Scottish carols throughout this 14-track album. The Scottish variations make listening to some of your favorite holiday tunes a new and pleasurable experience and the sounds are so contagious that you'll find it hard to resist getting up and doing your own little jig. Some of the songs tend to be a bit long but a quick skip ahead to the next track will easily solve that problem. "Christmas with The Celts" offers a way to have e a little fun while setting up your decorations. A bottle of Jameson and some eggnog will go a long way to help you rock out with The Celts.

Autumn Thatcher

"A Farmhouse Christmas "• Joey + Rory

Grade: B-

In a unconventional decision for a holiday album, 10 of the 12 cuts on Joey + Rory's new CD are either new songs or non-Christmas songs. The farmhouse theme is perfect for the husband/wife duo; their personal lives are rooted in the 1870s farmhouse where they live in the small community of Pottsville, Tenn. Joey has a voice like honey, and if you love both Christmas and country music, this album will be right up there with your favorites. I love Christmas music, but being British, just can't quite get my head around country. This one didn't really land for me.

Daisy Blake

"The Happy Elf" • Harry Connick, Jr. Trio

Grade: B -

Christmas albums are tried and tested tradition for the New Orleans native, who aspires to be the heir of jazz and crooning cool in the spirit of Tony Bennett. For this year's outing, "The Happy Elf," Connick, Jr. and team give us a soundtrack to the children's book of the same name, also by Connick, Jr. Starting with a straight narration of the basic story, the rest of the album is comprised of straight instrumental jam sessions apparently designed to accompany the book. Some are sprightly and upbeat ("The Happy Elf") while others lag ("Santarfific"). It's a fine collection for holiday cocktails, but you can't help but wonder why Connick offers no tracks showcasing his fine vocal skills. Christmas music it may be, but without singing it's hardly festive.

Ben Fulton

"O Christmas Three" • Chicago

Grade: C+

Sure, fans will find the jazzy-rock fusion of the Chicago music brand represented here, but it's mostly in interludes and asides. While these Phil Ramone produced songs will grow on you after repeated listens, yet this is a strained, strange collection of songs. Strange enough, in fact, to make the music lover ask the why question? For example, I understand one 70s band asking another 70s ballad band, America, to sail off on "I Saw Three Ships," but featuring Dolly Parton on the opener "Wonderful Christmas Time" strikes the wrong note. And the world simply doesn't need a children's choir mashup of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Joy to the World."

Ellen Fagg Weist

"Christmas Symphony" • Mannheim Steamroller

Grade: C+

This is completely Mannheim Steamroller-y: fans of the classical techno-pop sound will love it. For non-fans, that sound can get stuck into your head, and not in a good way. The CD features new renditions of 16 classic holiday songs with full symphonic arrangements performed with members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It's lush and beautifully done, but at times it sounds like elevator music. In fact, forget the elevator: This would make a nice background soundtrack at your next holiday gathering.

Scott Pierce

"Christmas in Diverse City" • tobyMac

Grade: C+

Known as a member of pioneering Christian group DC Talk, the 47-year-old also is noted for his rapping. Here, he blends hip hop, pop and soul in a collection of standards. His mix of irreverence and reverence make for an interesting take on "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "The First Noel." While not everything works, at least tobyMac takes risks as he infuses urban sounds into songs that seem the epitome of suburban complacency.

David Burger

"The Sing-Off: Harmonies For The Holidays" • Contestants of "The Sing-Off"

Grade: C+

The problem with compilations from competitions, including the televised a capella showdown "The Sing Off," is that they feature moderately successful, highly skillful amateurs. "All I Want for Christmas" by Delilah sounds eerily like "All I Want for Christmas" by Mariah Carey, because, well, who wouldn't want to sound like Mariah Carey? This album rarely rises above its a capella parts. Each track is masterful — "Winter Wonderland" by North Shore shines brightest — yet the overall collection doesn't add up. Fans of local artists will be satiated by "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly," performed by BYU's Vocal Point.

Scott Pierce

"Christmas" • Attwater

Grade: C+

This country band features Erika Attwater's pure vocals , including covers of Loretta Lynn's "It Won't Seem Like Christmas," a slower, down-home spin on Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You," and The Raveonettes, "Christmas Song (Walk Me Home)." The band should get credit for selecting some of the lesser-known but no-less-great Christmas songs, but you just wish they would rev up the energy in this rather sleepy collection.

David Burger

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year • Scott Weiland

Grade: C

Times must be hard for Stone Temple Pilots rocker Scott Weiland. Really, a Christmas album? This 10-track record features Weiland crooning traditional holiday tunes such as "I'll Be Home For Christmas," which sounds like a drunk Santa slurring his way through the song. Despite some passable renditions, yet it's so disturbing hearing Weiland sing Christmas songs that you can't help but think of the washed-up rocker Billy Mack, played by Bill Nighy, trying to re-assert his fame through a Christmas album in the 2003 film, "Love Actually." We're glad that he is supposedly drug-free now but really, a Christmas album? Weiland enthusiasts may be happy to add a new album to their collection but the rest of us are still scratching our heads over his reggae-infused version of "O Holy Night."

Autumn Thatcher

"WOW Christmas: 32 Top Christian Artists and Holiday Songs" • Various artists

Grade: C

Wow, indeed. This double-album features 32 renditions of Christmas standards (with some originals) by heralded Christian contemporary musicians, including Casting Crowns, Brandon Heath, Francesca Battistelli, Amy Grant, Jars of Clay and Big Daddy Weave. Like other WOW albums, this compilation is collected from the individual albums. The inherent problem is that you might really like one artist and his or her interpretation, but despise the next artist and their take. Most sound like they would be at home near the altar at a mega-church, which isn't neccessarily a bad thing, in general, although few of the carols here rise above the mega-church vibe.

David Burger

"Oh For Joy" • David Crowder Band

Grade: C

The Waco-based six-piece Christian worship band's album automatically loses points for covering a song ("Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24") from the atrocious Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Plus, the rest of the collection offers no surprises in song selection, sticking to tired-and-true. The bight side is the band's blend of ambient and acoustic sounds differentiate their holiday music from others.

David Burger

"Seasons Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas" • The Jersey Boys

Grade: C-

Stars and producers of the Tony-award winning musical "Jersey Boys" attempt to capitalize on the show's success by having the actors playing Frankie Valli in various productions put out a Christmas album. Unfortunately, the two genres just don't seem to mix, in part because producer Bob Gaudio — who wrote and performed many of the Four Seasons' hits — samples musical rifts from songs like "December 1963 (Oh What A Night" on tracks like "Joy to the World/ O Come, O Come Emmanuel." The mash-ups are confusing to the ear, and coupled with the actors imitating Valli's high, nasal range, make the album a tough listen.

Katie Blake

"Celebrating Christmas" • Marcus Roberts Trio

Grade: C-

The Florida-raised stride jazz pianist is an Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies in the music program at Florida State University, and your tolerance for his trio depends on how much you enjoy well-played yet rarely revolutionary versions of standards. His trio places an emphasis on bouncy rhythms, but still it's hard to imagine this as anything more than inoffensive background music. Or perhaps I'm displaying my own Scrooge-like tendencies when it comes to instrumental jazz.

David Burger

"The Spirit of the Holiday" • Keb' Mo'

Grade: C-

This 16-minute EP from the blues great features "The Christmas Song" alongside 3 original songs, and is surprisingly quite sedate. His emphasis on a minimalist guitar style makes this a collection that you admire rather than tap your feet to. It makes you wish he would have added more musical punch and muscle to the lax proceedings.

David Burger

"A Holiday Carole" • Carole King

Grade: C-

It seems almost obligatory that every holiday season have its unintentionally goofy release. Carole King provides it with "A Holiday Carole" from the pun in the title to the bizarre rendition of "Chanukah Prayer," sung in Hebrew to a jazzy beat. Holiday albums, of course, have always been a way for show-biz coasters to cash in. Sadly, King, who doesn't have pipes worthy of covering holiday standards, didn't take a shot at writing a Motown-flavored holiday song, or even a lonely holiday verse for "So Far Away.") Now that would have been worth the price of the CD.

Glen Warchol

"It's Christmas Time ..." • Eclipse

Grade: C-

When musicians get so caught up in putting their own personal spin on Christmas classics, they can get away from what makes the songs classic in the first place. That's what's wrong with this album by the a cappella group, Eclipse, who turn holiday favorites into overproduced pieces of bubble-gum pop music. The group's version of "Let it Snow" is particularly disastrous, as it devolves into a swinging, semi-jazzy mess with a groan-inducing monologue. Yet we all get a little cheesy during the holidays, and when Eclipse sticks a little closer to the script, songs such as "O Holy Night" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — can hit the right note to cheer up the inner cornball in all of us.

Kyle Goon

"Sounds of December" • Paul Anka

Grade: D

To answer your first question: No, he's not dead. Now to the second, "Sounds of December" is a lushly produced collection of holiday standards along the lines of Tony Bennett's 1994 "Snowfall." Anka's phrasing sometimes approaches self-parody and the tunes are heavily orchestrated. In fact, you could build an egg-nog drinking contest around guessing the song titles during the interminable orchestral throat clearing. Still, Anka passes the misty-eyes test on the Yuletide classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Glen Warchol

"Christmas Hope: An Inspirational Holiday Collection" • Benjamin Utrecht

Grade: D

Touring with Jim Brickman this season is Benjamin Utrecht, likely the only singer releasing a Christmas album this year with a Super Bowl ring. The former tight end turned to music after suffering a career-ending football injury, and he has a pleasant, yet unremarkable, voice. Also predictable is the song selection, and the light pop-rock vibe quickly bores. This is no touchdown, Jesus.

David Burger

features@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake

Music • The Tribune reviews the good, OK, and ugly of this year's holiday albums.
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