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The ‘Tribune’s’ annual best — and worst — holiday music
Holiday albums » The Tribune’s guide to the best — and worst — of end of the year releases is here.

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Mormon Tabernacle Choir with Nathan Gunn and Jane Seymour, "Once Upon a Christmas"

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Are Christmas albums dead?

In an age of iTunes and Pandora and other on-demand web radio stations, have the industry of pop stars churning out Christmas albums fallen apart? Or are Salt Lake City music lovers still tied to to holiday music-listening habits of yore? Send thoughts to David Burger at dburger@sltrib.com, with the words “holiday music” in the email subject line.

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Grade: B+

Opera star Nathan Gunn brings his easy charm and rich baritone to the Tabernacle Choir’s 2011 Christmas concerts, released on CD and DVD just in time for this Christmas season. He’s equally appealing whether singing J.S. Bach or Irving Berlin. Jane Seymour is perfectly cast as the narrator, the choir is in top form, and Richard Elliott delivers another show-stopper on the Conference Center organ.

Cee Lo Green, "Cee Lo’s Magic Moment"

Grade: B+

Here’s the song I’ve got on repeat: Singer-producer-rapper Cee Lo Green lays down a sexy, compelling vibe in a duet with Christina Aguilera on "Baby It’s Cold Outside." That song alone is enough to make this CD a keeper — plus there’s his credible rendition of another unlikely cover, Joni Mitchell’s folky "River." Throughout this 14-song set, Green works best when he’s working straight on Christmas classics, such as "Mary, Did You Know?" or "White Christmas." The downers are the mood-killing novelties, such as "You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Run Rudolph Run."

Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band, "A Crescent Christmas, Vol. 1"

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Grade: B+

The American Fork-based, high-school-age band specializes in keeping alive the Great American Songbook, and on this disc offers a jubilant, high-spirited tour through Christmas classics that swing. The ensemble has gone beyond its beginnings as a jazz-dominated project under the guidance of one of Utah’s best music educators, Caleb Chapman, and has earned a spot at Carnegie Hall in late spring. Of special note are the young singers (Chloe Johnson, Tessa Hadley, Sierra Dew, Tessa Norman, Isaac Major and Madi Christensen) who sound too talented to be under 18.

Donna Ulisse, "All the Way to Bethlehem"

Grade: B+

The bluegrass singer-songwriter has made a concept album about the journey to Bethlehem taken by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Jesus, and it works surprisingly well, even though non-Christian listeners might be put off by the excessive levels of piety. But if you’re willing to give this a try, Ulisse’s rootsy music, along with her confident and strong voice, make this a much more interesting exercise in biblical history than just a retread of traditional Christmas music.

Luther Vandross: "The Classic Christmas Album"

Grade: B+

The late singer’s slinky voice is showcased in interesting R&B arrangements, which makes Christmas chestnuts like, well, "The Christmas Song" sound rich and velvety. Standouts on this compilation include the sentimental "With a Christmas Heart" and a swinging duet with Chaka Khan of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Many of the 14 songs have a similar mood, which means the CD might work best as a background music. The most significant misstep is the trying-too-hard funk "The Mistletoe Jam (Everybody Kiss Somebody)," but overall this is a nice collection for fans of Vandross’ legendary voice.

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