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The 'Tribune's' annual best — and worst — holiday music

Published December 21, 2012 11:41 am

Holiday albums • The Tribune's guide to the best — and worst — of end of the year releases is here.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Chris Isaak said he spent six months on his 2005 album "Christmas." In the holiday album business, that's unheard of — no one spends that much time on a holiday album.

Isaak recalled talking to a friend and fellow musician about the time he spent perfecting his superb holiday album. The incredulous friend told him that his band had recorded a holiday album in less than a week, and only did it in the first place because they were contractually obligated to deliver one to record label.

Staff members of The Salt Lake Tribune have, once again, reviewed most of the new holiday albums released in time for Christmas (and Hanukkah) to separate the whole-grain wheat from the white-bread chaff.

As in past years, there were a number of high-profile musicians releasing holiday albums this season, including Lady Antebellum, Cee Lo Green, Scotty McCreery and Colbie Caillat.

As in past years, it becomes obvious what albums people like Isaak release, and what albums people like Isaak's friend release.

The Good

Barry Manilow, "The Classic Christmas Album"

Grade: A

This isn't new material — the 16-track compilation features songs from Manilow's three previous Christmas albums — but that's OK. This is a great collection of songs that you can appreciate, play as background music or sing along to.

Scott D. Pierce

Amy B. Hansen, "Piano Noel Classics"

Grade: A-

Hansen, a Utah native and a gifted pianist, performs nine familiar — yet fresh-sounding — Christmas carols from "Away in a Manager" to "Silent Night." It's the perfect music for anyone who want to slow down, sit by a fire, sip a hot drink (or glass of wine) and simply watch the twinkling lights on the tree.

Kathy Stephenson

Tracey Thorn, "Tinsel and Lights"

Grade: A-

As half of the British pop duo Everything But the Girl, Tracey Thorn always showed exquisite taste, and that quality appears over and over again on this delightful collection of songs that does its best to stay away from the tried-and-true-and-boring. With two new holiday songs, the album includes well-selected covers from Randy Newman, Sufjan Stevems, Jack White and Martin Sexton, as well as one of the prettiest renditions of Joni Mitchell's "River" in recent memory. Understated but comfortably confident, this album is one of this season's best.

David Burger

Jonathan Coulton & John Roderick, "One Christmas at a Time"

Grade: A-

The quirky duo got together in August to record a traditional holiday album, until they realized they hated traditional holiday songs. So they wrote their own and created one of the most fun holiday albums in recent memory, with songs such as "2600" (about getting an Atari 2600 video-game system under the tree), "Christmas in Jail" and the off-the-charts oddball "Wikipedia Chanukah," which features a Casio-generated dance beat with Roderick reciting the Wikipedia entry for Hanukkah. While much of the album sounds as if it was recorded quickly without a filter — which isn't necessarily a negative — still it's refreshing to hear people not take themselves, or the holidays, too seriously.

David Burger

Various Artists, " 'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah"

Grade: A-

Subtitled "The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights," this two-CD set presented by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is fascinating as well as pleasant. The first CD features 17 Hanukkah songs (including one by Woody Guthrie), many thought to be long-lost. The second CD features 17 Christmas songs sung by Jewish performers (including Bob Dylan, The Ramones and Sammy Davis Jr.). This compilation serves as a songbook that tells a uniquely American story.

David Burger

Various voice actors, "It's a SpongeBob Christmas! Album"

Grade: A-

Yes, this is a collection of gimmicky Christmas songs. But they're such good gimmicky songs. They include numbers from the new stop-motion-animation special along with some older songs — and it's a hoot. You'll be hooked by the time you hear the second track — "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas)." Adults will have fun and kids will love this.

Scott D. Pierce

Jenny Oaks Baker, "Noël: Carols of Christmas Past"

Grade: A-

The Utah-born violinist presents 10 traditional carols in new arrangements by frequent collaborator Kurt Bestor. There's a cross-cultural twist on several tracks, such as former Celtic Woman vocalist Alex Sharpe's performance of "Silent Night" and the Balkan stylings of the Kitka women's choir on the Irish carol "Patapan." But Baker really shines on her own, on tracks such as "We Three Kings" and the Vivaldi-inspired "Angels We Have Heard on High."

Catherine Reese Newton

Various Artists, "An Average JoesMuddy Christmas"

Grade: B+

Average Joe's Entertainment is a record label specializing in country music, founded by the unconventional country rapper Colt Ford in 2008. As you'd expect, this is an unconventional holiday album, with Christmas tunes and new songs from artists such as Montgomery Gentry (who presents his rendition of Robert Earl Keen's gut-busting new classic "Merry Christmas From the Family"), Bo Bice, Josh Gracin and LoCash Cowboys. "Nappy Holidays," by Nappy Roots, is the best Christmas rap song since Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis." Good fun all around.

David Burger

Rod Stewart, "Merry Christmas, Baby"

Grade: B+

It's something of a mild shock to hear the foremost progenitor of 1970s disco hits turn in a menu of Christmas tunes. Stewart's sandy-yet-sultry voice makes an awkward fit for "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," but it's more than intimate enough for "Silent Night." That fact that Stewart acquits himself more in style throughout the repertoire is due in part to the tantalizing cast of his duet partners. If Stewart partnering with Michael Bublé and Ella Fitzgerald doesn't float your holiday tune-boat, there's always Mary J. Blige singing "We Three Kings."

Ben Fulton

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

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.

Catherine Reese Newton

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."

Ellen Fagg Weist

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

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.

David Burger

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.

David Burger

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.

Ellen Fagg Weist

The Eastern Sea, "First Christmas"

Grade: B

The Austin-based prog-pop six-piece Eastern Sea doesn't take the expected route by adding hipster irony to traditional Christmas songs. But it does take chances with new arrangements by leader Matthew Hines, who created the band in his bedroom back in 2005 — and the chances pay off. While I would have preferred the band to have stayed away from done-to-death old standards (though there are two originals), these tunes have a whimsical pop spirit that elevates the material. Extra points for tackling "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)."

David Burger

Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, "Advent at Ephesus"

Grade: B

Now for something entirely different: an album about Advent, rather than Christmas. Leave it to the Catholics at this rural Missouri convent to remind the rest of us about the significance of the close of the liturgical year. The women's choir's music sounds pious and even divinely beautiful at times, though your tolerance for 16 voice-only songs can be tested. But I would never give a bad grade to a bunch of nuns, possibly because I never went to Catholic school (unlike my father, who tells me horror stories about some nuns and his knuckles).

David Burger

Various Artists, FM100.3 and Deseret Book present "White Christmas"

Grade: B

A dozen favorite Deseret Book artists offer their spin on popular carols and seasonal songs. The overall flavor is light, poppy and a tad sugary. Highlights include violinist Jenny Oaks Baker's elegant take on "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and singer Alex Boyé's tender performance of "What Child Is This?" Proceeds benefit The Road Home homeless shelter.

Catherine Reese Newton

Colbie Caillat, "Christmas in the Sand"

Grade: B

Christmas originals are about as appreciated as year-old fruitcake, and while Caillat's title track will never become part of the holiday canon, "Christmas in the Sand" blends nicely with classics such as "Winter Wonderland" — talk about your polar opposites — and an extra-tart "Santa Baby." Country crooners Brad Paisley and Justin Young are featured, but it's erstwhile rocker Gavin DeGraw, as Callait's counterpart on "Baby It's Cold Outside," who shines.

Bill Oram

Christina Perri,"A Very Merry Perri Christmas"

Grade: B

The 20-something Philadelphia singer-songwriter had her first (and so far only) breakout hit with "Jar of Hearts" in 2010 after it was showcased on the Fox reality show "So You Think You Can Dance." That's what makes this well-curated six-song Christmas EP such a surprising find. Perri's textured voice finds her own groove in covering Karen Carpenter's classic "Merry Christmas Darling" and updates Lennon/Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" after kicking things off with the sly charm of her own "Something About December." The virtue of this release is also its vice: It leaves you longing for more.

Ellen Fagg Weist

The Average

Gary U.S. Bonds, "Christmas Is On!"

Grade: B-

The 73-year-old R&B rocker's first Christmas album shows you exactly where Bruce Springsteen got his inspiration for his rollicking Jersey Shore bar-band style. (Bonds' "Quarter to Three" was a favorite Springsteen cover in the early years.) While Bonds' voice sounds a little tired, the energy on this rock 'n' roll album is front and center, and the record is at its best when Bonds and his tight band trot out originals (written by collaborator Paul Zuno) rather than the traditionals.

David Burger

Kenny Vance & The Planotones, "Mr. Santa"

Grade: B-

Kenny Vance's musical tastes haven't evolved much from the 1960s, when, as an original member of Jay and the Americans, he opened for the Beatles and Rolling Stones on their first U.S. tours, but that's not an entirely bad thing. In addition to three original holiday songs, Vance brings an air of nostalgia to the proceedings with recordings that sound straight out of the doo-wop era. But any album that has not just one but two songs about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer automatically gets grade demotions.

David Burger

Lady Antebellum, "On This Winter's Night"

Grade: C+

With only one original song (the title track), the album from the country trio features 11 of the most overplayed holiday songs in Christian history, such as "Silver Bells," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the execrable "A Holly Jolly Christmas." The saving grace is that lead singers Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott are, bar none, the best coed singing duo in the Christian world, regardless of genre. But as you listen to the album, one questions arises: Why, oh, why would anyone turn "Blue Christmas" into a holly, jolly up-tempo dance track?

David Burger

Elvis Presley, "The Classic Christmas Album"

Grade: C+

This compilation from recordings from 1971, 1966 and 1957 (plus a remasters duets album) is mainly for Elvis fanatics. Though many of the songs seem dated, there are a few gems including "The First Noel" and "Silent Night." The more rock-sounding tunes don't work quite as well.

Tom Wharton

Francesca Battistelli, "Christmas"

Grade: C+

The fourth album by Christian singer Francesca Battistelli is an overproduced pop confection, a mix of forgettable new songs and some Christmas classics (like her faux-jazz renditions of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song"). Battistelli's lucid voice shines when she lets the songs speak for themselves, as on a country-ish "Joy to the World" that truly sounds joyful.

Sean P. Means

Rita Coolidge, "A Rita Coolidge Christmas"

Grade: C+

It's interesting that perhaps the best of the 12 cuts on this disc are not true Christmas songs. "Circle of Light" and a Spanish version of "Amazing Grace" (featuring the St. Genevieve High School Choir) are highlights. The more classic Christmas songs are done well, though changes in style from jazz to country make the overall effort seem uneven.

Tom Wharton

Various artists, "A Christmas Story: The Musical"

Grade: C+

"A Christmas Story" was a really great 1983 movie. And the Broadway show got pretty good reviews. But this CD is just OK, and less than OK if you haven't seen the musical. Guess you had to be there. Meh.

Scott D. Pierce

Chicago, "O Christmas Three"

Grade: C+

Chicago sounds like a bunch of old guys at a nursing home. Guest Dolly Parton sounds as if she had a cold when she recorded her song. That makes it hard trying to work up the courage to listen to the other Chicago Christmas CD. (It's a double album.) Ouch.

Brett Prettyman

Scotty McCreery, "Christmas With Scotty McCreery"

Grade: C

While it may seem like it's required for every country artist to record a holiday album, but "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery (who opened for The Beach Boys at this year's "Stadium of Fire") gets an early jump by releasing one just a few months after he graduated from high school. It's safe to say that this was probably not Scotty's idea; it has "record label's wish list" written all over it, as the songs don't stray from the predictable list. But, despite all the naysayers, winning "American Idol" isn't easy. Scotty has the smoothest baritone since George Strait, and it's a pleasure to hear him sing. Really.

David Burger

John Denver, "The Classic Christmas Album"

Grade: C

Denver's soothing voice is perfect for holiday songs about crackling fires and that special baby in a manger. But those who compiled the 16-song collection should have steered clear of the singer/songwriter's hillbilly alter ego, because a few of the offerings — specifically "Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)" — just spoil the holiday mood.

Kathy Stephenson

PumpYouUp, "Christmas Nutcracker Dubstep & Techno Classics"

Grade: C

At the very least, putting traditional holiday tunes through the EDM blender is an innovative idea. Twenty-three instrumental tracks, though, get to be too much for personal listening, even though some of the workouts are entrancing. But this is best heard at a club for holiday-themed parties.

David Burger

Rick Braun, "Swingin' in the Snow"

Grade: C

The Pennsylvania-based smooth-jazz trumpeter generally gives the genre "smooth jazz" a good name in this lively set, though the 57-year-old's song selection of tired traditionals is questionable. (Do we really need another rendition of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"?) A previous holiday CD featuring Braun, "Peter White Christmas with Mindi Abair and Rick Braun," was more adventurous and enjoyable.

David Burger

Richard Marx, "Christmas Spirit"

Grade: C

Duets with Sara Watkins and Kenny Loggins do nothing to enliven this unnecessary album, which is average in every way. Marx is a better songwriter than singer, so I would have expected more than two original songs. In his song "Christmas Spirit," he croons, "I'm sure you must be busy / So I'll try to end this story fast." Not fast enough.

David Burger

The Ugly

Nickelodeon stars, "Merry Nickmas"

Grade: C-

It's clear that the target audience for this collection of traditional songs (except for SpongeBob SquarePants' "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas)") isn't adults like me, so I can be a little forgiving of generally music-by-numbers productions from the likes of Victoria Justice, Big Time Rush and Rachel Crow. But it's cheerfully bland, and there's little fun to be shared in this offering, which sounds as if it was made in a hurry to cash in on the talents of kids who will be hitting puberty soon.

David Burger

Earnest Pugh, "Christmas with Earnest Pugh & Friends"

Grade: C-

Of all the Christmas albums released this season, few boast the vocal chops of gospel singer Earnest Pugh, who has a five-octave range and uses all five in rapid frequency. The Army veteran too often interrupts the proceedings with as many "interludes" as those found on a rap album, and the slickness of the production gets grating. There's no denying Pugh's talents, but the vocal acrobatics and pyrotechnics too often overshadow everything else.

David Burger

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, "This Christmas"

Grade: C-

If you're a huge fan of Travolta and/or Newton-John, this is for you. And even you may groan at how cheesy it is. The music itself isn't awful, but then you've got Travolta gasping and sighing in "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (among others), saying, "Oh, gosh, Liv, I really do have to go." And Newton-John replies, "Oh, you don't really, do you?" Gag.

Scott D. Pierce

Andre Rieu, "Home for the Holidays"

Grade: C-

Classical bandleader Andre Rieu can play a mean violin solo, and his Johann Strauss Orchestra can make you dance even if you don't know a waltz from a fox-trot. But it's hard to muster up much enthusiasm for this largely instrumental record, which sounds as if it would be right at home inside an elevator. The 63-year-old Dutchman selects some long-hidden holiday chestnuts such as "Old Toy Trains" and "December Lights," but "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is such a lackluster rendition of the gospel number that Satan must be smiling.

David Burger

The Polyphonic Spree, "Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. One"

Grade: C-

This Dallas-based choral symphonic pop rock band takes on 10 tedious standards and two original instrumentals. While much of the album features alternate melodies to standards, either you like the dreamy, lush overproductions or you don't. I don't. I admire the ambition, but I get the sense that these work better in a live setting. Playing these next to a fireplace on a cold winter's night would just irritate me with too much going on. But the band earns extra points for performing John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."

David Burger

Katherine Jenkins, "This Is Christmas"

Grade: C-

If I was giving points for a performer's beauty, then Katherine Jenkins' holiday album would score an A-plus but unfortunately, the Welsh mezzo-soprano's music isn't as desirable. The 32-year-old blonde's classically-trained voice doesn't blend well with the traditional, uninspired musical backing to these traditional, uninspired songs. Even her "Santa Baby" isn't as sexy as it should be. Jenkins finished in second place on "Dancing with the Stars" this year; maybe she should stick to her night job, dancing, when Christmastime comes.

David Burger

Blake Shelton, "Cheers, It's Christmas"

Grade: D

It becomes clear early on that the best tracks on this album are the ones where female singers share duets with Shelton, one of the most uninteresting singers in Nashville. The Pistol Annies (with wife Miranda Lambert) guest on "Blue Christmas," Kelly Clarkson joins him on "There's a New Kid in Town" and Dolly Parton links up with Shelton on the best number, "Oklahoma Christmas." While Shelton gets some credit for co-penning some original songs, most are tolerably pleasant but uninspired in every way. Cash in your check now, Blake.

David Burger

Kenny G, "The Classic Christmas Album"

Grade: D

You might say to yourself, isn't this repetitive? After all, this collection of Kenny G's holiday recordings supplements two prior compilations, both featuring highlights from his three albums. The 16 tracks are the epitome of background music — much like music you would like to be played low when having an interesting holiday-party conversation with the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt. But those conversations with dead presidents probably won't happen. The only time you would want this to be played at a normal volume would be when you try to drown out Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party (you might remember that recurring character on "Saturday Night Live").

David Burger —

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.