The holidays are here, and you can’t be expected to celebrate without the perfect seasonal soundtrack. Here’s a rundown of the top new holiday releases, so whether your taste runs to rock, soul, pop, R&B, country, Christian or classical, you’re covered.
Pop artists can be counted on for a few holiday treats, and Kylie Minogue’s Kylie Christmas, has holiday faves tricked out with her signature glitz and glamour. The highlight is her Iggy Pop-aided rocking rendition of “Christmas Wrapping” (originally by the Waitresses). Be sure to sample RuPaul’s campy Slay Belles. The album is a treat, right down to its naughty “interludes”; pay special attention to the lascivious “Jingle Dem Bells,” starring Big Freedia and Ellis Miah.
There are worthwhile repackaged outings such as Sarah McLachlan’s The Classic Christmas Album, an expansion of 2006’s Wintersong which not only features the now-classic take on Joni Mitchell’s “River,” but adds five tracks. Another repurposed release comes from a cappella group Pentatonix, who added a few new songs to 2014’s That’s Christmas to Me.
While sentimental ballads from Bing and Mariah are charming, sometimes your holiday requires big beats and big choruses. This season’s party-time album is Band of Merrymakers’ Welcome to Our Christmas Party. Boasting members of Better Than Ezra, Neon Trees, Lady Antebellum and others, it’s one exuberant pop-rocker after another, including a version of “Jingle Bells” that sounds like No Doubt crossed with a high school cheerleading squad hopped-up on caffeine. If you crave something heavier and harder, unwrap Joe Perry’s Merry Christmas EP — his “White Christmas” has to be the only version to feature Aerosmith’s talk box from “Sweet Emotion.” Perry closes out the short-yet-sweet collection with a down and dirty, blues-rock rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming Back to Town” that’s sure to sound wicked while spiking the eggnog.
Usually there are plenty of Christmas offerings from country artists, but this year it seems fans have been Scrooged. Console yourself with Vince Gill’s Christmas, which culls the best songs from two earlier holiday albums. American Idol alum Kelli Pickler released the Christmas single, “My Christmas Caroline,” a loving tribute to her grandmother in North Carolina. Speaking of American Idol alums, Danny Gokey has released his first holiday album, Christmas Is Here, which puts a blue-eyed soul spin on seasonal favorites. Finally, there’s Honeyhoney’s slinky “Christmas Tipsy” — a noir-ish offering focusing on the boozing, partying side of the holiday season.
Christian artists can’t get enough of Christmas, and this year’s no exception. Mercy Me, It’s Christmas! is the band’s second holiday release, which has them reimagining classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas”) along with inspirational originals (“Christmastime Again,” “Joy”) and a mood that goes from meditative to lighthearted.
Chris Tomlin’s Adore: Christmas Songs of Worship features the standout live track “Noel” with Lauren Daigle, and Grammy winner Laura Story’s God With Us mixes old and new and features a 120-voice choir and 50-piece orchestra for a little glam.
If you like your holidays with an R&B twist, try Braxton Family Christmas, featuring Toni Braxton’s first holiday material since her 2013 Babyface duet, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She takes lead vocals for much of the release, but you can clearly hear Tamar Braxton on “Every Day Is Christmas,” and “Mary Did You Know?”
A Classic Holiday features MGK Entertainment’s roster and includes previously released material such as Brandy’s 1997 spiritual “One Voice,” Tyrese’s 2013 “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and Alicia Keys’ auspicious teenage 1996 debut, “Little Drummer Girl,” that gets an engineering “remix.” Promising newcomers Gabi Wilson and Elle Varner deliver a haunting version of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” and a whimsically restrained take on “This Christmas,” respectively.
Soulful sounds come courtesy of Christmas With Friends, which includes some of Joe Sample’s final sessions. (The jazz pianist passed away before the album was completed.) The album mostly consists of standards, but “Favorite Time of Year” is a quiet-storm original in which India.Arie duets with Tori Kelly. Meanwhile, It’s a Holiday Soul Party features new songs along with 7-inch vinyl gems such as “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects,” “Big Bulbs” and “Just Another Christmas Song.” Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings deliver a revved-up “White Christmas,” while “8 Days of Hanukkah” has a melody reminiscent of Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut.”
Earth Wind & Fire’s The Classic Christmas Album packages 2014’s Holiday with non-album rarities such as Philip Bailey’s gospel testimonial “I Asked for a Miracle (God Gave Me You),” along with the band’s call for global peace and unity in “One World.” As for stand-alone singles, Andra Day built her reputation on reimagining popular hits, and that ethos marks the track “Winter Wonderland,” where she turns the yuletide chestnut into a torch ballad.
The holidays wouldn’t be complete without some classical music. Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet score The Nutcracker gets a fresh take from acclaimed Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who created a keyboard arrangement of the complete score — listen to his artful recreation of Tchaikovsky’s sparkling, imaginative score. For My Christmas, tenor extraordinaire Placido Domingo, now 74, selected some of his favorite holiday classics. He teams up with an appealing variety of talented guests, including Idina Menzel for “Guardian Angels” and the Piano Guys for a touching version of “Silent Night.”
Contributors: Chuck Eddy, Justin Farrar, Jason Gubbels, Linda Ryan, Mosi Reeves and Thomas May