Justin Bieber, Under the Mistletoe (Island)
Parents are likely to buy Justin Bieber’s Christmas album for their kids and pray that their young ones will only play it through their headphones.
But the elders would be missing out. Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe is a thoroughly entertaining offering for all ages – sometimes even more so for the adults.
Although he’s still a teen heartthrob, there’s little childlike about this album (except for the song “Someday at Christmas,” which closes out the deluxe CD, where a much younger Bieber channels Michael Jackson).
Bieber’s voice has deepened, and the bubble gum sound has given way to a more mature, soulful sound. Bieber sounds convincingly romantic on the album’s opener, “The Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas.” And on the soulful upbeat groove “Fa La La,” with guests Boyz II Men, he sounds almost – dare we say it? – sexy.
But before we venture into Mariah Yeater territory, let’s focus on some of the other songs on the album. He joins Mariah Carey on her holiday classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You”; The Band Perry for a powerful “Home This Christmas”; enlists mentor Usher on a charming rendition of “The Christmas Song”; and gets funky with Busta Rhymes on a hip-hop version of “Little Drummer Boy” (here simply called “Drummer Boy”), as both trade rap verses.
Bieber breathes new life into old standbys, and offers up new songs that have the potential to become future classics. Even if you don’t have kids, Under the Mistletoe should be under your Christmas tree.
She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge Records)
Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, the she and him of folk rock duo She & Him, have patterned a sparse yet satisfying Christmas album that, on listen after repeated listen, brings to mind a subtly hip holiday vibe that’s edgy enough to impress the most jaded Brooklynite and innocent enough to play for grandma, too.
Across the 12 tracks presented on the album – available digitally, too – Deschanel and Ward glide through some of the holiday classics with low-key yet inspired gait, including a rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that’s smooth and silky but earnest in its affectations.
The interplay between Ward and Deschanel on “Silver Bells” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is quick and bouncy, lending a decidedly prominent sense of mirth and merriment – always critical components of a good Christmas album.
Is it groundbreaking and new? No, not by a longshot, but it’s clever, entertaining and filled with holiday cheer.
Scott Weiland, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Atlantic)
Sometimes the line between balladeer and rock singer converges; sometimes it does not. That’s why it comes as a surprise that Scott Weiland would attempt to croon an album of Christmas music as if he were Perry Como on The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
The songs range from fun to powerful to laughable, as Weiland tackles holiday standards like “Silent Night” and “The Christmas Song.” He delivers these tunes like it was Bing Crosby night at a local karaoke bar. Not that that’s there’s anything wrong with that, especially if parody is your thing. But fans may expect more than a hardcore alternative rocker trying to sound like a lounge singer.
The former Velvet Revolver and Stone Temple Pilot singer slightly shifts music style over the course of the record’s ten tracks with hints of bossa nova, reggae, and big band flair, yet nothing remarkably that sounds like him.
Two of the albums most interesting tracks include a bouncy version of “What Child Is This?” and a fun version of “Winter Wonderland,” though he sounds a little like Sammy Davis Jr.
While channeling the old crooners, the one voice or style that’s missing is Weiland’s own. Easily regarded in the top echelon of 1990s rock singers, Weiland sets himself up for criticism by stepping too far out of his comfort zone on this one.
Tony Bennett, The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia)
When you’ve been around as long as Tony Bennett, you don’t release an album of Christmas favorites, you put out a collection of the best Christmas songs recorded throughout your career.
This greatest hits album compiles holiday tunes from the 85-year-old crooner’s repertoire over 40 years. He released his first holiday album, “Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album” in 1968. Over the years, he’s recorded Christmas music with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Count Basie Band.
While these songs have all been heard before, there’s an eclectic magic to listening to them in succession. Maybe it’s the younger tone of his voice on early recordings like “My Favorite Things,” or the swagger on “Winter Wonderland.”
The collection includes a lush mix of jazz, orchestral, and big band backgrounds to such holiday classics as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a peppy version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and the beautiful choral tone of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Joey + Rory, A Farmhouse Christmas (Sugar Hill Records/Vanguard Records)
If you feel the need to freshen up your holiday music collection, you could do much worse than this country duo.
Joey is the woman and Rory is the guy always wearing overalls, even on the album cover. Yes, they’re a couple like that cute plus sign in their name implies. They harmonize better than most husbands and wives, though. Rory is a working songwriter when not recording with his wife and it shows in some of the lyrics. Sample from the album opener “It’s Christmas Time”: “We’ll eat too much and swear again / that come New Year we’re getting in / the best shape that we’ve ever been / but we know we’re lyin’. / So pass the pie and one more roll / and pass me that remote control / oh, lookee here, I love this show! / It’s Christmas time.”
There are only two holiday standards here – “Away in a Manger” and “Blue Christmas” – plus a cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” featuring background vocals by the man himself. The rest are non-traditional or original, with song titles like “What The Hell (It’s the Holidays),” ‘‘Come Sit on Santa Claus’ Lap” and “Let It Snow (Somewhere Else).” If you’re sick of the classics and need to have something festive in the background while you entertain or cook for family and friends this holiday season, this is a fine choice for any house, even without a farm.
Various artists, This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday, Volume 2 (Brushfire Records)
Someone liked this idea enough to put out a second volume, but this reviewer is not that someone. Featuring 13 tracks by 11 artists from the Brushfire stable (Zach Gill, G. Love, Rogue Wave, Jack Johnson, Bahamas, Neil Halstead, Zee Avi, ALO, Money Mark, Paula Fuga and Matt Costa), the arrangements are ho-hum and there’s not a sing-along song in the bunch. The best of the baker’s dozen is an original tune by Johnson (“In the Morning”) that’s perfect if you’re planning a yuletide luau. The worst? Zee Avi making “Frosty the Snowman” even more depressing than the lyrics. There is some good news, though: Twenty-five percent of the profits from record sales support musical education.
Michael Buble, Christmas (Reprise/Wea)
Christmas comes early with Michael Buble’s holiday record. It’s his second seasonal release, and it seems as if he’s got a knack for making cozy Christmas music. His smooth voice perfectly covers classics like “Silent Night,” ‘‘Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” There’s even an original song called “Cold December Night.”
Buble also covers Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but adds his own twist by slowing it down. It sounds like a completely different song that is noteworthy in its own right. Christmas is an instant classic that would go nicely in anyone’s collection.
Mark O’Connor, An Appalachian Christmas (OMAC)
The title’s misleading, with Mark O’Connor playing more like a violinist than a fiddler, and his guests include opera star Renee Fleming and jazz singer Jane Monheit. The stylistic sprawl results in a set about as rustic as choir carols at Lincoln Center.
O’Connor’s first holiday album includes new recordings but also previously released material dating back as far as 1987. Several tunes have little to do with Christmas, including “Ol’ Blue,” sung by James Taylor, and “Now It Belongs To You,” sung by Steve Wariner.
Even so, this grab bag offers a few goodies. Fleming’s duet with O’Connor on “Amazing Grace” pairs two glorious instruments, and when she soars for an A-flat above high C to start the last line, it’s an unexpected present. Alison Krauss’ angelic soprano enriches Stephen Foster’s “Slumber My Darling,” and she’s backed by the string trio of O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer in a heavenly performance.
O’Connor does some serious sawing on a Mannheim Steamroller-style rendition of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” But much of the time he plays as if handcuffed, and a succession of mellow, undercooked tunes work best as background music.
Marcus Roberts Trio, Celebrating Christmas (J-Master Records)
Pianist Marcus Roberts’ trio takes the ordinary – 15 oft-heard holiday songs both sacred and secular – and turns them into something extraordinary by using them as vehicles for jazz improvisation. Celebrating Christmas is his second holiday record, coming 20 years after his solo piano “Prayer For Peace.”
Roberts plays solo on three tracks. He turns “We Three Kings” into a restrained waltz; makes “Joy To The World” a modified piano rag, and only slightly embellishes the melody on “O Come All Ye Faithful.” He has a mastery of jazz piano styles as shown on “White Christmas” where the trio’s use of space, sudden shifts in tempo and changes in volume reflect the influence of pianist Ahmad Jamal’s 1950s trios.
Drummer Jason Marsalis (the youngest brother in the famed jazz family) also shows a wide range. He uses delicate brushwork on the ballad “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”; propels “Jingle Bells” forward with a galloping beat; and shows his New Orleans roots with his drum lines on “Little Drummer Boy,” creating tension by initially playing at a faster tempo than the other trio members. Bassist Rodney Jordan plays an elegantly stated recurring motif that drives “Carol of the Bells.”
The trio’s intricate interplay is highlighted on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as they change keys and find different ways to state the melody from day to day, turning what often can be a boring, repetitive song into something exciting.
David Ian, Vintage Christmas (Prescott)
Jazz pianist David Ian treats the classics with a deft hand on Vintage Christmas, seamlessly melding the some traditional compositions with the perfect hint of lounge-meets-jazz phrasing.
There’s a way to botch this approach, to make it too kitschy. Ian knows better and meanders from the traditional approach just enough to keep it interesting, but without too many extra instruments mucking up the arrangement. His minimalist piano work delivers a clean approach here.
The best moments come when Ian is paired with vocals by Acacia, one half of the sister-duo group Tal & Acacia. Her tone is dreamy on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” without excessive back-phrasing which some vocalists have employed on this standard.
Ian best work is evident on his vocal-free rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” with just some soft bass notes and drum work to back him up. His explorations with the melody are mild and it’s nice that he doesn’t meander off into a jazz jungle of unrelated riffs.
If there’s something close to a dud here it’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s tough to make this staid song soar and he doesn’t here. Other than that misstep, Ian and company have delivered a timeless take on these Christmas regulars.
Various Artists, Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album, Vol. 2 (Sony)
The second Christmas album from the “Glee” cast starts out strong with Amber Riley’s version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”: It’s as fun to listen to as the original. Naya Rivera also does a great job pulling off a sultry rendition of “Santa Baby.”
The final four contestants on “The Glee Project” also lend their vocals to songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” ‘‘Blue Christmas” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” That’s OK and fine, if the powers that be wanted to include the show’s two co-winners on the album, but the final four? It just seems like a blatant plug for the reality competition.
Regardless, everyone on the album can carry a tune, so “Glee” fans will likely appreciate the album.