Remember when I said that I would get a new favorite Christmas albums post out before it got too late to enjoy it before Christmas came? So that didn’t quite happen…it’s Christmas Eve. But you still have a day or two (or more, if you’re the kind of person that keeps listening to holiday music after the fact) to enjoy these recommendations.
A few years ago, I made a post highlighting my favorite Christmas albums. This year, my first Christmas back from Peru, I’ve found quite a few new favorites. Some of them are albums out just this year, while quite a few are records that I’d heard of, but hadn’t gotten around to listening. There’s also one or two that I simply didn’t know about until searching around a bit this Christmas season. All of them are great additions to your holiday collection, and like many great Christmas albums, even may have a few songs that you may enjoy listening to after Christmas is over.
Check out the featured albums above, while I talk about each one of them a bit below. (Let me know how you like this format…I’m experimenting with it a bit before I do my big Best Albums of 2014 post in a few days.)
Ella Fitzgerald — Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas (1967)
Ella Fitzgerald’s first Christmas album, “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas,” landed on my first list of favorites. Ella made a second holiday recording 7 years after that one, and this time around, rather than secular tunes, she took on Christmas hymn favorites like “O Holy Night” and “The First Noel.” Things are decidedly less jazzy on this second outing (her take on “We Three Kings” is a notable exception), but just as beautiful and just as perfect for bringing the Christmas spirit. Ella’s voice sounds clear and bright, the song selections are rock solid, and Ella gets a chance to really shine with very understated, simple accompaniment that puts her truly front and center.
Check out her jazzy version of “We Three Kings” here:
Luis Miguel — Navidades (2006)
There aren’t many Spanish-language Christmas albums out there, much less ones populated entirely with Christmas carols from the English-speaking world translated into Spanish…but that’s exactly what legendary Mexican crooner Luis Miguel decided to for his 2006 holiday recording, and the result is some very, very good music. Using a big band for the uptempo numbers (definitely a change of pace for any Latin-American singer), and excelling as usual in the big ballads (as previously mentioned on this blog, “Te deseo muy felices fiestas,” his take on “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas,” is brilliant), he brings Christmas music beloved by one culture right into another…and we all end up having fun in the process. Even if some things are a bit altered in the translation (“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” turns into “Frente a la chimenea,” a song about falling in love in front of the fire…OK, then…), this is a Christmas album you’ll love, whatever language you speak.
Hear Luis hitting it with the big band in “Santa Claus llegó a la ciudad”:
Millennial Choirs & Orchestras — O Holy Night (2012)
I’ve told you all a bit about Millennial Choirs & Orchestras and the fantastic work that they do, and music that they make. This, their first holiday album, recorded in 2012, will absolutely blow you away. I don’t exaggerate with that. The album is based off of various “suites” of music…songs about Bethlehem, for example; a trio of songs related to Christmas bells (including a dazzling version of “Carol of the Bells,” a song covered so well by so many artists that I didn’t know if there was anything new you could add…oh, yes, you still can); etc. It all ends with a gorgeous version of “O Holy Night,” with a reharmonization that brings such a great song in its own right to even greater heights. The choir is top-notch, the orchestra, the arrangements by founding director Brett Stewart…it’s just all so, so good. This just has to be part of your Christmas collection, really. There’s not any other way to say it.
One of many highlights on the disc…a full-on treatment of “Carol of the Bells”:
Michael Buble — Christmas (2011)
Above in the intro, I mentioned a few albums that I had heard of, but hadn’t gotten around to listening to. This album is a bit of a special case…I had heard of it, kind of resisted it, heard a bit of it that holiday season (in 2011), liked it, but just didn’t seek it out further. I tweeted a few days ago, after finally deciding to listen to the album, that I think I’m much too hard on Michael Buble sometimes…I’m not sure why, but maybe because he mixes pop with jazz a bit too much, yet people call him jazz, I can be a bit dismissive of his music at first, although I pretty much always end up loving it. I was definitely too hard on this album…it’s terrific, I’m happy to say. Michael finds a nice balance between paying homage to the classics and keeping things traditional, and adding some really nice new touches to his versions of Christmas favorites. The guest turns are solid as well (Shania Twain and the Puppini Sisters, along with Latin singer Thalia, acquit themselves nicely). I’ve learned my lesson…Michael Buble knows how to craft himself a very good album.
Here’s Michael, with guests the Puppini Sisters, doing a rollicking 40s-inspired version of “Jingle Bells” (it starts off pretty similar to the Andrews Sisters/Bing Crosby version, but then takes some very nice liberties):
Annie Lennox — A Christmas Cornucopia (2010)
This was another album I hadn’t gotten around to listening until this year, and it was pretty worth the wait. Annie Lennox is an absolutely fierce and confident performer, arranger, and singer, and her spins on Christmas tunes (she makes the intriguing and welcome decision to cover sacred holiday favorites rather than secular ones) are both unconventional and inviting. She blazes her own trail musically, but makes sure to take us all along for the ride. It’s beautiful, different, and a really nice way to brighten and expand your Christmas musical horizons.
Annie takes us all to Church with a fiery rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”:
Carole King — A Holiday Carole (2011)
Carole King is one of the best singer/songwriters of all time (I don’t hesitate to make that statement), perhaps arguably known more for her songwriting than for her voice (both are top-notch, I’d say), which makes “A Holiday Carole” interesting in that in the case of the originals featured on the album, Carole didn’t have a hand in writing any of them. That job went to her daughter, fellow musician Louise Goffin, who also produced the album. Louise is a gifted writer and a producer that knows her mother’s strengths well, and thus this holiday set flows smoothly from track to track. Carole’s covers of Christmas tunes (along with a jazz “Chanukah Prayer”) are lovely, and the new songs co-written by her daughter are fine additions (“Christmas In The Air” and “Christmas Paradise” are a ton of fun, while “New Year’s Day” is a heartwarming, strong ballad). Carole King’s still got it, and it’s great to finally have her with a Christmas album.
Hear an original song by Carole, the sprightly “Christmas In The Air”:
The Lower Lights — Come Let Us Adore Him (2011) & Sing Noel (2013)
The Lower Lights is a collective of artists performing hymns and spiritual songs with a twist…rather than playing them ‘straight,’ they take said songs on with a unique blend of folk, country, gospel, and singer/songwriter-type music, giving these classic songs new life. We’re fortunate to have not one, but two Christmas albums by the group (they’ve also done 3 volumes of a “Hymn Revival” series), and they’re a real treat. The first record, “Come Let Us Adore Him,” stays mostly hymn-based, and their second album follows suit, though branches out a bit to holiday chestnuts like the Ron Sexsmith-penned “Maybe This Christmas.” There are 25 tracks in all across the 2 discs, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. If you’re looking to spice up your sacred Christmas music playlist…this is the best choice you can make, for sure.
There are tons of highlights to choose from, but here’s “Once In Royal David’s City,” Lower Lights style:
Gaby Moreno — Posada (2014)
This new holiday offering by Gaby Moreno (who had a breakout moment with Ricardo Arjona on his hit “Fuiste tu”) is a lovely, assured collection of holiday standards spanning various languages and cultures. The majority of the tunes are in Spanish, with about half of them being translations of English songs (a la Luis Miguel above), and the other half being Latin Christmas favorites. However, Gaby also sings in English, as well as starting “Noche de paz” (Silent Night) in German. Her terrific voice and gorgeous, unique arrangements tie everything together wonderfully, and the result is a singular holiday album that you’d be hard pressed to beat.
Among many standouts is her beautiful version of “The First Noel,” translated into Spanish as “El primer Noel” (complete with music video…it’s a good one):
Idina Menzel — Holiday Wishes (2014)
This is another recent album, this time by Idina Menzel, star of stage and screen whose star was just pushed to stratospheric heights thanks to “Frozen.” Her gale-force voice is used well here (she’s probably one of the few who can play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” without breaking a sweat…her 5-minute take on it is a highlight), and she also brings things down a bit (though not much to be honest, this is Idina Menzel we’re talking about), with a solid original, “December Prayer,” and a fine closing version of “White Christmas.” She also duets with Michael Buble on a version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that starts off a bit ho-hum, but quickly becomes a hit as they both make it their own. Her turn in “Frozen” has reminded us just how special Idina is, and this album is an even stronger reminder of that.
Hear Idina tear it up on “All I Want For Christmas Is You”:
Mindy Gledhill — Winter Moon (2011)
Mindy Gledhill is one heck of a singer/songwriter, and this Christmas album, as many great ones do, plays right to her strengths. Her versions of the classics are bright, assured, and with lots of nice personal touches. She’s paired with the same producer as her “Anchor” album, the talented Stuart Brawley, and once again both are on the same wavelength, creating a really solid album. Her originals, “Winter Moon” and “Little Soldier,” add wonderfully to the proceedings. This is another great idea for your Christmas playlist.
Take a listen to the title track, “Winter Moon,” a Mindy original:
Renee Fleming — Christmas In New York (2014)
Opera star Renee Fleming has taken quite a few welcome musical detours this past decade or so, and this Christmas album marks her second foray into jazz music after her stunning 2005 effort, “Haunted Heart.” Things are a bit less organic this time around than that album, but Renee is just as on point here (with only a few getting-carried-away moments), and has some outstanding company in Kurt Elling, Rufus Wainwright, Gregory Porter, pianist Brad Mehldau, and instrumentalist Wynton Marsalis. Renee really hits it out of the park with this warm, lovely collection of holiday favorites, with just the right flavor to make it truly a “Christmas In New York.”
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but here’s the album opener, a delicious version of “Winter Wonderland”:
Pentatonix — That’s Christmas To Me (2014)
Last but not least, Penatonix, superstar winners of “The Sing-Off”, just recorded a Christmas album, and sweet mercy, is it good. They start off with “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” taking things incredibly straight, until they launch into a thumping gospel beat, and things just take off from there. They have something for everyone–slow, contemplative, and lovely favorites like “Mary, Did You Know”; playful numbers like a nice mashup of “Winter Wonderland” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and top-notch originals like the title track. It may be a Christmas album rather than a regular record, but it’s one heck of a Christmas album at that. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again…Pentatonix can simply do no wrong.
Quite a few standouts, but let’s go with the aforementioned opening track, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” (complete with yule log):
Whew. That was quite the collection of albums (and a good practice for my upcoming Best Albums of 2014 thing…oh, that’s going to be a party…). Merry Christmas to all of you, and thanks for reading! I hope this is a good musical Christmas gift from Harmony Avenue to you.