Some music fans will argue that the art form of the Christmas album achieved perfection with Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas; others will argue for the supremacy of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector.
Either way, each year, artists mine the rich cache of holiday songs for themed albums, while adding a few originals of their own to the mix. Here are a few of the best Christmas albums released this year. Some tinker with the classics, and some remain reverent to the spirit of the season, but all are worth a spin.
New Orleans-born singer Ledisi's brand of soul is more neo than retro, and on It's Christmas she works through a mix of originals and low-lit classics. Her take on the Motown chestnut "Give Love on Christmas Day" is worth hearing, as is her duet with Keb' Mo' on "Please Come Home for Christmas."
We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year
Nothing says "happy holidays" quite like Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister—a fact that appears to be the impetus behind this collection of metal-ized Christmas songs. Lemmy takes the lead on Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" as Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) back him up. That unholy trinity alone should sell you on the disc, but that's just the tip of the hard-rocking talent assembled here.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
Jingle All the Way
Bela Fleck's compositions have always seemed both erudite and free form, and that combination is at play on Jingle All the Way, the most fun of the discs reviewed here. Kicking off with a demented take on "Jingle Bells," Way finds maestro Fleck and his equally skilled Flecktones never taking themselves too seriously and never straying too far off the beaten path.
A Very Rosie Christmas!
Rosie Thomas is best-known as a soft-touch indie artist, but her holiday album showcases her crystal-clear voice and refined, jazz-like phrasing. Damien Jurado pops in for a guest spot as the narrator on "Sheila's Christmas Miracle."
Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents Christmas a Go-Go
(Wicked Cool Records)
E Street Band axe man and Sopranos alum Little Steven Van Zandt has long used his clout to promote underground garage bands through festivals and his satellite radio show, and this comp continues that trend, matching lesser-known acts like Norway's all-female Cocktail Slippers with legends like The Kinks and The Ramones. Christmas a Go-Go wins points for collecting some rare tracks, including Bob Seger's "Sock it to Me, Santa."
Husband and wife Rob and Jen Slocumb make up the duo Martha's Trouble by combining her country-flecked sweetness and his rock-derived guitar work. This eight-song disc is a relaxed, mellow affair, well-suited for the season's first snowfall.
Jazz and R&B singer Al Jarreau has many credits on his C.V. (he scored seven Grammy awards and had a huge hit with "We're in This Love Together"), but Christmas is his first collection of holiday standards. On it, he lends his nimble, elastic voice to 13 holiday classics, giving his smooth-jazz sensibilities a little kick of soul and funk, alternating between reverent carols and sentimental favorites.
Sixpence None the Richer
The Dawn of Grace
Sixpence None the Richer (whose 1999 hit "Kiss Me" was a little gem of 10,000 Maniacs/Innocence Mission folk-pop) was always forthcoming about its Christian influences. Accordingly, the band sticks largely to holiday hymns here. But the original track, "The Last Christmas," is a lovely lullaby to the narrator's unborn child.
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The Singing Saw at Christmastime
The "singing saw" in the title of Neutral Milk Hotel bassist and Music Tapes leader Julian Koster's Christmas disc is no joke: A pair of musical saws is all that can be heard on this instrumental album. The shivering tone of the saws is most akin to the wavering pitch of a theremin, and accordingly, these songs toe a thin line between exquisite beauty and ear-raking annoyance.