With the holidays in full-swing and Christmas just days away, it's time to put on some music to get into spirit.
Here's a roundup of the newest Christmas albums, out this year:
Kenny Rogers, "Once Again It's Christmas" (Warner)
If country legend Kenny Rogers sticks to his guns, "Once Again it's Christmas" will be his sixth and final holiday album, and bittersweet nostalgia infuses all 11 tracks. The 77-year-old crooner recently announced his retirement and farewell tour, so this mix of mostly classic carols with traditional arrangements is one fans will savor.
Highlights include "Some Children See Him," with Alison Krauss adding angelic accompaniment, and "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," featuring country a cappella band Home Free and a rousing clap-your-hands gospel beat. Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles adds heat to "Baby It's Cold Outside"; Rogers is backed by a choral arrangement on "Little Drummer Boy," and soaring strings on "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
His voice is a little softer and raspier than on his first Christmas album 34 years ago, but it fits with selections that make you want to curl up by the fire with a bourbon eggnog and the ones you love.
- Lindsey Tanner
Kylie Minogue, "Kylie Christmas" (Warner/Parlophone)
Kylie Minogue's first Christmas album is a very mixed bag of big band arrangements, awkward duets, better-than-expected novelty originals and evergreens hardly suited to her vocal limits.
Frank Sinatra is back for a shared "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and his input really does sound recorded in the great beyond. Iggy Pop croaks through The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," a very British-sounding, quality American pop tune, while James Corden lifts Yazoo's "Only You," hardly a holiday song. "Every Day is Like Christmas" echoes "Viva La Vida"-era Coldplay, no surprise as it's by the consciously uncoupled Chris Martin. The Pretenders' stirring "2000 Miles" gets a lush arrangement but Minogue's no match for Chrissie Hynde.
It would have made more sense to include the tunes Minogue helped write - "White December" and "Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here" - and maybe a couple more as bonus tracks on her next pop album because under the glossy gift wrap that's all "Kylie Christmas" has worth keeping.
- Pablo Gorondi
The Braxtons, "Braxton Family Christmas" (Def Jam)
The Christmas album from Toni Braxton and her sisters will only make you wish they were working on a proper, full-length R&B project.
"Braxton Family Christmas" is soulful and warm and the sisters' harmonies are the album's highlight. They sound like angels on "O Holy Night (A cappella)" and "This Christmas," which opens the 8-track album. And Tamar Braxton, the youngest of the family clan, hits a high note so beautifully on "Mary, Did You Know?" you'll have to reply it again and again.
Even on the original songs like "Every Day is Christmas" and "Under My Christmas Tree," Toni, Tamar, Towanda, Trina and Traci sound epic and classic.
The sisters' voices are so similar sometimes it's hard to tell who's who. But it doesn't matter because though there are five of them, they sound united - like a real group should.
- Mesfin Fekadu
Various Artists, "A Pony Kind of Christmas" (Sony Legacy)
To the delight of Fluttershy fans everywhere, the "My Little Pony" Christmas album, "A Pony Kind of Christmas," has arrived. The mythical land of Equestrian can now be filled with whimsical yuletide songs of yore, sung by cartoon ponies that essentially burp rainbows and chase each other on cable for a living.
It's all in good fun as Rainbow Dash handles a decidedly rock-tinged rendition of "Jingle Bells." The ponies punctuate the hook with a few well-placed yelps and go off the grid from the traditional lyrics just enough to keep the listener guessing. A fair warning for parents: You probably won't know which pony is singing which song without a cheat sheet or help from your kids, which is probably half the fun. Your little ones may have to give you a heads up to remind you that is Fluttershy singing "Silent Night," and not Pinkie Pie.
There's some original material here as well. The Phoenix Chamber Carol does a nice job backing the ponies on "The Heart Carol," which is all about friendship, glowing hearts and the loyalty creed by which the ponies of Equestria all live. Fathers everywhere moonlighting as Bronies may get a little choked up as the ponies sing out valuable life lessons under the guise of a Christmas song. "A Pony Kind of Christmas" is about as syrupy sweet a holiday album as you'll find. It's clean fun.
- Ron Harris
Train, "Christmas in Tahoe" (Sunken Forest)
Train's 15-track holiday album jauntily careens through six-plus decades of sometimes obscure Christmassy songs, from covers of Elvis' "Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)" to British pop singer Tracey Thorn's "Tinsel and Lights." In between are a soaring version of the classic "O Holy Night," with frontman Pat Monahan sharing vocals with a background chorus, and three Train originals - all with a contemporary Top 40 feel.
On Joni Mitchell's "River," surely the most beautifully melancholy holiday tune, Monahan's voice soars almost as high as hers; the opening keyboard is also reminiscent. Less well-known holiday fare includes The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight" and Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody," with arrangements sticking close to the originals, punctuated by Monahan's distinctive croon. Train's own "Christmas Island" has a calypso beat and catchy vocals - "Give me Christmas on an island, see me smilin" - and will be the one fans can't stop humming.
The album's digital version is an Amazon exclusive; Amazon and Walmart are selling the CDs.
- Lindsey Tanner
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, "Big Band Holidays" (Blue Engine)
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra open and close "Big Band Holidays" with two songs from the Count Basie repertoire - Ernie Wilkins' arrangement of "Jingle Bells" and Basie's original "Good Morning Blues" with its holiday-themed lyrics sung by breakout star Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Salvant displays her vocal artistry on three other tracks, including the winter-themed "It's Easy to Blame the Weather," on which she channels Billie Holiday and scats smoothly with the JLCO playing in a swing style. Grammy-winner Gregory Porter belts out the R&B holiday standard "Merry Christmas Baby," while Rene Marie goes from soft to growly on the Louis Armstrong-associated "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" with its New Orleans spices.
JLCO's first-ever holiday CD, culled from its festive annual holiday concerts, offers familiar and unfamiliar songs arranged by band members in a variety of jazz styles with a rich palette of instrumental colors, including Ted Nash's modernistic Coltrane-style arrangement of "We Three Kings" and Victor Goines' more up-tempo version of "White Christmas."
- Charles J. Gans
India.Arie, "Christmas With Friends" (Soulbird/Motown)
India.Arie shows a smooth maturity on her first Christmas album, which benefits greatly from the jazz expertise of the late pianist and Crusaders founder Joe Sample. Every track has one or more well-fitting guest artists, from Brandy on "Silent Night" and Take 6 baritone Khristian Dentley on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to instrumental backing from the likes of Trombone Shorty and Dave Koz.
Sample, who passed away in September, features on four tracks, including "Favorite Time of Year," an India.Arie original with family-centric lyrics by her mom and a supportive vocal by Tori Kelly.
A bluesy take on "Merry Christmas Baby" is a great showcase for India.Arie and she warmly echoes how her grandmother sang the song, ably assisted by Michael McDonald, even if he ends up going over the top.
The album closes with an intimate take on "Auld Lang Syne" with saxophonist Kirk Whalum, which rises and falls perfectly. India.Arie has put together a winner with "Christmas With Friends," choosing her relations wisely.
- Pablo Gorondi
Brian Setzer Orchestra, "Rockin' Rudolph" (Surfdog)
At this point, it takes some doing to stand out in the world of Christmas rock albums (particularly when this is your second one), but the Brian Setzer Orchestra succeeds with a remake of the "Flintstones" cartoon TV show theme, with Christmas lyrics substituted.
"Yabba-Dabba Yuletide" is as quirky, bizarre and just plain out-there as anything you'll hear in December, and it features the former Stray Cats leader's fast-picking guitar solos, backed by a kicking horn section. "Joy to the World" shows up here as "Swingin' Joy," a rollicking big band instrumental that defies you not to dance to it, followed by a guitar-heavy "Carol of the Bells."
For the Flintstones-themed song alone, this is worth getting. But there's enough alongside it to keep this album in your annual go-to holiday playlist.
- Wayne Parry
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, "It's A Holiday Soul Party" (Daptone)
Every day can be a holiday if you allow Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' jubilant new album past your threshold. Poignant, funny and able to create the perfect holiday mood in their own inimitable style, Jones and the band stay true to the soul sounds which they have helped rejuvenate over the past 15 years.
They even make "Little Drummer Boy," one of the most tiresome Christmas songs ever, into a delicious funky workout. James Brown would have endorsed "8 Days (of Hanukkah)," the Jones-penned "Ain't No Chimneys In the Project" proves that mothers know best, while instrumental closer "God Rest Ye Merry Gents" adds a classical touch by quoting from Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Another original, the stripped down, mischievous "Big Bulbs," has a sprinkling of naughty without forgetting to be nice.
With barely a dash of sleigh bells, this rhythmic soul party is recommended not just for Christmas but Groundhog Day, Mardi Gras, the 4th of July or just about any other celebration. - Pablo Gorondi
Various Artists, "The Classic Christmas '80s Album" (Sony Legacy)
This compilation brings together some of the most memorable Christmas rock songs from the 1980s, including some you can't get enough of, and some you'll probably be able to tolerate again only after hitting the egg nog hard (I'll leave it up to you to decide which is which.)
No Christmas compilation, particularly one from the '80s, would be complete without The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" and Wham's "Last Christmas," and both show up early here. Run-DMC's crossover holiday hit "Christmas In Hollis" was one of the first seasonal songs to be embraced by both rock and rap fans, and "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" remains one of the better songs Billy Squier ever recorded.
Whitney Houston ("Do You Hear What I Hear?"), Hall & Oates ("Jingle Bell Rock") and Dave Edmunds ("Run Rudolph Run") are part of every pop-rock Christmas, as is the comedic "Twelve Days of Christmas" by Bob & Doug McKenzie, with the notable refrain, "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me ... a beer."
- Wayne Parry
Various Artists, "Christmas Queens" (Killingsworth)
If you're the kind of person who thinks the holiday season is a lot of bunk and rolls your eyes at the very mention of Santa Claus, this is likely the album for you. "Christmas Queens" is an irreverent - and sometimes pretty rude - take on holiday classics, from drag queens with names like Ginger Minj, Sharon Needles and one that is not fit to print in a family publication.
Minj, calling herself a "cross-dresser for Christ," sings a song about the amalgamation of holidays like Christmas and Kwanzaa with derision; Detox sings "This Is How We Jew It" about Hanukkah; "A Very Cozby Christmas" skewers the sex assault allegations against the embattled Bill Cosby, putting a very druggy spin on "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
For some, "Christmas Queens" will likely be a riot. But save this one for your friends with that warped sense of humor - otherwise, be prepared for some holiday jeer instead of cheer.
- Nekesa Mumbi Moody
Count Basie Orchestra, "A Very Swingin' Basie Christmas!" (Concord)
The 80-year-old Count Basie Orchestra is out with its first holiday album, although the band was prominently featured on Tony Bennett's "A Swingin' Christmas," released in 2008. Director and trumpeter Scotty Barnhart has kept the signature feel-good, blues-based Basie sound, but this is no mere ghost band.
Barnhart, Basie veteran Sammy Nestico and Big Phat Band leader Gordon Goodwin have penned new arrangements for such holiday classics as "Jingle Bells," ''Silent Night," ''Sleigh Ride" and "Little Drummer Boy" on which drummer Clayton Cameron contributes some masterful brushwork. Johnny Mathis smoothly swings through "It's the Holiday Season," Ledisi mixes jazz and R&B on "The Christmas Song" and longtime Basie vocalist Carmen Bradford gracefully swings on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
New Orleans family patriarch Ellis Marsalis channels Basie's understated piano solos on "Let It Snow" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which features tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, best known for his "Pink Panther Theme" solo.
- Charles J. Gans
LeAnn Rimes, "Today Is Christmas" (Kobalt)
LeAnn Rimes mixes spirited songs that showcase the holiday cheer with more serene, thoughtful songs of the season on "Today Is Christmas." The album features fun takes on family carols like "Must Be Santa" and "Frosty the Snowman" with original songs "I Still Believe In Santa Claus" and the title track.
There's also a beautifully classic rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" and Rimes sings a cappella on "Auld Lang Syne," a decision she says she made because she wanted to bring out the song's heartbreaking sadness and loneliness.
Rimes duets with singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw on "Celebrate Me Home" and R&B singer Aloe Blacc on "That Spirit of Christmas." The latter just makes you want to dance.
- Caryn Rousseau