Holiday music: Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett and more
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
The late, great Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird,the weird turn pro.” Or they make a Christmas album -- or both. Either way, any year that brings holiday releases from human Ken dolls Justin Bieber and David Archuleta, Stone Temple Pilots drama king Scott Weiland and the chipper cast of “Glee” certainly scores high on the “Seriously?!” scale. Here are the high and lowlights from the latest volley of holiday music albums.
*** Paul Anka, “Songs of December” (Decca). Now an elder statesman of old-school pop, Anka sounds fully in control of the myriad resources afforded him for his first holiday recording in half a century. Inventive arrangements contribute strongly to his approach as a genial latter-day compadre of Der Bingle or Tony Bennett. Nothing remotely revolutionary, but plenty of comfort food for the ears.
** David Archuleta and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, “Glad Christmas Tidings” (Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Anyone on your list who thinks Jerry Bruckheimer is too subtle? Here’s the holiday CD for them. The Mormon “American Idol” alum from Utah is surrounded by the choral army on his second Christmas collection, recorded live last year in Salt Lake City. His sweetness and charm come through best on the Spanish-language traditional “Los pastores a belen.” A PBS special of this performance is airing this month.
*** Tony Bennett, “The Classic Christmas Album” (RPM/Columbia/Legacy). These 18 tracks, largely drawn from Bennett's previous holiday releases going back to 1968, are every bit as consistently classy as we'd expect from the pop master. The CD also includes one previously unreleased recording of “What Child Is This.”
** Justin Bieber, “Under the Mistletoe” (Island Def Jam). The holiday music tradition is probably resilient enough to survive the head-scratching fare Bieber serves up here: “The wise men followed a star / The way I followed my heart… Imma be under the mistletoe / Shawty with you,” he sings in the title track. “Chestnuts on an open fire” it ain’t, but his hip-hop version of “Drummer Boy” injects some adrenalin into that war horse. Best directed at those who are bedazzled by Auto-Tuned vocals, electronic keyboards and shiny objects.
** 1/2 Michael Bublé, “Christmas” (Warner Bros.). The breakout holiday sales winner of 2011, and why not? Any singer with a classic-sounding voice such as this Canadian’s, when accompanied by expansive big band and orchestral arrangements of the standard repertoire, grabs the inside track to the seasonal music market. Guest appearances by Shania Twain, Thalia and the Puppini Sisters help spruce up the mix.
** The Celts, “Christmas With the Celts” (Celtic Isle/Universal). This Nashville-based group fronted by Irish/Scottish American musician Ric Blair step-dances between evocative traditional Celtic pipes-tin whistle-bodhran renderings of folk-rooted tunes and more ethereal New Age-y arrangements that hew more toward musical wallpaper.
** Chicago, “O Christmas Three” (Chicago Records). The veteran jazz-rock outfit is back with another horn-driven ride through the yuletide canon. “I Saw Three Ships” with America is '70s soft-rock heaven or hell, depending on your point of view, but then things fast-forward to modern R&B-funk on Justin Timberlake’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” The Latin jazz accent on “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” spices things up.
** Glee Cast, “Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album, Vol. 2” (Columbia). If only “Glee’s” formula for pop culture success -- talented young singers belting (and cribbing) music beloved by their parents (and grandparents) -- could be channeled for good. Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album echoes loud and clear here, and if arrangements could be copyrighted, “Glee” producers probably would be answering to Bruce Springsteen’s lawyers over the shameless lift of his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
*** Joey + Rory, “A Farmhouse Christmas” (Sugar Hill). The husband-wife country duo skillfully use gentle humor rather than cynicism to sing about the headaches that the holidays can bring, while honest readings of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” and “Away in a Manger” show their respect and deep feelings for this time of year.
** 1/2 Karling, “Christmas With Karling” (Karlingmusic). The self-release from British roots retro singer and songwriter Karling Abbeygate brings a woman’s spin to the rockabilly and swing territory that Brian Setzer has mined. She lacks Setzer’s chops and nuance, but there’s a visceral charm to several of her originals and the covers.
** 1/2 Carole King, “A Holiday Carole” (Hear Music). The celebrated singer and songwriter wraps her perennially youthful voice around a batch of yuletide songs, half of which are standards. King’s humble voice occasionally struggles to bring distinctiveness to the most familiar numbers, but there’s a comforting “Tapestry”-era warmth to the arrangements.
*** Lyle Lovett, “Songs for the Season” (Curb/Lost Highway). The highlight of this three-song EP is Lovett’s new “The Girl With the Holiday Smile,” a bluesy, characteristically wry and witty tale about an unlikely grocery store encounter that could lead to love, lust or, well, you get the picture. It’s accompanied by two tasty duets with Kat Edmonson: “Christmastime Is Here” and the inescapable “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Short but yuletide sweet.
*** 1/2 Mark O'Connor, “An Appalachian Christmas” (OMAC). The esteemed fiddler and composer brings his inclusive merging of folk, country, jazz and classical music to this warmly elegant session. Guest singers James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Renee Fleming, Jane Monheit and Steve Wariner join on seven of the 16 tracks. A model of intelligence, heart and soul.
** 1/2 Marcus Roberts Trio, "Celebrating Christmas" (J-Master Records). Pianist Marcus Roberts works seamlessly with bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis on this jazz excursion through a winter wonderland. The improvisations frequently take extended flight, often leaving little clue as to whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Groundhog Day, for that matter, but remain consistently crisp and tasty.
*** 1/2 She & Him “A Very She & Him Christmas” (Merge). Singer Zooey Deschanel and partner M. Ward understand that sweetness doesn’t have to be sticky, and that simple usually trumps gaudy when it comes to holiday music. Their rendition of the yuletide classic “The Christmas Waltz” is humble and beautiful.
*** Ricky Skaggs, “A Skaggs Family Christmas, Volume Two” (Skaggs Family). This two-disc package includes a relatively compact 10-song CD and a much more generous 26-track DVD recorded at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Ringleader Ricky Skaggs has become one of the grand not-so-old men of country he used to emulate in his youth, and it’s clear his joy in the making of communal music is shared by the family members with him here. Brimming with country music tradition.
*** Various Artists, “The Gathering” (Sycamore Road). This old-timey outing with roots in the music of Appalachia consists of a six-part song cycle exploring a woman’s winter journey home. That work, commissioned from songwriter Lauryn Dossett by the North Carolina Symphony, is complemented by similarly rural-based songs sung and played by Dossett, Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens, Joe Newberry, Mike Compton and Jason Sypher. They bring a breath of fresh, pine-scented air to an intensely crowded field.
* 1/2 Various Artists, "Seasons Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas" (Rhino). If theater-goers enamored with the "Jersey Boys" revue of Four Seasons hits are in the market for a Christmas album, wouldn't they opt for the Four Seasons' own 1963 Christmas album instead of this compendium of yuletide chestnuts sung by various cast members? And if you're not a Four Seasons fan, why bother? Without a creative spin such as the Fab Four Beatles tribute band brought to their brilliantly witty "Hark!" collection, there's little justification for a cover band Christmas outing.
*** Various Artists, "This Warm December, Vol. 2" (Brushfire). Indie folk-rock label Brushfire gathers its artist roster again for a lot of all-around-the-campfire acoustic-minded holiday music and merrymaking. Jack Johnson is joined by G. Love, Matt Costa, ALO, Zee Avi and others for songs mostly off the beaten slopes. Zee Avi's minor-key klezmer-ish transformation of "Frosty the Snowman" is positively brilliant.
* Scott Weiland, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (Rhino). The Stone Temple Pilots frontman sounds like an alien intruder in a Norman Rockwell painting as he earnestly tries to croon holiday tunes such as “White Christmas” and the title track. A great gift for anyone who enjoys sleuthing, as it will surely invoke the question: What’s wrong with this picture?
* 1/2 Yeshiva Boys Choir, “The Yeshiva Boys Chanukah Choir CD” (IndieExtreme/Gerstner Music). Hanukkah often struggles for attention -- in North America anyway -- behind the shadow of the juggernaut that is Christmas. But this kind of overblown, '80s-drenched Yiddish pop will likely appeal only to those for whom the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas prog-rock blowouts are too culturally biased.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).
(For the Record 6 p.m. Dec. 12: A previous version of this post described "The Christmas Waltz," recorded by She & Him, as a "new contribution." It's from 1954.)
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of She & Him's M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel. Credit: Autumn de Wilde.