Merry Music

By Alan Sculley

It’s been a rather prolific year for holiday albums. The 17 titles covered in this column even omits a few 2019 releases. And there aren’t any real duds, either. So, here’s a look at this year’s selections.

Idina Menzel: “Christmas: A Season Of Love:” If one 2019 Christmas album is likely to become a big seller year after year, it’s probably “Christmas: A Season Of Love.” Menzel, whose roles in the “Frozen” movies made her one of the world’s most popular vocalists, applies her considerable vocal talents to 18 songs, most of which are time-tested favorites. They’re given big, brassy treatments (that on occasion go just a bit overboard), but Menzel brings plenty of enthusiasm to this entertaining disc.   

Keb’ Mo’: “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You:” Keb’ Mo’ has never been strictly a bluesman, so it’s no surprise this isn’t a one-trick holiday album. The title cut and “Better Every Day” have a good bit of soul, while “Christmas Is Annoying” (about how perspectives on Christmas change when one grows up) has a jazzy feel and “One More Year with You” adds some pop to the equation. The variety is welcome, and one thing this warm, enjoyable album won’t give you is the blues this Christmas season.

Ne-Yo: “Another Kind of Christmas:” This refreshing effort favors original songs and has its share of creativity. The funky “Just Ain’t Christmas” is a break-up song that gets a twist because it happens on Christmas Eve. “Open Mine Tonight” has some clever wordplay in its tale of Christmas Eve romance after the kids are asleep. On the other hand, “Christmas Vibez” goes for a tropical feel, but comes up a bit light in the song’s reggae styling. But that’s one of the few flaws on this fine holiday effort.

Los Lobos: “Llego Navidad:” The great band from East Los Angeles, no surprise, brings a good bit of Mexican influence to its first Christmas album. But other places (Colombia, Puerto Rico and Texas) also figure into this entertaining album. With most songs being sung in Spanish, “Llego Navidad” (at least for those who don’t know Spanish) doesn’t feel like a holiday album, enabling it to play just as well when its sunny and 90 as when snow blankets the ground.

Chicago: “Chicago Christmas:” On its third Christmas album, Chicago goes primarily with songs penned by the band members. The band, which shows a bit more of an R&B slant in its horn-laced sound, deserves credit for taking this risk. Some of the songs work well (“All Over the World,” “I’m Your Santa Claus” and “Bring My Baby Back”), but a few others fall flat. Even with a few duds, I find an album of originals more interesting than one of oft-covered standards.   

Dave Koz: “Gifts of the Season:” “Gifts of the Season” offers more of what Koz’s previous six Christmas albums have delivered—a set of Christmas standards given a smooth jazz makeover. Koz’s accomplished and tasteful saxophone work often takes the lead, but guest vocalists, including Melissa Manchester, Jonathan Butler and Chris Walker, also provide highlights on this solid effort.

Rob Halford with Family & Friends: “Celestial:” Halford may be the turbo-lunged singer of Judas Priest, but “Celestial,” his second holiday album, isn’t strictly a head-banging affair. “Away in a Manger” has considerable ambiance “Morning Star” is a folky and gentle original tune and another original, “Protected by the Light,” is an Irish-accented hymn complete with accordion. Of course, Halford & company also crank it up, particularly on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World” and “Deck The Halls.” Suffice it to say, the “fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-las” of the latter standard have never sounded quite this way.

Josh Rouse: “The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse:” For years, Rouse has been writing a Christmas song annually for his family. Eventually, he realized they would make up an interesting Christmas album. So here we have nine originals that feature Rouse’s familiar folky sound blended with dashes of pop, rock and jazz find and offer (mostly) light-hearted stories related to the season. Glad Rouse decided not to keep these songs in the family.

The Oak Ridge Boys: “Down Home Christmas:” Working with in-demand producer Dave Cobb, this latest Oak Ridge Boys holiday album favors heartfelt and humorous contemporary songs co-written by the likes of Anderson East, Jamey Johnson and Mando Saenz. Cobb keeps the instrumentation lean and puts the four Oaks and their signature vocal harmonies out front, a wise approach that works well on “Down Home Christmas.”

The Imaginaries: “Hometown Christmas:” This husband-and-wife duo of Shane Henry and Maggie McClure have made minor waves as solo artists. Now paired up as the Imaginaries, they’ve made one of 20019’s best Christmas albums. “Hometown Christmas” is split evenly between familiar holiday tunes and equally strong original songs. With a cheery and rootsy brand of pop (think Sheryl Crow, Sara Bareilles), their songwriting chops shine on such appealing songs as “First Thing on My Christmas List,” “Christmastime Again” and “Kiss for Christmas.”

Meg & Dia: “December, Darling:” The sibling duo takes an intimate and low-key approach here, keeping instrumentation spare and its vocals out front. The effect is quite charming, if a bit simplistic. The renditions of favorites like “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow” and “White Christmas” are fine. But it’s the four originals that stand out, as the two sisters bring memorable pop hooks to these tunes, which include “Lights Blown Out” (a tender, lyrically creative ballad about holiday loneliness) and the title song (about the sights, sounds and feelings that make the season special).