10 new Christmas albums to brighten your holiday: Amy Grant, R. Kelly, Jennifer Nettles and more

amy-grant-tennessee-christmasBY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

Every year, we wonder the same thing — whose version of “Jingle Bells” could possibly still make us care about the song? Answer: Lauren Daigle.

It’s challenging to balance tradition with individuality in holiday collections, but many artists, from Kacey Musgraves to Jennifer Nettles to R. Kelly, have managed to surprise with interesting arrangements, instant seal-of-approval guests and solid original songs.

As we sleigh ride through another holiday season, here are some potential additions to the playlist.

Amy Grant, “Tennessee Christmas”: In 1983, a 23-year-old Grant released her first Christmas album, and the memorable centerpiece was the sweeping melody and inherent melancholy of the song “Tennessee Christmas.” Now, nearly 20 years after her last all-new holiday release, the timeless contemporary Christian music legend has re-recorded the song in her still-sweet but huskier voice for this collection of 13 tracks. A mix of classics (a shuffling “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with husband Vince Gill, “White Christmas”) and instantly endearing new songs (“To Be Together,” “December”), the album stays true to Grant’s innate ability to fuse pensiveness and tenderness, especially on “Melancholy Christmas.” Her mandate when recording, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently, was to craft a record “that feels like it’s being written and played for an audience of one.” That intimacy is apparent throughout. A+

Frankie Valli, “‘Tis the Seasons”: While this is Valli’s first solo holiday album, the winking title suggests that the pulse still beats for the Four Seasons (also, groupmate Bob Gaudio produced the 13-song record, so clearly friendship reigns). At 82, Valli’s eyebrow-raising upper register has, naturally, dipped a bit, but his vocals on a sauntering “Winter Wonderland” and “The Christmas Song” are deliberate and emotive. Jeff Beck lends his distinctive guitar playing to “Merry Christmas, Baby,” but Valli’s voice isn’t suited to this faux-bluesy crawl. Crank up his sprightly “Jingle Bell Rock” and the busily arranged “Joy to the World/Do You Hear What I Hear?” instead. B+

jennifer-nettles-christmasJennifer Nettles, “To Celebrate Christmas”: The Sugarland singer turned solo star arrives with a statement on her debut Christmas album — a stinging guitar line and her wallop of a voice stomping through “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” These 10 tracks swing from the horn-infused celebration of “Mountain” to an evocative rendition of “The First Noel.” In between are a couple of noteworthy duets — a springy “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with burgeoning soul maven Andra Day and a beautifully escalating “Little Drummer Boy” with her partner in unlimited lung capacity, Idina Menzel. To experience the full muscle of Nettles’ range, listen to what she does with Kenny Loggins’ wistful “Celebrate Me Home.” Yowza. A

kacey-musgraves-christmas-album-coverKacey Musgraves, “A Very Kacey Christmas”: The 28-year-old Texan instantly appealed when she emerged in 2013 with her combination of a classic country vibe and a progressive approach to songwriting. Her third major label release — and maiden Christmas offering — follows that zig-zagging arrow. The Quebe Sisters add old-school radio show harmonies to “Let it Snow” and pedal steel guitar coats “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But, then, Musgraves covers the very Kacey-like “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and it’s impossible not to smile. Her requisite duets are also unconventional fun — the easy-swaying “Present Without a Bow” with soul singer Leon Bridges and the ukulele-infused “A Willie Nice Christmas” with, you guessed it, Willie Nelson. A-

r-kelly-12-nights-christmasR. Kelly, “12 Nights of Christmas”: The self-proclaimed King of R&B has worked on these dozen original songs for a decade, recording a couple every year until now, when he felt the time was finally right for release. He told the AJC in an interview last week that, along with the hopeful piano anthem “My Wish for Christmas” and the glistening “Letters,” he did “go as R. Kelly as I could” on other songs. Those would be the slow jams “Mrs. Santa Claus” and the Bill Withers-like “Christmas Lovin’,” which indicate Kelly is always ready for a snuggle, regardless of the season. But, even with his perpetual horndog instincts, Kelly’s talents as a singer and songwriter are undeniable, and many of these songs sound like instant classics. A

Also new this year:

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, “Christmas Together”: It’s apparent that the affable country couple is having a blast on big band swinger “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Marshmallow World,” while Yearwood nails a sensually coy version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Pentatonix, “A Pentatonix Christmas”: Considering the massive success of 2014’s “That’s Christmas to Me,” a sequel was inevitable. “A Pentatonix Christmas” finds the a capella group joining with elder statesmen the Manhattan Transfer for “White Christmas” and, less appealingly, tackling Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter.”

Chris Young, “It Must Be Christmas”: A few originals dot this 10-song collection, which gives the country singer the chance to ably share the mic with Alan Jackson (“There’s a New Kid in Town”), Boyz II Men (“Silent Night”) and Brad Paisley (“The First Noel”).

lauren-daigleLauren Daigle, “Behold: A Christmas Collection”: The Louisiana native, who now lives in Atlanta (and nabbed her first Grammy nomination), showcases her gorgeously smoky voice on “Christmas Time Is Here” and a sparse “Silent Night.” She’s also managed to make “Jingle Bells” not only palatable, but enjoyable.

Rascal Flatts, “The Greatest Gift of All”: Hard to believe this stalwart country trio hasn’t released a holiday album before this year. The band offers a few interesting nuggets, such as adding their kids’ voices to “Silent Night” and covering 4Him’s “A Strange Way to Save the World.”

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