Although there still isn’t a worthy successor to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” there are some memorable aural moments from some unlikely sources – such as Sia and Cheap Trick.
Here are some new possibilities to add to your Christmas playlists.
Hanson, “Finally, It’s Christmas.” Fans have been waiting 20 years for a new Hanson Christmas album, and “Finally, It’s Christmas,” with its four original tracks and eight updated classics, delivers. It’s been a challenge for Zac, Isaac and Taylor Hanson to shed the “kiddie hit” tag of two decades ago (“MMMBop,” lest you forgot), but it’s about time they received recognition for their musical chops, evident on the rootsy title track and a version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” that resonates with guttural pleading and angelic harmonies. These guys have such a deep appreciation for music, it’s no surprise they’ve tackled Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” and Aretha Franklin’s arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” – both, unsurprisingly, well. A-
Gwen Stefani, “You Make it Feel Like Christmas.” The unlikely romance between the platinum-hued chirper and Blake Shelton is still defying everyone’s odds. People magazine’s newest “Sexiest Man Alive” was the inspiration for – and sings on — the personal title track of Stefani’s first-ever holiday album. The 12-song collection offers a mix of covers – she admirably makes Wham’s “Last Christmas” her own with doo-wop overtones and an orchestral sway — and six originals, including the soothing symphonic ballad, “Christmas Eve.” “We’re gonna be a classic for all time,” Stefani sings to Shelton on the song, “You Make it Feel Like Christmas.” And you know what? By the end of the album, you hope she’s correct. B+
98 Degrees, “Let It Snow.” The quartet of Nick Lachey, Jeff Timmons, Drew Lachey and Justin Jeffre released this collection in October, filling an 18-year gap since their first holiday offering, “This Christmas.” If you were a fan of the innocuous pop harmonizing of their heyday, you’ll be ecstatic to learn that nothing has changed. Among the dozen tracks is a standard finger-snapping take on “What Christmas Means to Me,” a rockabilly infused “Run Rudolph Run” and a title track that gets buried under too many layers of harmonies. The guys are at their most winning on the original track, “Season of Love,” which features whizzing synthesizers, subtle brass and a pumping beat straight out of 1998. B-
Fantasia, “Christmas After Midnight.” The debut Christmas offering from the robust soul singer is an immediate match. She envelops Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” with her velvety pipes and, backed by mournful saxophone and smoky-nightclub piano, conjures memories of Judy Garland with her distinctive phrasing during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Fans of funky Fantasia will appreciate her hip-shaking version of James Brown’s “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” and her duet with Atlanta’s CeeLo Green – who sounds as if he’s contributing to a different song — on the obligatory “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” B+
Cheap Trick, “Christmas, Christmas.” The vintage Illinois rockers have been on a tear, releasing three albums in the past 18 months. They aren’t the first band that pops to mind when you think of holiday fare, but singer Robin Zander belts with full verve on the opening original, “Merry Christmas Darlings,” and the glam rock thumper “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” their take on the 1973 classic from England’s Wizzard.
Covers of Chuck Berry (“Run Rudolph Run”) and The Kinks (“Father Christmas”) rock with glee, but Zander’s distinctive voice is most memorable on a cover of another bunch of ‘70s glam rockers, Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.” A
Lindsey Stirling, “Warmer in the Winter.” It’s the fourth studio – and first Christmas – album for the engaging violinist, who has carved out a solid mainstream career since her breakthrough on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010. It’s too bad such a unique artist didn’t have a more focused vision here. The transition from her lovely instrumental on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the title track, which sounds like a cross between a Tony Bennett throwaway and a New Orleans street jam (Trombone Shorty guests), is uncomfortably jarring. Her version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” is also a weird hybrid of electronica, strings and singer-actress Sabrina Carpenter, who offers about as much sinister gusto as a marshmallow. And even the most talented musician should never, ever remove the vocals from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and turn it into upgraded Muzak. C+
Sia, “Everyday is Christmas.” The enigmatic songwriter-turned-singer earns kudos for the most original album of the season, and not only because it contains 10 originals written by Sia and longtime collaborator Greg Kurstin.
cq It takes a certain level of fearlessness to launch your first-ever holiday release with a rhythmic jazz-popper called “Santa’s Coming for Us.” She indulges in the requisite sleigh bells and massive Christmassy orchestrations on the perky “Candy Cane Lane”; just be warned that her quirky vocal affections quickly wear thin. As a songwriter, Sia uncorks a beauty on the bluesy, melancholy “Snowman” and uses the rapid-fire backbeat of “Puppies are Forever” as an undercover PSA about the responsibility of dog ownership. Really, it works. A
Blake Shelton, “Cheers, It’s Christmas.” The re-release of his 2012 album adds a handful of tracks, including “Home” with Michael Bublé and “There’s a New Kid in Town” with Kelly Clarkson.
Alabama, “American Christmas.” For its first Christmas album in 21 years, the band (which is playing three nights at the Fox Theatre in April) has updated its “Christmas in Dixie.”
Josh Groban, “Noel – Deluxe Edition.” The 10th anniversary version of an album that has sold nearly 6 million copies includes six previously unreleased songs, including four new recordings.
Pentatonix, “A Pentatonix Christmas Deluxe.” The a cappella group’s “A Pentatonix Christmas” has sold nearly a million copies since its release last year, so this seemed like a good time to re-release the album and tack on five new songs.
Reba McEntire, “My Kind of Christmas.” A year after releasing a holiday album of the same name, the queen of country is reissuing with a few new songs featuring guests Amy Grant and Vince Gill, Darius Rucker and Lauren Daigle.