Seasonal music smorgasbord

We review a baker's dozen of holiday CDs

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March 29, 2014 | 12:34 am

Whether you're whipping up cookies, trimming the tree or cooking up memories, we've rounded up a baker's dozen of CDs sure to put the icing on your Christmas confections. Gazette and KCRG staff members have already bellied up to the buffet table, offering these reviews of collections sacred, secular and downright silly. Bon appetit!

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4 star Creme de la Creme

STRAIGHT NO CHASER

“Under The Influence”

Rating: ???? 1/2

An awful lot of holiday music takes itself very seriously -- solemn, respectful and invoking all the traditional themes. Thankfully, we have groups like Straight No Chaser to slap us around and get us to lighten up just a bit.

The a cappella crew, formed at Indiana University in 1996 and thrust into the spotlight with their 1998 YouTube rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” has a well-deserved reputation for mixing vocal excellence with comic relief. Witness their collaborations with Paul McCartney (“Wonderful Christmas Time”), CeeLo Green (“White Christmas”), Colbie Caillat (“Every Day Is Christmas”) and even the late Otis Redding (“Merry Christmas Baby”). Each gives the original artist their full due while accentuating the tongue-in-cheek, doo-wop style that’s brought Straight No Chaser to the mainstream forefront.

And for the more traditional, there’s a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that’s as worshipful and dignified as you can imagine.

But the highlight for me was “Nutcracker,” a hilarious world apart from the children’s ballet of your youth. With original lyrics from the Straight No Chaser boys, we learn what this show is like for those among us who prefer football cleats to dance slippers. “It is time to find another show to substitute for The Nutcracker … I try to block it from my mind, think fast, what reason can I find, got work to do, I’ll fake the flu, no chance, I’m done, I’m screwed. NO! I’ve seen The Nutcracker 20 times. Sure, it is fun if you are 4 … The story’s dated and that Mouse King thing freaks me out.”

Amen, brothers. This eight-song disc is a kissing cousin to the full 17-track album “Under The Influence.” That’ll be next on my holiday shopping list.

-- Richard Pratt

Best Song: "Nutcracker" (click below to hear an excerpt)

SUSAN BOYLE

“Home for Christmas”

Rating: ????

If you like Bing Crosby, Jerry Mathis, Rosemary Clooney and Elvis Presley’s Christmas albums, you’ll love Susan Boyle’s “Home for Christmas.” The Scottish singer who became the world’s darling after appearing on the TV program “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2009, has a voice that was, simply put, made to sing Christmas music. She took second place in that talent contest, but her Christmas album is first rate.

Through the power of technology, she joins Elvis on “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and Jerry Mathis in a beautiful rendition of “When a Child is Born.” But it was her version of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” that brought images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together to mind.

If you’re looking for a beautiful, traditional Christmas album, look no further. Susan Boyle is sure to conjure up a bygone era of Christmas time and some Christmas greats.

-- Janet Rorholm

Best song: “I’ll be Home for Christmas” (click below to hear an excerpt)

JOHNNY MATHIS

“Sending You a Little Christmas” (Columbia)

Rating: ????

A much appreciated ghost of Christmas past, Johnny Mathis takes you back to the warm memories of the Christmas season with a mix of classic duets and new Christmas favorites.

When you start off with a “The Christmas Song” as a duet with Billy Joel, it can’t go too wrong from there. Mathis teams up with Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Susan Boyle, Vince Gill and Amy Grant to create updated versions of the tunes you remember when you think of your childhood Christmases.

Mathis’ voice is still as smooth singing these Christmas ballads, as it was on his 1958 “Merry Christmas” album. In an age of auto-tune, this is pure, unadulterated singing talent.

This Christmas collection is one that you’ll want on repeat throughout your holiday season.

-- Erin Rooney

Best Song: The Christmas Song (with Billy Joel) (click below to hear an excerpt)

FRANK SINATRA

Frank Sinatra Christmas (Capitol Records)

Rating: ????

Once upon a time, pop music wasn’t solely about the topics of mad love and/or sex. Songs were about other emotions and deeper ideas — they could be, in a word, idiosyncratic.

Frank Sinatra was the master of conveying the sense that there was more to the lyrics, that the singer had an inner life, too, filled with a joy or pain too strong to even express. This holiday CD carries some great examples of how his smooth phrasing could suggest there was more beneath the surface.

His rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” for example, reminds us that it’s not a happy time for all: “I’ll be home for Christmas,” he adds with more than a touch of melancholy, “if only in my dreams.”

In “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” he tells us that “next year all our troubles will be miles away.” Yet his contemplative interpretation hints that his wishes could be more hope than conviction.

After all, until then, “we’ll have muddle through somehow.”

This is smart Christmas music for adults.

— Michael Chevy Castranova

Best song: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (click below to hear an excerpt)

ROD STEWART

“Merry Christmas, Baby” (Verve)

Rating: ????

Sources can’t decide if Rod Stewart has sold more than 100 million or 200 million albums over his storied 50-year career. Suffice it to say, this Brit is rock royalty around the world -- and now he’ll rock your world royally with a collection of Christmas tunes sacred and secular infused with swing and swagger.

His signature rasp wraps gloriously around such favorites as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night.” Unexpected gems include “When You Wish Upon a Star” and a kicky new tune Stewart penned, “Red-Suited Super Man,” featuring Trombone Shorty.

Stewart gets a little help from his friends, beginning with Michael Buble on “Winter Wonderland” and CeeLo Green on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” continuing through Mary J. Blige with an exotic, explosive “We Three Kings” and Ella Fitzgerald and shimmering trumpeter Chris Botti on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

All 16 tracks are trimmed with lots of shiny orchestral ornaments. The star on the very tiptop, however, features a flurry of hot sax from Dave Koz swirling through “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”

Christmas has never been more smooth and hip. Check out the bonus DVD to sees the stars in action.

— Diana Nollen

Best song: “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” (click below to hear an excerpt)

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“Holidays Unwrapped” (Disney)

Rating: ????

When we picked up our granddaughters from school, I said, “I need to review a Christmas CD for work. Are you two willing to help me with my homework?” I passed “Disney Holidays Unwrapped” back to them. Amid the squeals and seatbelt-limited bouncing, we made it home. Here’s their review:

We basically loved this CD before we even opened it. It’s DISNEY! “Christmas Wrapping” (Bella Thorne) is a very “rock-y’’ song that made us laugh because Grandma danced to it. Our favorite is “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” (Dove Cameron) because it’s a Christmas song with a beat and a great drum solo. “I Love Christmas” (Ross Lynch and Laura Marano) is great because it has a saxophone. What’s good music without a saxophone? “Lights All Over the World” (Coco Jones) is also a good one for dancing, but we thought “Snowflakes” (Olivia Holt) could be more upbeat. The one we liked least was “Christmas is Coming” (R5). It’s kind of slow, but we still like it. In all, it is a great CD — fun to dance and listen to.” (Other artists are Zendaya, Debby Ryan, Sabrina Carpenter and Caroline Sunshine)

— Merideth, 8, and Alexandra, 11 (Diane Langton’s granddaughters)

Best song: “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” (click below to hear an excerpt)

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3 star delights

THE PIANO GUYS

“A Family Christmas” (Portrait)

Rating: ??? 1/2

The Piano Guys successfully translate its YouTube performances into a moving holiday compilation that re-imagines what Christmas music could sound like, with “A Family Christmas.”

If you’ve seen the Piano Guys online, its musical performances include grand, sweeping videos that produce an audiovisual experience that draws millions of online viewers. After watching several of its videos, I worried that something would be missing with just the audio. Instead, I found a collection of instrumental songs that weave familiar holiday melodies around a wide range of arrangements, from the classical “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to a Latin-themed “We Three Kings.”

Its rendition of “Where are You Christmas” was my favorite track and is one of the songs that more closely resembles a holiday song you can sing along with. This version is almost entirely instrumental until the final verse, when the pianist’s daughter finishes the song, painting a picture of a young child waiting for Christmas to arrive.

“A Family Christmas” is far from a singalong CD, but it is a Christmas CD that sets the mood for the holidays and sounds so beautiful you’ll find yourself listening to it the other 11 months of the year.

— Mike Wagner

Best Song: “We Three Kings” (click below to hear an excerpt)

MARY J. BLIGE

“A Mary Christmas” (Verve)

Rating: ???

Last December, Mary J. Blige must have asked Santa for the ability to pull back, because one word comes to mind when “A Mary Christmas,” the songstress’ newly released holiday compilation, plays: restraint.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s refreshing to hear the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul showcase the less aggressive side of her vocal talent. But that excitement wears off quickly.

The bulk of the album’s 14 tracks — all holiday classics — find Blige adding heaping helpings of adult contemporary flavor to her R&B presentation. Blige’s voice is never less than stunning and it’s the only thing that rescues “A Mary Christmas” from being just another holiday vanity project.

It’s no coincidence that the collection’s best moments — a duet with Jessie J on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and a solo rendition of “Winter Wonderland” — occur when Blige lets go, allowing her voice the chance to rise just enough in volume and richness.

The album’s brightest highlight is a snappy take on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Blige, in semi-Ella Fitzgerald mode, does some scatting that perfectly complements the jazzy orchestration.

Body copy ragged right: Blige closes out that recording with an exclamatory “That was fun!” I couldn’t help but wish the whole album was that vibrant, but “A Mary Christmas” is still a solid soundtrack for opening gifts or icing cookies.

— Meryn Fluker

Best Song: “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (click below to hear an excerpt)

KELLY CLARKSON

“Wrapped in Red”

Rating: ???

From the first moment the music begins, a smile spread across my face.

The title track is a fun one and sets the tone for the rest of the festive album. Kelly Clarkson is at her best when she is singing the fun tracks. My favorites are the upbeat songs on the album.

Clarkson’s signature voice is pleasant to listen to and what makes the album a good one. It has Christmas favorites like “White Christmas” and “Silent Night,” as well as her own original songs. I listened on repeat to the especially catchy “4 Carats.”

My only qualm is the inclusion of “My Favorite Things,” which I don’t see being directly related to the holidays.

Overall, the album gives fans of Clarkson’s signature pop voice lots of cheer to ring in the holidays while putting up the Christmas tree.

— Kiran Sood

Best song: “Run Run Rudolph” (click below to hear an excerpt)

MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER

“Christmas Symphony II” (American Gramaphone)

Rating: ???

To me, it’s not Christmas until I’ve listened through a Mannheim Steamroller album at least once. So if that means I don’t have the opportunity to listen to one until Christmas Eve in the car on the way to visit the family, then my holiday season doesn’t “officially” begin until Christmas Eve.

“Symphony II” offers a great mix of what Mannheim Steamroller is known for: high-energy instrumental renditions of classic Christmas tunes interspersed with slower, quieter versions of others.

I love Mannheim Steamroller for the energy. I could listen to fast, complicated and bouncy arrangements such as “Joy to the World” and “Do You Hear What I Hear” all day long. Slower arrangements such as “Away in a Manger” and “Christmas Lullaby” have less appeal to me.

It’s important to note this is not new material. Just like the group’s first “Symphony” album, this is a collection of previous arrangements, rerecorded with an orchestra instead of Mannheim’s usual synthesizers.

If you’re a fan who already owns a lot of Mannheim Christmas music, you won’t find much new here. But if you’re a new fan, or an old fan who wants better recordings of your favorites, it’s worth a listen.

— Jim Riley

Best song: “Joy to the World” (click below to hear an excerpt)

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2 star Casseroles

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“Mad Men Christmas: Music from and inspired by the hit TV series on AMC” (Lions Gate Records Inc.)

Rating: ??

All the old standards are here, rewrapped and regifted to a new generation.

“Mad Men Christmas” features “A Beautiful Mine” (the “Mad Men” theme by RJD2), a remix of Jessica Pare’s unforgettable rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” from the season 5 premiere, and 10 classic holiday tunes.

Now, I love RJD2 as much as the next gal, but the moody “Beautiful Mine” doesn’t exactly scream “holiday cheer.” The “Scotch + Sofa” remix of “Zou Bisou” was a step in the right direction — Pare’s breathy vocals are paired with a new, bubbly melody that seems like something the Jetsons might put on for a party. Again, not particularly Christmas-y, but it was enough to transition between the darkly postmodern and the golden oldies.

From there, all the standards are represented: Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song,” Rosemary Clooney’s “White Christmas,” Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” and more. It’s a solid collection of the classics, but I was left wondering: Who would purchase a new album of songs they already know by heart?

The major exception was Nellie McKay’s rendition of “Christmas Waltz.” With soft, sweet vocals and a few simple strums of a ukulele, it sounds like a holiday lullaby. I was instantly transported to the “Mad Men” world — remember that delicious scene where Don and Joan commiserate over cocktails? This felt like a long-forgotten gem from the 1960s, the audio equivalent of flipping through old photos on a Kodak Carousel. Never mind that McKay was born in 1982.

— Sarah Binder

Best song: “Christmas Waltz” (click below to hear an excerpt)

VARIOUS ARTISTS

“Merry & Bright: A Country Holiday Collection”

Rating: ??

I enjoy a good country song, but this smattering of country artists crooning classics leaves something to be desired. I’m not sure whether I was more disappointed with the selection of artists or the fact that most of them played it safe and stuck with the original lyrics.

The album started out with a folksy, banjo-stroking version of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town” by Charlie Worsham that’s very fun and kid-friendly and the tracks get more slow and sentimental as the album progresses. It closes with Craig Campbell’s soothing version of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” that makes you want to cozy up by a fireplace, and a version of “Mary, Did you Know” by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd that’s very reminiscent of an 1980s ballad.

As someone who’s always appreciated the sweet twang of Jana Kramer’s voice, her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the standout on the album that I found myself coming back to. I also enjoyed the electric guitar and rock ’n’ roll in Big & Rich’s “Blue Christmas”— but let’s be honest, who doesn’t love Big & Rich?

— Hayley Bruce

Best Song: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (click below to hear an excerpt)

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1 star Crumbs

“Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas” (Capitol Nashville)

Rating: ?

Once the initial shock of excitement that those kooky “Duck Dynasty” folks have put out a Christmas album has worn off, you are left with the reality that you actually have to listen to it.

The pun-riddled, 14-track record — aptly named “Duck the Halls” — is a confusing hodgepodge of hokey originals, altered-classics and a few genuine ballads.

That head-scratching mixture of messages carries even further with the lyrics of the album’s lead track, “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas.” The song goes from listing toys that are in need of purchasing, to espousing the Robertson family’s knowledge that material gifts are not what Christmas is really about, but that all they need is their love of “The Lord.”

Confusing messages and track list aside, the quality of the singing is hard to quantify.

The album is well produced. Every singer — be it a member of the Robertson family, or one of the many guest singers who are featured — is on key and in tune. However, the vocals are lifeless. Most tracks have a robotic nature that adds to the feeling that this album is nothing more than a quick cash grab for the merchandising mecca that is “Duck Dynasty.”

A few tracks, such as the surprisingly emotional “Camouflage and Christmas Lights” or even Uncle Si’s bizarre rendition of “The Night Before Christmas,” are worth listening to. But in this digital age of instant streaming, do that. Don’t spend your hard-earned bills on “Duck the Halls.” (Sorry, I had to.)

— Max Freund

Best Song: “Camouflage and Christmas Lights” (click below to hear an excerpt)           

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