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Wednesday, January 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Entertainment

Singers offer up all sorts of baubles for holiday listening

By Alan Sculley Correspondent

Country music fans must have been good this year because this year has been quite the year for holiday albums from that music genre. Several big-name country artists headline a selection of holiday releases with plenty of star power. Here’s a look at this year’s notable Christmas albums.

Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood: “Christmas Together” (Pearl/GwendolynRecords) – Two originals – the swinging, brassy “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and the humorous “Ugly Christmas Sweater” – set the tone for “Christmas Together.” Mostly light, playful and cheerily romantic, this album was meant to feel as pleasant and comfortable as a cup of hot chocolate. And that’s what “Christmas Together” achieves.

Rascal Flatts: “The Greatest Gift Of All” (Big Machine) – The popular trio starts off this album on a promising note, with a big and brassy version (think early Chicago) of “Joy To The World” that’s inventive and quite different from usual Rascal Flatts music. The rest of the album yields more pleasant surprises, including a gently swinging version of “Deck The Halls,” a funky horn-centered take of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and a poppy version of “Let It Snow.” Pretty great stuff, indeed.

Loretta Lynn: “White Christmas Blue” (Legacy) – The country legend keeps it pure country on her latest holiday album, with plenty of fiddle, steel and other acoustic treatments of classics like “Frosty The Snowman,” “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland.” A trio of solid originals – “Country Christmas,” “White Christmas Blue” and “To Heck with Ole Santa Claus” – gives the album something unique to go with Lynn’s distinctive unfussy singing.

Jennifer Nettles: “Celebrate Christmas” (Big Machine) – The Sugarland singer opens things with a fun rocking version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and then brings some gentle country swing and notes of jazz to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But the rest of “Celebrate Christmas” is more safe, soft and comfortable. That’s all fine and good, but if Nettles had carried the creativity of the first two songs through the rest of this album, she might have really had something special.

Reba McEntire: “My Kind of Christmas” (Cracker Barrel/Nash Icon/Starstruck) – For her third Christmas album, McEntire takes an instrumental left turn, performing winter warmers like “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and more playful tunes (“Jingle Bells” and “Jingle Bell Rock”) accompanied only by pianist Catherine Marx. It’s a refreshing approach, but “My Kind of Christmas” grows a little too instrumentally one dimensional over a full album.

Chris Young – “It Must Be Christmas” (RCA) – Young shows the singing talent that has him on track join the top tier of artists in the genre. His rich vocal tone on songs like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” shows considerable range and makes for pleasant listening. Young isn’t terribly daring with his song choices, but he builds in a few instrumental twists that freshen things up some. And the original “New Kid in Town” (a stately ballad that’s not the Eagles song) is a nice addition.

Kacey Musgraves: “A Very Kacey Christmas” (Mercury) – The title here promises a Christmas album with a distinctly Musgraves twist. By and large, she delivers, putting plenty of cheery spunk, twang, and in the case of some tunes (“Let It Snow”), some swing into things. It makes for a very smart and sweet holiday album.

Beyond country

Neil Diamond: “Acoustic Christmas” (Capitol) – Diamond bring his dramatic and distinctive singing style to a mix of often performed Christmas classics, originals and somewhat lesser known songs (a frisky, folky version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and Irish-tinged “Christmas in Killarney”). As the title suggests, the treatments are acoustic, but they’re not stripped back, and that musical backdrop works well here.

Pentatonix: “A Pentatonix Christmas” (RCA)/Straight No Chaser: “I’ll Have Another…Christmas Album” (Atlantic) – A cappella is well represented this holiday season as these two leading acts in the genre bring plenty of creativity to their albums. The platinum-selling quintet Pentatonix gets refreshingly playful with the normally staid “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and puts multiple vocals to good work on “Hallelujah.” And two originals, “The Christmas Sing-Along” and “Good To Be Bad,” stand up to the classics. Straight No Chaser, meanwhile, finds a good middle ground between the fairly serious tone of the group’s first Christmas album, “Holiday Spirits” and the more humorous tone of its second holiday effort, “Christmas Cheers.” Creative vocal arrangements abound and make “I’ll Have Another…Christmas Album” another successful holiday effort from this group.

Sarah McLachlan: “Wonderland” (Verve) – McLachlan may be famous for her fluttering, breathy singing, but some surprising musical arrangements make “Wonderland” the year’s most adventurous holiday album. Some of treatments work well. The delicate guitar and horn on “White Christmas” is quite tasteful and the orchestration on “Silver Bells” adds drama to this standard. Other times, the results are more iffy. The synthetic percussion on “Away in a Manger” and “Angels We Have Heard On High” is a bit distracting. McLachlan doesn’t necessarily improve on the originals, but it’s nice to hear an artist take some real risks with the songs of the season.

She & Him: “Christmas Party” (Columbia/Sony) – Zoey Deschanel and M. Ward are back in the holiday spirit with their second Christmas album in five years. As usual, the duo brings its vintage pop flair to much of the proceedings, evoking a bit of girl group pop on “All I Want For Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Happy Holiday.” But there’s also a Klezmer/Cajun/Tex-Mex accented treatment of “Must Be Santa,” a slightly jazzy “The Man with the Bag” and a laid back version of “Run Run Rudolph.” “Christmas Party” is pleasing, but not as rowdy as the title suggests – unless perhaps one is planning a romantic party of two.

Frankie Valli: “ ’Tis the Seasons” (Rhino) – The Jersey boy gets top billing, of course, on his first Christmas album as a solo artist. But the real stars here are the big backing vocal arrangements (especially on “Winter Wonderland,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful/Angels We Have Heard On High”) and the instrumental arrangements that bring originality to “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Frosty The Snowman” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Jimmy Buffett: “ ’Tis the SeaSon” (Mailboat) – As one would expect, Buffett brings an island vibe to this set of contemporary seasonal tunes. “Wonderful Christmastime” gets a bit of a reggae touch, while “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” gets a retro feel from the backing vocals and trumpet solo. On “Drivin’ the Pig (Manejando el Cerdo)” – one of three originals if you count the Parrotheaded version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – Buffett goes Caribbean with pleasing results. This light-hearted album should warm up your holidays.

Leslie Odom Jr.: “Simply Christmas” (S-Curve) – The Tony winner and star of “Hamilton” joins the holiday album fray with lightly jazzy, restrained versions of holiday standbys like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and in the album’s most inspired song choice, “My Favorite Things” (yes, the song from “The Sound of Music”).

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