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Monday, January 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Musical menagerie: Menzel, Ne-Yo, Chicago, Koz, Halford offer holiday standards and strong originals

By Alan Sculley For The Spokesman-Review

It’s been a prolific season for holiday albums. The 17 titles covered in this column even omit a few 2019 releases, and there isn’t any deserving of lumps of coal, either. Here’s a look at this year’s offerings:

Idina Menzel, “Christmas: A Season of Love”

If one 2019 Christmas album is likely to become an annual bestseller, it’s probably “Christmas: A Season of Love.” Menzel, whose roles in “Frozen” made her one of the world’s most popular vocalists, applies her 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, a Tony Award winner for “Wicked,” 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 that this isn’t a one-trick holiday album. The title cut and “Better Every Day” have 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 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.

Los Lobos, “Llego Navidad”

The great band from East Los Angeles brings, no surprise, Mexican influence to its first Christmas album. But other places (Colombia, Puerto Rico and Texas) also figure into this entertaining album. With most songs 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 it’s sunny and 90 as when snow blankets the ground.

Chicago, “Chicago Christmas”

On their third Christmas album, Chicago goes primarily with songs penned by 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.

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 breakup song that gets a twist because it happens on Christmas Eve. “Open Mine Tonight” has 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 light in the song’s reggae styling. But that’s one of the few flaws on this fine holiday effort.

Josh Rouse, “The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse”

For years, Rouse has been writing a Christmas song annually for his family. Eventually, he realized that they would make 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 that offer (mostly) light-hearted stories related to the holiday season. It’s a good thing that Rouse decided not to keep these songs in the family.

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 is 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 ambience. “Morning Star” is a folky and gentle original tune. Another original, “Protected by the Light,” is an Irish-accented hymn with accordion. Of course, Halford et al also crank it up on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Joy to the World” and “Deck the Halls.” “Fa, la, la” has never sounded quite this way.

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 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”

Husband-and-wife Shane Henry and Maggie McClure have made waves as solo artists. Now paired up as the Imaginaries, they’ve made one of 2019’s best Christmas albums. “Hometown Christmas” is split evenly between familiar tunes and equally strong originals. With cheery and rootsy pop (think Sheryl Crow, Sara Bareilles), their songwriting chops shine on appealing songs such as “First Thing on My Christmas List,” “Christmastime Again” and “Kiss for Christmas.”

Meg & Dia, “December, Darling”

The siblings take an intimate and low-key approach, keeping instrumentation spare and vocals out front. The effect is simple and charming. The renditions of “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow” and “White Christmas” are fine, but the four originals stand out with memorable pop hooks, two of them “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,

A few notables:

Mariah Carey, “Merry Christmas” Deluxe Anniversary Edition

Carey’s hugely popular holiday album gets a 25th anniversary expansion with a second disc that includes six tracks Carey recorded in December 1994 at a benefit concert, remixes and a few bonus tracks. If not essential, these extra goodies should entice many of the 6 million buyers of the original album to spring for this version.

Lea Michele, “Christmas in the City”

The star of “Glee,” Broadway and television has made a classic-sounding Christmas album employing big band/orchestral arrangements on this collection mostly made up of holiday standards. “Glee” fans will recall that Menzel portrayed her mother on the Fox series.

Danny Gokey, “The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Collection”

“American Idol” alum Gokey offers the expected (standards like “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”) and less predictable on this outing. It’s the latter selections, like the epic ballad “Until You” and the bouncy “The Holidays Are Here” (both Gokey co-writes), that elevate this holiday album.

Jonathan Butler, “Christmas Together”

This singer/guitarist’s second Christmas release is a guest-filled affair that works because of fresh arrangements. “Winter Wonderland” gets a hip-hop treatment. The instrumental versions of “Joy To The World” (with Koz) and “We Three Kings” (with trumpeter Rick Braun) have nifty elaborations on melodies, and “Jingle Bells” (with saxophonist Kirk Whalum) goes jazz.

Michael Lington, “A Foreign Affair Christmas”

Touted as having a global sound, the smooth jazz saxophonist indeed brings Latin, Afro-Caribbean and European flair to a few tracks. But most of the album sounds quite American. That’s fine because Lington and guests (including Vince Gill, Russ Freeman and Braun) deliver heartfelt performances on these nine familiar holiday tunes.

Silent Winters, “Christmas Morning”

This holiday album from the Canadian duo of Olenka Bastian and Jonathan Chandler is described in a news release as “fireside harmonies for a sparkling Christmas morning.” That pretty much captures things. If you like spare folk music, this album might get multiple spins in front of your fireplace this season.

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