Perhaps it’s because music acts were forced off the touring circuit, leaving unplanned time to work on albums and other projects, but 2020 has been a bountiful year for holiday music.
This column covers many of the full-length albums, although I left out the EPs and singles for fear the column would reach “War & Peace” length. Here’s hoping these holiday albums help you end this strange and challenging year on a high note.
Carrie Underwood ‘My Gift’
The queen of country music takes her first holiday album in a decidedly spiritual/worship direction, approaching the material with suitable reverence. Familiar hymns make up much of the album, but the biggest highlights come with the original songs – none more than “Hallelujah,” a song co-written by John Legend.
He joins Underwood on this standout ballad in which their impressive vocals send the song soaring to the heavens. This season’s most likely blockbuster holiday release, “My Gift” is a beautifully executed album that pays tribute to the true reason for Christmas.
Dolly Parton ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’
The legendary Parton makes “A Holly Dolly Christmas” a bit of an event. For one thing, Parton wrote five of the songs and co-wrote a sixth for this 12-song album. While all the original tunes are good, “Circle of Love,” a particularly pretty, spiritually themed ballad, is a high point.
Several big-name guests (including Michael Bublé and Willie Nelson) also help “A Holly Dolly Christmas” feel like something more momentous than just another holiday album.
Leslie Odom Jr. ‘The Christmas Album’
The Tony-winning star of “Hamilton” steps well outside the usual-Christmas-album box on his second holiday album. On “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” he slows things down and gives the song a bit of a jazzy treatment. “Little Drummer Boy,” with additional vocals from the Mzansi Youth Choir, puts a South African accent on this classic.
Like Bing Crosby, Odom’s supple and smooth vocals have a comforting quality, and it wouldn’t be surprising if “The Christmas Album” (as well as his first holiday album, “Simply Christmas”) become perennial favorites that get played in households every Christmas for years to come.
Meghan Trainor ‘A Very Trainor Christmas’
Trainor brings her buoyant charm to this 16-track album, especially putting her stamp on the season with a half-dozen original songs. A major highlight is her collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire on the song “Holidays,” which quite literally illustrates the connecting threads between ’70s R&B/pop and current-day pop.
Trainor also adds a few original touches to some of the holiday standards on the album, but the frothy instrumentation on these songs is standard stuff for today’s version of pop music. Still, “A Very Trainor Christmas” is fun and more original than many holiday albums.
Goo Goo Dolls ‘It’s Christmas All Over’
The veteran pop group’s first Christmas album is a satisfying effort that often strays from the group’s guitar pop signature. A cover of Tom Petty’s hooky “Christmas All Over Again” gets a bit of a Motown feel.
One of the best out-of-character songs is “You Ain’t Gettin’ Nothin,’ ” a humorous original that sounds like a mix of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the retro swing of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, while the jazzy medley “The Christmas Party” is another festive surprise.
Tori Kelly ‘A Tori Kelly Christmas’
For her first holiday album, the country/Christian music star teamed up with executive producer and R&B icon Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who brings an appropriate amount of groove to this album. “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel/O Come All Ye Faithful” are given a relaxed sway that works well, while “Joy to the World/Joy Joy” gets a lively swing.
Kelly, who can take her voice to heights many singers can only dream of , does oversing on occasion. Fortunately, often enough Kelly resists the temptation to turbo charge her singing, showing she doesn’t have to go over the top to give a song wings.
For King & Country ‘A Drummer Boy Christmas’
The sibling duo of Joel and Luke Smallbone brings plenty of heft to such standards as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” What’s more, they also markedly reshape the arrangements of many of the familiar hymns.
They add creative instrumental segments and inventive backing vocal parts, and this makes “A Drummer Boy Christmas” the most refreshing, while still reverential, Christmas album of this season.
Pentatonix ‘We Need a Little Christmas’
This sixth(!) holiday release from this popular a cappella group suffers from frothy vocal arrangements that sound like they were created during the 1950s and cleared by TV network censors. More than a few vocals also sound overproduced and overlayered (“My Favorite Things,” “12 Days of Christmas” and the title track are examples).
A cappella’s appeal is hearing the voices sound like they do naturally and how they can be woven together in imaginative ways, but his album doesn’t sound organic. And whose idea was it to layer Pentatonix’s vocals over Bing Crosby and the London Symphony Orchestra on “White Christmas”? We might need a little Christmas, but we don’t need this flawed album.
Matt Nathanson ‘Farewell December’
Nathanson deserves credit for choosing covers such as “Father Christmas” by the Kinks, “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake and “Snow” by Harry Nilsson. Unfortunately, Nathanson isn’t terribly imaginative with his versions, making this a well-intended, yet unexceptional holiday album.
Tommee Proffitt ‘The Birth of a King’
The producer/musician set out to make a Christmas album that sounded like an epic movie soundtrack. If you like grandiose music and production in the vein of “The Lord of the Rings,” Trans-Siberian Orchestra” and “Game of Thrones,” Proffitt’s approach to “The Birth of a King” should suit you just fine.
Want even more Christmas music this holiday season? I recommend the grooving and soulful tunes on JoJo’s “Christmas Baby”; Christian artist Francesca Battistelli’s “This Christmas”; Straight No Chaser’s “Social Christmasing” with its creative takes on holiday music; a cappella country group Home Free’s “This Christmas”; and the smooth jazz with a touch of world music sound of Nils Landgren’s “Christmas With My Friends VII.”
Also: Terri Clark’s “It’s Christmas … Cheer!” and its traditional country style; the peppy pop-rock soundtrack to “Happiest Season,” which includes contributions from an all-LGBTQ+ cast of artists, including Sia, Tegan & Sara, Anne-Marie and more; the jazzy and breezy “Christmas” by Simone Kopmajer; and the cheery set of holiday originals that range from jazz to pop to Latin on “New Holiday Classics” by Adrian Cunningham and La Lucha.
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