Holiday Album Roundup 2015
HIFI strolls through the candy factory of holiday album releases of 2015
It’s that time of the year again. For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. And that’s because music lovers are usually teased with a new trove of holiday baked albums from some of their favorite artists. We’ve dug into the vault to pick out the substantial and highly sought out discs for the season. Check out what discs won the HIFI stamp of approval and which ones failed the smell test.
INSIDE HOLIDAY ALBUM ROUNDUP 2015:
- Kylie Minogue – Kylie Christmas
- Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – It’s a Holiday Soul Party
- KC & the Sunshine Band – A Sunshine Christmas
- Train – Christmas in Tahoe
- India.Arie & Joe Sample – Christmas with Friends
- Mint Condition – Healing Season
- LeAnn Rimes – Today Is Christmas
- Ariana Grande – Christmas and Chill (EP)
- The Braxtons – A Braxton Family Christmas
With a recording career stretching almost thirty years, it might seem puzzling to some that Kylie Minogue is finally jumping into the holiday album market. Most of her fellow contemporaries like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera have already jumped into the market and nailed it, producing efforts that have become respectable catalog albums for the Christmas season. Better late than never, Kylie Christmas rises to the occasion by offering something pleasantly old (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Baby”), something refreshingly new (“2000 Miles,” talk show host James Corden singing on “Only You”) and something worth spinning all year round. When you hear the dance-pop princess take on the Waitresses’ 1981 oddity “Christmas Wrapping” alongside Iggy Pop, you almost want a full set of this kind of punk rock. Who knew she could pull off Blondie spunk.
It’s always a soul party when you’re counting on Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, but this holiday disc – one that sounds like it sweated out the vault of Stax – is perfect for an egg nog and Cognac celebration. The album kicks off with “8 Days of Hanukkah.” It’s no “12 Days of Christmas,” which sucks for Jews looking for something fun to swallow. Bah-humbug! But Jones drops a little something glorious for the bulk. “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” is baked in timeless soul music and features a set of lyrics that brings us back to the hard realities of poverty at Christmastime. Thanks to its hardcore realism, “”Ain’t No Chimneys” is clearly the album frontrunner, but it’s wonderfully surrounded by other delights: “White Christmas” sounds like it’s been tailored for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue; “Please Come Home for Christmas” points us back to its Charles Brown roots; “Silent Night” flows like a classic B.B. King jukebox track and “Big Bulbs” puts a good amount of emphasis on the sultry harmonies of Jones and her backing aggregation, the Dansettes. The minimalist production on the latter track is also a perfect getaway – it sounds like McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” but without the vintage synths.
After dropping a covers disc earlier this year (read review), disco kings KC & the Sunshine Band decided to tis’ the season with their Sunshine flavor on their first-ever holiday set, A Sunshine Christmas. The twelve-track set isn’t as strong or vibrant as Feeling You: The 60s or their classic late ‘70s “shake your booty” stuff, but it’s not deafening. The album opens with the post-Christmas original “The After Christmas Song,” which in a perfect world would have fit wonderfully in the back of the disc since it lyrically raps about “the holidays come and gone.” But it’s the album’s highlight, wholly saturated in the goodness of the classic Sunshine Band decorum. There are other stocking stuffers to play around with, such as “Jingle Bell Boogie” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” There’s also “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which is perked up with a spunky sing-a-long tag (“Here comes Santa. He’s coming”). And in other places, the set exposes a jump into other styles of R&B. For example, “Go Tell It On the Mountain” digs into gospel while the grooves on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sounds like a Chicago and Maze get-together. The band sounds very engaged and Harry Wayne Casey’s lead vocals – still a bit worn in places – are warm and tender; perfect for a frontman of a 40-year old band finally jumping into the holiday lane. Not everything works: Wham’s “Last Christmas” falls into a pit of boredom and “Sunshine Christmas” feels like it was penned at the last minute. But the good outweighs the bad here, proving there’s more sunshine left in the band’s machine.
This Amazon.com-only product by the San Francisco-based Train loads up the tried and true holiday gems, including a few oddities deserving of the same spotlight. There’s Elvis (“Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me”), sweet soul music (“This Christmas,” “What Christmas Means to Me”) and holly jolly rock (Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody,” “2000 Miles”). And of course, holding everything together is the versatile, agile tenor of Pat Monahan, the band’s frontman, whose voice shines bright on most of the song’s climaxes and elevates the Kings of Leon-sounding original “Christmas Must Be Tonight” to the status of becoming a potential classic. The warm piano-only arrangement on “The River” proves just how powerful Monahan’s vocal contribution is to the disc. Sadly, it’s not enough for him to salvage the rushed, boring arrangement of “O Holy Night.” Much later in the set, there’s the updated “Shake Up Christmas,” which is modified by downplaying the original pop flavor and incorporating more of a rustic rock sound. It’s not exactly a better take, but it’s something different. But the production levels aboard Christmas in Tahoe aren’t exactly as clean as their previous work, nor is there a “Drops of Jupiter” or “Hey, Soul Sister” decking around these halls. Still, there’s nicer content than there is naughty that abides here. It’s clearly one of the better rock-related holiday albums to roll out of Santa’s workshop in this decade.
In the neo-world of Motown, a company that only exists in today’s economy for its rich catalog and for bragging rights, jazzy soul singer India.Arie teams up with the late Joe Sample for a holiday offering that’s totally surrounded by big star collaborations. Motown’s Michael McDonald (known for his three covers’ albums of Motown classics) and Kem stop by, so does Brandy, Trombone Shorty and smooth jazz sax extraordinaire Dave Koz. So what can go wrong here? Well, everything. The arrangements are dull, dreary and uninspired, splattered across exhaustive scores that feel like rush jobs. They never reach Ella gravitas, and Arie’s low range on songs like “Let It Snow” sounds like she’s trying to prove a moot point; that she can sing as deep as Toni Braxton or Lalah Hathaway. The Brandy duet on “Silent Night” is more of a “Bloody Night” (think the slasher film). The Michael McDonald duet on “Merry Christmas Baby” sounds like a barbaric shouting match towards the end. And Arie is simply riffing way too much, as if she’s totally unfamiliar with the song’s original melodies. Only “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” a song featuring Louisiana swagger from Trombone Shorty and Koz, bring peace and goodwill to the ear. Deep jazz aficionados may take a nab at this, hoping for something extra for their holiday, but be cautious: Too much of anything isn’t good for anybody. Digest in doses, my friend.
The Minneapolis funk/R&B band pours everything they’re used to into their very first holiday disc, Healing Season. Which means that spirit of unorthodox behavior run rampant on the set. With band leader Stokley pouring his jazzy chops on a rousing update of James Brown’s ghetto Christmas anthem “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and showcasing his love for Stevie melisma and IQ (“Someday at Christmas,” “A Child Is Born”), the band tries to pump some fun and their own unique sounds into the outdated regimen of typical holiday albums. Some songs don’t actually fit the traditional scheme of holiday discs. Heartbroken grown-folks drama escalates on “Not What I Want,” sexy beats swamp “Lonely Christmas” and the reflective title cut slips into a hazy dreamscape of Trey Songz-meets-Earth, Wind & Fire, but they seem to play hard to Mint Condition’s base. Others are easier to digest, like the original “1 Brand Name” and their cool, rhythmic take on “Little Drummer Boy.” Don’t pick up if you’re only expecting to hear the same old silver bells or the predictable. Overall a very good set, but it would have been ten times fierce if it had a song that banged with the unforgettable gusto of “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes).”
Country pop superstar LeAnn Rimes jumps into the holiday bustle with Today Is Christmas, a twelve-track effort that squeezes in two originals and a hefty collection of covers. Things kick off with smoking Stax-like brass echoes on the infectious title cut. It’s an original soulful cut that adequately merges her Nashvillian sounds with the Memphis soul flavor. Helping to bring that magic to life is the ensemble of Stax organ king Booker T. Jones and Blues Brother drummer Willie Weeks. Session drummer pro James Gadson also steps in, so does keyboardist Ray Parker, Jr. All of this explains why much of Today Is Christmas sounds so organic and heartfelt, avoiding the cookie-cutter archetype of the usual holiday records.
There’s lots of goodies to pick on. For starters, she sinks her teeth into a Southern gospel-smoked duet with Gavin DeGraw on the Kenny Loggins’ emotional ballad, “Celebrate Me Home.” Then, “Wake Me Up” hook man Aloe Blacc brings his quasi-country pipes aboard “That Spirit of Christmas” and gives the album one of its finer moments. “The Heartache Can Wait,” the other original track, gives Rimes an acoustic performance that feels like it’s been etched from the Adele playbook. Jones and Weeks, no small players in the category of musicianship, breathes smart subtlety into “Little Drummer Boy.”
But not everything aboard the disc goes as planned. The tempo of “Holly Jolly Christmas/Frosty the Snowman” feels like a godly abomination and “Must Be Santa,” although it starts off like it’s been hijacked by The Wiz, unravels at the seams for being too corny. But Rimes pulls off one of the smartest hybrids of soul and country in the world of holiday music. As if Memphis and Nashville decided to deck the halls as one big happy family, Today Is Christmas should certainly appeal to both worlds.
Properly titled. This is a chill record, distilled with sexy R&B beats and airy Mariah-esque pop vocals. The great part is that pop princess Ariana Grande is not trying to reinvent the holiday classic. There’s no sign of the familiar holiday carol, so everything is original here. Sadly, nothing leaps off the record as being a classic or comes off as being memorable. “True Love” tries to wind up Nutcracker riffs into her slick love urban escapades, but it comes across looking like a transparent forecast into what Grande’s next record might sound like. She turns up the sex sirens on “December” (”Whatever’s on your list/I’ll do it”) and she turns into a Dirty Santa with her naughty, nice flirts on “Wit It This Christmas.” “Are you down for these milk and cookies?/I’m down for loving, you’ll be my drummer boy and I’m the only drum that you gonna play,” she sings using an Ashanti breeze. Grande’s voice usually can soar to heavens, but she doesn’t go for that here – which is a damn shame. But at least she’s true to the word of her album title. She’s in chill mode. Sadly, the music inside Christmas & Chill feels like it’s frozen, especially when compared with her recent masterpiece, My Everything.
The talented tight-knit harmonies of the Braxton family, strongly evidenced on the WeTV reality TV show The Braxton Family Values, spring forth on this highly-anticipated holiday album. It’s been a long dream of matriarch Evelyn Jackson for an album of this sort to come together. With only eight tracks on board, things don’t feel complete, nor does it soar with the grandeur of most holiday offerings, but it rings with likability and oozes with Toni Braxton cool. That’s because the group’s mega star covers much of the set, eats all of “This Christmas” and the gospel-fried “Blessed New Year.” Brother Michael Braxton and Toni covers much of the jazzy sleeper “Under My Christmas Tree.” But the rest of the girls — Tawanda, Traci, Trina and bubbling R&B starlet Tamar — get their time to shine on the plush and slick update of “Mary, Did You Know.” That along with “Every Day Is Christmas,” a smart Babyface contribution, are totally the best of the set. The others act like cute filler.