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The Best and Worst Holiday Albums for 2014

By Robert Ham

Another holiday season brings another tidal wave of Christmas music into the world with the hope of thawing our frosty spirits and quelling our inner Grinch. The trick is figuring out which new batch of tinsel-encrusted tunes will bring joy to the world and which will have you shouting “Bah! Humbug!” at your stereos.

Let us be your guide through the new class of Christmas jams, with our lists of the albums that are going into heavy rotation or the re-gifting pile.

Nice

 

Idina Menzel – Holiday Wishes (Warner Bros.)

If your tween daughters haven’t soured you on the sound of Idina Menzel’s singing by wearing out their CD of the Frozen soundtrack, you’re going to delight in this lovely collection of Xmas standards. The musical arrangements stick to the basics with lots of sweeping strings and the jingle of sleigh bells, but Menzel finds some real holiday spirit in a gospel-tinged take on “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (her sassy duet with Michael Buble), and the always lovely “White Christmas.”

 

Various Artists – All Is Bright (Amazon)

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This one deserves inclusion on the Nice list for quantity alone. Big e-retailer Amazon has compiled the ultimate Christmas playlist, with 43 newly recorded tunes for you to either download en masse or – as we would suggest – to cherry pick a la carte to make your perfect holiday mix. Some highlights to consider: Laura Gibson’s adorably wobbly take on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” a charming original by firebrand singer/songwriter Liz Phair entitled “Ho Ho Ho,” the stirring psychedelia of the Flaming Lips and Yoko Ono’s duet on “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and the spiked eggnog of “This Christmas” by pop/punkers Sinclair.

 

A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Xmas Tape (Geographic North)

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A perfect stocking stuffer is this cassette release from this Philadelphia-based indie pop outfit. The coed group puts the emphasis on original material, stirring in equal parts dreamy psychedelia and holiday hallmarks like orchestra chimes and church organ. These five songs get mighty playful, too, with singers Annie Fredrickson and Jen Goma pitching their voices down to manly levels for their woozy rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and the swinging reminder to “Shut Your Mouth, It’s Christmas.” Don’t wait to snap this up; the tape is limited to 300 copies.

 

Seth MacFarlane – Holiday For Swing! (Republic)

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The emphasis on Seth MacFarlane’s second album is on the “swing,” with the multimedia kingpin wrapping his surprisingly agile voice around the jazzy work of a 65-piece orchestra recorded at legendary Abbey Road Studios. And the Family Guy creator sounds like he’s having the time of his life recording these tunes, smiling his way through some deep cuts like “Christmas Dreaming” and “Moonlight In Vermont,” and more familiar fare such as “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Marshmallow World.”

 

Jamey Johnson – The Christmas Song EP (Big Gassed)

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Outlaw country star Johnson is always full of surprises, but who would have predicted that he’d come along with a collection of holiday tunes, let alone one as well-done as this? He sounds most comfortable when hewing closest to his Nashville roots on his faithful cover of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” and his drowsy original “South Alabam Christmas.” Yet there’s still fun to be had listening to him growl through “The Christmas Song” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

 

Earth Wind & Fire – Holiday (Legacy)

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One of the biggest surprises of the Christmas music deluge was this funky and fun release from ‘70s icons Earth Wind & Fire. The band plays to their strengths, leaning on their sharp horn section and the soulful harmonies of Philip Bailey and Maurice White. Sure, a lot of the tunes here are straight rewrites of the band’s classics – “December” instead of “September”; “What Child Is This?” played to the tune of “Fantasy” – but they sure make for a fun soundtrack for your holiday party.

 

Cimorelli – Christmas Magic EP (Island)

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The six Cimorelli sisters are best known for their a cappella versions of radio pop tunes, but this new five-song collection could help earn them some new fans. It helps that the ladies stick to traditional hymns rather than leaning on more modern fare. And with nothing but their voices at their disposal, they cut right to the emotional core with loving and lovely renditions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The Coventry Carol.”

 

The Living Sisters – Harmony Is Real: Songs For a Happy Holiday (Vanguard)

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More than any other full-length holiday release this year, the latest from this folk-pop supergroup (featuring Lavender Diamond vocalist Becky Stark and Inara George from the bird and the bee) emphasizes their original compositions, not to mention their tightly knit harmonies. The new tunes are as fun as they come, particularly their tribute to “Hanukkah” and a jazzy ode to “Kadoka, South Dakota,” which has them swinging like another group of musical siblings, the Andrews Sisters.

 

Naughty

 

Various Artists – Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (Palm Oaks)

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The meme that won’t end carries on this year with a Lifetime movie and this accompanying soundtrack that throws together silly original tunes like “A Very Grumpy Christmas” and the light funk of “It’s Hard To Be A Cat At Christmas” with covers of classics by the likes of KT Tunstall and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The result feels as welcome as finding a little present in the litter box.

 

Darius Rucker – Home For The Holidays (Liberty)

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Rucker’s transition from adult alternative icon to country superstar was a smooth one. His attempt at Christmas crooning, on the other hand is a rocky sleigh ride. The poor guy does his best to sound sneaky and snarly on “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and soulful on “Winter Wonderland,” but can’t hide the grinning good ol’ boy in his soul. And as well-meaning as they are, don’t expect his syrupy original tunes “Candy Cane Christmas” and “What God Wants For Christmas” to become standards any time soon.

 

John Schneider and Tom Wopat – Home For Christmas (Tom Wopat, Inc.)

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Was anyone really clamoring for a reunion of these Dukes of Hazzard co-stars, or to hear them sing a bunch of holiday tunes intercut with little bits of conversation between the two? Well, if that person exists, I’m not sure they’re going to be too happy with the outcome of this happy homecoming. The whole thing feels flat and at times, like their gender-rewrite “Johnny, It’s Cold Outside” and the grumbling bop tune “Blue Xmas,” a little bit weird.

 

Pentatonix – That’s Christmas to Me (RCA) 81aPKJ3QHgL._SL1500_ 

 

Your patience for a cappella singing will be pushed to the limit by the time you hear this group’s strange beatbox accompanied rendition of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and a reggae-fied “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” That they cap it all off with a cover of the inescapable Frozen hit “Let It Go” is just the icing on this freezer burned cake.

 

Various Artists – Christmas at Downton Abbey (Warner Bros.)

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Another holiday season, and another Christmas album released to tie-in with a popular TV show (see also: the recently released Mad Men Christmas and Christmas With Nashville). Even the biggest fans of this PBS series should be suspicious of this two-CD set that cobbles together holiday tunes sung roughly by members of the show’s cast (Elizabeth McGovern and Julian Ovenden) and other soppy fare meant to evoke the time period and aristocratic sensibilities captured in every episode.

 

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