Music releases emphasize yuletide cheer

Los Angeles TimesNovember 30, 2012 

It’s word association time. Say the first word that springs to mind: “holiday ——.” Did you think “season”? “Sale”? “Hangover”? How about “music”?

This year, there are plenty of new holiday albums to pick from. Cee Lo Green, English pop-rocker Tracey Thorn and the left-field collective Redtenbacher Funkestra are just a few of the dozens of entertainers with albums out there made for celebrating the season. But which ones will offer yuletide cheer and which will feel like the same old thing, re-gifted?

Here’s a 2012 roundup of the best new holiday music releases:

• Cee Lo Green “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment”: The clown prince of R&B often lets his outsized public persona overshadow his music, but the man can sing. In fact, this collection might be the best guidance he could offer any contestants on “The Voice” — or “American Idol” or “X Factor,” for that matter. The holiday spirit’s in full force here, in his loopy Motown-esque collaboration with the Muppets (“All I Need is Love”), an inspired a cappella arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with Straight No Chaser and a stunningly powerful reading of Mark Lowry and Lee Green’s “Mary, Did You Know?” Magic indeed.

• Scotty McCreery “Christmas With Scotty McCreery”: The “American Idol” alum applies his grainy baritone with commitment but not much vision to the usual holiday suspects: “The First Noel,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bells,” etc., freshened only briefly by a couple of less well-traveled numbers.

• Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta “This Christmas”: The “Grease” costars are holding teacups on the supersweet cover photo. For anyone worried that this reunion might overdose on sweeteners, Newton-John and Travolta kick the album off reversing the usual male-female roles on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which brims with good spirit. The album’s modest charm stems from the pair’s eager personalities and guest drop-ins from the likes of Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Tony Bennett and Chick Corea.

• The Polyphonic Spree “Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays Volume One”: The idiosyncratic Dallas symphonic pop collective courses from broad swaths of sonic textures — lots of swirling harps and tinkling pianos — with nicely low-tech touches. As the title suggests, there’s an otherworldly ambience that mostly works to the familiar yuletide songs’ benefit.

• Various artists “’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights”: Easily the year’s most informative, illuminating holiday release, it traces the parallel rise of Christmas and Hanukkah among religious and secular communities. The first of its two discs is devoted to Hanukkah-related songs, and its second disc to Christmas tracks written or sung by Jews including Bob Dylan, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Benny Goodman, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. An accompanying 32-page booklet features several essays with excellent context, including one by rock journalist Greil Marcus.

• PumpYouUp “Christmas Nutcracker Dubstep & Techno Classics”: Maybe it’s because there’s such a flood of more conventional holiday releases year in and year out that this throbbing electronica workout sounds so refreshing. Blatting low frequency bursts counter shimmering high-end sounds in a generous chunk of the Tchaikovsky seasonal war horse plus a handful of classic carols and random classical-music staples. Wendy Carlos is smiling somewhere.

• Various artists “Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas”: “Today” is a relative term here — the oldest of the 18 tracks is 16 years old (Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24”), and Christina Aguilera’s “Christmas Time” dates to 2000. But most of the acts, also including Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepson, Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Carrie Underwood, still have currency in today’s music world. The originals — Train’s pumping “Shake Up Christmas,” Coldplay’s wistful “Christmas Lights” — generate more interest than most of the covers.

• Redtenbacher’s Funkestra “A Very Funky Christmas”: This five-song EP is just the thing to brighten up any staid holiday gathering. These instrumentals percolate with Latin jazz-funk, bringing big-band juice and rhythmic punch to four yuletide classics and one original, the title track.

• Blake Shelton “Cheers, It’s Christmas”: Now that Shelton’s a TV star on NBC’s “The Voice” and half of a high-profile marriage (to Miranda Lambert, who helps him swing his way through “Jingle Bell Rock”), he’s got a lot of constituencies to please. He sounds straitjacketed on “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” but he’s at home on the range trading verses with Reba McEntire on “Oklahoma Christmas” and with his own rollicking “Santa’s Got a Choo Choo Train.” Other guests include Michael Buble, Kelly Clarkson, Pistol Annies, Trypta-Phunk and Shelton’s mom, Dorothy Shackleford.

• Rod Stewart “Merry Christmas, Baby”: The dubious latter-day keeper of the Great American Songbook flame applies his raspy vocal cords to the canon of classic holiday music. He’s no Bennett, and this is a long way from “Gasoline Alley,” making the tracks with a rhythmic pulse (especially “Red-Suited Super Man,” with Trombone Shorty) better suited to his rocker’s swagger than those demanding interpretive nuance. Stewart’s holiday spirit also will take center stage on PBS in December in his special, “Rod Stewart: Merry Christmas, Baby.”

• Tracey Thorn “Tinsel and Lights”: The former Everything But the Girl singer and songwriter has reached well beyond the usual bounds for an especially imaginative playlist of songs from Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt, Jack White, Joni Mitchell, Ron Sexsmith, Green Gartside, Sufjan Stevens and a pair of deft Thorn originals. A holiday collection for the thinking — and feeling — pop music aficionado.

• Brooke White “White Christmas”: “American Idol” hasn’t been a breeding ground for singers with original vision, which is probably why this L.A.-based singer-songwriter made it only as far as fifth place on the show’s seventh season. But she exhibits a real flair for injecting new ideas into ultra-familiar music, and adds three tunes of her own to further stir the pot. A nice surprise for “Idol” and non- “Idol” obsessives.

• Various artists “A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years Bringing Joy to the World”: This long-running series benefiting the Special Olympics boasts an impressively broad roster of contributing artists, including Aguilera, the Dave Matthews Band, Train and Vince Gill. The quality of performances is up and down, but the cause is unassailable.

• Various artists “Holidays Rule”: This album’s executive producer, Randall Poster, alone is a good indication of the eclectic talent here, and the prospect for inspired arrangements. Highlights among the 14 tracks: The Civil Wars’ aching rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Calexico’s mariachi-tinged treatment of “Green Grows the Holly” (written by Henry VIII!) and Y La Bamba’s beguiling “Senor Santa (Mister Santa).”

• Colbie Caillat “Christmas in the Sand”: The pop-folk chanteuse puts a decidedly Southern California spin on the breezy title track she cowrote, and three other originals gently explore the joy and melancholy inherent in the season. Adding marquee value are such music-world pals as Gavin DeGraw, Jason Reeves, Justin Young and Brad Paisley.

• The Eastern Sea “First Christmas”: The Austin, Texas, indie pop band fronted by singer-songwriter Matthew Hines pumps lots of rhythmic drive into peppy arrangements of 10 yuletide chestnuts and a pair of originals, the title track and “This Is Christmas.” Imagination and humility are nicely balanced.

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