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CD Reviews: Our 12 Favs of Christmas

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STORY WRITTEN BY SEAN HICKEY 
For 21st-Century Media

It’s time to wade through all the holiday music releases for 2014 and try to narrow them down to the 12 keepers that are most likely to get repeated listens in the years to come.
It’s always a tricky proposition since only a select few titles actually ascend to that classic, go-to-every-Christmas, position. And yes, there are always a few that come out that are just commercial knock-offs that aim to take advantage of the current popularity of certain people (as in Idina Menzel — or is that Adelle Dazeem?, and the well-known award show host/crooner Seth MacFarlane) or television shows (such as last year’s offering from the cast of Duck Dynasty — and this year’s releases from the casts of Nashville, Mad Men and Downton Abbey).
So, with that in mind, here are our dozen picks that we think will serve to brighten the holidays along with your Christmas spirit!

Quadriga Consort
On a Cold Winter’s Day
Early Christmas Music and Carols from the British Isles
(Sony Classical)
If your holiday music tends to be off the beaten path and towards a slightly classical bent, then this offering from the Quadriga Consort should be right up your alley.
As the cold and bleak winter days descend upon us, this ensemble presents long forgotten carols and age-old tunes for the festive season. With its arrangements for period instruments, the consort presents a program that is both peaceful and reflective, as well as merry and buoyant, conjuring memories of bygone days and awakening in the listener that sense of peace, wonder and excitement the Christmas season holds.

Various Artists
Putumayo Presents French Christmas
(Putumayo)
This season’s installment from the good folks at Putumayo Records focuses on holiday music, old and new, from France. The enchanting compilation delivers a perfect aural snapshot of what spending the holiday season in Paris, or Marseille, or maybe even Montreal!
The supreme elegance and understated approach that lie at the core of these 11 tracks will delight fans of holiday music by providing a different approach to some traditional holiday fare while introducing them to some other wonderful melodies that will transport them to another time and place. Highlights here include “Noël Blanc” from Jacqueline François, “Guillaume, Prends Ton Tambourin” by Bruno Mursic, and Francesca Blanchard’s “Petit Papa Noël.” Additionally, Line Renaud’s take on “Étoile des Neiges” and “Papa Noël” from Joy Setton & The International School of Geneva are performances that are not to be missed!
French Christmas is a lovely way to expand one’s musical horizons and realize that Christmas truly is an international season of goodwill and peace.

Over the Rhine
Blood Oranges in the Snow
(Great Speckled Dog)
In case your holidays are never all shiny and bright, Cincinnati-based, Over the Rhine offers a collection of songs that reflects the many emotions we may experience during the holi-daze — nostalgia, joy and love, of course — but also profound sadness and loss.
After 25 years together as a band, this CD marks the group’s third seasonal effort following 1996’s The Darkest Night of the Year and 2006’s Snow Angels. The trend isn’t surprising considering Over the Rhine’s husband-and-wife core, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, so often employ the strings and bells of pristine acoustic folk-tones and styles ideally suited for holiday music.
Still, it’s not all “Silent Night.” The group has dubbed their record “Reality Christmas” for exploring what they say are nuanced songs reconciling the joy and peace of Christmas-time with the dangers of a violent world. In addition to original material, the record also features a haunting cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.”
Over the Rhine’s Christmas songs might be the best soundtrack for this time of year since A Charlie Brown Christmas for feeling melancholy and lovesick in December. The music practically begs to be contemplated over one hot drink or another.

Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal
Talkin’ Christmas
(Sony Music Masterworks)
In 2003, the Blind Boys of Alabama began a yearly tradition of touring during the holiday season. The success of that tour inspired the band to record a new Christmas album, Talkin’ Christmas!
Joining them for this special project is their friend and frequent touring partner, Taj Mahal and the resulting collaboration brings a blues-meets-gospel sound unlike the usual season fare so often found at this time of year. With Taj on guitar, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, and lending his vocals on two key tracks, the album is a full-fledged holiday celebration evoking the true spirit of the season with pure joy, great voices and that all-are-welcome message that only the Blind Boys of Alabama can bring.
The record includes both the familiar and fresh — with a rocking new take on the seasonal favorite, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” plus five new Blind Boys originals (including the compassionate “What Can I Do?,” featuring Taj Mahal on vocals and is one of two songwriting collaborations with Stax Records soul legend William Bell) and choice covers of some of gospel music’s greatest seasonal gems.

Jon McLaughlin
The Christmas EP
(self released – www.jonmcl.com)
A lovely little holiday treat came our way the other day from Indiana-based singer-songwriter Jon McLauchlin in the form of a wonderful 5-song EP of holiday music!
The EP features Jon’s jazzy piano and arrangements paired with his unmistakably earnest vocals and includes two amazing original compositions with his “Merry Merry Christmas Everyone,” and the poignant “Christmas Saved Us All.” It also features three holiday standards in “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” and the classic, “The Christmas Song,” but all done in jon’s inimitable style that make these old chestnuts spring forward with new life and vitality.
Our only complaint here is that the EP only has 5 tracks and we wished we could have had a full-length collection from Jon — But that said, this EP is an incredible display of his musical talents and will garner MUCH repeated play during this holiday season – and beyond!
If you’d like to check out Jon McLaughlin’s music (both the holiday variety as well as his other stuff) live, he will be performing in our area at World Café Live in Philadelphia (3025 Walnut Street) on Tuesday, Dec. 16 (Doors: 6:30/ Show: 8). More information can be found at www.philly.worldcafelive.com or by calling their box office at (215) 222-1400.

Various Artists
An Americana Christmas
(New West)
Americana is the most nostalgic of the American music genres, and nothing pairs with remembering those wonderful, old, ‘days gone by’ as much as Christmas music.
The collection includes selections from The Band, which was Americana before the term was cool, with “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” and their former famous collaborator Bob Dylan, who sings the peppy, accordion-driven “Must Be Santa.” Dylan’s song comes from his widely critiqued Christmas in the Heart record from a few years back. However, in this small dosage, it works much better and is actually fairly fun. Other historic figures include Johnny Cash doing “The Gifts They Gave,” John Prine singing — in his most wistful manner — “Everything Is Cool,” and the always-appropriate-Christmas-gift in Emmylou Harris, who sings a lovely rendition of “The First Noel.”
Some of the best tracks on the disc, however, come from relatively lesser known artists. For example, Ronnie Fauss delivers the goods with “Everybody Deserves a Merry Christmas” and Robert Ellis also does an extremely good job with Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” infusing it with just enough sadness to make the gifts under the tree look tear-soaked. Finally, Nikki Lane – this year’s Americana ‘it girl’ – gives us an extremely pretty “FaLaLaLaLove Ya.”
The result is a nice mix of both holiday standards and newly written material and amount to a satisfying nostalgia-meets-traditional playlist that is perfect for a casual and no-feathers-ruffled Christmas gathering.

Nick Lowe
Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family
(Yep Roc)
Nick Lowe’s holiday album, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family, is a twinkling blend of traditional hymns, forgotten gems and Lowe originals.
Guest contributors on the record include Ron Sexsmith who wrote the tune “Hooves On The Roof” just for Lowe, and Ry Cooder offered lyrics to “A Dollar Short Of Happy.” Other stand-out tracks include Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” and the ska-flavored take on “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” and if you think you’ve heard “Silent Night” more times than you’d ever care to again, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how Lowe whispers new life into the classic.
Great holiday music with just a touch of Nick Lowe irreverence is what Quality Street is all about!
Nick will be bringing this fun revue to our area for the holidays when he performs at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collinswood, N.J. on Saturday, Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. Located at 315 White Horse Pike in Collingswood, N.J., more information can be found by calling the box office at (856) 858-1000. This promises to be a very fun night of holiday music and more!

The Living Sisters
Harmony is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday
(Vanguard)
LA-based indie folk supergroup the Living Sisters (Eleni Mandell, Alex Lilly, Inara George of the Bird and the Bee and Becky Stark of Lavendar Diamond) take a break from their solo careers to give us a wonderful new collection of holiday tunes.
The album’s 12 songs feature The Living Sisters’ sterling, four-part harmonies cascading over lilting melodies that celebrate all facets of the holiday from the naughty to the nice. The CD consists of the Sisters’ arrangements on holiday classics such as “Jingle Bells,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Silver Bells,” plus eight original songs written by the Living Sisters including “Kadoka, South Dakota,” “Christmas in California,” and “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve” on which the Living Sisters put their own distinctive spin on the season.
This title is sure to warm your heart and make you smile while preparing for the merry season. The perfect stocking stuffer for every music lover on your list!

Pentatonix
That’s Christmas to Me
(RCA)
A capella vocal group Pentatonix has released their highly anticipated holiday album That’s Christmas To Me and it is ‘Pitch-Perfect’-Perfection.
The disc opens with their smooth version of the up-tempo “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which will inspire their listeners to sing along. It’s followed by the soothing “White Winter Hymnal” and then they’ll take you on a “Sleigh Ride,” which features their impressive harmonies. Their version of “Winter Wonderland” is laid-back and mellow as they incorporate it with a neat melody of “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The title track is outstanding while their take on “Mary, Did You Know?” is haunting to the core. They change the pace with the fun and upbeat “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and their mash-up of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with beat-boxing may become a seasonal classic. Their version of the holiday standard, “Silent Night” is angelic, and their spin on Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” is an added treat.
Pentatonix delivers a holiday album filled with beloved classics that fans of a-Capella as well as casual listeners alike can appreciate. The group’s attention to detail is clear, as the vocal arrangements are clever, harmonious and flow well and ensure that there is never a dull moment.

William Close & the Earth Harp Collective
Holidays
(Nettwerk)
William Close is a musician, inventor and a third-place finisher on TV’s “America’s Got Talent” who has created over 50 musical instruments, including the Earth Harp – a magnificent instrument extending more than 1000 feet in length, utilizing architecture and surrounding landscapes — has just released a beautiful holiday collection
Close & the Earth Harp Collective — a team of musicians, singers, dancers, aerialists and artists — are back with some sounds of the season on Holidays. “Unlike any other instrument, the Earth Harp reimagines and reinvents these holiday classics to create its own lush, symphonic sound,” Close explained in a recent interview. “It’s like having a full orchestral string section at your fingertips.”
The 13-track release figures to become a yuletide staple, as Close & Co. impress with traditional favorites like “Carol of the Bells,” “Ave Maria,” “We Three Kings” (with Gareth Dunlop), “Greensleeves,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “O Holy Night.” Additional standouts include “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with guest vocalist Lily Kershaw assisting, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” which come with superb vocal support by Landon Pigg.
Unique, fascinating, and mesmerizing, William Close & the Earth Harp Collective may just prove to be the break-out smash of the season.

Jason Ringenberg
Christmas on the Farm with Farmer Jason
(Courageous Chicken)
Here’s one for the kiddies — and those who are still “young at heart” during Christmas. It’s the latest in the series of songs and stories from “Farmer” Jason Ringenberg.
Ringenberg’s past as leader for the cow-punk band Jason & the Scorchers is referenced with the rocking “All I Want for Christmas (Is a Punk Rock Skunk).” These songs perfectly match Jason’s unique musical personality. The farmer side of his personality is addressed with “Santa Drove a Big John Deere,” which replaces St. Nick’s usual sleigh with a familiar green and gold tractor. Farmer Jason introduces many of these songs with spoken word segments, and it works quite effectively on his intro to “Away in a Manger.” It’s a fitting inclusion because the song also features many familiar farm animals in its lyrics. He is also helped out on the singing of it by his daughters, Addie Rose and Camille.
This album includes plenty examples of his storytelling skills, which he has honed in his children’s musician persona over the years, as well as a bevy of songs that sound to be near and dear to his heart. This album is geared toward the younger music listeners, but it’s put together so well, everybody will love it — both young and old.

Dave Koz & Friends
The 25th of December
(Concord)
The third full-length Christmas album project for sax-man Dave Koz, finds him doing something he hasn’t tried before — bringing together an arsenal of top singers to perform a timeless assortment of holiday classics while he gets to play along.
As a result, we get Johnny Mathis singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and Jonathan Butler offering a curlicued, luxuriously slow “O Holy Night,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Gloria Estafan adds her Latin magic to “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and Heather Headley is unmistakable on “My Grown Up Christmas List.” Elsewhere Richard Marx can be found doing his thing with a song he & Dave co-wrote called “Another Silent Night” and smooth jazz compatriot Kenny G teams with Koz for “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Other featured performances come from Eric Benet, BeBe Winans, India.Aire, and the always soulful Fantasia but Koz holds back the best to the very last with an incredibly sultry rendition of the evergreen “All You Need Is Love.”
Each song here compliments one another, and Koz brings it all home with his group effort on that Beatles classic that needs to be played with the volume WAY up so we can all celebrate the season,

George Winston
December
(Dancing Cat)
And what would Christmas be without an unexpected gift in the mix? So we’ll make this a “baker’s dozen” by revisiting a time-tested holiday classic by George Winston.
When it comes to holiday music, there is a fairly well prescribed set of parameters that make for a successful release. Stick to the classics. Include lots of sleigh bells. Choose traditional arrangements. Repeat as necessary. Dozens of holiday-themed records come out every year with that same formula, which is what makes George Winston’s December both an anomaly and a wonder. The incredibly spare album of new age solo piano pieces put George Winston on the map as the go-to new age performer of the 1980’s and managed to help people realize that quiet recordings don’t have to be church organs or chamber orchestras. This is still one of the most peaceful records you’ve probably ever heard.
Unlike many great Christmas records before and after it, December is not solely about Christmas as the name alone would denote. Rather, this is an ode to the quiet, cold winter that descends upon the northern hemisphere in the twelfth month of the year.
While Winston does touch on a few traditional holiday carols including “Carol of the Bells,” and “The Holly and the Ivy,” much of the record swings back and forth between subtle renditions of classical compositions like Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (which on this disc is simply titled “Joy”) and “Variations on the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel” along with other sparse original compositions for piano.
And while this may not be a record for entertaining or for playing at parties, it is an album for relaxing and reflecting. You would be hard pressed to think of a record more aptly titled and more evocative of a time and feeling than December.

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