Best of the Christmas Releases 2008
Each year brings a sack full of new holiday CDs. As part of our annual service, we are here to save you the heartache of making some bad choices. Also provided are listening tips.
Enya – And Winter Came (Reprise).
The self contained duo operating as Enya has delivered their latest lush offering, this time as a dozen winter tracks with a slight Irish brushing. Most of the songs are about the quiet wonder of winter. A few less secular tracks (like the album closer 'Silent Night' sung in Gaelic) set out the Christmas message. The production values are exquisite. With orchestral washes and smoothly flowing vocals, this disc works especially well when the firelight and candles flicker late in the evening.
Verve – Remixed Christmas (Verve).
After a series of well-received albums in their Remixed series, Verve steps into the holiday fray with a tasty selection of classics from their prodigious vaults. The album features vintage holiday sides from Ella, Billie, Shirley, Dinah, Count Basie and two each from Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong, all paired with a posse of modern mixologists. 'Zat You Santa Claus?' is really fresh, and Mel Tormé's timeless chestnut 'The Christmas Song' is given a new vibe by Sonny J. A bit over the top is the first of Ella's tracks, and purists will want to avoid a ska-inflected Billie song. The Orb's take on 'What a Wonderful World' works year 'round. The Brazilian Girls reinvent Dinah Washington's 'Silent Night.' Serve up this disc when you are mixing the cranberry martinis.
Bennett put down his paintbrushes long enough to pull together chaps from Count Basie's crew for a straight-ahead take on eleven traditional holiday tracks. Bennett's quartet is led by the limber Monty Alexander on piano. Bennett, who was born in 1926, is in fine form throughout the set. Especially effective are 'Silver Bells' and 'The Christmas Waltz.' Mr. Benedetto uses his given name for the paintings in the album. His daughter duets on one track while his son (and manager) executive produced the album. This is the most traditional new release of our batch. Spin this disc with the grandparents; they will appreciate the decade-spanning prowess of the singer while sipping their nog.
Yo-Yo Ma & Friends – Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical).
I once attended a lecture with Ma and Quincy Jones. Jones brought down the house with a story about using the phrase 'yo mama' in the Sistine Chapel and Ma talked about their mutual thirst for musical discovery.
Although Q does not appear on this collection, Ma has gathered an eclectic (almost random) set of musicians to run through nearly two dozen selections. From the jazzy (Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Joshua Redman, Chris Botti) to the traditional (Natalie MacMaster, Alison Krauss), the album runs the gamut. Ma's prior assemblies do not suffer from ambition but often seem to be bulging at the edges. A nice touch here is James Taylor's reading of “Here Comes The Sun;” after all it was George Harrison who borrowed Taylor's phrase 'something in the way she moves' all those years ago. A great left field contribution is ukulele shredder Jake Shinburo's take on Lennon's “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. I would go with mojitos for this international array of tunes.
This is an ear opener. Fleck turns the classic Christmas ditties on their head, with inventive rearrangements and exotic vocals. Edgar Meyer (who also graces the Yo-Yo Ma collection) lays out some funky bass lines. A few versions of “Jingle Bells” are cleverly interlaced. Spin this disc early one holiday morning to put some spring into your step.
Al Jarreau – Christmas (Rhino).
One of the most nimble vocalists has released his first holiday album, and it is a strong collection. The strength of this set, aside from Jarreau’s fabulous vocal work, is the presentation of holiday songs rarely heard. Larry Williams does double duty as producer and keyboardist. Bring out the Tom and Jerry recipe for beverages.
Harry Connick, Jr. – What A Night (Columbia).
The man from N’Awlins stirs up a gumbo of funky, jazzy tracks. This is what Sinatra would be doing today if he were in the middle of his Capitol years.
Jeff Megan – Season of Love.
Lovers of crooners like Michael Bublé will enjoy this smooth holiday debut.
Eight very sweet tracks that have crept back to my CD player many times.
One of the most consistently satisfying labels pulls together 10 tracks from well-known artists (Ray Charles, BB King, Ramsey Lewis, Charles Brown) and young bucks (Emilie-Claire Barlow, Topsy Chapman) as a complement to several other holiday collections in the series.