Turn up the speakers and get a Christmas mix on for the most wonderful time of the year. We’ve reviewed five new releases for 2016, plus a peek at other albums that caught out eye.
A Pentatonix Christmas
Pentatonix | 3 out of 4
The popularity of films like Pitch Perfect (2012) and Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) has likely contributed to the increasing demand for the a cappella genre. Pentatonix (PTX) out of Arlington, Texas, came to prominence after winning the third season of NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011. Certainly, all five members of Pentatonix shine in the vocal arena; they also seem intent on excelling in the Christmas music arena. The band released their Christmas EP, PTXmas, in 2012 and then re-released it the following year with two additional tracks. A second full-length Christmas album, That’s Christmas to Me, was released in 2014. So yes, half their albums in the last five years have been holiday releases.
It makes a certain sense because something about a capella voices singing classic Christmas songs harkens back to carolers, although this group creates harmonies and vocal effects that no door-to-door caroler would dare attempt.
The group is joined by Manhattan Transfer, extraordinary harmonizers themselves, for a suitably swingy “White Christmas.” The band really funks up “Up on the Housetop,” infusing it with a sound reminiscent of electronic dance music. The album includes a few originals, “The Christmas Sing-Along,” which has a nice reggae feel, and the jazzy “Good to Be Bad.” There’s also a cover of Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter,” which causes one to ponder if the mere mention of snow relegates a song to the Christmas category.
Perhaps the strangest cut is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Although this song has some Old Testament references (specifically to David and Samson; Cohen is, after all, Jewish) and the word does mean a shout or song of praise, it seems a stretch to call this a Christmas song. That said, the band performs a moving rendition that, despite the lyrics or intent, could fit well in a church service. The CD ends with a decidedly dance-ready cover of N’Sync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.” For the most part, the CD provides some foot-tapping, head-bobbing numbers that would be a welcome addition at a Christmas dance party.
Charlee Brooks/David Arkenstone | 4 out of 4
I like a good Celtic Christmas, and was pretty excited about Winter Fantasy. Arkenstone has made a name for himself among New Age music aficionados, both with his group Troika and as a solo artist. For this holiday release, he collaborates with frequent partner, Charlee Brooks, who possesses a clear Enya-like voice.
Although he’s a talented multi-instrumentalist, Arkenstone here relies a bit too heavily on the digital audio workstation (DAW), resulting in a sort of over-produced feel. Not unexpectedly, the CD has a fairly homogenous sound. Eight of the 13 cuts are either arranged or composed by Arkenstone.
Selections include an enchanting mix of familiar tunes including, “O Holy Night,” and “The First Noel,” with some unexpected choices, like the traditional French Christmas carol “Noël Nouvelet” and the 16th century sacred carol, “Gaudete.” There’s also a nice balance of instrumental tunes, with an upbeat medley of “Deck the Halls/God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and Arkenstone’s original, “New Snow.”
These songs are complemented by the ones featuring Brooks’ pleasing vocals. She particularly shines on the title track, “Winter Fantasy,” for which she also composed the lyrics. Charlee’s version of Loreena McKennitt’s “The Bells of Christmas” is a highlight as she echoes the composer’s vocal style.
The collection ends with Arkenstone’s reworking of “Carol of the Bells,” which actually makes this overplayed song worth listening to once again. This contemporary new age instrumental sound may not appeal to everyone, but I think it might be the perfect soundtrack to a cold night by the fire with a mug of mulled wine beneath some twinkling Christmas lights.
The Greatest Gift of All
Rascal Flatts | 1 out of 4 | 3 if you’re a Flatthead
There’s no doubt 2016 is the year of the Country Christmas Album. Amy Grant, The Gatlin Brothers, the Oakridge Boys, Brett Eldredge, as well as Garth Brooks and wife, Trisha Yearwood, are all releasing holiday music collections. Rascal Flatts, the much acclaimed country trio, has won dozens of awards in their genre (ACM, CMA, yada, yada). Perhaps that’s why this hodgepodge selection of holiday songs left me so perplexed. Rather than delivering a passel of country-flavored Christmas treats, they seemed determined to flex their musical muscles by trying—albeit unsuccessfully—to straddle various genres.
The CD opens with a boogie-woogie version of “Joy to the World” (yes, you read that correctly). You then get a pop-infused “Someday at Christmas,” transitioning to a dreadful foray into R&B funk with “Go Tell it on the Mountain.”
These attempts to break out of the country mold are cringe-worthy. Their rendition of “Deck the Halls,” has been rearranged to the point of being unrecognizable from the traditional carol. It is totally recognizable as a brazen note-for-note rip-off of Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” (again, no kidding).
The trio succeeds when they keep to what they know best. “The First Noel,” “Let it Snow” (despite the addition of a Hammond organ), and their cover of 4Him’s “What a Strange Way to Save the World” all deliver what Rascal Flatts’ legion of fans (Flattheads) are really seeking. Except maybe when the band enlists their children to open “Silent Night” with a painful a cappella first verse. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
The greatest gift of all would be not subjecting anyone to this misbegotten mess. Sorry Flattheads.
Sarah McLachlan | 3 out of 4
Thanks to my deep abiding love of all things Yule, I own a rather substantial collection of holiday music. Some albums are rarely played, while some are on heavy rotation from Black Friday until the Epiphany. Since I first reviewed it back in 2006, Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong is one that gets pulled out at least once a year. So I was pleased to see she was releasing a new holiday CD, and not just a remastered old one.
This new release features 11 numbers, including “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Let It Snow” and “Silver Bells.” A raw, stripped down version of the African American hymn, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” features Canadian indie band Half Moon Run, along with Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainright. Half Moon Run provides backing vocals and accompaniment on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” while several members of the band also appear on the CD’s final cut, “O Holy Night.” Harris joins McLachlan again for a simple, slightly countrified version of “Away in a Manger.”
McLachlan, whose home is Vancouver, includes a seldom covered Canadian Christmas hymn, “Huron Carol” (or “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”). This interesting gem is widely considered Canada’s oldest Christmas song, as it was probably written in the 1640s. My favorites are the songs that allow her light soprano to shine through such as, “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas.” I’ll probably be spinning this one while I’m baking Christmas cookies… but also probably rotating it with Wintersong.
Tunes to watch for
Here are a few that caught our eye, and should be available by early December.
Neil Diamond: Acoustic Christmas It seems like only last year that Neil Diamond released A Cherry Cherry Christmas. That’s probably because it was last year. The man must really love the holidays, because he’s back this year with another release. But who’s complaining? Diamond has a knack for keeping things simple, and with this album you get pared-down instrumentation so you can just enjoy Diamond’s distinctive, comfortable voice on classics like, “O Holy Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The CD even includes an original tune, “Christmas Prayers.”
Christmas With Pavarotti (2016) Opera might be an acquired taste, but no one can argue over the late Pavarotti’s popularity. This new 2-CD collection includes selections from his past holiday releases. There are several live performances of the Three Tenors (Pavarotti joined by Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras), including, “Oh Tannenbaum” and “Jingle Bells.” Pavarotti fans will also find some unusual treats, like live performances accompanied by popular artists including Sting, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghost of Christmas Eve Founded in 1996, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) continues to have huge mass appeal, particularly when it comes to Christmas music. TSO blends classical music and impressive vocals, with hard rock and roll—and massive light shows for their live performances. In 1999, the already immensely popular group created a made-for-TV movie, The Ghost of Christmas Eve. This year, they’ve taken the songs from this special and re-mastered them into an audio CD