It may be because bands have been pushed off the tour circuit, leaving unscheduled time to work on albums or other projects, but 2020 has been a bountiful year for holiday music. Here’s hoping these holiday scrapbooks help you end this weird and difficult year on a high.
“My Gift” (Capitol Nashville)
The current queen of country music takes her first holiday album in a decidedly spiritual/cult direction, approaching the material with appropriate reverence. Familiar hymns make up much of the album, but the biggest highlights come with the original songs — none more so than “Hallelujah,” a song co-written by John Legend. He joins Underwood on this exceptional ballad in which their impressive voice sends the song soaring to the skies. “My Gift,” this season’s most likely hit holiday album, is a beautifully executed album that pays homage to the real reason for Christmas.
LISTEN NOW: Carrie Underwood, “My Gift” youtube playlist
‘A Very Trainor Christmas’ (Epic Records Group)
Trainor brings his fiery charm to this 16-track album, especially marking the season with half a dozen original songs. A major highlight is his collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire on the song “Holidays”, which literally illustrates the common threads between 70s R&B/pop and current pop. Trainor also adds some quirky touches to some of the album’s holiday standards, but the frothy instrumentation of these songs is pretty standard for today’s version of pop music. Still, “A Very Trainor Christmas” is fun and more original than many holiday albums.
LISTEN NOW: Meghan Trainor, “A Very Trainor Christmas” youtube playlist
‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’ (Butterfly Records / 12Tone Music)
Parton makes “A Holly Dolly Christmas” an event. For one, Parton wrote five of the songs and co-wrote a sixth for this 12-song album. While all of the original tunes are good, “Circle Of Love,” a particularly pretty spiritually-themed ballad, is a highlight. Several high-profile guests — including Michael Bublé and Willie Nelson — also help “A Holly Dolly Christmas” feel like something more than just a holiday scrapbook.
LISTEN NOW: Dolly Parton, ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’ youtube playlist
Leslie Odom Jr.
‘The Christmas Album’ (S-Curve Records)
The ‘Hamilton’ star steps well out of the usual Christmas album box on his second holiday album. On “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” he slows things down and gives the song a bit of a jazzy treatment. “Little Drummer Boy,” with additional vocals from the Mzansi Youth Choir, puts a South African twist on this classic. Like Bing Crosby, Odom’s supple, sweet voice has a heartwarming quality, and it wouldn’t be surprising if ‘The Christmas Album’ (as well as his first holiday album, ‘Simply Christmas’) became perennial favorites that are played. in homes every Christmas for many years to come.
LISTEN NOW: Leslie Odom Jr., “The Christmas Scrapbook” youtube playlist
Goo Goo Dolls
“It’s Christmas Everywhere” (Warner Bros.)
The veteran pop band’s debut Christmas album is a satisfying effort that often strays from its signature guitar pop. A cover of “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty gives a little air of Motown. One of the best out-of-character songs is “You Ain’t Gettin’ Nothin,” a humorous original that sounds like a mix of the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and Big Bad’s retro swing. Voodoo Daddy, while the jazzy medley ‘The Christmas Party’ is another festive surprise.
LISTEN NOW: Goo Goo Dolls, ‘It’s Christmas Everywhere’ youtube playlist
‘A Tori Kelly Christmas’ (Capitol)
For his first holiday album, the country/Christian music star has teamed up with executive producer and R&B icon Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who brings an appropriate amount of groove to this album. “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel/O Come All Ye Faithful” have a relaxed influence that works well, while “Joy To The World/Joy Joy” has a lively swing. Kelly, who can take her voice to heights that many singers can only dream of, oversings on occasion. Fortunately, quite often, Kelly resists the temptation to overload her vocals, showing that she doesn’t need to go beyond the “American Idol” style to give a song wings.
LISTEN NOW: Tori Kelly, ‘A Tori Kelly Christmas’ youtube playlist
For king and country
‘A Drummer Boy Christmas’ (Word Entertainment)
The brother duo Joel and Luke Smallbone bring a lot of weight to standards such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy”. Additionally, they also markedly revamp the arrangements of many familiar anthems, adding creative instrumental segments and inventive backing vocals. This makes “A Drummer Boy Christmas” the most refreshing, yet reverent, Christmas album of this season.
LISTEN NOW: For King & Country, “A Drummer Boy Christmas” youtube playlist
“We Need a Little Christmas” (RCA Records)
This sixth holiday release from this popular a cappella group suffers from frothy vocal arrangements that sound like they were created in the 1950s and erased by TV network censors. More than a few vocals also sound overproduced and layered — “My Favorite Things,” “12 Days Of Christmas,” and the title track are examples. Part of the appeal of a cappella is hearing the voices sound the way they naturally do and how they can be woven together in imaginative ways, but his album doesn’t feel organic. And whose idea was to superimpose the voice of Pentatonix on Bing Crosby and the London Symphony Orchestra on “White Christmas”. We may need a little Christmas, but we don’t need this flawed album.
LISTEN NOW: Pentatonix, “We need a little Christmas” youtube playlist
‘Give Thanks’ (Di-Versatile Music Group LLC)
This duo brings their unique blend of classical and hip-hop to this 11-track album. Many of the songs are reimagined versions of holiday classics that incorporate hip-hop grooves and an elaboration of their familiar melodies with the fiddles of Kevin Marcus and Wil Baptiste. But a few originals — “Celebra,” featuring De La Ghetto and the humorous story of “Toy Soldier” — up the ante on this enjoyable outing.
LISTEN NOW: Black Violin, ‘Give Thanks’ youtube playlist
“Farewell December” (Acrobat Records)
Nathanson deserves credit for choosing covers such as The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Snow.” Unfortunately, Nathanson isn’t very imaginative with his releases, making this a well-meaning, but not exceptional, holiday album.
LISTEN NOW: Matt Nathanson, “Farewell December” youtube playlist
‘Bleak Midwinter’ (Blurple Music)
The Kansas City duo deliver a ballad-heavy collection of holiday fare that has its share of sadness to go with hues of hope. Between the touching ballads ‘If We Listen’, ‘My First Christmas Eve’ and ‘Star Crossed Christmas’, the stoic versions of ‘Mary Did You Know’ and ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and the jazzy acoustic sounds of ‘Christmastime (Again ), ‘ this makes for an excellent, unique and beautiful Christmas album.
LISTEN NOW: Barnaby Bright, ‘Bleak Midwinter’ youtube playlist
‘The Birth of a King’ (Capitol Christian Music Group)
The producer/musician set out to make a Christmas album that felt like an epic movie soundtrack. If you love grand music and production in the vein of “Lord of the Rings,” Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or “Game Of Thrones,” Proffitt’s approach to “The Birth of a King” should be right up your alley.
LISTEN NOW: Tommee Proffitt, “The Birth of a King” youtube playlist
Want more Christmas music this year?
I can recommend:
• ‘Social Christmasing’ by Straight No Chaser with his creative versions of holiday music
• ‘It’s Christmas… Cheer!’ by Terri Clark. and its traditional country style
• the energetic pop-rock soundtrack of “Happiest Season”, which includes contributions from an all-LGBTQ+ cast of artists, including Sia, Tegan & Sara, Anne-Marie and more
Collage created with submitted images. (The Gazette)
Carrie Underwood, “My Gift” (Capitol Nashville)
Meghan Trainor, “A Very Trainor Christmas” (Epic Records Group)
Dolly Parton, ‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’ (Butterfly Records/12Tone Music)
Leslie Odom Jr., “The Christmas Album” (S-Curve Records)
Goo Goo Dolls, ‘It’s Christmas Everywhere’ (Warner Bros.)
Tori Kelly, ‘A Tori Kelly Christmas’ (Capitol)
For King & Country, ‘A Drummer Boy Christmas’ (Word Entertainment)
Pentatonix, ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ (RCA Records)
Black Violin, ‘Give Thanks’ (Di-Versatile Music Group LLC)
Matt Nathanson, “Farewell December” (Acrobat Records)
Barnaby Bright, ‘Bleak Midwinter’ (Blurple Music)
Tommee Proffitt, ‘The Birth of a King’ (Capitol Christian Music Group)