It’s that time of year to grab some hot coco, don your coziest sweater and put on some festive tunes. Whether you’re dealing with holiday heartbreak or reuniting with loved ones after an uncertain two years, there’s music for everyone this season.
Pentatonix, “Evergreen” (RCA Records)
It’s not really Christmas until the gang from Pentatonix release new material and this year they’ve stretched the definition of Christmas material.
The a capella quintet offer classics like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” but also tackle songs not often caroled, like Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and Joni Mitchell’s “River.” It’s risky and let’s just say the originals are safe.
Better is when they give “I Saw Three Ships” a propulsive beat and when they ask Alessia Cara over to lead on “Frosty the Snowman.” They even give the Beach Boys a run with their smashing cover of “Little Saint Nick.”
Pentatonix boldly take on a Beatle — Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” — and it’s not half bad, as well as contributing a twangy original song, the title track “Evergreen,” which, it’s only right, must be covered by another artist for their Christmas album next year.
— Mark Kennedy
Kelly Clarkson, “When Christmas Comes Around…” (Atlantic Records)
Dealing with holiday heartbreak?
Kelly Clarkson has you covered with “When Christmas Comes Around...”
The Grammy winner’s 15 track Christmas album — featuring Chris Stapleton, Ariana Grande and Brett Eldredge — is filled with covers and originals to get everyone through the holiday season. It’s an instant classic with songs that will surely get radio time for years to come.
“You ruined all my favorite things,” she sings on the jubilant “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You).” “But you won’t take Christmas from me.” The song’s playful, defiant cheer make it an early stand out.
Another album highlight is “Glow.” Clarkson’s voice melding with Stapleton’s is intoxicating. “Nothing has changed, I still wish you could be wrapped up in my arms spending Christmas with me,” they sing.
Whether she’s reclaiming Christmas for herself or reminiscing on the ghost of Christmas past, Clarkson covers all the feelings brought on by the holidays with flare and fun.
— Ragan Clark
Pistol Annies, “Hell of a Holiday” (Sony Music Nashville)
Let’s face it, most Christmas music idealizes a holiday season that is sometimes more stressful than sentimental.
“Hell of a Holiday,” the first Christmas music from the trio of country singers the Pistol Annies, is for those holiday survivors. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley bring both humor and harmony on a collection of 10 original songs and three classics.
“Harlan County Coal” is inspired by Presley’s hillbilly family gatherings, complete with shotgun shell tree ornaments. The fun bop “Snow Globe” would be a great add to a holiday party playlist, while their cover of “If We Make It Through December” is perfect for those dark chilly nights. The trio put a break on the hustle to remember the reason for the season by singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.
If the holidays have you both excited and exhausted, the Annies have enough cheer to get you ready to face the new year.
— Kristin M. Hall
Hiss Golden Messenger, “O Come All Ye Faithful” (Merge Records)
It would be hard to find a better fit for Christmas in pandemic times than the new holiday release by Hiss Golden Messenger. It’s wistful but not hopeless, fully cognizant of the difficulties we’ve all been living through, and yet it’s encouraging. In many ways it feels like an extension of the band’s last album, “Quietly Blowing It,” a truly constructive take on the hard times wrought by COVID-19.
“It’s Christmas, baby, thank God we made it,” lead singer and creative force M.C. Taylor sings dolefully on “Hung Fire,” one of several sublimely spiritual new compositions that could find their way into holiday rotation for years to come.
The album’s style is soulful, even majestic, on original Taylor compositions, surprising covers and holiday classics that only gain in stature by being re-worked in the band’s laid-back Americana style.
Ultimately, an excellent band that just keeps getting better is a perfect match for a holiday season that comes upon us in less than perfect times.
— Scott Stroud
Amanda Shires “For Christmas” (Thirty Tigers)
Singer-songwriter Amanda Shires’ Christmas list includes beach vacations, a boat, cold hard cash and a date with comedian Larry David, but she’s not sharing her presents, so take a hike. Those are the sort of weirdly wonderful sentiments that appear on Shires’ holiday record, “For Christmas,” a collection of mostly original songs that feel a bit like a Christmas Eve fever dream.
With her high warbling vocals and her poetic lyrics over pianos, Shires wanders through the holidays with an eye on the little details. She’s gussying up that pine tree on “A Real Tree This Year,” and detailing a sexy holiday tryst on “Blame It on the Mistletoe.”
Her “Silent Night” is depressing and gloomy, which, if we’re being honest, is not an unusual feeling at the holidays, especially after the last two years.
But the best tracks are the ones where she’s backed in harmony by the always impressive McCrary Sisters, such as “Magic Ooooooh” and “Gone For Christmas.”
— Kristin M. Hall
Norah Jones, “I Dream of Christmas” (Blue Note Records)
“I want to be a Jolly Jones,” Norah Jones sings on the opener of “I Dream of Christmas.”
And a Jolly Jones she is.
On her 13-track debut holiday album, Jones’ sultry vocals lend themselves well to Christmas songs. She reimagines some covers, bringing a Latin influence to “Run Rudolph Run” with bongos and maracas and doing a ragtime rendition of “Christmas Don’t Be Late.”
On others, she pays homage to the roots of the originals. The influence of Vince Guaraldi on “Christmas Time Is Here” is fully present. Likewise, Norah Jones does little to deviate from Elvis Presley’s bluesy “Blue Christmas.”
Also on the album are six originals by Jones. After two years of uncertainty, Jones is ready to gather with loved ones and feel the comforts of Christmas again in “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones).” In “You’re Not Alone,” she brings spiritual undertones to a time that's lonely for many ("If you are tired/And you are scared/You're not alone").
Perfect for curling up by the fire, a snowy road trip or a holiday dinner, “I Dream of Christmas” is easy listening Christmas jazz.
— Ragan Clark
Kristin Chenoweth, “Happiness Is... Christmas” (Concord Records)
Pretty much everything Kristin Chenoweth touches is magical and Christmas is no different.
The dozen tracks on the Broadway and TV actor’s “Happiness Is... Christmas” showcase an artist who can go from angelic to vixen, funny to heartfelt.
It’s her first holiday offering since 2008′s “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas” and it kicks off with a medley — “Happiness (Is Christmas)”/“Christmas Time Is Here” — that includes a sly tribute to one of her musicals, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Later, try not to swing dance to another medley, the jazzy “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag”/“Jingle Bell Rock.”
Her “Merry Christmas Baby” with Keb’ Mo’ is so sexy it might be raunchy (and, yes, a raunchy Christmas song is just what we need.) One tune later, “Christmas Lullaby,” is ethereal and celestial. Her version of the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” has a slight twang and deep melancholy.
And it’s not all Christmas. In a nod to inclusiveness, she absolutely shines signing Stephen Schwartz’s “The Chanukah Song (We Are Lights).” Later she will make you crack up with Andrew Lippa’s “Santa, I’ve Got a Bone To Pick With You!” (“I got a thong/But then my mother got the same”). Chenoweth, Christmas, classic.
— Mark Kennedy