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What to put on your holiday music playlist

Stars like Justin Bieber line up with holiday hits and misses

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Gazette Staff/SourceMedia  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 2:59 pm   ::  

With an endless string of holiday CDs popping up in stores and online, we've chosen a dozen to review for you.


From artists Christian and country to crooners, kids and R&B, we present to you 12 ways of Christmas. We hear lots of little drummers drumming, golden rings from the Jersey Boys, Ginuwine lords a-leaping, several maids amilking the seasonal sentiments, dashing pipers piping velvet tones but thankfully, no geese a-laying rotten eggs (although we think Justin Bieber came pretty close).

Here are the tunes that will make your kids bop, put some WOW in the mix, a new holiday Carole and a teen your tweens would love to see under the mistletoe, even if we don't.

The whole package is our gift to you. You're welcome.

Ho, ho, ho, ho!

CAROLE KING: “A Holiday Carole” (Rockingale Records)

Rating: 4 stars

The voice of my youth has woven an exquisite tapestry of holiday tunes familiar and unfamiliar — but even the old chestnuts pop with Carole King’s sparkling twists.

From the opening bossa nova licks of “My Favorite Things,” you know you’re unwrapping something special. “Carol of the Bells” gets a snazzy jazz update with syncopated dings ringing throughout.

Other gems include the kicky island beat of “Christmas in Paradise,” the bluesy lament “Everyday will be like a Holiday” and the reverence of “Chanukah Prayer.”

It’s so hard to choose a favorite track, but too easy to choose a least favorite: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Her raspy voice just doesn’t do justice to this crystalline carol, one of three bonus cuts.

Still, this is a most welcome gift from an old friend.

— Diana Nollen

Best song: “Carol of the Bells” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

JERSEY BOYS: “Seasons Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas (Rhino Records)

Rating: 4 stars

I had high expectations for this collection, being familiar with the exemplary vocal talents of the “Jersey Boys” musical cast. And it delivered in spades.

Like the Four Seasons’ harmonies that inspired the Broadway show, vocals are front and center at nearly every turn, from bright, synthesizer-backed funk on “A King Is Born” to traditional doo-wop on “White Christmas.”

If you’re familiar with the hit musical, you’ll recognize the Frankie Valli-esque stylings of John Lloyd Young, luminescent on “Santa Medley” and with flugelhorn accompaniment on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

I also enjoyed the upbeat take on “Auld Lang Syne” and the harp and strings accompanying “What Child Is This.”

But the brightest light shines on “O Holy Night/Rise Up Shepherd,” opening with a spiritual sound and sliding seamlessly into crystal-clear falsetto from Michael Ingersoll and baritone from Tituss Burgess.

Every arrangement seemed to perfectly capture the mood of its composer, with the focus squarely on the singers — right where it belongs on a “Jersey Boys” collection. Simply stunning.

— Richard Pratt

Best song: “O Holy Night/Rise Up Shepherd” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

MICHAEL BUBLE: “Michael Buble Christmas” (Reprise)

Rating: 4 stars

Even in the first few days of November, Michael Buble had me believing that it really was “Beginning to look a lot like Christmas” by the time his smokey voice had wound its way through the first few refrains of the classic Christmas song which opens Buble’s holiday album.

Simply called “Michael Buble’s Christmas” the album’s liner notes don’t include lyrics, but really, why would you need them? He included all of the favorites like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “All I Want for Christmas is You” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that we can all already sing along to without any assistance.

In my opinion Buble didn’t need any help either. I would have preferred that he hadn’t partnered with the Puppini Sisters on “Jingle Bells” and Shania Twain on “White Christmas.” The versions are fine. I’m just partial to Buble’s own signature sound and didn’t need the duets.

In the end, this is exactly the type of holiday album I’d expect from Buble. The songs are true to the era in which they were originally performed, a slice of America’s songbook that Buble is already well versed in.

— Carly Weber

Best song: “All I Want for Christmas is You” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

TONY BENNETT: “The Classic Christmas Album” (Columbia)

Rating: 4 stars

Classic music from a classy guy. A Christmas CD doesn’t get more heavenly than this.

Thank heaven Tony Bennett is still singin’ and swinging’ at 85, helping us dream of a “White Christmas.”

This time, he’s wrapping his ageless pipes around 18 holiday gems, treating all the sacred songs with straightforward, faithful renditions, but cutting loose with some big band boom on the secular favs.

Great horns light the fire under “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” launching the collection with fun and festive flair. Then he sets “My Favorite Things” swinging before slowing it down for the dreamy “Christmas Time is Here,” featuring cascading piano ornaments to light up Charlie Brown’s tree.

That reverie continues with “Deck the Halls,” giving the usually peppy tune a lovely laid-back feel.

He calls upon the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to add lush strings and bell-tone vocals through several songs and brings daughter Antonia Bennett and Placido Domingo along for some added sparkle.

Two old chestnuts pop when the big band puts a snazzy, jazzy burn to “Silver Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

This CD provides the perfect soundtrack for trimming the tree.

— Diana Nollen

Best song: “White Christmas” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

Ho, ho, ho 1/2


CHRISTIAN ARTISTS: “WOW Christmas” (Sony Music)

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

For singing songs with a religious bent, these artists keep the spiritual roots intact but experiment with the melody.

There’s no faking “Oh Holy Night.” You either bring it or you go back to social-night karaoke. Kerrie Roberts knocks the song out of the recital hall, from her soothing voice during the verses to her window-rattling chops during the chorus.

Jeremy Camp’s rich baritone provides a nice contrast to the traditional “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Kutless’ “Mary Did You Know” is guitar-powerful, yet maintains the song’s lyrical sanctity.

My only complaint — and it is very minor — is a few of the non-religious songs rely too much on synthesizers for that holiday-ad, department-store sound.

— Scott Dochterman

Best song: “Oh Holy Night” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

COUNTRY ARTISTS: “A Very Country Christmas” (Arista)

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

I must be a little bit country because I enjoyed “A Very Country Christmas,” but if you’re looking to pull on your dancing shoes — or boots — don’t.

This CD is all about mellowing out and getting into the season. Even Kellie Pickler’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is more subdued as country’s top stars sing Christmas favorites.

If you’re looking to chill out with a cozy blanket, a cup of hot chocolate and a roaring fire, this is perfect.

I especially enjoyed Brad Paisley’s guitar solo on “What Child is This,” Sara Evans’s beautiful voice on “Come All Ye Faithful.” And The Lunabelles quartet hit all the right notes on “The Christmas Song,” one of my favorites.

— Janet Rorholm

Best song: “What Child is This” by Brad Paisley (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

KIDZ BOP KIDS: “Kidz Bop Christmas” (Razor & Tie)

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

“Kidz Bop Christmas” isn’t a CD most adults will choose to listen to on their own, but it’s the smart choice if you have children.

The peppy CD contains 15 classic holiday songs — including “Silver Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” — sung by the Kidz Bop Kids.

“Blue Christmas” was difficult to listen to, but only because kids’ voices can’t compare to Elvis Presley’s version.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself singing along to several tracks during my commute to work. Luckily, I had the windows up.

— Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Best song: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR featuring David Archuleta: “Glad Christmas Tidings” (Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

I admit I was rooting for David Cook over David Archuleta in the 2008 “American Idol” finale. It was nothing against Archuleta; I just thought Cook was more “Idol” material.

But Archuleta, a Utah native and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is in his element singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

For me, the true meaning of Christmas is best reflected in the choir’s beautiful and moving arrangements. Archuleta brings traditional songs such as “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger and “Angels from the Realms of Glory” to a new level with his clear tenor voice.

— Angie Holmes

Best song: “Gesu bambino” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

Ho, ho, ho


CANTUS: “Christmas with Cantus” (Noiseland Industries)

Rating: 3 stars

If you like to rock around the Christmas tree, “Christmas with Cantus” is not for you. If you would rather reflect peacefully by the fire, this is perfect.

No bells or whistles are needed to enhance the tight harmonies of the Minneapolis-based men’s ensemble. The nine voices blend to give a refreshing twist to traditional favorites such as “Carol of the Bells,” “Ave Maria” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The chant-like tone throughout the CD gets a little sleepy and redundant, but the gorgeous harmonies and arrangements in songs like “Coventry Carol” and “Do You Hear What I Hear” should help relieve the stress of the busy holiday season.

— Angie Holmes

Best song: “Coventry Carol” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

GINUWINE: “A GINUWINE Christmas” (NOTIFI Music Group)

Rating: 3 stars

This holiday CD feels like a few different CDs mixed into one.

The first heavy R&B track, “Mistletoe,” oozes with romance and feels more like the song you’d play back at your apartment after the company Christmas party than one you’d play for your boss and friends.

Other tracks, such as “Silent Night,” “12 Days” and “Joy to the World,” sound like more traditional offerings. “12 Days” was my favorite of the three, as I can’t stand the regular song and Ginuwine’s very original version made the song much more tolerable.

“Joy to the World” is the one that sounds like it came right off your mother’s favorite Christmas collection and could hold its own with versions by Andy Williams, Hoyt Axton and Whitney Houston.

The third song on the disc, “Without You,” seemed to garner the top spot among my non-R&B listening family. It is a somewhat sorrow-filled song with a beat that makes you bob your head while you listen to it.

As a whole, I don’t know if this is a CD that you might pop in and listen to start to finish. To me it feels more like a compilation of songs to cherry-pick to liven up a holiday playlist that is often bogged down by holiday favorites we’ve listened to for years.

— Mike Wagner

Best song: “Without You” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

SHE AND HIM: “A Very She and Him Christmas” (Merge Records)

Rating: 3 stars

What does it say about a Christmas album if all of the songs are from post-World War II America?

I think it says the performers — in this case She and Him with their album “A Very She and Him Christmas” — have impeccable taste.

The ’40s and ’50s were when American ideas about Christmas began to reach a mass audience. Songs like “Silver Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” are a part of American yuletide DNA.

Best of all, She and Him demonstrates an admirable quality that is often missing in Christmas music: restraint.

This isn’t music for hectic shopping, although singer Zooey Deschanel’s laid-back style could calm Black Friday retail fury.

Nor is this music for church — not a single religious song on the album.

This is music for sitting around the fire in a smoking jacket, while keeping an eye on the mistletoe.

Merry Christmas, baby.

— Patrick Hogan

Best Song: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

Ho hummmm


JUSTIN BIEBER: “Under the Mistletoe” (Island)

Rating: 2 stars

I’m sure many young girls will be swooning over Justin Bieber’s “Under the Mistletoe” this season. I am not young, nor am I swooning.

That said, I’m sure we will hear a couple of his tracks played over and over at Christmas, notably “Only Thing I Ever Get for Christmas” and “Mistletoe,” which was very Jason Mraz-ic and very catchy.

For the most part, Bieber’s performances with guest artists are good, especially “Home this Christmas” with The Band Perry, but his performance with Mariah Carey on “All I Want is You” fell flat. Mariah does not need any help with that song. But you must listen to his version of “Drummer Boy” with Busta Rhymes. It certainly was interesting.

His version of “The Christmas Song” was ho hum and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” seemed too juvenile.

All this said, I’m not exactly his target audience. My 6-year-old daughter certainly is and she wants her CD back.

— Janet Rorholm

Best Song: “Mistletoe” (CLICK HERE FOR A SAMPLE)

Must Hear: “Drummer Boy”

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