How would you get yourself into the Christmas spirit in, say, July? The annual crop of holiday albums -- most of them are recorded early in the year. The Indigo Girls, from Atlanta, laid down their tracks in May. Imagine them stumbling into the studio in tank tops and flip-flops, stringing up some twinkling lights, cranking up the A/C, mixing up an eggnog smoothie and trying to harmonize on "O Holy Night" like they really mean it.
This year's crop of Christmas albums features some that really capture the warmth, though some are hotter than others. We previously reviewed the season's two Xmas biggies: Susan Boyle's "The Gift" (which sold 330,000 copies its first week) and Mariah Carey's "Merry Christmas II You" (55,000 copies). Here are the best of the rest ...
11 Acorn Lane, "Happy Holy Days" (Wooden Hat)
No one's been clamoring for a resurgence of space-age bachelor pad music, and fans of "Mad Men" might have missed the cocktail and lounge revival of the mid-'90s. Nevertheless, the New York duo of Thomas Foyer and Neal Pawley spent the last three years orchestrating this effervescent collection of holiday standards. The wild, inventive arrangements seek to emulate or pay tribute to Esquivel, succeeding on both accounts. Foyer and Pawley are rooted near vintage camp, but their instrumental tracks -- such as an amazing "Silent Night" driven by Lawrence Welk accordion but skipping lively over a modern programmed rhythm, or the trippy beats of "Kling Glockchen" -- are artful enough to appeal to contemporary indie-rock and electronic fans. It's like a Christmas party with Herb Alpert, Sufjan Stevens, MGMT, Henry Mancini, RJD2 and Alvino Rey gabbing around the eggnog. Bottoms up!
Indigo Girls, "Holly Happy Days" (Vanguard)
Perhaps a surprise entry to the holiday canon, the Indigo Girls bring their natural earnestness and down-home spirit to a pleasant, pretty Christmas record. "Holly Happy Days" is an easygoing variety show, a well-rounded set of religious standards (a rhythmic "O Holy Night," a very traditional "Angels We Have Heard on High"), valuable discoveries ("I Feel the Christmas Spirit" from a 1995 record by gospel-bluegrass family the Isaacs), contemporary songs (Chely Wright's "It Really Is a Wonderful Life") and original ones (Emily Saliers' "Your Holiday Song," Amy Ray's "Mistletoe"). The Southern country and bluegrass acoustic instrumentation throughout adds a flavor of warm cider to the proceedings. Good stuff. In concert: The Indigo Girls' holiday show is in town Dec. 7 at the House of Blues.
Pink Martini, "Joy to the World" (Heinz Records)
It's the Christmas equivalent of Willy Wonka's Fizzy Lifting Drink. You'll feel all shiny and bright after imbibing this intoxicating holiday cocktail. Mixmasters Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes run yuletide favorites through their world-music blender and come up with bubbly spritzers such as a Nippon-flavored "White Christmas" (with guest vocalist Saori Yuki), a Fela Kuti-inflected "We Three Kings," a surprising "La Vergine Degli Angeli" (Leonora's prayer from Verdi's "La forza del destino") and, best of all, a samba-rific take on "Auld Lang Syne," with turbo-percussion from Brazil's Lions of Batacuda. Points off, though, for yet another Eartha Kitt-erish "Santa Baby." Otherwise, skoal!
Lady Antebellum, "A Merry Little Christmas" (Capitol)
Even though it's an EP, Lady Antebellum's festive release manages to hit three key subcategories of holiday music. It has roasted chestnuts (a classy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), a recent classic (a romantic, slow-tempo interpretation of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You") and an original tune ("On This Winter's Night," penned by the band in collaboration with Nashville songwriting icon Tom Douglas). Just as they have done on previous albums, the ultra-talented Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott divide the lead vocal duties. The closing track, "Silver Bells," ends with a soothing, 83-second instrumental passage -- a perfect cue that it's time to make more hot cocoa.
Shelby Lynne, "Merry Christmas" (Everso)
She's soulful, she's country, she's a sexy Mrs. Claus. Shelby Lynne brings the Muscle Shoals studio sound to the Christmas party. That's pretty much exactly what she's singing about in one of her two original songs on this holiday set, "Ain't Nothin' Like Christmas," which finds her skipping through a shuffle rhythm and concluding, "I'll bring the nog/You put on a log / It's a Christmas pah-ha-ha-arty." The light bluegrass hoedown of Tex Logan's "Christmastime's a-Comin'" illustrates why adults still revel in the holiday's childlike spirit. But on her other original, "Xmas," she's a sad girl, singing a real Christmas blues.
Cast of "Glee," "The Christmas Album" (Columbia)
The year's most inevitable holiday release finds TV's evermore tiresome and preposterous cover band screaming carols at the top of their lungs, and sometimes louder. These dozen classics are rearranged, not reinvented. Chris Colfer's Kurt is the only character with any substance left on this quickly waning series, and here he delivers the only real twist on a song, dueting with his boycrush on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." That said, it's still Lea Michele who (as her character, Rachel, firmly believes) has the best voice, nicely showcased on "Merry Christmas Darling." k.d. lang sings "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," for some reason, and the gents (Finn, Puck and Artie) jump through a bluesy "Jingle Bells." But all in all, it's an overproduced rampage through the Christmas canon with the subtlety and grace of all 36 reindeer hooves.
Ronnie Spector, "Best Christmas Ever" (Bad Girl Sounds)
Spector earned her place in yuletide history in 1963, leading the Ronettes in "Sleigh Ride" and other monumental Christmas tracks for her producer (and, for a time, husband) Phil Spector. Now 67, she still has a kewpie-doll innocence to her voice and never misses a chance for a "Whoa-oh-oh-oh." On this EP, Spector skips the standards and wobbles her way through mundane compositions full of drab lyrics and tired sentiments. And she gets no help in the studio, where she's surrounded by a paper-thin wall of sound.
The Superions, "Destination Christmas!" (Fanatic)
The Suburban Lawns never made a Christmas record, but this comes close. The Superions are the latest side project from the B-52s' screaming queen Fred Schneider. Each song here is original and determinedly irreverent, trying overly hard to turn hoary Christmas cliches on their elfin ears. But the laughs are limited and pretty one-note -- Schneider and his trademark bark celebrating "Fruitcake," voicing an amorous but doomed couple in "Chillin' at Christmas," panting through "Santa je t'aime" with a lust that would arouse Sue from "Bad Santa" -- and it quickly grows old and somewhat annoying. The only song that delivers all the way through is the tale of "Teddy and Betty Yeti" and their vengeful and bloody massacre of everyone at the North Pole. Every holiday punch bowl needs a spike, and this'll do it. It just won't add any taste.
Annie Lennox, "A Christmas Cornucopia" (Decca)
For some, Christmas is a warm, happy time, full of laughter. For Annie Lennox, it's a Very Serious Occasion. "A Christmas Cornucopia" is no laughing matter, and it's so starchy you could add it to thicken your Christmas stew. The traditional carols here ("Il est ne le diven enfant," "The Holly and the Ivy," "As Joseph Was a Walking," etc.) are arranged and produced beautifully but sung with all the spirit and joy of a dour minister in a Dickens novel. Every time Lennox opens her mouth, she delivers the exact same pleading tone with the exact same dynamic, her voice sometimes quivering not with emotion but apparent strain, like Sinead O'Connor in a Christmas pageant. Joyless, humorless, cold as a church on Dec. 26, this "Cornucopia" is a basketful of bummers.
Celtic Thunder, "Celtic Thunder Christmas" (Decca)
Unless you're a huge fan of these Irish and Scottish lads, this disc probably won't do much to put you in the holiday spirit. Save for the lighthearted leadoff track ("It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"), which held such promise for what was yet to come, there wasn't much in the rest of the lineup that didn't have me heading for the skip button. The album's somber tone is just too much to bear. The Thunder balladeers are a huge hit with PBS pledge-drive audiences, and their new Christmas show, based on this CD will be airing (7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 on WTTW-Channel 11), so you can see as well as hear the lineup that also boasts "Silent Night" and "All I Want For Christmas Is You," among other commercial and traditional holiday fare. Humbug!
Miriam Di Nunzio
And there's more ...
Jessica Simpson, "Happy Christmas" (Primary Wave)
The actress/designer/ditz cuts her second Christmas set.
Jackie Evancho, "O Holy Night" (Syco)
The 10-year-old "America's Got Talent" phenom sings on a CD-DVD package.
Bryn Terfel, "Carols and Christmas Songs" (Deutsche Grammophon)
The bass-baritone duets with Bing Crosby on "White Christmas."
Brian Setzer, "Christmas Comes Alive!" (Surfdog)
The Stray Cat's latest big-band set was recorded on tour.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks "Crazy for Christmas" (Surfdog)
The rock 'n' roll wags goof on Santa.
Peter, Paul & Mary, "The Night Before Christmas" (Peter Yarrow Books)
Book-CD combo includes a reading by the late Mary Travers.
Phineas & Ferb, "Holiday Favorites" (Walt Disney)
The tuneful cartoon duo warps the classics.
The Canadian Tenors, "The Perfect Gift" (Decca)
Sarah McLachlan shares one of the vocal quartet's tracks.
Katharine McPhee, "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" (Verve Forecast)
The "Idol" runner-up tries tinsel tunes.
Wilson Phillips, "Christmas in Harmony" (Sony Masterworks)
The '90s girl group blends voices anew.
The Priests, "Noel" (RCA Victor)
Three men of the cloth croon time-tested carols.
Puppini Sisters, "Christmas With the Puppini Sisters" (Verve)
Female trio revamps the standards with '40s-style harmonies.
Berlin Voices, "About Christmas" (Hanssler Classics)
German singers rely on offbeat arrangements.
Point of Grace, "Home for the Holidays" (Word)
The Christian trio harmonizes for the holidays.
Mandy Barnett, "Winter Wonderland" (Hi-Fi)
Patsy Cline sound-alike's disc is sold only at Cracker Barrel.
Various artists, "Now That's What I Call Christmas 4" (EMI)
Two-disc compilation includes tracks by Lady Gaga and Rihanna.
Sam Stryke, "Joy to the World" (Razz)
Lushly arranged mini-symphonies for this Chicago pianist.
Various Artists, "The Year Without a Santa Claus" (Capitol)
The classic tale as read by Boris Karloff in '68 is reissued, with extra songs.
The Irreconcilables, "Merry Ex-mas: Holiday Songs for the Divorced and Soon-to-Be" (Ex-mas)
Bluesy new laments and swingin' gems.
Various Artists, "World Christmas Party" (Putumayo)
The revered world music label rounds up Western Hemisphere classics, and more.