Holiday albums from Idina Menzel, Darius Rucker, EWF and more provide Christmas spirit

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BY MELISSA RUGGIERI

Eclectic vocal group Pentatonix is sparking the warm and fuzzies with “That’s Christmas to Me,” Meghan Trainor has traded in her bass for melancholy on “I’ll Be Home” and even the Killers veered down Pensive Path with their bittersweet “Joel, the Lump of Coal.”

Isn’t anyone interested in dashing through the snow or going for sleigh rides this year?

Actually, it’s satisfying to hear so many originals amid the myriad renditions of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night,” but there is no shortage of the familiar in this season’s stack of yuletide tunes, either.

Here are some aural holiday delights for your consideration:

Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel, “Holiday Wishes”

Menzel’s sumptuous seasonal offering is her first studio release in six years and has already sold more than 100,000 copies. “Let it Go,” indeed. Menzel, who never met a note she couldn’t turn inside out, stretch into completely unrecognizable form and then catapult it to another level, is firmly in her element on these 14 songs (12 on the standard edition). She does, for better or worse, have a habit of turning a three-minute song into nearly six-minute-long opuses, but the only time it truly detracts is on her cover of Mariah Carey’s sprightly “All I Want for Christmas,” which loses its brightness when it’s turned into an endless slog full of jazz hands and cabaret shouts. But most notable about “Holiday Wishes” is that Menzel sounds as if she’s truly enjoying herself as she takes a break from Broadway prison (the same songs the same way eight times a week). Most endearing is her duet with Michael Buble on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (make sure to check out the adorable video), but she also does sultry (“What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve”) and contemplative (the original — and greatly theatrical — “December Prayer”) equally well. Even with her grand voice, Menzel is thoroughly capable of providing restraint on delicate tunes such as Joni Mitchell’s “River” and “White Christmas.” Now, how about a new non-holiday album? A-

Michael W. Smith is joined by an array of guest stars.

Michael W. Smith & Friends, “The Spirit of Christmas”

It can be risky to load up a Christmas album with guest stars, but Smith, the twinkling-eyed emperor of the contemporary Christian music genre, chose wisely by enlisting duet partners as diverse as Jennifer Nettles and Michael McDonald. He coaxes a typically sublime guitar solo from Vince Gill on “Christmas Time Is Here” and works the family tree by having daughter Audrey Smith sing “Somewhere in My Memory” from “Home Alone.” Smith’s collaboration with old friend Amy Grant on “Almost There” is a reverent ballad that gracefully swells into a heavenly sonic pillow. This is the rare Christmas album — at least this year — that oozes with ambition and original songs that, while maybe not instant classics, fit snugly alongside Smith’s three other contributions to the Christmas album section on the CD shelf (for those of us who still have them). He’s such a skilled arranger that working with the London Symphony Orchestra is probably as much a treat for them as it is for him. “The Spirit of Christmas” instrumental medley (medley (“Deck the Halls,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Feels Like Christmas” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”) is every bit as stirring as Smith’s superb “Gloria” on his first Christmas release from 1989. That album gets a shoutout with a remake of “All Is Well,” this time with the power-lunged Carrie Underwood handling vocals. The highlight of an album full of them is “The Darkest Midnight,” a traditional Irish carol read by Bono. The sparse result is both chilling and beautiful and the most inspiring moment on a Christmas album this season. A

Earth, Wind and Fire, “Holiday”

From the opening notes of “Joy to the World,” it’s apparent that EWF’s first-ever holiday album isn’t going to stray too far from the legendary R&B-funk band’s signature sound with blasts of brass and calls to keep clapping. The band covers traditional territory with “Away in a Manger,” “Sleigh Ride” and “The First Noel,” but their “new” songs are basically tweaked versions of previous hits. “Happy Seasons” hits all the right falsetto notes — pretty much the same as “Happy Feelin’” did — and “December” is a blatant rewrite of “September” with only the calendar month swapped out, which, perhaps unfairly, gives the distinct impression of laziness. Still, if you have to listen to the 400th version of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “The Little Drummer Boy,” wouldn’t you rather hear them coated with EWF’s signature harmonies, interesting percussive twists and slithering horns? B-

Darius Rucker does a pretty mean Mr. Grinch.

Darius Rucker, “Home for the Holidays”

Rucker has forged such a successful career in country that it’s almost — almost — time that we can say, Hootie who? For his first Christmas album, Rucker keeps the twang quotient high (his side-mouth delivery of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” is so deliberate it’s almost comical). A couple of new tunes are tucked among these dozen songs. “What God Wants for Christmas” is a predictable, misty-eyed ballad dusted with piano plinks and a shuffle beat while “Candy Cane Christmas” finds Rucker taking a more playful approach. The same can’t be said of the forced dialogue that launches “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” his otherwise pleasant duet with Sheryl Crow, who taps into her upper register to achieve girlish coyness. But the gold medal winner on the album is “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Without even hearing it, you can already hear Rucker’s bottomless voice slinking around the lyric, “You have termites in your smile, you have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.” B

Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal, “Talkin’ Christmas!”

For their second Christmas album, the Blind Boys of Alabama deliver the most unconventional offering of the year, and that’s exactly what makes it so refreshing. “Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn,” a 1920s-era song recorded by the Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers, takes us straight to church, with Taj Mahal’s banjo providing some extra spice. Mahal handles lead vocals on the original song “What Can I Do?” — his strained rasp filled with emotion as the Blind Boys harmonize behind him. Fans of a sneaky groove will appreciate the funky title track, while those who prefer more traditional offerings will relish the potent version of “Silent Night,” with only an acoustic guitar guiding the group’s visceral vocals. While the Blind Boys’ distinctive harmonizing colors all of the songs on the album, their most riveting performance is on “No Room in the Inn,” written by the late Claude Jeter, founder of the gospel group the Swan Silvertones. It will make you believe. B+

"Celebrate Me Home" is a standout on the "Nashville" cast album.

Other new holiday selections:

“Christmas With Nashville”: The cast of the ABC drama showcases their singing chops on traditional fare (“Santa Baby” from Clare Bowen, “Blue Christmas” from Charles Esten featuring Vince Gill) and throws in a charming cover of Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home” for added wistfulness.

Human Nature, “The Christmas Album”: Initially released last year in their homeland of Australia, the U.S. version of the album from the vocal group includes HLN’s Robin Meade guesting on “Sleigh Ride,” which she recorded with Atlanta’s “Mama” Jan Smith as her vocal producer.

Jim Brickman brings Kenny Rogers along on his latest.

Jim Brickman, “On a Winter’s Night”: On his eighth Christmas album, Brickman recruited John Oates, Jana Kramer and Kenny Rogers to provide vocals to his tender-hearted piano compositions. The

Rogers song, “That Silent Night,” is currently climbing the charts.

Celtic Thunder, “Holiday Symphony”: Traditional carols such as “O Holy Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” are performed by the six-piece male vocal group with a Celtic flair and the backing of a 90-piece orchestra.

Anthony Hamilton: The debut Christmas album from the R&B-soul man is a 14-track collection of familiar hits and originals, but the more interesting component is his guests: Chaka Khan, Gavin DeGraw and ZZ Ward.

Renee Fleming, “Christmas in New York”: The world-renowned soprano taps into the incomparable spirit of Christmas in the magical city with the help of Wynton Marsalis, Rufus Wainwright and Kelli O’Hara, among others.

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Check out our Year in Review and Holiday Shopping Guide.


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