Who sings Christmas carols in a pineapple under the sea? Who croons holiday tunes in Ojibwe, Navajo, and other Native American languages? Who says Santa drives a hot rod? Who s going caroling with the swingingest jazz band? And who hired Donald Trump to give Blitzen the bad news: You re fired?
These are some of the questions one might be asking while sorting through Santa s bag full of Christmas and holiday albums. In a year when seasonal heavyweights such as Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra decided not to release new material, talented jazz artists such as Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, and yes, even Kenny G, have an opportunity to grab some of the holiday spotlight.
Krall s silky voice and swinging touch on the ivories, backed by the grooving Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, give a warm glow to Christmas classics, bringing back memories of the glory days of jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, and Sarah Vaughan.
Native American vocalist Jana sings traditional Christmas songs in a number of different indigenous languages, and even Regis Philbin sticks his nose into the holiday scene with a set of tunes that show he s better suited for talking than singing, even if he does get a little boost from the Donald.
Brian Setzer, former member of the Stray Cats, goes on a joyride with his 17-piece band on Dig That Crazy Christmas, featuring a few catchy originals including the full-tilt boogies of Santa Drives a Hot Rod.
Surprisingly, one of the most amusing holiday albums this year features a cast of cartoon characters from Nickelodeon, led by that grinning yellow blob, SpongeBob SquarePants (who, as you must know by now, lives in a pineapple under the sea).
Here s a roundup of some of the more notable 2005 holiday releases:
A WINDHAM HILL CHRISTMAS: THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Various Artists (Windham Hill). Continuing a string of hit holiday compilations by artists on the Windham Hill record label, The Night Before Christmas features an eclectic mix of newly recorded or previously unreleased instrumentals that range from the ethereal sounds of violinist Tracy Silverman ( Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ) and oboist Paul McCandless ( Angels We Have Heard on High ) to delicate balladry of pianist Jim Brickman ( O Tannenbaum ) and Toledo s own Tim Story ( The First Noel/What Is This Fragrance ). Windham Hill founder Will Ackerman adds his acoustic guitar touch on The Green Trees of Winter and label veteran George Winston, best known as a pianist, plucks a sweet tune on guitar on the song Cherry Tree Carol.
AMERICAN INDIAN CHRISTMAS, Jana (Standing Stone). If it weren t for the exotic languages, this collection of traditional Christmas songs would not stand out from the pack. Backed by standard musical arrangements in most cases, Jana s strong soprano voice soars easily on such classics as O Holy Night, Winter Wonderland, and Little Drummer Boy. What makes the disc unique, however, is that she sings those songs in Navajo, Ojibwe, and San Juan Tewa Pueblo, respectively. The combination of familiar holiday songs sung in unfamiliar, but historic and beautiful languages, makes for a memorable listening experience.
SMOOTH JAZZ CHRISTMAS, Marcus Johnson (Three Keys). Johnson s keyboards lead the way on a nine-song collection that provides great background music for holiday parties. There s nothing too flashy or noticeable, the music is classy but middle of the road, and the interpretations of such perennials as Little Drummer Boy, White Christmas, and Silent Night are safe, tame, and innocuous. Noteworthy is Keith Ailer s sultry vocals on a slinky version of The Christmas Song.
CHRISTMAS SONGS, Diana Krall featuring the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (Verve). Krall is the undisputed queen of jazz today, and the only jazz artist aside from Wynton Marsalis who can sell out large concert halls anywhere in the United States or Europe. Christmas Songs will only further her stature as the best in the business. Whether scatting briskly on Jingle Bells, whispering romantically on The Christmas Song, or crooning with sass on Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Krall enthralls from the first note to the fade out. Providing supple support for the diva is the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
NICK HOLIDAY, Various Cartoon Characters (Sony). Those who are not parents of small children may not be able to tell SpongeBob SquarePants voice from Dora the Explorer, but it hardly matters when listening to this jovial set of holiday songs. The kooky voices are all wonderfully enthusiastic as they croak, squeak, croon, and warble through such lighthearted holiday fare as Basking in the Warmth of Christmas, Spin Dreidle Spin, and Snow Is Cold but I Am Cool.
THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION, Il Divo (Syco/Sony). This international pop-opera quartet, poised to make its splash in the USA, gives holiday classics an original spin, switching gears from simple pop charts to full-bodied operatic arrangements. The opening track, O Holy Night, is a perfect example of how these young opera hunks can create a smooth m lange of styles, shifting genres without sounding gimmicky or forced. Credit must go to producer Steve Mac, whose previous work includes albums by Charlotte Church and Kelly Clarkson.
THE SEASON, Jane Monheit (Epic). Up-and-coming jazz vocalist Monheit performs tasteful jazz-pop interpretations on a spirited selection of standards, including Merry Christmas Darling, My Grown Up Christmas List, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The brisk and bouncy The Man with the Bag highlights Monheit s sultry alto voice and her keen sense of rhythm and style. Never getting too adventurous on these holiday favorites, Monheit swings with her regular quartet and an occasional boost from a six-piece horn section. This is the kind of fun and swinging jazz collection that has strong mainstream appeal.
A HOLIDAY ALBUM, Lorie Line and her Pop Chamber Orchestra (Lorie Line Music). Lorie Line is an entertainment and marketing genius who knows how to put on a show that is guaranteed to delight audiences of all ages. But this set of holiday songs, without Line s charismatic stage presence, rises just above average. To her credit, Line chooses some songs that don t make every artist s Christmas list, including John Lennon s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and the beautiful Mark Lowry ballad, Breath of Heaven (Mary s Song).
THE ESSENTIAL WINTER S SOLSTICE, Various Artists (Windham Hill). Celebrating winter solstice, the astronomically calculated shortest day of the year, these 29 tracks by Windham Hill artists have been culled from the label s previous solstice releases. The two-disc set of unorthodox instrumental arrangements is highlighted by Rain into Snow by Celtic guitarist William Coulter, Trepak by the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and Keiki s Dream by Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Keola Beamer.
THE GREATEST HOLIDAY CLASSICS, Kenny G (Arista). Apparently the smooth-jazz soprano saxophonist has been busy sifting through his old recordings searching for a way to repackage some of his old material. Most of the 16 tracks on this disc were lifted from G s previous holiday discs, including 1994 s Miracles, 1999 s Faith, and 2002 s Wishes. Of four new recordings, My Favorite Things is a perfect fit for G s lilting melodic touch.
DIG THAT CRAZY CHRISTMAS, The Brian Setzer Orchestra (Surfdog). These 13 tunes showcase the former Stray Cat s nimble guitar fretwork, blazing the way through a rollicking set of songs backed by his sizzling 17-piece band. Setzer s hard-charging Christmas arrangements, imaginative selections, and sense of humor give listeners something totally different from the typical middle-of-the-road holiday sound. Standout tracks include Getting in the Mood (For Christmas), a witty remake of Glenn Miller s famed In the Mood with lyrics rewritten for the holiday, and Hey Santa!, a tight, big-band blast penned by Setzer.
THE REGIS PHILBIN CHRISTMAS ALBUM, Regis Philbin (Hollywood). With help from a very slick and classy production, Philbin does a passable version on upbeat ditties such as Where Do We Go for Christmas and Marshmallow World (with Steve Tyrell), but his voice seems threadbare when it gets too much of the spotlight on slower numbers, including his wavering, quavering attempt at White Christmas and a languid The Christmas Song. Philbin fans will love it, however, not for his voice but for his charming personality.
HERE S YOUR CHRISTMAS ALBUM, Bill Engvall (Warner Bros.). At times, this collection of country-rock comedy tunes is slightly amusing. Most of the time, however, it s just corny, junior-high level humor as seen in such titles as Rudolph Got a DUI and I m Getting Sued by Santa. If the standard holiday jingles are wearing thin, Engvall s holiday humor may provide a few yuletide yuks.
CHRISTMAS ANGELS, Various Artists (Capitol/EMI). This 10 tunes on this collection add up to only 36 minutes worth of music, but Alison Krauss sugar-sweet flirtation on Shimmy Down the Chimney (Fill Up My Stocking) makes it worth the price. Co-written by Alison and Viktor Krauss, this song is a steamy number that injects a sense of romance into the holiday collection. The other notable Christmas Angels all female country stars include Suzy Boggus singing Two Step Round the Christmas Tree, Cyndi Thomson on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and country-gospel artist Nichole Nordeman performing a reverent Do You Hear What I Hear.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.
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