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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2008

Holiday-themed albums share spirit of the season

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

What do the holidays sound like to you?

The snowflakes and chilly breezes and strolls (or dashes?) through the mall, the family dinners and gift exchanges, the eggnog and mistletoe all help to create our own personal soundtracks that stir up holiday feelings.

This year, once again, the music stars have aligned to produce holiday tunes of virtually every genre, mood, and style, ranging from traditional remakes of the standards to swinging big-band jazz to reverent gospel songs to Latin versions of Christmas favorites. There s even a collection of heavy-metal riffs to please holiday headbangers.

Here are a few of the notable new releases that will help maintain Christmas cheer and enhance some holiday memories:

THIS GLORIOUS CHRISTMAS, Annie Moses Band (Reunion). Playing with a classical touch and tight harmonies that only siblings can achieve, this eight-person family band offers delightful, string-driven instrumentals on such carols as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and What Child Is This, as well as sweetly soaring female vocals on less familiar holiday fare such as Little Baby and When the Christmas Baby Cries. CD is packaged with a concert video and bio on DVD.

THE PURPOSE OF CHRISTMAS, Various Artists (RKW). Rick Warren, the pastor whose book The Purpose-Driven Life has sold more than 40 million copies, is now turning his attention to the meaning of Christmas with this CD of 13 holiday songs and three sermons. The all-star lineup includes Martina McBride, Sarah McLachlan, David Benoit, and Amy Grant, and Warren s brief messages are relevant and delivered against a backdrop of soothing acoustic guitar. The package includes a DVD with Warren preaching and explaining his global peace plan. The CD is a companion release to Warren s book of the same title. Available through Wal-Mart stores.

THE GIFT THAT REMAINS, Various Artists (Rhino). Bishop T.D. Jakes delivers a Christmas package similar to Rick Warren s, with a star-studded cast of musicians performing holiday tunes and Bishop Jakes giving three short sermons about Christmas. The 13 tracks include such highlights as Brian McKnight singing First Noel and Mary Mary performing Gift of Love.

IT S CHRISTMAS, Ledisi (Verve). With her vibrant, daring voice, Ledisi is a commanding presence whether she s singing a soft duet with pianist Richard Smallwood on I ll Go or belting out Children Go Where I Send Thee with a six-person band. This refreshing collection of 12 holiday tunes steers away from cookie-cutter covers and lets Ledisi s bold voice and jazzy arrangements sparkle brightly.

CHRISTMAS, Al Jarreau (Rhino). Hard to believe it, but this is the jazz-pop singer s first Christmas album, and it s just as imaginative, unpredictable, and enjoyable as one would expect from this veteran vocalist. Every track is a joyride but Hark! The Herald Angels Sing stands out for the unusual 5/4 time signature, Jarreau s scat singing, and the bouncy background vocals.

I LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, Brian McKnight (Razor & Tie). The multitalented singer and musician takes a romantic stroll down holiday lane, crooning over a lush and shimmering backdrop with a laid-back R&B groove.

McKnight brings out the star power on his duets with Vince Gill on Christmas You and Me, with Josh Groban on Angels We Have Heard on High, and with Take 6 on Bless This House.

THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION, The Brian Setzer Orchestra (Surfdog). The swing-dance craze of the 1990s may have faded but ex-Stray Cat guitarist Setzer is still one of the swingingest cats on the scene. This 20-song set is a rhythmic treat with booming drums and blaring horns backing Setzer s sizzling guitar riffs. The band takes a unique jump-and-jive approach to Jingle Bells, rocks around the beat on Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and gives an adrenaline rush to other holiday standards. The jazz orchestra s intricate neo-classical take on The Nutcracker Suite is particularly daring and successful. The CD comes packaged with a DVD featuring behind-the-scenes looks at Setzer writing the arrangements and interviews with band members.

LATIN CHRISTMAS, Various Artists (Time-Life). Yes, Jose Feliciano s beloved 1970 holiday hit, Feliz Navidad, is included in these 12 tracks, but some of the less familiar Latin versions of holiday favorites are what sets this collection apart. Sheila E. gives a sultry, percussion-driven spin on Santa Baby and the Latin legend Tito Puente leads his orchestra with rhythmic precision on El Tamborilero (The Little Drummer Boy) and Rhumba at the Waldorf.

Esquivel s soothing mix of vibes, piano, and horns makes Snowfall a standout.

WE WISH YOU A METAL XMAS AND A HEADBANGING NEW YEAR, Various Artists (Armoury). Is it not a contradiction for Silent Night to be played with power-chord guitars and guttural vocals? But such songs are sweet music to the ears of heavy-metal fans who will enjoy the way Chuck Billy screams the lyrics and Scott Ian and Jon Donais shred their guitars when they shove this Christmas classic through the wall. An in-your-face holiday disc features a number of rock icons, including Alice Cooper (on Santa Claus Is Coming To Town ); Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi (on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen ), and Lemmy (of Motorhead) teaming up with ZZ Top s Billy Gibbons and Dave Grohl on Run Rudolph Run. The CD ends with the sweet, slowly building ballad, Happy Xmas (War Is Over) featuring Tommy Shaw on vocals, Steve Lukather on guitar, and the great Kenny Aronoff on drums.

SONGS IN THE KEY OF HANUKKAH, Erran Baron Cohen (New Line). The traditional and modern musical expressions of Hanukkah are fused together in this unusual set of 10 tunes that combine klezmer, hip-hop, electronic, rap, pop, and reggae performed by Baron Cohen, brother of actor Sacha Baron Cohen. The creative mix of styles makes even traditional songs such as Dreidel and Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah a new and exhilarating experience.

MY KIND OF HOLIDAY, Elliott Yamin (TRP). The singer who finished third in the fifth season of American Idol bounces along on Jingle Bells and rolls through Little Drummer Boy with jazzy, creative rhythms and arrangements, keeping these classics from sounding like the same-old, same-old. Yamin shows his diversity with gravelly blues on Back Door Santa and a soulful spin on Christmas Without Carol.

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, Sheryl Crow (Hallmark). The Christmas Song never sounded as whimsical and fun as this funky version with a walking bass line, blaring horn accents, and a trombone solo providing a joyful backdrop for Crow s soaring vocals. Crow s band gives White Christmas the same kind of jaunty bounce that made the Drifters version of this classic a holiday favorite.

A SWINGIN CHRISTMAS, Tony Bennett featuring the Count Basie Big Band (Columbia). At 82, Bennett just keeps getting better with his mastery of the Great American Songbook, including Christmas classics. A classy singer who brings lyrics to life and sings with nuance and feeling, Bennett shines on wistful ballads such as All I Want for Christmas Is You and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but still has the energy to fire up the jazz versions of Winter Wonderland and My Favorite Things. The great Monty Alexander adds his dynamic touch on piano.

JOY TO THE WORLD, Faith Hill (Warner Bros.). Hill looks stunning in her glittering holiday gown on the CD cover, but unfortunately there s nothing in this country star s music that matches the packaging. Despite exquisite orchestral production, only the most devoted Hill fans will be able to make it through these 10 uncreative anachronisms to reach the only interesting song, A Baby Changes Everything, a reverent ballad that ends the disc with a touch of gentle inspiration.

A NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Spyro Gyra (Heads Up). From sultry saxophone to plinky piano, veteran jazz group Spyro Gyra puts its smooth instrumental touch to work on 11 Christmas classics including O Tanenbaum, The First Noel, and The Christmas Song. Guest artists Bonny B and Janis Siegel heat up Baby It s Cold Outside, and the group tosses in a romantic new ballad, It Won t Feel Like Christmas.

WHAT A NIGHT! Harry Connick, Jr. (Columbia). Connick has fun with the standards, plucks a few rarely heard Christmas tunes off the shelf, and introduces three originals in this eclectic collection of 15 holiday tunes. Expert arrangements and a lighthearted and joyful spirit make this a highly entertaining musical experience from start to finish.

THE MIRACLE OF CHRISTMAS, Neil Sedaka (Razor & Tie). Sedaka s tenor voice gives a sweet pop sensibility to the 10 classic tunes on this two-disc set, but the 12 original Christmas songs on Disc 1 don t have the catchy melodies or holiday flair that would bring them staying power.

LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS IS HERE, The Ogres. The bright melody and jangly guitars provide a nice counterpoint to Steven J. Athanas gritty baritone on this original tune by Toledo s own Ogres. The holiday jingle conjures up warm images of Christmas peace, the smell of evergreens, Baby Jesus, colored lights, mistletoe as it toasts the new year with a drink from the loving cup. Available free online at www.theogres.net.

AND WINTER CAME, Enya (Reprise). New age music diva Enya said she planned to write and record a Christmas album but wound up with something much broader. Her 10 original tunes, plus two holiday classics, paint a slow and soothing mood that captures the quiet flow of winter with an occasional Christmas reference popping up. The serenity of this set offers a welcome respite from the hustle-bustle and flash and dash of the modern-day holiday season.

LET IT SNOW BABY ... LET IT REINDEER, Relient K (Capitol). The Christian punk rockers from Canton, Ohio, always have fun with their music, playing with youthful energy and zeal and none of the negativity and anti-establishment attitude of typical punk bands. Most of the songs are reissued from Relient K s 2006 holiday album ( Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand ) with a couple of new tunes that show how much this group has grown artistically. Overall the disc offers an innovative spin on Christmas favorites that will appeal to both their young fans and the young at heart.

PEACE ON EARTH, Casting Crowns (Reunion/Beach Street). The seven-person Christian group that started as a church worship band treats the holidays with reverence on this 10-song collection. Singer Mark Hall s distinctively husky voice shines on traditional favorites such as O Come All Ye Faithful and Away in a Manger and the band offers a majestic look at the birth of Christ on O Come, O Come Emmanuel, performed as an instrumental highlighted by Melodee DeVevo s violin.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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