Fill your air space with sweet sounds this holiday season.
By Gregg Shapiro
After the 2008 presidential election, the crumbling economy, and the endless war, the other subject that is most likely weighing on people’s minds is the winter holidays. There are parties and meals and gifts and an assortment of other celebration preoccupations to tend to. Your holiday music should be the least of your concerns. With the holidays upon us, here are some musical suggestions to consider to reduce the stress.
A Winter Symphony (Manhattan/EMI), the first-ever CD of Christmas music by Sarah Brightman, is every bit as lush and schmaltzy as one might expect from the queen of pop crossover opera. Brightman does ABBA on the album opener “Arrival,” newly adapted into a vocal piece. Other contemporary selections include Vince Gill’s “Colder Than Winter,” Neil Diamond’s “I’ve Been This Way Before,” Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.” Of course, Brightman also includes plenty of classics including “Silent Night” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Relative newcomer Ledisi puts a gospel spin on the songs of the season on her It’s Christmas (Verve Forecast) disc. In addition to four notable originals, Ledisi works wonders with “Please Come Home for Christmas,” the Motown classic “Give Love on Christmas Day,” and “Silent Night,” to name a few.
Broadway and television diva Kristin Chenoweth has a voice made for singing as you can hear on A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas (Sony Classical). A favorite of the GLBT community, Chenoweth has fun on tracks such as “Christmas Island,” “Sing,” “Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World” (with John Pizzarelli), and the countrified “Come on Ring Those Bells,” and also gets serious on “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “What Child Is This?,” and “Born On Christmas Day.”
A compilation of tracks from two of Natalie Cole’s Christmas CDs, Caroling, Caroling: Christmas with Natalie Cole (Elektra/Rhino) features eight songs including another “duet” with her late father Nat “King” Cole on “The Christmas Song.”
Like the aforementioned Ms. Brightman, Mary Chapin Carpenter has also released her first Christmas album. Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas (Zoë) consists of a half dozen Carpenter originals, including the title tune, “Christmas Time in the City,” and “Bells Are Ringing,” which are welcome additions to the canon of holiday, along with a couple of traditionals and others.
A male diva if there ever was one, jazz vocal legend Al Jarreau delivers his long-promised holiday music album Christmas (Rhino). Containing what Jarreau himself refers to as “Jarreau-isms,” he does distinctive renditions of traditional and popular carols, as well as a couple of original compositions.
With the formation of his band The Boxmasters, actor and musician Billy Bob Thornton moved a bit closer to being taken seriously as a musical artist. Still acting (he can be seen in Eagle Eye), Thornton was also able to see to the release of The Boxmasters’ self-titled debut album, as well as the holiday disc Christmas Cheer (Vanguard/Sawmill), a twangy take on a half dozen seasonal favorites, from “Silver Bells” to “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over),” as well as darkly humorous originals such as “Slower Than Christmas” and “Christmas in Prison.”
Following Leigh Nash’s solo exercise, contemporary Christian act Sixpence None The Richer has regrouped in time for the holidays. On The Dawn of Grace (Nettwerk), SNTR perform a pair of originals, as well as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Some Children See Him,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and more.
Just in time for the underwhelming reception they received for their reunion CD and tour, Merry, Merry Christmas (Columbia/Legacy), the 1989 Christmas disc by New Kids on the Block has been released. Sounding every bit as dated as its almost 20 years, there is something mildly novel about the disc and will surely inspire nostalgia and swooning in some listeners.
The Count Basie Big Band joins Tony Bennett for A Swingin’ Christmas, which lives up to its name.
The variety packs We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year (Armoury) lives up to its premise and its promise by running a dozen Christmas carols through the metallic wringer. A line-up of 28 hard-rocking all-male superstars (why it’s an all-male affair is a mystery), including Dave Grohl, Alice Cooper, Scott Ian, Tommy Shaw, Ronnie James Dio. and Lemmy Kilmister, pummel and wail their way through “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and others.
In addition to a number of familiar favorites, Putumayo Presents a Jazz & Blues Christmas (Putumayo) also features a number of unique tunes including “Christmas Celebration” by B.B. King, “Santa’s Blues” by Charles Brown, “Xmas Baby” by Riff Ruffin, and “All I Ask for Christmas” by the Mighty Blue Kings.
The various-artists compilation Christmas a Go-Go (Wicked Cool), a product of Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Underground Garage,” includes rarities by Keith Richard (“Run Rudolph Run”), Bob Seger (“Sock It to Me Santa”), “All Alone on Christmas Day” by Darlene Love with the E Street Band, and “Santa Claus Is Surfin’ to Town” by Soupy Sales, to name just a few.
The aforementioned Ledisi can be heard on The Essential Now That’s What I Call Christmas (UMG), along with other newcomers Colbie Caillat and Carrie Underwood, as well as favorites by Donny Hathaway, John & Yoko, Johnny Mathis, The Chipmunks, and Brenda Lee.
The Sounds of Christmas Past
The original soundtrack to the early 1960s’ “Christmas television spectacular,” The Story of Christmas (DRG), features The Roger Wagner Chorale backing up Tennessee Ernie Ford, who both sings and speaks the story of, you guessed it, Christmas.
Originally released nearly 40 years ago, Great Orchestral Music of Christmas (DRG) consists of 20 holiday songs performed by The Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, 12 under the direction of Carmen Dragon (father of Daryl Dragon—the Captain in Captain and Tenille) and eight under the baton of Alfred Newman (uncle of Randy Newman).
Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert (Craig’N Co) is the soundtrack to the public television special of the same name. Led by Craig Taubman, children’s musician-turned Hebrew hitmaker, the disc of Hanukkah tunes also includes performances by The Klezmatics (featuring gay Lorin Sklamberg), out smooth jazz sax player Dave Koz, Michelle Citrin, and actress/singer Mare Winningham (whose “A Convert Jig” is worth the price of admission), to name a few.
Although there is nothing specifically Hanukkah-related on The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People (Shout! Factory/JMG), it is nevertheless certified kosher music. The heart on the disc can be found in Neil Sedaka’s reading of “My Yiddishe Momme” (a song he was born to sing), as well as “Raisins and Almonds” by the above-mentioned Koz, and out Klezmatic Alicia Svigals who joins Herb Alpert on “Mein Shtetele Belz,” folk legend Theodore Bikel on “Sabbath Prayer” (from Fiddler), a serious turn by Adam Sandler on “Hine Ma Tov,” as well as divas Lanie Kazan and Barbra Streisand. Humorous numbers such as “Bagels and Lox” by Rob Schneider; Jason Alexander’s rendition of the Allan Sherman classic “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max”; “Joe and Paul” by Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer; and “Mahzel (Means Good Luck)” by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Aside from Lights, new Hanukkah music is in short supply this year. But if you are looking for the right music for latke eating and candle lighting, check out the reissue of The Barry Sisters’ Our Way (Reboot Stereophonic). The “queens of Yiddish swing,” Claire and Myrna Barry (née Bagelman) turned their attention to popular tunes of the time on this 1973 release and put a certified kosher stamp on songs such as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head (Trop’n Fin Regen Oif Mein Kop),” “My Way (Mein Vaig),” “Love Story (A Meiseh Fin Liebeh),” “Cabaret,” and “Mame,” among others.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.