By Gregg Shapiro
The latest version of James Taylor at Christmas (UMe/HRT), first released in 2006, expands on the original with the addition of two tracks. The first is Taylor’s radiant take on The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” which features Yo-Yo Ma on cello. The combination of these two talented artists is indeed a gift. “Mon Beau Sapin,” essentially the French version of the traditional “O Tannenbaum” (aka “O Christmas Tree”), is a lovely addition to the collection. The album, which also features a number of songs that previously appeared on Taylor’s 2004 A Christmas Album, strikes a pleasant balance between seasonally serious songs such as “Some Children See Him,” “Who Comes This Night,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” and lighter holiday fare including “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” and the Natalie Cole duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Taylor also does a reverent version of his dear old friend Joni Mitchell’s tune “River.”
Rod Stewart doesn’t mess around on the expanded deluxe edition CD reissue of his 2013 album Merry Christmas, Baby (Verve). Sung in the crooner style he has adopted on most of his 21st-century releases, Stewart teams up with some interesting duet partners. Modern-day crooning dude Michael Bublé holds his own against Stewart on “Winter Wonderland.” Cee Lo Green inspires Stewart to dig deep and unleash his most soulful self on the title cut, while Mary J. Blige brings out Stewart’s more serious side on “We Three Kings.” Stewart even tries his hand at an original yuletide tune with “Red-Suited Superman” (co-written with David Foster and Foster’s daughter, Amy). “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the least holiday-oriented selection, is a pleasant surprise. Of the three bonus tracks, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” glows the brightest. A bonus DVD features six intimate live performances, including “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Taylor and Stewart were at their creative peaks during the 1970s, and made an effort to remain relevant through the 1980s. But as you can hear, the 1980s, as represented on The Classic Christmas ’80s Album (Legacy), were something else entirely. New wave, hip-hop, ska, boy bands, and divas were the order of the day. New-wave acts such as The Waitresses (the ’80s classic “Christmas Wrapping,” later covered by Spice Girls), The Bangles (Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter”), The Hooters (“Silent Night”), and gay music legend George Michael’s British pop duo Wham! (“Last Christmas”) all stand under the new-wave banner. The late Whitney Houston (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”) and ’70s-survivors-turned-’80s-superstars The Pointer Sisters (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) have diva territory covered. Hip-hop forefathers Run-DMC (“Christmas in Hollis”) fly the rap flag, while the usually high-energy ska act Fishbone (“Slick Nick, You Devil You”) gets serious. For sheer ’80s hose-head novelty, there’s Bob and Doug McKenzie’s rendition of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Sarah McLachlan released her debut album at the tail end of the 1980s and then went on the become one of the female singer/songwriters most closely associated with the 1990s, due in part to her series of Lilith Fair music festivals. Her The Classic Christmas Album (Arista/Legacy) includes all 12 tracks from McLachlan’s 2006 Wintersong disc and adds five more songs to the mix. Merry and memorable selections from the recording include the McLachlan original title tune, covers of songs by fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell (“River”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“Song for a Winter’s Night,” which also appeared on the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street soundtrack), “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” on which she is joined by the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Children’s Choir and Youth Choir, and “Christmas Time Is Here” featuring Diana Krall. Holiday highlights of the additional material include her medley/duet with Barenaked Ladies on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings,” and the originals “Find Your Voice” and “Space on the Couch for Two.”
A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! (Concord) is a very accurate title for the new holiday recording by The Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of Scotty Barnhart. Swing it does! Released to coincide with the orchestra’s 80th (!) anniversary, A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas! is the first Christmas recording in its history. Gay pop-music legend Johnny Mathis, a man with his own lengthy history of Christmas albums, can be heard lending his vocals to Kay Thompson’s “It’s the Holiday Season.” Fittingly retitled, “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslaus” lives up to its name. Carmen Bradford, who has sung with the orchestra for more than 30 years, takes the lead on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while 21st-century soul goddess Ledisi belts it out on “The Christmas Song.” “Jingle Bells” jingles, and “Winter Wonderland” is wonderful. The “encore” selection, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” wraps things up with Ellis Marsalis on piano and Plas Johnson on sax.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis presents the live album Big Band Holidays (Blue Engine), featuring vocal soloists including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter, and René Marie. One of the strongest recommendations for this holiday recording is the interesting selection of seasonal tunes, including “A Cradle in Bethlehem,” “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather,” and “’Zat You, Santa Claus?,” as well as “Good Morning Blues.” Living up to the jazz in its name, a number of the songs clock in over the five-minute mark, and the improvisational rendition of “We Three Kings” is pure jazz.
In his gray turtleneck sweater, head full of white hair, and white beard, Plácido Domingo is the very picture of the Christmas season on the cover of his new holiday album My Christmas (Sony Classical). With the exception of four songs, including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and Puccini’s “Astro del cielo,” Domingo is joined by a fantastic array of guest vocalists. French tenor Vincent Niclo helps Domingo keep the yuletide gay on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Idina Menzel soars alongside Domingo on “Guardian Angels,” a song co-written by Harpo Marx (!). Young classical crossover divas Jackie Evancho and Hayley Westenra duet with Domingo on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” and “Loving Christmas With You” (co-written by Domingo’s son, Plácido Domingo Jr.), respectively. Father and son get together to sing “White Christmas.”
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.