The Billings Outpost

National groups celebrate Christmas

By ALAN SCULLEY - Last Word Features

This year’s selection of holiday CDs features big names (Lady Antebellum and CeeLo Green), veteran and new artists and plenty of stylistic variety. Here’s how this year’s holiday albums shake out.

The Headliners

Lady Antebellum: “On This Winter’s Night” (Capitol Records) – Currently riding a wave of huge popularity, Lady Antebellum aims for mass appeal with “On This Winter’s Night.” The trio sticks to famous Christmas songs (with the exception of one original, the title track), and gives them the big production treatment, with strings and horns and an overall pop sheen that should make the album a multi-genre success.

A little more adventurousness would have been nice, but “On This Winter’s Night” is done well and is enjoyable, which should be enough to put it in regular rotation on fans’ holiday play lists for years to come.

– Rating: 3 stars.

CeeLo Green: “CeeLo’s Magic Moment” (Elektra Records) – No holiday CD is more intriguing than “CeeLo’s Magic Moment” simply because of Green’s creativity.

He doesn’t disappoint. ”What Christmas Means To Me” starts the album on a stirring note, with its cheerful rocking R&B bounce. Other high points follow.

Green does a good Stevie Wonder with his version of “This Christmas.” He also brings a festive R&B feel to “White Christmas” and rocks up “Run Rudolph Run” in fine style. Such songs help this album deliver the magic promised in its title.

– Rating: 4 stars.

Various Artists: “Holidays Rule” (Hear Music) – Want a little diversity in a holiday album? Try “Holidays Rule.” Here you’ll find the Shins bringing a bit of a Beach Boys vibe to “Wonderful Christmastime.” The venerable Irma Thomas and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band do up “May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas” with a bit of New Orleans spice.

Paul McCartney and Diana Krall team up for a tasteful, ever-so-slightly jazzy take on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” Eleanor Friedberger brings a little smoke and sass to “Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me).” A couple of tunes don’t gel, but otherwise, this album pretty much rules.

– Rating: 4 stars.

Scotty McCreery: “Christmas with Scotty McCreery” (Mercury/19/Interscope Records) – Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton are bigger names, but McCreery outdoes those country peers here.

Even though most of the songs on this CD have been done to death, McCreery and his musicians find fresh approaches to songs like “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and ”Let It Snow.”

If he can be bring this kind of inspiration to his regular country albums, McCreery might be filling arenas like Lady Antebellum before long.

– Rating: 3½ stars

Blake Shelton: “Cheers, It’s Christmas” (Warner Bros. Records) – Shelton saves this album by occasionally straying from tried and true material. For instance, he teams up with Reba McEntire on “Oklahoma Christmas,” a song that celebrates that state’s holiday traditions.

Michael Buble co-wrote and sings on the silky ballad, “Home,” while “There’s A New Kid In Town” (with Kelly Clarkson) is a string-accented ballad that splits the difference between hymn and pop ballad.

Otherwise you get the usual treatments of standards like “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” and there’s no reason to raise a toast that sort of predictability.

– Rating: 2½ stars.

Other Worthy Releases

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John: “This Christmas” (UME Records) – Some 30 years after they starred in the movie version of “Grease,” Travolta and Newton-John team up again, and are donating artist proceeds from this album to their favorite charities.

While Travolta is no Frank Sinatra, he and Newton-John do decent jobs with holiday favorites like “White Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and especially a lyrically playful version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” A few big-name guests such as Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett add a nice bonus to this pleasant collection.

– Rating: 3 stars.

Christina Perri: “A Very Merry Perri Christmas” (Atlantic Records) – Although she has been bunched in with middle-of-the-road popsters like Jason Mraz and Train, Perri has shown signs of challenging her fans with her music.

So it’s a bit surprising that “A Very Merry Perri Christmas” is pretty middle of the road. The six songs here are sweetly rendered, but a little too safe for their own good. – Rating: 2½ stars.

Katherine Jenkins: “This Is Christmas” (Reprise Records) – If you’re looking for a vocal album in more of a classical/theatrical vein, “This Is Christmas” might be just the ticket.

Jenkins brings her mezzo-soprano to stately versions of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Hark The Herald Angels.”

Fortunately, a few lighter favorites, such as “Santa Baby” and “The Christmas Song,” keep things from being relentlessly formal.

– Rating: 3 stars.

Brooke White: “White Christmas” (June Baby Records) – Mixing three originals in with common favorites, White generally favors a stripped back approach on this album, using piano, some backing vocals and little more for her versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”

It’s refreshing to hear an artist avoid over-dressing such songs, but whether less is actually more in this case comes down to personal taste.

– Rating: 3 stars.

A Few Worth Discovering

Emily Hurd: “Any Given Day” (www.emilyhurd.com) — Hurd wanted “Any Given Day” to be a holiday album that could be listened to any time of year. She’s met that objective by avoiding holiday standards and instead penning rootsy songs that show why Hurd has been a winner or finalist in several national songwriting contests. The songs here may not be familiar like “Silver Bells” or “Rudolph The Rednose Reindeer,” but “Any Given Day” is one of this year’s best holiday releases.

– Rating: 3½ stars.

The Eastern Sea: “First Christmas” (self-released) – This Austin-based band brings an energetic folk-pop sound to the holidays with this album. A couple of originals - “This is Christmas” and the title track – are highlights, and overall, “First Christmas” is an enjoyable stylistic changeup of an album for holiday listening.

– Rating: 3½ stars.

The Jay Unger & Molly Mason Family Band: “A Fiddler’s Holiday” (Rounder Records) – This is a live one – as in a concert recording from this bluegrass-centric group, which gets judicious backing from an orchestra on a song set that features five originals and a few standards. The music captures the Christmas spirit, while actually being universal enough to be played year-round.

– Rating: 3½ stars.

Wild Cards

Spongebob and The Hi-Seas: “It’s a Spongebob Christmas Album” (Viacom International) – An odd duck among this year’s Christmas albums, “It’s a Spongebob Christmas Album” falls somewhere between “Sesame Street” and “Beavis and Butthead.”

Some occasionally warped humor Is welcome here, but there’s a little too much kitsch, which makes this album wear thin after a couple of listens.

– Rating: 2½ stars.

Various Artists: “Festivus” (Highline Records) – Featuring artists signed to this London-based indie label the quality and style of the songs on “Festivus” are all over the map.

Fortunately, there are enough good moments to make “Festivus” worth a listen for indie pop fans.

– Rating: 3 stars.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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