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Friday, December 08, 2017

Tinsel Tunes 2017

Written by  Gregg Shapiro

Leave it to a nice Jewish (bisexual) girl such as Rachael Sage to come up with one of the most delightful holiday recordings of the year. Her five-song EP Joy! (MPress) opens with a reading of “Joy to the World” that is pure Sage, right down to her distinctive phrasing and vocals. A radio mix of the songs also closes the EP. In between, it’s a festival of lights and light pop. The originals, including the lighthearted “Tchatchkes & Latkes” and the beautiful “Hanukkah in the Village,” are among Sage’s most appealing compositions. The disc’s centerpiece, in which  Sage sings in Yiddish, is the song “Umru Meine,” featuring lyrics by the modernist poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern.

The 10th anniversary edition expanded reissue of Josh Groban’s Noel (Reprise), described as “one of the biggest-selling Christmas albums of all time,” now boasts six additional songs, including four newly recorded selections. The original 2007 album by the classical crossover superstar played it relatively safe with a few exceptions. A duet with Brian McKnight on “Angels We Have Heard on High” soars. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is made more poignant because of the inclusion of holiday greetings from soldiers and their families. “Thankful,” co-written by Carole Bayer Sager, is the newest of the original disc’s compositions. Of the newly recorded songs, the duet with Tony Bennett on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” on which Groban is joined by a children’s choir, are especially pleasing.

A cappella outfit Pentatonix are the new reigning kings and queens of holiday music, topping the Christmas (records) list for the last three years. The quartet’s platinum-selling 2016 album has been reissued with five new songs and retitled A Pentatonix Christmas Deluxe (RCA). In addition to interesting renditions of “Up on the Housetop,” as well as covers of Kanye West’s “Coldest Winter” and Nsync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” from the previous version, the expanded edition includes “Let It Snow!” and a duet with Jennifer Hudson on “How Great Thou Art.”

As career transformations go, Gwen Stefanis is one for the record books, so to speak. Over the course of about 25 years, Stefani successfully morphed from the belly-baring lead singer of OC ska act No Doubt to full-fledged diva and fashion icon. Continuing the “feels like” theme of her previous studio album, Stefani’s first Christmas album, You Make it Feel Like Christmas (Interscope) combines her interpretation of holiday standards (from “Silent Night” to “Santa Baby”) along with half a dozen new tunes. Thanks to Stefani’s gay co-songwriter Justin Tranter, it’s the new tunes, including “My Gift Is You,” “When I Was A Little Girl,” “Under The Christmas Lights” and “Christmas Eve,” that are the real gift here.

The 2017 double-disc edition of Broadway’s Carols for a Cure: Volume 19 (rock-itscience.com) serves a dual purpose. First and foremost, it’s a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (broadwaycares.org). Secondly, the 20 selections give listeners a chance to hear artists from some of Broadway’s hottest tickets – including Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Kinky Boots, War Paint, Groundhog Day, Anastasia, Waitress, to mention a few, perform traditional and new Christmas songs.

This Christmas, the Latter Days Saints have a leg up, as well as a piano, a cello and a violin, on the competition. Mormon musical acts The Piano Guys and Lindsey Stirling have newly released holiday albums. On “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” the opening number on The Piano Guys’ Christmas Together (Portrait) album, they are joined by fellow LDS members David Archuleta and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, as well as Peter Hollens. Other guest artists on the album include Placido Domingo (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), The King’s Singers (“O Little One Sweet”) and Lexi Walker (“O Holy Night / Ave Maria”).

Fiddler and Dancing With the Stars competitor Stirling bows with her first holiday album Warmer In the Winter (Concord). More than half of the songs are instrumentals in which the plucky Stirling shows off her accomplished string skill on Christmas standards including “Carol of the Bells,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “What Child Is This,” and even Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.” What separates this disc from the others are the Stirling originals including “Christmas C’Mon” (with vocals by Becky G), the title track (featuring Trombone Shorty) and “Time To Fall In Love” (sung by Alex Gaskarth of All Time Low).

Elvis Christmas (RCA / Legacy) is the latest in a series of Elvis Presley releases in which The King’s songs and recordings are reimagined with his vocals backed up by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Elvis Christmas has everything from “Blue Christmas,” “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” to “The First Noel,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

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