Cee Lo Green spreads yuletide magic. (Matthias Clamer )
It's word association time. Say the first word that springs to mind: "holiday ----." Did you think "season"? "Sale"? "Hangover"?
How about "music?" This year, there are plenty of new holiday albums to pick from. Cee Lo Green, English pop-rocker Tracey Thorn and the left-field collective Redtenbacher Funkestra are just a few of the dozens of entertainers with albums out there made for celebrating the season. But which ones will offer yuletide cheer and which will feel like the same old thing, re-gifted?
Here's Calendar's 2012 roundup of the best new holiday music releases.
*** 1/2 Cee Lo Green "Cee Lo's Magic Moment" (Elektra). The clown prince of R&B often lets his outsized public persona overshadow his music, but the man can sing. In fact, this collection might be the best guidance he could offer any contestants on "The Voice" — or "American Idol" or "X Factor," for that matter. The holiday spirit's in full force here, in his loopy Motown-esque collaboration with the Muppets ("All I Need Is Love"), an inspired a cappella arrangement of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" with Straight No Chaser and a stunningly powerful reading of Mark Lowry and Lee Green's "Mary, Did You Know?" Magic indeed.
* 1/2 Scotty McCreery, "Christmas With Scotty McCreery" (Mercury/19/Interscope). The "American Idol" alum applies his grainy baritone with commitment but not much vision to the usual holiday suspects: "The First Noel," "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," etc., freshened only briefly by a couple of less well-traveled numbers.
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** Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, "This Christmas" (UMe). The "Grease" costars are holding teacups on the supersweet cover photo. For anyone worried that this reunion might overdose on sweeteners, Newton-John and Travolta kick the album off reversing the usual male-female roles on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which brims with good spirit. The album's modest charm stems from the pair's eager personalities and guest drop-ins from the likes of Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Tony Bennett and Chick Corea.
** 1/2 The Polyphonic Spree, "Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays Volume One" (Good Records/Kirtland). The idiosyncratic Dallas symphonic pop collective courses from broad swaths of sonic textures — lots of swirling harps and tinkling pianos — with nicely low-tech touches. As the title suggests, there's an otherworldly ambience that mostly works to the familiar yuletide songs' benefit.
*** 1/2 Various Artists, "'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights" (Idelsohn Society). Easily the year's most informative, illuminating holiday release, and it traces the parallel rise of Christmas and Hanukkah among religious and secular communities. The first of its two discs is devoted to Hanukkah-related songs, and its second disc to Christmas tracks written or sung by Jews including Bob Dylan, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Benny Goodman and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. An accompanying 32-page booklet features several essays with excellent context, including one by rock journalist Greil Marcus.
*** PumpYouUp, "Christmas Nutcracker Dubstep & Techno Classics" (PumpYouUp). Maybe it's because there's such a flood of more conventional holiday releases year in and year out that this throbbing electronica workout sounds so refreshing. Blatting low frequency bursts counter shimmering high-end sounds in a generous chunk of the Tchaikovsky seasonal war horse plus a handful of classic carols and random classical-music staples. Wendy Carlos is smiling somewhere.
** ½ Various Artists, "Now That's What I Call Today's Christmas" (Universal/EMI/Sony). "Today" is a relative term here — the oldest of the 18 tracks is 16 years old (Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/ Sarajevo 12/24"), and Christina Aguilera's "Christmas Time" dates to 2000. But most of the acts, also including Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepson, Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Carrie Underwood, still have currency in today's music world. The originals — Train's pumping "Shake Up Christmas," Coldplay's wistful "Christmas Lights" — generate more interest than most of the covers.
*** Redtenbacher's Funkestra, "A Very Funky Christmas" (Wooden Hat). This five-song EP is just the thing to brighten up any staid holiday gathering. These instrumentals percolate with Latin jazz-funk, bringing big-band juice and rhythmic punch to four yuletide classics and one original, the title track.