Holiday sounds led by Lewis, Clarkson

By Tom Von Malder | Dec 22, 2013
Photo by: Syco Music The cover of Leona Lewis’ album, “Christmas, With Love.”

Owls Head — Leona Lewis: Christmas, With Love (Syco Music CD, 33:01). The winner of the British X-Factor show in 2006, Lewis first Christmas album has a decidedly American feel, namely in busy arrangements that recall Phil Spector. She even covers his “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” one of several delights on this CD. The first track, and her most recent single, is the wonderful “One More Sleep,” which sounds like a cross between Spector’s work with The Ronettes and The Supremes (the latter particularly if you saw her perform the song on last week’s “The X-Factor”). It is one of three songs she co-wrote on the album. Also with a Spector-ish arrangement is a cover of Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” “Winter Wonderland” is also heavily arranged and a winner.

Lewis also co-wrote the winning “Mr. Right,” another song about waiting for a lover to return for the holiday from a great distance. It has sleigh bell percussion. She co-wrote the ballad, “Your Hallelujah,” as well. The album includes more reverential versions of “O Holy Night,” “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night.” Grade: A-

Kelly Clarkson: Wrapped in Red (RCA CD, 47:22).
For her sixth album, Clarkson, who won the first season of “American Idol,” turns to seasonal songs, including the upbeat and forceful “Wrapped in Red” (the first single) and “Underneath the Tree,” both of which she co-wrote. The latter features horns and, yes, a Phil Spector style arrangement. Clarkson also co-wrote another highlight, “4 Carats,” which she describes as a cross between Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” and Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

Other highlights include a really rocking “Run Run Rudolph,” the classic “Please Come Home For Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing)” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” with a nice jazz arrangement and duet vocal by Ronnie Dunn. Tpnotch as well is her cover of Imogen Heap’s “Just For Now,” which is about spending a holiday with a dysfunctional family. Clarkson also co-wrote the pleasing “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song,” dedicated to her husband, Brandon Blackstock, and the bluesy “Every Christmas.” She covers “Blue Christmas,” with lots of tinkley piano, and there is lots of piano again on “White Christmas,” which is sung slowly. Grade: A-

Susan Boyle: Home For Christmas (Syco Music/Columbia CD, 38:28).
Boyle, whose trip to stardom began with competing on “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2009, does one of those electronic duets with Elvis Presley on “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” before a big vocal chorus comes in. The track is more of a gimmick. She is much better on the simple, sincere “The Lord’s Prayer”; and for duets, well you cannot beat having Johnny Mathis to help sing “When a Child Is Born.” Also working well is an old-fashioned, string-backed “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the pretty “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “The Christmas Song” and “I Believe in Father Christmas.” However, bagpipes on “A Little Drummer Boy”? Grade: B+

Johnny Mathis: Sending You a Little Christmas (Columbia CD, 43:32).
Mathis is definitely in duets mode for his first seasonal album since “The Christmas Album” in 2002 and first duets album since 1991”s “Better Together.” Even better, the duet here with Susan Boyle is “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a different song than the duet on her album. This is Mathis’ sixth holiday album overall.

Billy Joel does not record much these days, but he is here on the opening “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” and it is a treat. What I like about this album is that Mathis sounds like he is having fun, particularly with Natalie Cole on :Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the down-home style of “Home For the Holidays” with The Jordanaires” and even his solo “This Christmas.” Another solo performance, “This Is a Time For Love,” is spiced by his singing in about five different languages. Gloria Estefan joins on “Mary’s Boy Child,” Jim Brickman on “Sending You a Little Christmas,” and Vince Gill and Amy Grant on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas/White Christmas.” Grade: A+

Lady Antebellum: Live On This Winter’s Night (Eagle Vision, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 76 min.).
The trio of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood put out their Christmas album last year, but this is a concert performance of the album at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center with a backing by more than 40 symphony orchestra members. Several times between songs, the band’s shares anecdotes  of their own Christmas stories, memories and traditions. It makes for a very personable evening.

The 52-minute concert portion opens with the very bright “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which also is featured in the extras as a cute music video, plus a look at the making of the video and five things you didn’t know about the video. The band wrote the title track, which is followed by unexpected soul in a cover of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” “Silver Bells” is lifted by some nice guitar work and they really rock on a cover of the Elvis Presley hit, “Blue Christmas,” and on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Extras include acoustic versions of five of the songs and a behind-the-scenes look at putting together the concert. Grade: A

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical (Masterworks Broadway CD).
This musical has book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and music by Mel Marvin. It also has two songs written by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss himself) and composer Albert Hague. They are the beloved “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome, Christmas,” both from the classic 1966 animated television special. This world premiere recording includes two bonus tracks: a new recording of the song “Where Are You, Christmas?” from the 2000 movie; and “Once in a Year,” which was cut from the musical prior to its Broadway premiere.

Alabama: The Classic Christmas Album (RCA/Legacy CD). Each year, Legacy puts out Christmas albums that are compilations of previous recorded seasonal songs by various acts. The selections come from previous holiday albums , as well as from soundtracks and benefit albums. There are eight albums this year, including this one and the seven that follow. In the case of Alabama, the selections come from “Alabama Christmas” (1985), “Christmas With The Judds and Alabama (1994) and “Alabama Christmas Vol. II” (1996).

Martina McBride: The Classic Christmas Album (RCA/Legacy CD). As with most of these, there are 16 selections. Included is yet another duet with Elvis Presley, this time on “Blue Christmas,” as well as a duet with Dean Martin on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Johnny Cash: The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Legacy CD). This nice selection includes recordings with The Cash Family, June Carter Cash and The Carter Family with The Statler Brothers.

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: The Class Christmas Album (Epic/Legacy CD). There are only two duets proper by my favorite country duet act here, plus seven selections by Jones (“Silver Bells” is with Gene Watson) and seven by Wynette. The duets open and close the album, and are “Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus” and “The Greatest Christmas Gift.”

Neil Diamond: The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Legacy CD). The selections -- there are only 12 this time -- come from three holiday albums: “The Christmas Album” (1992); “The Christmas Album 2” (1994); and “A Cherry Cherry Christmas” (2009).

Andy Williams: The Christmas Album (Columbia/Legacy CD). Many today might be unfamiliar with Williams, but through his TV show and hits such as “Moon River,” he was a regular on the pop charts. It is nice to hear his voice again through this collection.

Barbra Streisand: The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Legacy CD). This is another classic voice on 16 classic songs, including “I Wonder As I Wander.”

Gladys Knight & The Pips: The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Buddah/Legacy CD). There are only 14 tracks here, but they include “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” with Shanga, and two with Johnny Mathis: “When a Child Is Born” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” The songs come from the 1975 Buddah album “Bless This House” and 1980’s “That Special Time of Year.”

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