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 a 2012 roundup:
• Cee Lo Green “Cee Lo’s Magic Moment” (Elektra) * * * 1/2
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.
• Scotty McCreery “Christmas With Scotty McCreery” (Mercury/ 19/ Interscope) * 1/2
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• Various Artists “Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights” (Idelsohn Society) * * * 1/2
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.