Every year around, oh August, my desk starts filling up with Christmas CDs. I put off listening to them until the week I write this yearly column. Usually, there are more audio lumps of coal than welcome gifts, but this year's crop has been especially good. Here's the rundown:
"O Holy Night," Jackie Evancho (Columbia)
Ten-year-old Jackie Evancho wowed audiences in "America's Got Talent" earlier this year, and this four-song traditional Christmas EP (with a DVD) shows why. This kid (who sounds like an adult) is amazing. Beautiful songs performed beautifully.
Scott Miller & the Commonwealth
No MP3s are available for this band.
"Christmas Gift," Scott Miller (www.thescottmiller.com)
Americana great Scott Miller checks in with a fine Christmas EP. The opening track, "The Kingdom Has Come," features R.B. Morris reciting T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" juxtaposed with Miller's singing "The Kingdom Has Come." Aside from a couple of nice traditional tunes (the banjo version of "Ode to Joy" is especially cool) , Miller pays tribute to favorite songwriters with sweet covers of John Prine's "Christmas in Prison," Neil Young's "Star of Bethlehem" and Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains." This is a little disc that feels humble, intimate, and it's over too soon.
"Crazy for Christmas," Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (Surfdog)
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks' easy-going country swing is a great fit for Christmas. Hicks' and company combine originals and standards with a few twists. "Carol of the Bells" is delivered in a fun, languid scat with a few chipmunk voices tossed in for good measure. And, while it's a good bet that "Christmas Morning" (in which a "one-eyed elf named Curly" is "acting a little squirrely," Rudolph drinks a beer and Santa tries to avoid work) probably won't be sung in elementary schools any time soon, overall, this disc is a blast.
"The Christmas Album," Christabel and the Jons (www.christabelmusic.com)
Christabel and the Jons are more reverent in the group's lovely Christmas offering. Christa DeCicco's voice is warm and beautiful and, the band (Seth Hopper and Jon Whitlock, augmented by some special guests) knows just when to swing and when to take it easy. There are plenty of the usual suspects for the song selection, but the band's take on the old Sammy Cahn number "It Won't Cool Off" (and dig that muted trumpet solo!) and "I'd Like You for Christmas" are welcome and unexpected revivals. This is easily the most romantic Christmas release of the year. Light the fire and uncork the wine.
"Joy to the World," Pink Martini (Heinz)
Pink Martini's "Joy to the World" takes its title seriously with a selection of holiday music from around the world or sung by world vocalists. The gorgeous Hebrew song "Elohai, N'tzor," with vocals by Pink Martini vocalist China Forbes and Ida Rae Cahana and Ari Shapiro, is a standout. The most obvious selling point of this eclectic lounge act is Forbes' sweet pipes; bandleader/pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale's arrangements are excellent as well.
"Christmas Special," The Boy Least Likely To (+1 Records)
British pop duo The Boy Least Likely To manage to be both sweet and a little irreverent in this set of mostly original songs. None may become standards, but this is a fine set of original Christmas songs.
"Very Merry Christmas," Dave Barnes (Razor and Tie)
Singer-songwriter Dave Barnes checks in with this likable collection of mostly original songs. The prizes here include the spiritual "I Pray On Christmas" and the steamy "Christmas Tonight," which features Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum in a duet with Barnes.
"Christmas Comes Alive," Brian Setzer Orchestra (Surf Dog)
Former Stray Cat Brian Setzer has become the new king of Christmas with his powerful jump-blues, big band and rockabilly Christmas shows. This live disc is mostly taken from Setzer's 2009 show at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, and it's hot enough to melt the snow from the roof.
"Merry Ex-Mas," The Irreconcilables (www.merryexmas.net)
Does the idea of Christmas songs about divorce and adultery just seem wrong? Of course it does and this may be the funniest Christmas release of the year. My favorite is "Frosty My Ex-Wife" - <I>"Frosty, my ex-wife was the coldest thing I know/she was 42 above the waist and minus 10 below."</I>
"Yule Hear From Our Lawyers," The LawTunes (www.lawtunes.com)
If the Irreconcilables need a good lawyer, Lawrence Savell, who has made a side career out of writing rock songs about his profession, might be a good choice. Some of it is a little lawyer inside-ish, but the legal community should be able to appreciate - "They've put down their briefs/rewoven their arguments into wreath ..."
"Happy Holly Days," The Indigo Girls (Vanguard)
It's not bad, but I expected to like the Indigo Girls' Christmas disc better than I do. Despite the nice energetic bluegrass tracks ("The Wonder Song" and "I Feel the Christmas Spirit") and the very pretty take on "In the Bleak Midwinter," this is one dour holiday album. The Girls sound almost sour on "Happy Joyous Hanukah."
"A Christmas Cornucopia," Annie Lennox (Decca)
I've loved Annie Lennox from those "Sweet Dreams" days of the Eurythmics, but Lennox does no favors for Christmas music. Again, "In Bleak Midwinter" is a stand-out, but on several of these stern-voiced Annie sounds like she should be wielding a whip. Of course some listeners might like that.
"Putumayo Presents World Christmas Party," Various Artists (Putumayo)
Putumayo always does a good job with world music compilations and this is no exception. Reggae, Latin, American R&B, Hawaiian and jazz predominate. This is a collection that really does have some nice treats.
"About Christmas," Berlin Voices (Hanssler Classic)
There's something sweetly old-fashioned and 1960-ish in the way the honey-voiced German vocal quartet arrange Christmas songs. It's very nice and it sounds like Christmas.
"Glee, the Music: The Christmas Album," Cast of Glee (Columbia)
Maybe you love the show and you might like this CD, but I feel like throwing a slushy at somebody.
"Holiday Favorites," Phineas and Ferb (Walt Disney)
Fans of this Disney Channel cartoon show will probably enjoy this manic collection, but for the rest of us it's just irritating.
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.