New holiday standards from John Legend, The Mavericks, Old 97's and ... William Shatner.
The spirit of inspiration runs stronger than usual through this year’s batch of new holiday music collections, with fresh melodies and lyrics in some of the best.
Here are some of the top new Christmas albums, ranked on a scale of 1 star (poor) to 4 stars (classic).
Best of the best
The Mavericks, “Hey! Merry Christmas!” (4 stars)
It’s hard to think of an act with an essential joie de vivre better suited to the joyful spirit of the holidays than the Mavericks. The Nashville-based, label-defying group has cooked up eight effervescent originals and added its stamp to a couple of Yuletide chestnuts: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holiday.” Boogie-woogie, Tex-Mex, heart-melting pop, retro blues — it’s all here in one irresistible package.
JD McPherson, “Socks — A Christmas Album” (4 stars)
The roots-rocking singer-songwriter’s holiday album is an utter joy — a vintage jump-blues/R&B/rockabilly workout devoid of treacly sentiment, but brimming over with child-like spirit — and just enough grown-up skepticism to keep things anchored in reality. He’s written or co-written 11 originals that bring welcome fresh blood into the holiday music canon.
Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere” (3.5 stars)
One of Americana music’s most astute singer-songwriters applies his well-honed wit and observational prowess to a dozen original songs that mine the full spectrum of emotions that go with the season. Healthy doses of humor sit side-by-side with sincerity in this smartly conceived, engagingly executed holiday song cycle.
Paul Cardall, “Christmas” (3 stars)
The Christian-music force favors power, glory and elegance in the predominantly instrumental arrangements of tunes familiar and new.
Eric Clapton, “Happy Xmas” (3 stars)
The pleasant surprise is the balance between Clapton’s blues and adult pop instincts on several popular standards, along with one original, “Christmas Tears.”
John Legend, “A Legendary Christmas” (3 stars)
The R&B-pop singer-songwriter finds a way to bring urban music sensibility to old chestnuts. He’s also written or co-written a handful of seasonal originals.
Old 97’s, “Love the Holidays” (3 stars)
The alt-country band embraces the spirit of the season with nine originals written or co-written by frontman Rhett Miller and his bandmates, plus five Yuletide standards.
William Shatner, “Shatner Claus” (3 stars)
No need to feel guilty over the pleasures in the famously histrionic actor’s readings of more than a dozen holiday tunes, the majority featuring guest collaborators from punk rockers Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins to country star Brad Paisley.
For the superfans
Martina McBride, “It’s the Holiday Season” (2.5 stars)
The country singer’s album emphasizes the war horses over lesser-trod turf. Her delivery, as usual, is impeccable.
The Monkees, “Christmas Party” (2.5 stars)
The big calling card is two vocals that Davy Jones recorded in 1991 and that are newly outfitted with fresh instrumental accompaniment.
Pentatonix, “Christmas Is Here!” (2.5 stars)
The a cappella ensemble has chosen another mix of traditional carols, secular classics and original material.
Whitehorse, “A Whitehorse Winter Classic” (2.5 stars)
The Canadian indie duo combines several originals with the rock ’n’ roll friendly likes of the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” “Blue Christmas” and “Merry Christmas, Baby.”
Chely Wright, “Santa Will Find You!” (2.5 stars)
The country singer-songwriter includes six originals on her outing that should satisfy the adult music fan looking for a new adult pop/light jazz holiday outing.
David Archuleta, “Winter in the Air” (2 stars)
There will always be an audience for an angelic tenor voice singing songs of the season, as the “American Idol” alum demonstrates on his second Christmas album. The selections tend toward contemporary Christian over time-honored carols, but he finds room for both, along with a couple of honorable originals he co-wrote with different collaborators.
Mike Love, “Reason for the Season” (2 stars)
The Beach Boys co-founder engages his current lineup of the long-running group for a session that includes a new rendition of “Little St. Nick.” Points for attempting some original tunes to flesh out the carols and pop standards.
Michael McDonald, “Season of Peace — the Christmas Collection” (2 stars)
The blue-eyed soul singer leans on the gospel side of the holiday musical tradition with this collection. But there are times here where he puts so much effort into pushing his soul-R&B chops that he sounds uncomfortably close to someone with a foot caught in the fireplace flue.
Mitch Ryder, “Christmas (Take a Ride)” (2 stars)
Detroit’s “Devil With a Blue Dress” rocker has lost some of the vocal focus he had in his heyday half a century back, which renders some of the gentler tunes in this collection of largely familiar Yuletide tunes rather wobbly. He’s better served on the more driving arrangements.