Last year, there was a lapse in a tradition, I'd grown really fond of. A "12 CDs of Christmas" column. I'm so happy to bring it back this year. Below you'll find a dozen discs - all released for holiday season 2013 - that have just about something for everyone this holiday season. I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I do.
---- Andy Propst
If you're looking for something that's simultaneously traditional, unconventional, and theatrical this holiday season, look no further than Broadway's Carols for a Cure, Volume 15 (Rock-It Science Records). It's the annual compilation that benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids (BroadwayCares.org), and as always, this two disc set features the casts of Broadway shows, along with other theater groups or personalities, offering up everything from the regal "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (the entry from The Phantom of the Opera) to Adam Sandler's comedic "The Chanukkah Song" (performed by members of the cast from the show, Soul Doctor). This year, there's even a long-forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein number in the mix, "Happy Christmas, Little Friend," performed, not surprisingly, by the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.
Beyond just having a swell mix of material, these albums "pop" as something special because of the way in which many Broadway companies work to infuse the spirit and style of their shows on seasonal favorites. This year, some personal favorites include the version of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" from the company of Chicago, which imagines a late night encounter between Roxie Hart and Santa himself; "Bad Girls Need Christmas Too," a rockin' offering from the Jersey Boys performers, and the set's opener, "Bring a Little Joy into the World," a genuinely uplifting number from Matilda cast members. Remember, you don't only get two terrific discs when you buy a copy of "Carols" for yourself or loved ones, you also are helping a terrific charity.
It's taken a while for the stage version of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Masterworks Broadway) to get a cast recording. The show - which uses all of the tunes so familiar from the animated television special and has a host of new tunes - was a staple at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre for many years before it hit Broadway in 2006, with Patrick Page in the title role and John Cullum as the show's narrator (an older version of the Grinch's dog, Max). Both men, along with other members of that cast, are featured on the album, and they are both sounding terrific. Page is appropriately dour and malevolent, and Cullum's warmth radiates from the recording as it plays. Listeners will, most likely, gravitate toward the standards from the cartoon ("You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas," but there are some other tunes worth noticing, particularly "It's the Thought That Counts," which is not only an invigorating choral number, but also a number with a terrific message for us all.
With Merry and Bright (LizTunes.com), Tony Award nominee Liz Callaway offers up a quintet of songs so richly conceived and so exquisitely performed that one can't help but thinking "Wow, couldn't there be more?" But this isn't a season for being greedy but grateful, so, instead take each track as the wonderful present it is, from the stirring "Grown-Up Christmas List" to the sultry take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (cleverly arranged by Callaway's son, Nicholas Callaway Foster) to the deeply moving medley of "Silent Night" and "Mary Did You Know?," which features her along with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway. This one will be getting lots of repeat playing this year and beyond.
Few people in New York know how to throw a party like Jim Caruso, and as proof of this, simply look at the fact that his ongoing "Cast Party" at Birdland Jazz club now travels around the country. As a kind of extension of this, he started hosting a holiday fete at the club, and A Swinging Birdland Christmas (Birdland Records) gives you a ringside seat for the 2012 celebration. Caruso's joined by his frequent collaborator in the events, pianist Billy Stritch, and the inimitable Klea Blackhurst, and together, the three offer up a host of standards with elan, and just to make sure things don't get too predictable (who wants that at a party?), there are tunes like John Pizzarelli's nifty "Santa Claus Is Near" and a cameo from virtuso violinist Aaron Weinstein for "A Child Is Born."
Should you be looking for a semi-private performance this holiday season, take a listen to Home for the Holidays (Brannock Productions), a delicate, intimate recording featuring cabaret favorite Kevin Dozier with Alex Rybeck on piano. The sense of these two artists entering your home is unmistakable from the moment the first track starts: a somber rendition of "Silent NIght." The moods shift on the disc to the sparkling ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") to the sweetly romantic "Together This Christmas." Perhaps most delightful is a smartly-conceived medley of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with Stephen Sondheim's "Goodbye for Now" (a song written for the movie Reds.
With a deliciously Celtic interpretation of "Baby It's Cold Outside," in which howling winds become gorgeously palpable, and a medley of the classically liturgical "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night," Natalie Toro's Just in Time For Christmas (NatalieToro.com) proves to be a diverse, satisfying Yule time listen. The Broadway vet doesn't stick to the tried and true, she's also got a couple of great, not-so-often heard modern tunes, including David Friedman and David Zippel's swell "Just in Time for Christmas," and Phil Coulter's "Our First Christmas Together." And for the last track, you'll find she's joined by Jon Secada, for "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that's been infused with a gentle Latin vibe.
Two years ago David Ian musically injected a bit of freshness into the holiday season with Vintage Christmas, bringing a hip 1950s jazz sound to some well-worn standards. He's at it again with Vintage Christmas Wonderland (Prescott Records), a five track CD that is as smooth as a dry martini, which would be the perfect drink to imbibe while listening to this by a roaring fire. You'll know all the tunes on here, and each one's a winner. If I had to pick a fave, it'd be "Winter Wonderland," which features sensuously smoky vocals by Andre Miguel Mayo.
Chicago-based singer David Edelfelt's mellifluous baritone vocals on Love Is Born At Christmas (CDBaby.com) invoke memories of crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como, even as he gives familiar tunes distinct, contemporary stylings. For instance, his rendition of the standard "Go Tell It on the Mountain" gets a grand jazz treatment and when he offers up "Mary, Did You Know?," it surges with an acoustic folk intensity. More traditional, yet no less pleasing are his jaunty "Winter Wonderland" and "White Christmas." This disc, I bet, will be a fave for listeners for years to come.
Should you be looking for more traditional jazz during the holidays, turn to Have a Merry Christmas with Anita O'Day (MegaForce Records), which culls together seven tracks from a session the legendary singer had in the early 1970s along with one archival track from 1942. It's close to impossible to not start snapping your fingers to her jaggedly syncopated "Jingle Bells" and her sultry interpretation of "One More Christmas" makes the heartbreak of the blues tune all the more bittersweet. And, well, her vocals on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are simply sublime.
The utterly adorable six track Glee: The Music The Christmas Album Volume 4 (Columbia Records) wins hearts with its retro sounding "The Chipmunk Song" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." These secular tunes are balanced by a graceful rendition of "Away in the Manager" and the reggae-laced "Mary's Little Boy Child." The EP also contains one unexpected, but entirely appropriate once you've thought about it, number, a soulful version of the Supremes' hit "Love Child."
What a terrific assemblage of singing greats have gathered together for 12-track disc. Sending You a Little Christmas (Columbia) features the silky-voiced Johnny Mathis soloing on songs like "Count Your Blessings," "This Christmas," and a particularly dreamy "Merry Christmas Darling" in addition to duets with the likes of Billy Joel ("The Christmas Song"), Natalie Cole ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), Gloria Estefan ("Mary's Boy Child"), and The Jordanires, who offer up some particularly blithesome, twangy harmonies with Mathis in "Home for the Holidays."
While it's a bit disconcerting getting a duet between British reality television star Susan Boyle and the late Elvis Presley as Home for Christmas (Syco Music/Columbia) starts, the recording soon settles into a lovely groove, showcasing her crystalline vocals. Along the way there are, indeed, pleasant surprises, particularly her renditions of "The Christmas Song" and "The Christmas Waltz," in which she channels her inner "girl band singer" to splendid effect. Also notworthy is "I Believe in Father Christmas," a lilting folk ballad that sounds as if it might be wafting into your home from the hills of Scotland.
And, as an added "treat" for the column, here's a Christmas song/video that's got my attention, "I Keep Christmas in My Pocket." It's one of the songs from Perfect Picture, the musical about Norman Rockwell that's just come out on CD. The CD's producer Joshua Sherman is also creating individual music videos for his new webseries, Charmers, using some of the music. This one features the fabulous Tony Award winner Lillias White.
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