She may be the daughter of a reverend, but Tori Amos never seemed the likeliest candidate for a Christmas album; she might sing about "God", but her music always seemed secular and never seasonal, but in a year that brought holiday albums by Bob Dylan and Sting, it makes perfect sense that Tori should deliver one, too. Amos' entry, Midwinter Graces, may be as unlikely as Dylan's, but it's closer in tenor to Sting's: it captures the wintriness of the season. Tori reworks many familiar carols, tweaking lyrics and pushing them together into a medley, so they sound quite similar to the newly written tunes that comprise the rest of the record. Thanks to some familiar melodies, it can sometimes seem seasonally appropriate, but it always seems purely Tori. [A deluxe edition, CD/DVD combination package was also released.]
Kem followers probably know to approach What Christmas Means without the expectation of hearing a thunderous version of "Little Drummer Boy" or collaborations with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Sure enough, the singer and songwriter's first Christmas album is filled with the same relaxed, romantic, spiritual, and gently uplifting moods of his studio albums. He didn't make this on autopilot, either. Among the ten songs, there are five originals, including the opening "Glorify the King" (on which he is backed by a Detroit gospel choir), the closing "Doo Wop Christmas" (a light a cappella number), and "Be Mine for Christmas" (a duet with Ledisi that cleverly incorporates "Me and Mrs. Jones"). The renditions of well-known songs, from "Christmas Time Is Here" to "We Three Kings," have the same secular-to-spiritual range. Kem fans who celebrate Christmas will likely value this disc as a seasonal staple for years to come.
Andy Kellman, Rovi
If ever there was a need for a holiday-only compilation by a single artist, it is for the sensational and influential Christmas songbook of Amy Grant. Her three Christmas albums have contributed some of the most beloved and well-known holiday pop songs ever recorded, from the faithful "Grown-Up Christmas List" to the warmly personal "Breath of Heaven." The Christmas Collection culls hits from her three holiday recordings and adds four new tracks. Fans who already have Grant's other albums might find the new material a bit too sparse to pick this one up, but it represents her holiday catalog more than plentifully. At 18 tracks, there is plenty of Christmas cheer for everyone.
Jared Johnson, Rovi
Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz called on pianist extraordinaire Vince Guaraldi and his trio to compose and perform music that would reflect the humor, charm, and innocence of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the entire Peanuts gang for their 1965 Christmas TV special. It was a perfect match: Guaraldi strings together elegant, enticing arrangements that reflect the spirit and mood of Schulz's work and introduce contemporary jazz to youngsters with grace, charm, and creativity. "What Child Is This" touches on cool jazz's richly textured percussive nuances, while "The Christmas Song" reflects Christmas' relaxing, mellow moments. The renowned "Linus and Lucy" gives the Peanuts characters a fresh, energetic feel with its tantalizing meter changes, brilliant percussion, and dashing, humorous piano lines. "Christmastime Is Here," perhaps the album's most endearing and eloquent moment, is six minutes of soft, lullaby-like melodic and percussive flavors. This collection of soul-soothing melodies would not be complete without the romantic gem "Skating," which blends musical references to falling snowflakes with the dashing feel of swing. Finally, the uplifting, emotionally stirring swing tune "Christmas Is Coming" really brings the listener into the joyous light of the Christmas spirit. Fred Marshall's alluring walking basslines and drummer Jerry Granelli's hauntingly beautiful brush work give most of the album a warm foundation, while Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey shine through with eminent dexterity on bass and drums on "Greensleeves." As for Guaraldi, his penetrating improvisational phrases paint pictures of the first winter snowfall, myriad glistening trees, and powdery white landscapes. With its blend of contemporary jazz and lyrical mannerisms, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a joyous and festive meditation for the holiday season.
All the songs on Christmas to Christmas are new compositions, several by Keith himself. They range from playful ("Blame It on the Mistletoe") and thoughtful ("Jesus Gets Jealous of Santa Claus") to devastatingly sad ("Santa I'm Right Here"). The playing is casual, back-porch rootsy. It is first and foremost a collection of good songs, well performed, that just happen to be about Christmas.
Roch Parisien, Rovi
For a band that remained relatively consistent (with a few minor exceptions) in their approach to rock & roll since 1968, Jethro Tull also possessed a sound that was uniquely '70s-oriented during their most successful period between 1971-1978. Avid fans have been yearning for the group's return to the style which made them one of the most successful of the guitar-based, mainstream prog outfits -- albums like Broadsword and the Beast and J-Tull.Com touched on their former glory, but they didn't fully satisfy. Christmas Album could be the recording that those fans have been waiting for, and they shouldn't let its title or overt seasonal orientation dissuade them -- with their liberal use of classic English folk music and overall orientation toward England's past (even in their name), Jethro Tull is also the one prog rock/hard rock band of their generation that could issue a Christmas album that folds so easily into the rest of their output; it transcends its purpose and focus, mostly through the quiet boldness of its music and playing and the surprising excitement that laces most of the 16 songs. With a mixture of re-recorded old songs, Christmas standards and new originals, songwriter/singer Ian Anderson, in a roundabout manner, captures the tradition, warmth, and bittersweet feelings that are inextricably linked to the holiday season; at the same time, Anderson, longtime collaborator/lead guitarist Martin Barre, and the rest of the group's 2003 lineup recapture the musical intensity of three decades' past, and build on the classic Tull mood of sardonic humor, wry irony, and fierce passions that permeated all of their work from Stand Up to Songs From the Wood. All of this material, in its content and execution, recalls the group's prime early-'70s years and levels of musical complexity not presented so successfully by this band in at least 25 years. With a generous use of unamplified instruments like mandolin, acoustic guitar, flute, and accordion, this album resembles the production found on Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses. In fact, three tracks from those two albums were reworked for this release; "Fire at Midnight," "Ring Out Solstice Bells" and "Weathercock." Only "Ring Out Solstice Bells" appeared to be the obvious choice for a Christmas album, but given Anderson's offbeat perspective of things, the other two tracks assimilate nicely. In addition, "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow" sounds like it could have emanated from those 1977 and 1978 recordings, as could "Last Man at the Party" from 1974's War Child sessions. Among the re-recordings, pieces such as "A Christmas Song," that originally had orchestral accompaniment, are redone without it, in new arrangements, while others that were done without orchestra get dressed up with strings. From the traditional side of Christmas, Tull gives "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" a jazzy adaptation reminiscent of "Bouree" from Stand Up (which is also revisited on this recording) and "We Five Kings" sounds rhythmically similar to "Living in the Past," particularly the bass guitar line. In addition to Bach's Bouree, the majestic Gabriel Fauré piece Pavane is included, which features guitarist Martin Barre's exceptional acoustic playing. And Barre himself gets a rare solo composition as the album closer (a Christmas gift from Anderson?), the deeply evocative tone-painting "A Winter Snowscape," which takes some gratifying turns away from the most obvious melodic direction. The album's overall mix of folk, jazz, pop, rock, and classical elements carries it beyond the holiday listening for which it was intended, and is all woven together so skillfully as to make this an essential Tull album, their first in almost three decades and their most musically rewarding. And although this Christmas album doesn't necessarily conjure up images of Santa and the Savior, it does create a mood and feeling reflective of the holiday season. More importantly, it is perhaps the most satisfying Tull releases in 25 years. [Reissued in late 2004 in a limited-edition version with a bonus DVD containing three performance videos of material going back to "That Sunday Feeling"].
Dave Sleger & Bruce Eder, Rovi