Trans-Siberian Orchestra's second album, Christmas Attic, may not be as focused or serious as Christmas Eve, but it is just as enjoyable and maybe even more consistent, thanks to Paul O'Neill's increasingly impressive compositions and an improved musicality. [A bonus track edition appeared in 1998.]
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Andrea Bocelli's 2009 My Christmas album finds the Italian tenor performing various classic holiday-themed songs that touch on a mix of classical, opera, and pop. Included are such well-known holiday songs as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "O Tannenbaum," and "Silent Night." The versatile Bocelli also delves into such iconic Christmas hits as "Blue Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" (featuring a duet with Natalie Cole). Of course, the opera and classic songs are Bocelli's bread and butter, and here listeners get such lavishly produced cuts as "Adeste Fidelis," "Cantique del Noel," and "Caro Gesu Bambino." My Christmas is not only a warm and inviting holiday album, but also a superb classical crossover entry worthy of Bocelli's discography.
Matt Collar, Rovi
Released half a year after What We Want, What We Get, this holiday album finds Dave Barnes casually occupying the intersection between pop, adult contemporary, acoustic folk, and Christian music. Barnes’ Southern roots are on full display here; each song plays up the soulful swagger of his voice, and he keeps the arrangements relatively sparse, relying on a mix of acoustic guitar, brushed percussion, and Hammond organ that conjures up images of after-hours jazz clubs. Thad Cockrell, another Deep South songwriter with ties to the CCM scene, makes an appearance on “Mary & Joseph,” and Barnes fills the title track with gospel harmonies courtesy of Tennessee friends Drew Ramsey, Shannon Sanders, and Scat Springs. The highlight, though, is his duet with Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott on “Christmas Tonight,” a Barnes original that takes its cues from the Frank Loesser standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Some perfectly fine covers are tossed into the mix, too, including Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but Very Merry Christmas functions best as a showcase for Barnes’ songwriting and singing, both of which are in fine form throughout.
Andrew Leahey, Rovi
Pianist Brickman, a favorite of the easy to listen to crowd, brings his ear for melody to a set of holiday favorites. While his forte has been solo piano, here he enlists the aid of Kenny Loggins, Point of Grace and other vocalists as well as some additional instrumentalists. The results are pleasant if not exactly groundbreaking.
Ross Boissoneau, Rovi
What would happen if members of Savatage decided to write some Christmas songs? Easy: Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This "supergroup" is the brainchild of Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill (respectively the leader-keyboardist and the producer of Savatage). They hired Al Pitrelli (Asia, Savatage) to play guitars, Robert Kinkel to help with keyboards, John Middleton (also a member of Savatage) on bass, and Jeff Plate on drums. Lead vocals are shared by six vocalists, while some of the backing vocals are handled by Savatage lead singer Zachary Stevens. Christmas Eve and Other Stories is a concept album: all the songs are built as chapters of a book, each telling part of a larger story. The plot here is of a young angel sent down to Earth to find and bring back to the Lord "the one thing that best represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day." The angel's quest takes him all over the world, through Russia and Sarajevo, until he finally hears the prayer of a father. This last piece is the strongest moment on the album and makes for a miniature story within the larger story. It is basically told in a trilogy of songs: in the first, "Ornament," we hear the father's prayer, explaining how he hasn't seen his daughter in many years. In "Old City Bar," the angel finds the daughter, standing alone outside a bar, and talks to the bartender who, out of a random act of kindness, takes all the cash from his register drawer and gives it to the girl so she can go home. The third song, "This Christmas Day," has the father praising God, thanking him for bringing his daughter back to him on this night of all nights. It is a very touching story, pondering the thought that "If you want to arrange it/This world you can change it/If we could somehow make this/Christmas thing last/By helping a neighbor/Or even a stranger." Musically, the band has taken some traditional Christmas songs ("O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Holy Night," "The First Noel") and mixed in some modern rock music. The result is stunning and very impressive. It is filled with energy that simply blows you away. The already classic "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" is a gripping instrumental based on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (although you might have to listen carefully to hear it). Fans of progressive music should like this one. And if you're into the more recent works of Savatage (like Handful of Rain or Dead Winter Dead) you'll really love this.
Alex S. Garcia, Rovi
Released to coincide with the classically inclined, Yule-loving, progressive metal powerhouse's 2012 performances of its multi-platinum Last Christmas Eve rock opera, Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night) represents the first new collection of holiday music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra since 2004. The five-song EP begins appropriately with a pair of instrumentals, "Winter Palace" and the title track, both of which are muscular, meticulous, and steeped in the kind of ornate, wintry melodrama that serves as the group's foundation. The remainder of the EP is relegated to non-instrumental cuts, including the theatrical praise-pop anthem "I Had a Memory," and a pair of stage-ready ballads in the sentimental "Someday" and the uplifting lullaby "Time You Should Be Sleeping."
James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Released the year after he was voted Best Acoustic Guitarist for a second time by "Guitar Player" magazine, Australian virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel further establishes his esteemed reputation with this collection of festive covers, All I Want for Christmas. Indeed, the likes of "White Christmas," "Mary's Boy Child," and "The Christmas Song" may not be the most inventive of song choices, but even armed with just a solitary acoustic guitar, the Grammy Award nominee manages to put his own spin on material that's become part of the yuletide fabric. Co-produced with Nashville arranger John Knowles, Emmanuel's legendary fingerpicking skills are unsurprisingly the star of the show, whether it's the clever call-and-response riffs of the playful reworking of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," the flashes of flamenco on the jazz-tinged "Winter Wonderland," or the authentic country hooks of "Jingle Bells." But the more expansive production also helps breathe new life into the likes of "Silent Night," which is turned into a gorgeous orchestral lullaby, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," whose bluesy guitars are accompanied by some playful scat vocals, and "How Great Thou Art?" which is underpinned by layers of warm strings and gentle brush-stroke percussion, while the two new compositions, the melancholic "The Magic of Christmas Time" and the suitably wintry "One Christmas Night," are worthy of sitting alongside the more renowned seasonal classics. All I Want for Christmas may not exactly revolutionize the art of the Christmas album, but it's a heart-warming effort which should get most fans of instrumental jazz-pop in the mood for the holidays.
Jon O'Brien, Rovi