Holiday Hits

Ceelo Green, Rod Stewart and Lady Antebellum lead this year’s Christmas gift list

By Bliss Bowen 12/13/2012

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CEELO GREEN, CeeLo’s Magic Moment (Elektra): 4/5 stars
The eccentric soul-pop singer occasionally sounds more engaged by the sound of his own chameleonic voice than the material, but he nails it more often than not on this holiday keeper. Skip the showy but disappointing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet with fellow “Voice” judge Christina Aguilera and head straight to fun finger-snappers like “This Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (featuring Straight No Chaser) and soul stunners like “Mary, Did You Know” and Joni Mitchell’s ubiquitous “River.” 

LADY ANTEBELLUM, On This Winter’s Night (Capitol Nashville): 3/5 stars
Nominally a country band due to their Nashville base, the hit-making trio applies its tight, soaring harmonies to an upbeat set heavy on pop standards by the likes of Mariah Carey, Donny Hathaway, Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne. As with their platinum albums, the production’s bright, thick and loud; a largely acoustic setting of “The First Noel” is a sweetly affecting exception. Other highlights: “This Christmas,” a string-boosted swing through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

CHRISTINA PERRI, A Very Merry Perri Christmas (Atlantic): 3.5/5 stars
The “Jar of Hearts” balladeer’s unfussy holiday EP is like the quiet wallflower in the corner who turns out to be one of the most interesting conversationalists at a party. Perri delivers sweetly credible readings of “Ave Maria,” John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling”; her tonal warmth and clarity are strongly reminiscent of the late Karen Carpenter. But the highlight is her nostalgic “Something About December” (co-written with brother Nick Perri and David Hodges).

 THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays Vol. One (Kirtland): 3/5 stars
Winsome and tuneful, the Dallas pop-rock collective’s holiday offering is likely to be an acquired taste for those not already enamored of their earnest delivery and classical-meets-rock-meets-gospel-meets-Broadway performance style. Standards like “The Christmas Song” come off sounding rather labored, while the band proves a natural match for celebratory tunes like John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and “Carol of the Drum (Little Drummer Boy),” with an instrumental harp version of “Silent Night” another highlight.

SCALA & KOLACNY BROTHERS, December (Pias): 4/5 stars
The Belgian girls choir, accompanied by pianist Steven Kolacny and conductor Stijn Kolacny, deliver hushed renditions of pop tunes fitting their wintry theme, including Linkin Park’s “My December,” Damien Rice’s “Eskimo,” Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights,” The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Christmastime,” Pearl Jam’s “Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time),” Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Sufjan Stevens’ “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad” and (of course) Joni Mitchell’s “River.” It’s an interesting combination of classical discipline and pop edge that largely succeeds in creating a mood of calm contemplation.

SUFJAN STEVENS, Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty): 4/5 stars
The idiosyncratic indie popster issues an elaborately packaged, 58-track companion to 2006’s similarly weighty “Songs for Christmas.” The grab-bag instrumentation (autoharp, bells, upright bass, clarinet, flute, guitar, mandolin, marimba, omnichord, piano, ukulele, viola) complements Stevens’ distinctive quaver through sincere renditions of traditional anthems (“Coventry Carol,” “We Three Kings,” a banjo-plunking “Auld Lang Syne”), left-field originals (“X-Spirit Catcher,” “Happy Karma Christmas,” “Midnight Clear,” the latter co-written with the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner), fun pop covers (Prince’s “Alphabet St.”) and a pair of Bach compositions. Any overdose of preciousness is averted by Stevens’ lyrics, which balance childlike wonder with clear-eyed understanding: “Oh, I’m a Christian holiday, I’m a symbol of original sin/ I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and a bowtie on my chin” (“Christmas Unicorn”).

ROD STEWART, Merry Christmas, Baby (Verve): 2/5 stars
Given the success of his “Great American Songbook” albums, it’s no surprise that the raspy-voiced icon has issued a set of holiday standards. Nor is it a shock that he sounds more polite than passionate. But while striving for Tony Bennett style may seem appropriate to the material, the “Maggie May” rocker’s readings lack two key ingredients associated with both Bennett and the holiday: warmth and sincerity. 

TRACEY THORN, Tinsel and Lights (Merge): 4/5 stars
The rueful tone in Thorn’s moving alto has an emotionally grounding effect throughout this choice selection of pop tunes from outside the customary holiday boxes, mostly by other songwriters: Ron Sexsmith, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, to name a few, with ample instrumental support from Thorn’s Everything But the Girl partner Ben Watt. After setting the unsentimental mood with her brave “Joy,” Thorn injects a slinky groove into Jack White’s “In the Cold, Cold Night” and cuts to the bone with her reading of Sufjan Stevens’ “Sister Winter.” The kiddies probably won’t get it, and it isn’t party fare. But if you’re searching for meaningful seasonal tunes for adults, look no further.


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