/Holiday Tunes That Soothe, Provoke and Share a Joke
Holiday Tunes That Soothe, Provoke and Share a Joke

Holiday Tunes That Soothe, Provoke and Share a Joke

A new crop of albums has arrived that offer fresh (and not so fresh) takes on seasonal songs and sentiments.

There is no strict formula for great holiday music — some is about family bonding and good cheer, and some captures regret and emptiness. Traditionalists and heretics both get a fair hearing this season on an array of new holiday albums. On the off chance you don’t want to hear “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on repeat this month, give one that matches your mood a try.

The fourth holiday collection from the long-running, soft-saunter, soul-pop outfit Chicago never exults in the holiday spirit; rather, it sidles up to it casually, gives it a nod and a nudge. “I’m Your Santa Claus” is a mildly wobbly flirtation, and “What the World Needs Now Is Love” buries its giving-a-talking-to vocals under blunt horn arrangements. It’s all slightly disoriented, a post-nog comedown of soothing bloat. JON CARAMANICA

When certain songs come to mind — “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells” — you probably hear Bing Crosby, even if you don’t think of his name. What you haven’t heard before are these swirling, leafy arrangements, which the London Symphony Orchestra recently recorded and dubbed over the original vocal tracks from 14 Crosby classics. It’s masterfully done, though a bit uncanny when you notice the difference in texture between Crosby’s old vocal stems and the cleanly recorded orchestra. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO

The vocalist Martina DaSilva and the bassist Dan Chmielinski are two 20-somethings with flexible chops, a gut-level creative connection and an expansive view of the Christmas songbook. Together they cover everything from “Last Christmas” (by Wham!) to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” while emphasizing the special kind of simpatico that can arise between the bass and vocals when they’re left to keep each other company. RUSSONELLO

Recorded live in 2015 and 2018, these tightfitting, sharply swinging arrangements of holiday fare were all written by the orchestra’s members, with various guests handling vocals. But the undeniable highlight comes on the only non-orchestral track, when Aretha Franklin accompanies herself on “O Tannenbaum,” treating the melody with just the right amount of pomp and filigree, allowing her piano playing to skip ahead and her voice to catch up at its leisure. RUSSONELLO

The blues-loving singer, guitarist and songwriter Keb’ Mo’ places deep-catalog R&B and blues finds — Koko Taylor’s “Merry, Merry Christmas,” the Louis Jordan track (written by Teddy Edwards) “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” — alongside avuncular new collaborations of his own. From string-topped smooth soul (“Moonlight, Mistletoe & You,” joined by Gerald Albright on saxophone) to rootsy moments (the country-blues singer Charley Jordan’s “Santa Claus Blues”), Keb’ Mo’ stays genial and optimistic, insisting on an angst-free holiday. JON PARELES

The deluxe edition of John Legend’s first holiday collection — the original version was released last year — includes four new songs, but only one destined for gender studies syllabuses. Writing with the comic actress and writer Natasha Rothwell, Legend has updated “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a duet with an icky dynamic that has been reconsidered in recent years. But the coercive tension in the tune, such as it was, had as much to do with the prickly, playful give-and-take as the specifics of the language. Which means that even though this version, with Kelly Clarkson, has new lyrics that emphasize her agency and consent, the melody and vocal tones are familiar. Clarkson, brings coy uncertainty and is met with Legend’s slick flirtation. The words may have changed, but the push-and-pull is as charged as ever. CARAMANICA

The Boston band fronted by Kay Hanley has a new contribution to the rock ’n’ roll holiday canon that’s heavy on skepticism. “Father Christmas” (first by the Kinks) is a blast of class-conscious pop-punk, and “X-Mas Time (Sure Don’t Feel Like It”), originally by the Dogmatics, is a pure singalong holiday bummer. The EP’s one original, “Miss You This Christmas” describes a lonely holiday with the hope Hanley’s love will return to “kiss me New Year’s Eve.” CARYN GANZ

The ever conscientious Los Lobos chose songs for their (mostly) Spanish-language Christmas album from a holiday repertory stretching across the Americas: Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Panama and Texas, not to mention José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” The one new Los Lobos song, “Christmas and You,” looks back to reverb-heavy 1950s R&B to “wonder if you really miss me on this Christmas Day.” Relying mostly on acoustic instruments and echoes of Mexican and Caribbean traditions, Los Lobos strum and harmonize their way around the hemisphere, in songs previously recorded by El Gran Combo, Vicente Fernandez, Freddy Fender, Ismael Rivera and others, resurfacing some rarities like “Donde Está Santa Claus?,” which was released by the 12-year-old Augie Rios in 1958. Prior versions of many songs have more bite and eccentricity; for Los Lobos, these are hospitable singalongs in an extended Pan-American family. PARELES

The tone is celebratory as familiar songs enjoy brisk Southern soul revamps on “A Very McCrary Christmas.” The McCrary Sisters, a gospel quartet from Nashville, sing backup for country, gospel and rock musicians alongside their own career, and they pulled in some guests — Alison Krauss, Keb’ Mo’, Steve Crawford, Buddy Miller — for the album. But the sisters themselves seize and hold the spotlight: sharing brassy close harmony, stepping forward for solos, creating old-fashioned a cappella drive in “No Room at the Inn” and revving up churchy climaxes in the tambourine-shaking Beethoven adaptation “Joyful, Joyful” with the invincible singing preacher Shirley Caesar. PARELES

The singer and actress Lea Michele’s debut holiday album holds few surprises but plenty of piano, strings and jazzy horn blasts. She reunites with her “Spring Awakening” co-star Jonathan Groff on an “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” dotted with quavering slide guitar, and harmonizes with her “Glee” colleague Darren Criss on a restrained “White Christmas,” packed with close harmonies. An original written with the “Glee” musician Adam Anders called “Christmas in New York” name checks Rockettes, Macy’s and Central Park and ends on — what else — a theatrical high note. GANZ

That signature Ne-Yo unctuousness — not altogether unpleasant, it should be said — is in full effect on his rendition of “The Christmas Song,” the best chestnut on his debut holiday collection. (It’s less compelling on the carols with a social mission, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” and “Someday at Christmas.”) Of the originals, the most revealing are “Just Ain’t Christmas,” an astral dance song about a Christmas Eve breakup, and “Talk About It,” a trap-soul thumper that runs down the little tensions that animate most holiday get-togethers, including when mom tells the kids, “Don’t be giving no fat white dude credit” for what she left under the tree. CARAMANICA

Booze, misbehaving family members, trailer-park hospitality and more booze fill Tara Thompson’s wry seasonal country songs: nine new ones (written by the Nashville singer and collaborators) plus “Blue Christmas.” Her band plays old-school honky-tonk country — with a swerve toward Little Feat for “Christmas in the Big House” — as Thompson greets the annual chaos with eye-rolling exasperation and an underlying fondness. PARELES

The indie rock band Yo La Tengo’s holiday tradition — a run of Hanukkah shows in New York — helped inspire this collection produced by Randall Poster. Jack Black opens chanting “Oh Hanukkah” a cappella, and Haim covers Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” with a gentle reverence, but the album’s real coup is a series of quirky originals: Adam Green’s “Dreidels of Fire” wonders “how the heck” do you explain the miracle of the holiday; the Flaming Lips’ “Sing It Now, Sing It Somehow” is very much a Flaming Lips song; and Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost retells the story of “Hanukkah in ’96” over a gentle synth-pop throb. GANZ

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