The best (and worst) Christmas albums of 2019

John Barrowman
John Barrowman
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Perhaps it’s a sign of a desire to self-comfort in uncertain times, but there is a glut of Christmas albums vying for a place in the stockings of the nation this year. Robbie Williams leads the charge with The Christmas Present (Columbia, **), an indulgent double album featuring a chunky number of royalty-spinning originals beside the traditional Yuletide tunes. Wise man.

Many other artists seem content to line someone else’s pockets with albums of standard festive fare. Soul legend Dionne Warwick is a good sport on seasonal duets album Dionne Warwick and the Voices of Christmas (BMG, ***) with carolling chums such as Ricky Skaggs and Aloe Blacc on a country Jingle Bells and gospel R&B This Christmas respectively.


There’s no rocking the Christmas tree on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christmas with the Stars (Legacy Recordings, ***) featuring new orchestral backing for established Christmas classics by Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and previous RPO “collaborators” Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, while the London Symphony Orchestra grab a bit of Bing Crosby’s lustre on Bing At Christmas (Decca, ***) with Pentatonix as The Osmonds to Bing’s Andy Williams on a harmonic version of White Christmas.


Following in the footsteps of the master, footballer-turned-pundit Chris Kamara proves he’s no Bradley Walsh with his swing Christmas offering, Here’s to Christmas (So What, **) but John Barrowman has razzmatazz to spare on A Fabulous Christmas (Decca, ***) as well as the requisite belief for bombastic ballads When a Child Is Born and O Holy Night. The Puppini Sisters and Emily Attack join in the fun.


Grammy-winning bluesman Keb Mo provides mellow mulled wine listening on Moonlight, Mistletoe & You (Snakefarm Records, ***) with R&B renditions of standards and a trio of originals including Christmas Is Annoying, a Randy Newmanesque ditty on the fading of festive allure.


Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford wishes us a very metal Christmas on Celestial (Legacy Recordings, ***) featuring the thundering hooves of Donner and Blitzen, gurning soft rocker Morning Star and Celtic folk-scented sentiment of Protected by the Light alongside the headbanging fa-la-las of Deck the Halls, a punky, pugnacious Hark the Herald Angels and a mystical prog rendition of Away In A Manger. Sheer Spinal Tap entertainment for the season of badwill.


Merge Records offer a very indie Christmas with their compilation You Wish: A Merge Records Holiday Album (Merge, ****). Highlights include Lucinda Williams guesting on Hiss Golden Messenger’s cover of John Prine’s Christmas in Prison, Tracyanne & Danny’s cosy Santa, Don’t Say No and Will Butler’s luminous ballad Love Asked Me to Stay.


New York lo-fi duo Big Stick present a gruff true tale of Christmas acceptance on their EP Sauced Up Santa (Drag Racing Underground Records, JJJ) with vaguely sinister kids’ choir joining in on the chorus: “jingle jingle, it’s a drunk Kris Kringle.”


There’s an equally heartwarming backstory to Piano Hands, a duo comprising James Morgan, who has been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s and plays piano to maintain motor function in his hands, supported by his playing partner Juliette Pochin. In contrast to the all sleigh bells ringing approach of others, Christmas Piano (Rhino Records, ***) features thoughtful, soothing instrumental takes on the likes of Fairytale of New York and All I Want For Christmas Is You which only underline what good tunes they are.


But veteran folk diva Judy Collins arguably taps into the spirit of Christmas most effectively of all with her Winter Stories (Wildflower Records/Cleopatra Records, ****) which hits the spot with the tender emotion of a yearning Northwest Passage and Jimmy Webb’s heartworn The Highwayman as well as her own Mountain Girl and six-minute Colorado odyssey The Blizzard.


Collins’ songbird soprano is supported by Norwegian troubadour Jonas Fjeld’s gruffer tones and the heartbreak harmonies and poignant accompaniment of North Carolina’s Chatham County Line. These guys are the voices of Christmas. Fiona Shepherd

FOLK


Dhannsadh gun dannsadh: Dance Songs of the Scottish Gaels (Greentrax/Scottish Tradition) ****


The 28th volume of the invaluable Scottish Tradition series from the School of Scottish Studies Archives provides a richly comprehensive insight into this distinctive singing form, once commonly employed to accompany dancing when pipes, fiddle or accordion weren’t available, although, as Will Lamb points out in his notes, they might also be used for dandling infants or orally transmitting tunes. Compiled from the archives of the School and of the National Trust for Scotland’s Canna Collection, these 32 dance songs or puirt-à-beul were largely field-recorded in the 1950s, with singers including Calum Johnston, Nan MacKinnon and William Matheson. Some will sound familiar, but here they are in their original vigour – lissom, raw, ribald, many recorded in Hebridean homes, with the occasional chorus or whoop in the background. Jim Gilchrist



CLASSICAL


Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra & Suite No 1 (Onyx) ****


The opportunities to hear music from Bartók’s earliest days – those works written before his adherence in 1905 to the truly ethnic music of non-urban Hungary – are not so common. But this intriguing CD, the first in an ongoing series by Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC SSO highlighting stylistic contrast in Bartók, serves such a purpose. It begins with the 1905 Suite No 1 for large orchestra, the first and most prevalent characteristic of which is its voluptuous leaning to Richard Strauss. Dausgaard’s reading revels in its Romantic extravagance, at the same time weaving in those deliciously Hungarian folk inflexions that were to define Bartók’s mature nationalist style. Which is what we then hear to greater advantage in the kaleidoscopic 1943 Concerto for Orchestra. The SSO conjures up playing of searing intensity, from the mystical density of the opening to the wit and folk-inspired exhilaration of the ensuing movements. Ken Walton