Leslie Odom Jr: The Christmas Album (BMG) ***
Steve Perry: The Season (Fantasy Records) **
Brett Young: Brett Young and Friends Sing the Christmas Classics (BMLG) **
Brett Eldredge: Mr Christmas (Atlantic Nashville) ***
Pistol Annies: Hell of a Holiday (RCA Nashville) ****
Norah Jones: I Dream of Christmas (Blue Note Records) ****
Hiss Golden Messenger: O Come All Ye Faithful (Merge) ****
She & Him: A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge) ****
Ingrid Michaelson: Songs for the Season (Cabin 24 Records) ****
Kathryn Williams & Carol Ann Duffy: Midnight Chorus (One Little Independent) ****
Who could be blamed, after the past 18 months, for seeking refuge in the comfort and conservatism of a traditional cash-in Christmas album? Yuletide 2021 offers a number of variations on the theme with the inevitable repetition of song choices.
Singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr has one foot in past, one foot in a rather cheesy R&B present on The Christmas Album, which journeys from Hanukkah to Hawaii with fellow thesp guests Cynthia Erivo and his wife Nicolette Robinson. Synthetic sleigh bells ring on autotuned original Snow, while a tender acoustic gospel Auld Lang Syne sounds more natural.
Former Journey frontman Steve Perry sadly does not offer a soft rock Christmas on The Season, instead applying his somewhat diminished voice to a husky I’ll Be Home For Christmas and slick soul handjive of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.
It turns out that a country Christmas doesn’t sound that different on easy listening collection Brett Young and Friends Sing the Christmas Classics. Young’s friends include the likes of Darius Rucker and Colbie Caillat, who sing to order on some very standard standards.
Fellow US country singer Brett Eldredge indulges his crooner alter ego on Mr Christmas, a finger-clicking collection of smooth big band swing infused with a hint of Hanukkah on the Rat Packesque rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Original number Feels Like Christmas reverts to his MOR country lane.
The country power trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley aka Pistol Annies offer an album of witty and/or lovelorn originals, covering the emotional bases with the fine festive melodrama of Make You Blue and injecting a dose of festive domestic reality on Harlan County Coal and Happy Birthday.
Norah Jones alternates jazz, blues and country-flavoured originals and covers on the appealing I Dream of Christmas, tapping into pandemic isolation on It’s Only Christmas Once a Year and providing a slow, sultry take on the chirpy Chipmunks song Christmas Don’t Be Late.
Hiss Golden Messenger mainman MC Taylor riffs on the theme of light on O Come All Ye Faithful, applying country soul languor to non-festive songs by Spiritualized and Creedence Clearwater Revival and a handful of originals. This antidote to forced festive jollity is warm and comforting without a sleigh bell in earshot.
Both She & Him and Ingrid Michaelson strike a sepia-tinted chord on the deluxe re-issues of their existing Christmas albums. At times there is a bit too much sugar in the punch bowl but Michaelson in particular is suitably cute and coquettish on What Are You Doin’ New Year’s Eve and Marshmallow World, warm but wistful on Vince Guaraldi’s evergreen Christmas Time Is Here and well matched with actress Zooey Deschanel (the She of She & Him) on the chirpy Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.
However, the pick of the Christmas crop is Midnight Chorus, a gorgeous collaboration between singer/songwriter Kathryn Williams and poet Carol Ann Duffy which also draws on the talents of Astrid Williamson, Polly Paulusma, Magic Numbers’ Michele Stodart and producer Neill MacColl. Unsurprisingly, Duffy’s lyrics are a cut above, while the music encompasses the new wave pop of Hidden Meanings, pretty waltz All Ye Doubtful, chiming Sunderland folk carol Apostle and Moniack Mhor, a twinkling indie folk celebration of the place Williams and Duffy first wrote together.
Cecilia Bartoli: Unreleased (Decca) *****Its hard to see why Decca kept these 2013 recordings of Classical concert arias by Cecilia Bartoli hidden for so long, but who’s complaining as they finally see the light of day as the album Bartoli Unreleased. It’s a blistering record of the Italian mezzo-soprano at her spectacular best, explosively virtuosic and sensuously emotive in equal measure. The volcanic passion of Beethoven’s Ah Perfido!, the effortless sheen of Mozart’s Ch’io mi scrodi di te (with Maxim Vengerov as a glowing counterpoint on solo violin) contrast with the more reflective hues of Se mai senti spirati sul volto from Mysliveček’s La Clemenza di Tito, and Haydn’s volatile Scena di Berenice, and the recordings are all the more exciting thanks to Bartoli’s dramatic partnership with the Basel Chamber Orchestra under Muhai Tang. New Bartoli albums have been in short supply in recent years. Time warp aside, this should appease her many fans. Ken Walton
Nishla Smith: Friends with Monsters (Whirlwind Recordings) ****
Manchester-based Australian singer Nishla Smith gently welcomes the dark in Twilight, the first of these intimate and often atmospheric jazz nocturnes. An important second voice on the album (which comes with a vividly illustrated booklet) is that of Aaron Wood’s eloquent trumpet responses to Smith’s dreamy narratives, while pianist Richard Jones, bassist Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley and drummer Johnny Hunter deftly shift things along. Smith’s voice slips between Holiday-esque slinky sensuality, as in the worldly-wise languor of the sole cover, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Might As Well Be Spring, to winsome warmth in the slow, still ticking of Home. Smith and Jones shine in the beguiling Starlight while the title song, with its glittering piano introduction, takes on a lazy swing, suggesting that these are perhaps quite cuddly monsters, rather than the drooling-under-the-bed variety. Jim Gilchrist
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