Sarah McLachlan -- Wintersong (Arista)
Whether one likes Wintersong might well depend on how much one enjoys McLachlan's trademark fluttery vocals. She certainly puts plenty of care into her performances, but the song treatments are a bit on the staid and sleepy side. This leaves McLachlan's distinctive vocals to make or break many of the performances.
Hall & Oates -- Home For Christmas (DKE)
On this winning effort, Hall & Oates venture down a path less traveled with a pair of original tunes (Oates' warmly rendered ballad "No Child Should Ever Cry on Christmas" and Hall's Philly Soul-ful "Home for Christmas") and several worthy lesser-known holiday tunes. But even familiar songs such as "The First Noel" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" get a pleasantly soulful makeover.
James Taylor -- At Christmas (Columbia)
Taylor puts a jazzy spin on the holidays with his first holiday release. With Dave Grusin serving as producer and arranger, Taylor plays it straight on some songs. But on a few others -- such as "Jingle Bells," "Winter Wonderland" (featuring trumpeter Chris Botti) and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (sung with Natalie Cole) -- he and Grusin freshen things up with some spiced-up tempos and creative arrangements.
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison -- Happy Holidays (Rykodisc)
It's an unusually thin year for Christmas records from Country artists, but one of Country's power couples (no, not Tim and Faith), comes through with this entertaining release. Willis (one of Country's better singers) and Robison throw a good deal of humor into the holidays with songs like the Buck Owens/Don Rich tune "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy ..." and Robison's own slightly bawdy "Oklahoma Christmas."
Bette Midler -- Cool Yule (Columbia)
The Divine Miss M mixes things up with a smart collection that ranges from the playful ("Mele Kalikimaka" and a swinging version of the title song) to the heartfelt ("Merry Christmas") to the tender ("I'll Be Home for Christmas") to the downright reverential ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"). An underrated vocalist, Midler showcases her warm and rich voice throughout this fine and varied set.
Johnny Mathis -- 50th Anniversary Christmas Collection (Columbia/Legacy)
Mathis has practically made of career out of making holiday albums. To celebrate 50 years in music, the ever-smooth singing Mathis selects 14 of his favorite performances to create a career-spanning "best of the best" collection.
Leigh Nash -- Wishing for This (One Son)
The former singer of Sixpence None The Richer tackles seven songs mostly by contemporary writers (including George Michael and Ron Sexsmith) with mostly good results. The chiming Pop of "Last Christmas" (written by Michael), the Country-tinged "Hard Candy Christmas" and the pretty title song (written by Nash herself) especially give Wishing For This a refreshing shine.
Oleta Adams -- Christmas Time With Oleta (Koch)
Adams takes a sleek approach with her holiday offering. She employs a lush orchestra on the medley "Of The Father's Love Begotten," adds Gospel-ish backing vocals to "Alleluia Alleluia (Peace on Earth)" and goes a bit slick with programming on "I Wonder As I Wander" and "Silent Night." Things, though, don't get stiff, as Adams' honeyed voice warms up pretty much every note it touches.
The Manhattan Transfer -- An Acapella Christmas (Rhino)
The title pretty much describes this CD. And few groups are more qualified to attempt a vocal record than the quartet of Cheryl Bentyne, Tim Hauser, Alan Paul and Janis Siegel. Not only is the veteran foursome in good voice here, but the impressive vocal arrangements, full of multi-layered harmonies and interwoven vocal parts, make these songs uniquely the Manhattan Transfer's own.
The Klezmonauts -- Oy to the World!: A Klezmer Christmas (Satire)
From the category of "now for something completely different" comes Oy To The World!, featuring a number of Christmas classics done up in true Klezmer style. There are some madcap moments -- inserting part of the surf classic "Wipe Out" into "The Little Drummer Boy" and bringing some wild west to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" are both inspired bits of craziness. But there are also some seriously inspired arrangements ("Deck the Halls" and "Joy to the World" work quite well) and fine musicianship to go along with the mirth.
Kenny Ellis -- Hanukkah Swings! (Favored Nations)
The "other" major year-ending holiday is represented by this CD, which finds vocalist Ellis adapting a collection of Jewish holiday songs into a Big Band setting. Most of the songs including "Swingin' Dreidel" "Sevivon Sov, Sov, Sov" and "Ocho Kandelikas" -- do exactly what the title promises. ©