Every year like clockwork, starting as early as October, we’re inundated with a new batch of holiday albums.
Artists of every conceivable genre have recorded seasonal collections over the decades, with some of them becoming timeless classics that are an integral part of the holidays for millions. This year’s slate is lacking in star power, but more than makes up for it in diversity and overall quality. Here are 10 of the best freshly cut holiday releases of 2015 that will help make your festivities especially jolly.
India.Arie and Joe Sample “Christmas With Friends”
Legendary jazz pianist Joe Sample was working with R&B vocalist India.Arie on what would become “Christmas with Friends” when he died from mesothelioma last year. His warm keyboards are featured on four songs, and Arie honored his memory with a co-billing and a place on the album’s cover. “Christmas with Friends” is an elegant collection of holiday favorites, sung beautifully by Arie and featuring an impressively diverse roster of guests such as Michael McDonald, Brandy and Kirk Whalum. Particularly stunning is Arie’s duet with gospel singer Gene Moore, Jr. on “Mary Did You Know?” “Christmas with Friends” is the perfect soundtrack for a mellow evening at home in front of the Christmas tree and a crackling fireplace.
The Braxton Family “Braxton Family Christmas”
Tamar Braxton released her seasonal “Winter Loversland” album two years ago, and now her siblings have followed suit with their own offering, “Braxton Family Christmas.” Although it’s a brief collection at only eight songs, its festive charm makes it well worth picking up. Even brother Michael gets in on the family act with his lovely duet with sister Toni, “Under My Christmas Tree.” The ladies harmonize and switch up lead vocal parts as they jaunt through well-known classics like “This Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know” and lesser-known gems like “Everyday Is Christmas” and “Blessed New Year” with soulful energy and good cheer.
Marc Broussard “Magnolias & Mistletoe”
“Magnolias & Mistletoe” is the first holiday album by Louisiana-based Marc Broussard and he brings his trademark husky vocals and bluesy bayou vibe to a stellar collection of standards and two originals. Broussard doesn’t stray too far from the traditional arrangements of holiday staples “O Holy Night,” “The Christmas Song” and “The First Noel,” allowing his powerhouse voice to shine over the stripped-down instrumentation. Broussard closes the album with two superb original ballads, “When Christmas Comes Along” and “Almost Christmas.” “Magnolias & Mistletoe” was clearly a labor of love and Broussard’s genuine heart and sincerity come through in every track.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra “Big Band Holidays”
Famed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the musical director for New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and on “Big Band Holidays” he leads the uber-talented collective though a fresh and lively parade of holiday favorites. Particularly noteworthy is the eight-minute take on “What Child is This?” featuring the acclaimed vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. Washington, D.C.-based singer René Marie is fantastic on her two tracks, a playful take on “Zat You, Santa Claus?” and an elegant performance of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” “Big Band Holidays” is a joyous presentation of the Orchestra at their exhilarating best.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings “It’s a Holiday Soul Party”
Nobody does old-school soul like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and they prove it once again on their first seasonal collection “It’s a Holiday Soul Party.” The album is aptly named, as the always-tight Dap Kings deliver their smokin’ hot retro R&B vibe and Jones expertly vamps her way through 11 classics and originals. Tired of the same old boring renditions? Check out Jones & the Dap Kings on their wildly hoppin’ take on “White Christmas,” or the smoldering groove they deliver on “Funky Little Drummer Boy.” “It’s a Holiday Soul Party” will be entertaining festive revelers for years to come.
Kylie Minogue “Kylie Christmas”
Pop diva Kylie Minogue shines on her first holiday offering, “Kylie Christmas.” It’s a surprisingly traditional and elegant collection of standards and originals from an artist who is usually more at home with kinetic dancefloor beats. There are some non-traditional moments, such as turning the new wave classic “Only You” by Yaz into a gorgeous duet with James Corden. Minogue’s reverent take on The Pretenders’ bittersweet “2000 Miles” is pure beauty. Minogue does give in to her electrifying pop impulses on “100 Degrees,” a duet with her sister Dannii. “Kylie Christmas” is essential for any holiday party mix you might be cooking up to entertain family and friends.
Mint Condition “Healing Season”
Mint Condition has been dispensing its sexy brand of R&B since the early ‘90s. Nearly 25 years since its debut, the quintet offers a relentlessly entertaining holiday album, “Healing Season.” They avoid the same old chestnuts that get recycled year after year, instead bringing their upbeat funky style to rave-ups like “1 Brand Name” and James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” Most of “Healing Season” is taken up by soulful ballads like “1st Snowfall,” a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” and the exquisite title track, a prayer for peace in a world that needs it desperately.
RuPaul’s Drag Race “Christmas Queens”
Some of the most memorable contestants from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” serve up holiday realness on “Christmas Queens,” a collection of nervy and naughty Christmas nuggets certain to delight fans of the show. Sharon Needles’ punk-rock version of “Jingle Bells” is priceless, and Jiggy Caliente is hilarious on “Ratchet Christmas.” Miss Fame delivers a lovely retro take on the dreamy “Toyland.” “Christmas Queens” offers a campy respite from the same old earnest perennials we hear every year. And if that wasn’t enough, RuPaul also released a new holiday CD this year, “Slay Belles,” so sashay away to your favorite retailer and grab them both.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra “Rockin’ Rudolph”
Iconic Stray Cats’ frontman and guitarist Brian Setzer swings and rocks his way through 12 seasonal gems on “Rockin’ Rudolph,” the third holiday album with his big band orchestra. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is a natural for Setzer, and “Here Comes Santa Claus” stands out as well. Perhaps the most surprising is his atmospheric take on “Carol of the Bells,” one of the best versions of that classic in ages. “Rockin’ Rudolph” starts right back up from where “Boogie Woogie Christmas” and “Dig That Crazy Christmas” left off, with fun festive energy and plenty of groove.
Smoke Fairies “Wild Winter”
For something a bit different and more contemplative, British indie-pop duo Smoke Fairies’ seasonal collection “Wild Winter” is definitely not the kind of stuff you might hear at Macy’s. The 10 dreamy tracks are made for late nights and candlelight while the wind roars outside and the snow piles deep. Crystalline vocals gleam over a bed of hazy keyboards and guitar on the darkly beautiful “Snowglobe Blizzard,” “Three Kings” and the wonderfully atmospheric title-track “Wild Winter” is a different kind of holiday album, but after all the frivolity and exuberance it’s the perfect antidote for chilling at home after the party is over.