Holiday music might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with new records from Alicia Keys, Backstreet Boys and Debbie Gibson, there’s something that might appeal to everyone at the table. So pull out the record player, light some candles and get festive — and thankful for new music.
Associated Press journalists unwrapped the latest new holiday-themed albums from Chris Isaak, Davis Causey & Jay Smith, Louis Armstrong, Pentatonix and more.
Alicia Keys, “Santa Baby” (Alicia Keys Records)
Alicia Keys’ Christmas album debut “Santa Baby” is as cheeky, cozy and captivating, as the classic it is named after.
For a holiday fanatic like me, there is nothing more heartwarming than Christmas songs. However, Keys is able to take a holiday favorite and improve it with her vocals and R&B twist.
So, like a square of butter over a freshly baked tower of pancakes, my heart sweetly melts into a sugary puddle.
The 15-time Grammy winner wraps those beloved old Christmas songs with originals, sure to join the pantheon of the glorious jolly songs. In the music video for the song, “December Back 2 June,” a joyous Alicia Keys wears bubble ponytails and a metallic suit, singing “Christmas is all the time when I’m with you.”
Ending with “Ave Maria,” the artist risks it all, by taking a slow classic and adding a soul vibe with a recurring drum beat that makes an already solemn song into something fresh and beautiful.
Like that perfect black sweater in your wardrobe, this album goes with everything, whether you’re feeling like snuggling under a blanket drinking hot tea or preparing yourself for a winter date. This album has it all: The sexy, the homey and the nostalgic.
— Martina Inchingolo
Chris Isaak, “Everybody Knows It’s Christmas” (Sun Records/Virgin UMG)
Fresh off a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association, singer Chris Isaak is in a festive mood. It only makes sense that his next project would be a holiday album.
On “Everybody Knows It’s Christmas,” Isaak, who has built a career ranging comfortably between rockabilly and doo-wop, applies his distinctive talent to 13 holiday tracks in the Sun Studio style.
Isaak and his backup band, who are touring behind the album, take up familiar tunes like “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bell Rock” with exuberant style, but they also dial up rockabilly cuts like “Run Rudolph Run” and an original called “Almost Christmas” that fits right in. There’s not an earworm in the bunch, which can be a rarity for a holiday album.
Isaak’s music can feel lightweight, but he succeeds by never taking himself too seriously. He always seems to do things just for the fun of it, and this album is no exception. And hey, isn’t Christmas supposed to be fun?
— Scott Stroud
“Pickin’ On Christmas,” Davis Causey & Jay Smith (Strolling Bones Records)
More than two decades after it was recorded, “Pickin’ On Christmas” again makes a lovely holiday gift.
In 1998, Athens, Georgia, guitarists Davis Causey and Jay Smith found themselves with little money for presents, so they recorded an album of eight instrumentals for a limited run of 100 CDs, and gave them to friends and family.
Now the set is available on the Strolling Bones label, and it’s full of good cheer and interesting interplay.
With the help of overdubs, Causey and Smith trade licks and engage in creative counterpoint to generate plenty of winter warmth. The festive mash-up “Silver Bells/Silent Night” settles into a boogie rhythm pushed by drummer Jeff Reilly, and features what sounds like at least five guitars. Another innovative interpretation, “We Three Kings/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” combines funky syncopation with three guitars improvising simultaneously.
There’s plenty of variety. The one original tune, the serene “Following a Star,” includes a synth guitar part by Causey that sounds like a cello, while Randall Bramblett contributes a sprightly soprano sax part on “What Child Is This?” “Little Drummer Boy” mixes Causey’s resonator guitar and Smith’s classical guitar, and several cuts feature blue notes and other jazz colors.
Causey has become a model of longevity, his 60-year career highlighted by work with Kris Kristofferson, Marvin Gaye and Waylon Jennings, among many others. Smith died shortly after these tunes were recorded, which makes the album a poignant holiday celebration of musical kinship.
— Steven Wine
Joss Stone, “Merry Christmas, Love” (S-Curve Records)
Soul singer Joss Stone has released her first album of Christmas songs, to which the only natural reaction is: Why did it take so long to get these chestnuts roasting?
“Merry Christmas, Love” is a brilliant addition to the holiday cannon with Stone’s seemingly effortless takes on 13 classics, breathing new life into “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow.” She also wrote two nifty originals.
Though she has a Ferrari engine, her restraint is admirable, letting the song shine, like one of the prettiest versions of “In The Bleak Midwinter” you’ll ever hear and an absolutely joyous take on Irving Berlin’s “Snow.”
Stone shows exquisite control and tone on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and leaves the beauty of “Away in a Manger” unadorned. One of the new ones, “If You Believe,” borrows a beat from “The Little Drummer Boy” but soars, at the end unleashing that Ferrari.
The album ends with a tricky one — “Silent Night.” And Stone absolutely smashes it, with sonic fireworks. This collection needs to be on repeat this holiday — and next.
— Mark Kennedy
Debbie Gibson, “Winterlicious” (Stargirl Records)
Writing your own Christmas songs must be a daunting, task but that hasn’t stopped Debbie Gibson. Thank goodness.
The singer who gave us “Only in My Dreams” offers “Winterlicious,” her first ever holiday album. It’s an eclectic set, mixing classics with originals, including a duet with her dad, a new Hanukkah song — big points for inclusion, Ms. Gibson — and ends with an emotional and super New Year’s Eve song, “Cheers.”
One highlight is a rare Christmas break-up song — she and New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre co-wrote the terrific “Heartbreak Holiday.” Other Gibson originals like “Jingle Those Bells,” “Christmas Star” and “Christmas Dreams” deserve to be on your holiday rotation and her cover of “The Candy Man” is a great showcase for her Broadway-ready voice.
The duet with Joe Gibson on “White Christmas” is painful — sorry, dad — but the driving, over-the-top and maybe even naughty arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” goes down well. This is an album that’s got something for everyone.
— Mark Kennedy
Backstreet Boys, “A Very Backstreet Christmas” (BMG)
Backstreet Boys have released their first Christmas album and you can thank the pandemic for that.
During lockdown, while everyone was busy baking and working out from home, the boy band was harmonizing jolly classics.
They bring a nostalgic boy band pop twist to beloved songs like “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Last Christmas,” while slow staples, like “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” give the singers a chance to show off their angelic voices.
In addition, the band gifts their fans with their own original Christmas song “Happy Days.” They sing “We’re gonna party like it’s ’99,” and, honestly, there probably isn’t a more early 2000s pop holiday song than this.
While the album is offering a vast option of well-known classics, the band makes each song its own.
So, being a big Christmas enthusiast won’t just do it, you have to commit to that cheesy and sentimental pop beat. While I doubt that whoever is not into the boy band genre will curiously stumble into this album, the hardcore fans will definitely be satisfied.
— Martina Inchingolo
Pentatonix, “Holidays Around the World” (RCA Records)
In what is becoming a steadfast holiday tradition, Pentatonix is back with new music on a new holiday album. The five-member acapella group released “Holidays Around the World,” which explores collaborations with musicians from different cultures around the world.
Each track highlighted the cultures of the different featured artists on the album. Collaborations include Lang Lang, Shreya Ghoshal, Hiba Tawaji, La Santa Cecilia, Lea Salonga and more.
Pentatonix continues to put their own twists on traditional holiday classics, as they have successfully done in past holiday albums. The standouts are “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Last Christmas” (feat. HIKAKIN & SEIKIN).
Out of the original songs on the album, “Kid on Christmas” (feat. Meghan Trainor) was the clear pop hit with its upbeat chorus. While Christmas seems to be the main holiday celebrated in this album, the uplifting melodies or jolly lyrics in each track will put audiences in the holiday spirit.
— Karena Phan
Louis Armstrong, “Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule” (Verve Records)
If Mariah Carey is the queen of Christmas music, then make space for its king, Louis Armstrong.
Fifty years since the legendary artist passed away, his fans received the best Christmas present they could wish for. Months before his death, the musician recorded himself reciting the poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” (also popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”).
Now, the never before released recording, featuring Armstrong’s growly, familiar voice, is accompanied by a musical underbed from New Orleans pianist, Sullivan Fortner.
The track is part of Louis Armstrong’s first Christmas album called “Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule.” Including nine holiday classics recorded by the artist, plus his memorable masterpiece “What a Wonderful World.”
The musician’s work has been proven to pass the test of time and it’s still able to this day to keep that naïve and childish glow in us from dimming. With this festive album, we get to hold on to that feeling for a little longer and get back to it at every re-listen.
So, as he reads in the new track: “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night . . . A very good night.”
— Martina Inchingolo