Some music fans will argue that the art form known as the Christmas album achieved perfection with Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Others will argue for the supremacy of A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Either way, each year artists mine the rich cache of holiday songs for themed albums, while adding a few originals of their own to the mix. Here are a few of the best Christmas albums released this year. Some tinker with the classics and some remain reverent to the spirit of the season, but all are worth a spin.
It's Christmas (Verve)
New Orleans-born soul singer Ledisi may have lost to Amy Winehouse in the 2008 Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, but this collection (and Winehouse's appetite for destruction) may prove Ledisi a strong contender for the title of Soul Queen. Her brand of soul is more neo than retro, and on It's Christmas she works through a mix of originals and low-lit classics. Ledisi's new songs won't necessarily make it into the modern Christmas canon, but her take on the Motown chestnut "Give Love on Christmas Day" is worth hearing, as is her duet with Keb' Mo' on "Please Come Home for Christmas."
Béla Fleck & the Flecktones:
Jingle All the Way (Rounder Records) Béla Fleck has the distinction of taking two divisive, oft-maligned forms of music (banjo-pickin' and jam-band explorations) and making them both respectable. His compositions have always seemed both erudite and free form, and that combination is at play on Jingle All the Way. Kicking off with a demented take on "Jingle Bells," Way finds maestro Fleck and his equally skilled Flecktones never taking themselves too seriously and never straying too far off the beaten path. Jeff Coffin's soprano sax guides a swinging "Silent Night," while "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies" lets Fleck show off his chops. Of all the holiday albums reviewed here, Fleck's contribution is certainly the most fun.
A Very Rosie Christmas! (Sing-a-long Records)
Rosie Thomas is best known as a soft-touch indie artist, but her holiday album showcases her crystal-clear voice and refined, jazz-like phrasing. Thomas leads a small indie-pop orchestra through carols and modern Christmas favorites. Damien Jurado pops in for a guest spot as the narrator on "Sheila's Christmas Miracle," and Thomas' original compositions are both jubilant ("Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?") and lugubrious ("Alone At Christmastime").
This Christmas (www.marthastrouble.com)
Husband and wife Rob and Jen Slocumb make up the duo Martha's Trouble by combining her country-flecked sweetness and his rock-derived guitar work. This eight-song disc is a relaxed, mellow affair, well suited for the season's first snowfall. The pair removes the synth-tastic production from Wings' "Wonderful Christmastime" and changes the tune into a folksy sing-along, while the pair of originals ("Christmas in the City" and the title track) fit nicely alongside the classics. This Christmas may be hard to find in record stores, but the disc is available on the band's Web site and on iTunes.
The Singing Saw at Christmas (Merge)
Fans of the long-dormant Neutral Milk Hotel have a few reasons to smile these days. Reclusive frontman Jeff Mangum has been making public appearances lately, and NMH bassist (and Music Tapes leader) Julian Koster has collected these 12 Christmas songs. But the "singing saw" in the title is no joke: A pair of musical saws is all that can be heard on this instrumental album. The shivering tone of the saws is most akin to the wavering pitch of a theremin, and accordingly, these songs walk a thin line between exquisite beauty and ear-raking annoyance. Koster fares better on more reverent hymns like "O Little Town of Bethlehem," as the high, lonesome saw tone sounds as if it's being carried on the wind from a nearby church on Christmas Eve.