Top Picks: Our staff selects the best of holiday music
From Nick Lowe's folksy 'Quality Street' to Mary J. Blige's refreshing take on winter standards, here's some new music worth checking out this holiday season.
Italian heartthrob Vittorio GrigĂ˛lo was a contralto in the fabled Sistine Chapel Choir, one of the worldâs oldest choirs, whose purpose is to uphold the highest standard for religious music. The arrangements on Ave Maria were composed especially for the choir and have never been recorded or sung by anyone else. Four of these works are by two choirmasters/composers â Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and Padre Giovanni Maria Catena â whom GrigĂ˛lo knew personally.
Nick Lowe, the enfant terrible of Britainâs 1980s new wave music invasion, continues to write and record witty and winning songs. His first holiday-themed album, Quality Street, is warmhearted and folksy, like the man himself. In this collection, Lowe has penned a few new songs that, if anybodyâs listening, should become holiday classics. âI Was Born in Bethlehemâ features a quiet but compelling Jesus describing the night he was born in touching detail. Prepare to be moved, in heart and soul.
On her debut Christmas album, Wrapped in Red, the first â and still the best â âAmerican Idolâ winner, Kelly Clarkson, relies on the same kind of slick, radio-friendly production that has kept her hovering at the top of the charts for a decade, with mixed results. When she wants to be soulful, she sure can bring it. The Eaglesâ âPlease Be Home for Christmasâ and the bluesy âEvery Christmasâ are right in her Texas wheelhouse. But most of the album feels shiny and somewhat distant, like the star on top of the tree.
Because violinist Joshua Bellâs late father was an Episcopal priest and his mother is Jewish, he wanted Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends to be a broader-than-usual holiday album. An admirer of classical wunderkind Jascha Heifetz, who recorded with icon Bing Crosby, Bell follows suit with an eclectic mix of collaborations with names from all over the musical landscape, such as Gloria Estefan, Alison Krauss, Kristin Chenoweth, Chick Corea, RenĂŠe Fleming, Michael Feinstein, and PlĂĄcido Domingo.
The Sounding Joy is a lively amalgam of folk carols drawn from Ruth Crawford Seegerâs 1953 songbook, âAmerican Folk Songs for Christmas.â Elizabeth Mitchell calls on a long list of musical friends to celebrate the heart of community and homespun traditions that existed in times before the commercialization of Christmas. Collaborators include Natalie Merchant, Aoife OâDonovan, Amy Helm, John Sebastian, Dan Zanes, and Happy Traum.
In from the cold
Teaming with crooner Michael BublĂŠâs superproducer David Foster might seem like a weird choice for a singer with Mary J. Bligeâs R&B cred. But the yin and yang work beautifully on A Mary Christmas, with Bligeâs rough-and-ready vocals sanding down the overly smooth surfaces of Fosterâs arrangements. She breathes some genuine humanity into a familiar list of Christmas standards, giving âThe Little Drummer Boyâ a soulful lift and putting a sultry spin on âHave Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.â