Despite the floundering economy, it’s still a busy Christmas for new music. Some of these will cheer you up, and others, well, won’t.
So without further introduction, and with emphasis on “exclusive” versions, let’s plunge into some of 2008’s holiday releases. All of them have received a star rating, usually based on musical quality, but sometimes with other things considered as well.
The Archies, The Archies Christmas Album Featuring Betty and Veronica (Fuel 2000 302 061 739 2) — No, this isn’t a lost album from the glory days of the animated band that was popular from 1968 to 1970. These are new recordings, featuring the original voice of Archie, Ron Dante, who mostly stays in the background as “Betty” and “Veronica” take most of the leads. A lot of care went into the two originals, “Archies Christmas Party” and “Christmas in Riverdale,” which are worth the wait as the last two songs on the CD. Otherwise, it’s only so-so. ***
The Boxmasters, Christmas Cheer (Sawmill/Vanguard 79874-2) — Actor Billy Bob Thornton’s alt.-country band has released a holiday CD, its second album in six months or so. It’s pretty good, actually; the originals, written by Thornton, have a touch of Western swing to them, especially “My Dreams of Christmas.” Also included with a selection of traditional Christmas songs is the seldom-covered John Prine song, “Christmas in Jail.” ****
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Jingle All the Way (Rounder 11661-0661-2) — For the fan of highly unorthodox holiday music, this one’s for you. Banjoist Fleck and his merry band do all kinds of odd things to everything from traditional tunes (“What Child Is This” becomes a tribal chant) to a couple selections from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which is as bereft here as an instrumental as Mitchell’s 1970 original was. Not for everyone, but there’s a lot to appreciate here. (Also available on vinyl LP.) ****
Gentleman Auction House, Christmas — In Love (Emergency Umbrella EU 08026) — This six-song EP comes from a St. Louis-based indie-rock band that has been getting some buzz in parts of the Midwest. Hiding behind the alt.-rock guitar and drums are some beautiful sentiments, and they do a nice re-working of the only non-original, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” You also have to love that Santa himself earned a co-production credit.” ****
Tommy James, I Love Christmas (Aura 66637 30602) — This is quite a fun album. The title song, an original, is splendid, as is the “Shondells reunion” on “It’s Christmas Again.” And there’s even some Vocoder use in his version of “The Christmas Song.” Another industry veteran, Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, is involved as well, which adds to the joy. ****
Brian McKnight, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Razor & Tie 79301 83011 2) — Soul singer McKnight, who was at his most popular in the 1990s, is back with his second holiday CD, and it’s quite good. He’s in fine voice, has some inspired guests (Vince Gill and Josh Groban, for two) and even takes a few chances. His version of “The Christmas Song” evokes memories of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”; I can’t decide if it works or not, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition. ****
Neil Sedaka, The Miracle of Christm