The 9 Best Holidaysongs Albums of 2014

Every year, I add dozens of albums of holiday music to my massive Spotify playlist, and then I listen through them to figure out which ones I really love.

Top Holidaysongs 2014 (3)

Caitriona O’Leary, The Wexford Carols:The other eight albums are listed in no particular order, but this one is hands down my favorite of 2014. The most famous Wexford Carol is a 12th-century Irish song commemorating the birth of Jesus, and that’s on this album, but Caitriona O’Leary has also incorporated several other 17th- and 18th-century carols that haven’t been heard in a very long time, such as “Jerusalem Our Happy Home,” making this in some ways an album of new holiday songs. It’s also the most beautifully sounding record of this year’s holiday season, as Joe Henry’s production gives the proceedings an almost tangible atmosphere of place, with guest appearances by Tom Jones, Roseanne Cash, and Rhiannon Giddens. If you love the older, religious carols and seasonal folk songs, you will want to hear this album, and once you do, I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.

Various Artists, It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue: I don’t usually put multi-artist compilations on my best-of lists, but this assortment from the Mack Avenue Records jazz label is really top-notch, starting with a great jam on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” led by Sean Jones on trumpet. There’s also a great one-two Vince Guaraldi suite, with Hot Club of Detroit’s country-swing “Skating” immediately followed by vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s “Christmas Time Is Here.” And the Christian McBride Trio’s instrumental romp through James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” is one of the most fun cuts from any artist this holiday season.

Anthony Hamilton, Home for the Holidays: This is easily my favorite R&B holiday album this year. “Spend Christmas with You” and the title track should immediately go onto pop radio’s Christmas playlists, and Hamilton’s cover of “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” rivals the original version by the Emotions. The groove on the opening track, “It’s Christmas,” is a bit too gritty for me to imagine it’d be a radio hit, too, but it’s awfully darn infectious.

Top Holidaysongs 2014 (2)

Mark Kozelek, Sings Christmas Carols: Does exactly what it says on the tin, as the lead singer of Red House Painters does stripped-down acoustic versions of holiday standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The most modern touches are “Christmas Time Is Here,” “I Believe in Father Christmas,” and the not-often selected “2,000 Miles.” The album is straightforwardly simple, but the starkness is the key to its charm.

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow: Over the Rhine’s second holiday album is a wonderful collection of original compositions with subtle invocations of the familiar classics, like the way the tune of “My Father’s Body” echoes “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” This album is a bit dark, and even “upbeat” numbers like “First Snowfall” have a somber air to them, but it’s really beautiful, and one of the few holiday albums you probably won’t feel too weird listening to outside the season.

Rough Shop, Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree: This is a band I’d never encountered before somebody on Twitter recommended them to me at the beginning of December, and they won me over with the opening track, “Christmas Isn’t Like Any Day.” There’s goofy tracks like “Gimme That Twine,” heart-tugging numbers like “A Christmas Snowfall,” even the funky “Soul of Christmas.” Probably the most eclectic album from a single band or artist I’ve heard this year, but even as they go from one style to the next, you can feel the personality underpinning the whole enterprise.

Top 2014 Holidaysongs (1)

John Schneider & Tom Wopat, Home for Christmas: The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars reunite for a jazzy session that features crooners’ standards like “The Christmas Waltz” (made famous by Sinatra) and “The Secret of Christmas” (part of Bing’s repertoire), and some darker numbers like Bob Dorough’s “Blue Xmas.” There’s one brief twinge of country with the fiddles of “On a Quiet Christmas Morn,” and a couple interludes of goofy banter (“Ponch and Jon couldn’t do this –“), and just about the only version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” I think I can stand to listen to anymore.

The Living Sisters, Harmony Is Real: I hadn’t heard of this “supergroup” quartet, which includes members of The Bird and the Bee and Lavender Diamond, before this album, but they’ve got an entertaining, occasionally goofy but always sweet sound that works well on a set of mostly original compositions like “Kadoka, South Dakota” and “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve,” plus a few standards like “Jingle Bells” and “Little Drummer Boy.” Imagine the Puppini Sisters in a higher key, and a somewhat more organic feeling to the proceedings. The key here isn’t that they’re trying to duplicate an “old-timey” sound, but recreate it and then give it a new spin or three.

The Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal, Talkin’ Christmas!: I’m a huge fan of the previous Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas album, Go Tell It On the Mountain, so I was looking forward to listening to this as soon as I learned it existed. It opens with an entirely new arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that took some getting used to, but honestly the more I play this album the more I love it. Working with just one guest star this time around, the blues musician Taj Mahal, gives the album a strong sense of consistency from one track to the next, from fast numbers to slow and back again. This one is definitely going into my heavy rotation for future holiday seasons.

10 December 2014 | listen to this |