Artists put new spin on holiday discs

Christmas albums compete for top sales

JOSH GROBAN’S “NOEL” breathed new life into the Christmas genre last year, selling 3.6 million copies in the final 2½ months of 2007. It’s highly unlikely we’ll see a repeat this season — brace yourself for a Faith Hill holiday deluge — but the floodgates for Christmas records are decidedly open. There’s a newness in spirit on many of them, serious artistic statements being made beyond the singing of old favorites. In particular, Mary Chapin Carpenter may well have created a blueprint for the modern Christmas album.

Last week there were 13 Christmas albums in the top 100 — 21 collections of new recordings have already landed on my desk — and by Thanksgiving another half-dozen holiday records will be on the chart. It’s evidence that Christmas music never goes out of favor. If a label is looking for short-term earner, holiday music is not a bad path.

Can’t say I’m that big of a fan. Since the 1970s, I have been content with a few albums –Phil Spector, Lou Rawls, David Grisman, Nat King Cole, an Atco soul compilation — and only a few others have cracked the rotation in the last two decades, Charles Brown, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett and a few compilations.

Things might change this year. The sorts of records that most everyone grew up with from the 1950s through the ’80s — mixing the secular and the commercial — are still being created, this year by the likes of Brian McKnight, Natalie Cole and Kristin Chenoweth. Genre-specific artists are spreading the cheer — Bela Fleck in bluegrass, Billy Bob Thornton’s Boxmasters playing neo-outlaw country, Brian Setzer rocking with a big band and Spyro Gyra adding contempo jazz to old standbys. No holiday is complete without a catalog tweak, and this year Elvis Presley’s Christmas songs are now available as “duets” with the voices of living female artists.

SMARTER ARTISTS realize that if their collection of standards and traditional hymns clicks with music buyers, they would lose significant songwriting royalties if they don’t have an original tune on the album. Sheryl Crow’s “Home for Christmas” boasts one original, Neil Sedaka splits his two-CD set “The Miracle of Christmas” between originals and classics, Harry Connick Jr. gets in four originals on his third Christmas album and Enya co-wrote10 of the 12 songs on “And Winter Came…”

Artists are taking the concept of a “winter” record to new heights, carefully blending religious overtones and concepts with secular pop and classical. The festive “A Midwinter’s Night Dream” by pianist Lorena McKennitt is dominated by lyrics from the 19th century and traditional instruments. Yo-Yo Ma takes a similar journey but delivers a more somber tone on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” a gathering of jazz and classical crossover musicians for an elegant exercise.

Sarah Brightman, with “A Winter Symphony,” and Enya, on “And Winter Came…” also opt for seasonal reflection, their album covers remarkably revealing. Brightman, pictured in a snowstorm, clobbers the listener like a blizzard; Enya’s calm and cold music reflects the cover photo’s field of white.

R&B IS SPUN toward holiday cheer by Aretha Franklin (“This Christmas”), Ledisi (“It’s Christmas”) and Rahsaan Patterson (“The Ultimate Gift”). Franklin has grafted modern gospel touches on a program of known songs and like Hill, whose “Joy to the World” is the highest profile Christmas release, she is supporting the album with a string of promotional dates. Ledisi has crafted a seasonal standard in the upbeat “Be There for Christmas,” a recording that’s as romantic as it is fun. Her entire album exudes a feeling of hope, a crucial element noticeably absent from Patterson’s offering.

The winner this season is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come Darkness, Come Light,” a meticulously crafted modern folk album. She writes superb carols and winter’s tales, understands how to evoke a chill in the air and warmth by the fire, tell stories from perspectives on city streets and in old farmhouses. Lyrically, she alternates between giving the listener an opportunity to sing along — “come darkness, come light/come new star, shining bright/come love to this world tonight/Alleluia” — and seasonal questions about life and the future to ponder. Christmas records have been playing at my house for a week and there were only a few moments in which I was compelled to sit down and listen intently: McKennitt, Ledisi and Carpenter will be this year’s soundtrack.

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