Artists jump into holiday fray

Several musicians spin yuletide favorites

Every Christmas, Santa’s sleigh brings a stocking full of new holiday albums from artists big and small.

Many have aspirations of growing into a holiday classic like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector” or Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” although most are eventually relegated to drink coaster status.

The two bestselling Christmas albums in the post-1991 Nielsen SoundScan era are Kenny G’s 1994 “Miracles,” which has sold a whopping 7.2 million copies, and Josh Groban’s “Noel,” which has moved 4.6 million in the U.S. and was the bestselling disc of 2007, holiday or otherwise. “Noel” shows signs of becoming an evergreen: In 2008, it sold 915,000 copies, making it the top-selling holiday album two years running.

“I doubt any of 2009’s holiday releases will come near what Groban’s ‘Noel’ has sold,” predicts Keith Caulfield, senior chart manager-analyst for Billboard.

Indeed, though it’s early yet, no title, not even Bob Dylan’s much-ballyhooed first holiday collection, “Christmas in the Heart,” seems to be sprinkled with the magic Christmas dust that will take it from niche to mainstream.

Caulfield thinks 2009’s best bet could be “My Christmas” from classical crossover artist Andrea Bocelli. “Generally speaking, those artists and albums that appeal to more mature pop audiences tend to sell better than others,” he says. “Moms and grandmas are still buying albums to play around the house while wrapping presents and decorating the tree, so you have to think of what they might purchase to play at family get-togethers.”

“Midwinter Graces” (Universal Republic)

No one really expected Amos to do a straight-ahead holiday album, and that’s part of her appeal. On this seasonal title, Amos reimagines a number of classic carols and even gives them new names like “A Silent Night With You” or “What Child, Nowell.” She also contributes original tracks “Pink and Glitter” and “Our New Year.”

“Christmas From the Heart” (Jive)

The “American Idol” runner-up hits the mark with his earnest, angelic voice perfectly suited to such sentimental holiday favorites as “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and even “Ave Maria.” Sure, it’s a little early in his career to release a Christmas CD, but he may want to strike while the iron is hot.

“My Christmas” (Decca)

As Billboard’s Keith Caulfield mentioned, Bocelli is big with the moms no matter what he’s singing, and this collection should be no different. The silver-throated vocalist wraps his estimable pipes around primarily traditional religious fare, such as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night” and “What Child Is This,” although he takes on Elvis with “Blue Christmas” and Bing with “White Christmas.”

“Christmas in the Heart” (Columbia)

God knows Mr. Zimmerman held out on making a holiday album as long as he could. Critics haven’t known whether to take his first Christmas set seriously, but after a few listens, it’s totally possible Dylan isn’t pulling our leg. Or maybe he is … only he and Santa know for sure. The album debuted at No. 23 on the Billboard 200 a few weeks back, ahead of Archuleta’s similarly titled “Christmas From the Heart,” and has sold more than 30,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“Gold and Green” (UMG Nashville)

Hotter-than-hot country duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush enter the fray with a collection of five originals, including the enchanting and heartbreaking “City of Silver Dreams,” and five secular and traditional evergreens, such as “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

“A Very Special Christmas: Volume 7” (A&M Records)

The first collection released following Special Olympics co-founder Eunice Shriver’s death earlier this year is aimed squarely at the tween set, with contributions from Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens, Carrie Underwood, Ashley Tisdale and Sean Kingston.

A number of other artists are also in the wassailing mood: Sting offers a seasonal-themed collection with “If on a Winter’s Night.” Judas Priest’s Rob Halford even jumps into the fray with “Halford III: Winter Songs,” and Kathy Griffin wins the “bah humbug” award with “Suckin’ It for the Holidays.” Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow have basically repackaged holiday treats with a few new titles sprinkled in.

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