Holiday Music 2023 Roundup: Caroling With Cher, Brenda Lee, Brandy, Boygenius, Alanis Morissette, Laufey, Chlöe and More

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You have to appreciate the wonder of a holiday season when Brenda Lee’s seasonal hit from 65-years-past, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” gets to top December’s Billboard Hot 100 for several consecutive weeks. With that, expect Lee to ride (and rock) into Christmas with Santa on her tail. Christmas? Meet miracle.

This year’s Christmas season brings with it enough new and old (but reissued) holiday-themed albums, EPs, singles and streams to weigh down Santa’s sack considerably.

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Cher, “Christmas” (Warner Records)
Really? Cher’s very-first holiday collection after all this time? OK. The wait was worthwhile as the legendary vocalist-actor goes through every sonic genre she’s ever breezed through during her stellar career – pulsating electronica on “DJ Play a Christmas Song,” tender-hearted balladry with “Please Come Home for Christmas,” adult rawk-outs via “Run Rudolph Run.” Plus, she’s quick to play seasonal open house to friends such as Darlene Love, Stevie Wonder and Cyndi Lauper.

Brenda Lee, “A Rockin’ Christmas with Brenda Lee” (UMe)
What seemed like an innocent digital-only EP reissue-collection of five of the Atlanta-native’s finest seasonal songs turned out to presage the first-time No. 1 Hot 100 status of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Besides that chestnut and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “A Marshmallow World,” you also get a contemporary remix of “Rockin’” “reimagined” by Filous. Lee also filmed a new, first-ever video for “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” with fellow one-time hellcats Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood in anticipation of 2023’s EP. (For a more complete collection of Lee’s holiday material, look up the full “Decca Christmas Recordings” album that includes all the Xmas sides she cut in the late ’50s and early ’60s.)

Stephanie J. Block, “Merry Christmas, Darling” (Club44 Records)

The 2019 Tony Award winner for “Best Leading Actress in a Musical” for her star turn in “The Cher Show,” Block shows off the more nuanced corners of her vocal prowess on a charming, unlikely selection of jazzy, holiday tracks such as a “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”/”My Favorite Things” medley, Club44 label boss Wayne Haun’s newly-written “When You Hold Me in Your Arms (It’s Christmas)” and Ann Hampton Callaway’s wintry, moody “Manhattan in December.”

Michael Bolton & Mickey Guyton, “Christmas Isn’t Christmas” (Montaigne Records)
While this pairing looks improbable on (wrapping) paper, this meeting of the king of raspy, chest-beating MOR rock and nu-country’s warmest velvety vocalist make this season(al selection) bright with its overall sense of epic ascension. Thundering stuff.

Laufrey, “A Very Laufey Holiday!” (AWAL Recordings America)
Though there a scores of softly rendered strings, a tinkling piano and a shuffling, fluid guitar sound that would make Wes Montgomery green with envy, Laufrey’s deep, mellifluous vocals – triple-tracked for harmonic perfection on “Christmas Dreaming”  – are the tender hearted centerpiece of this spare, jazzy three-track EP. Not to be confused with the other Laufey release of the season…

Norah Jones and Laufey, “Christmas with You” (Blue Note)
Fast friends and equally bewitching neo-jazz artists Norah Jones and Laufey cozy up to one new, self-written track (the giddy “Better Than Snow”) and the holiday classics “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (on red vinyl if you buy it from the Blue Note store) with the pair using its hushed vocals and an intimate arrangement of piano and cello to guide its way through the white stuff. Charming.

Brandy, “Christmas with Brandy” (Brand Nu/Motown)
Singer-reality television star Brandy has made a point of saying that her new Christmas album is designed for year-round R&B listening pleasure. The fact that she’s co-written a goodly portion of its tracks speaks to that desire, as original songs such as “Feels Different” and “Christmas Party for Two” are smooth, slick soul perfection, complete with syrupy melodies and subtly dip-diving vocals. That said, Brandy knocks the (New Year’s) ball out of the park on Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”

Brandy Clark, “My Favorite Christmas” (Warner Records)

The country music goddess behind the words and music of Broadway’s “Shucked” pares down her showy sound (but not her lyrics talking up “Radio City, Rockettes and reindeer”) for the chilled melodic romanticism of “My Favorite Christmas.” Honestly, between this and the traditional holiday B-side, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Clark has never sounded better or more luxurious.

Adam Blackstone, A Legacy Christmas (BASSic/Black Entertainment Records)
The bassist, bandleader and musical director behind more than a few Super Bowl Halftime shows stretched out as a post-neo-soul solo artist this year, and continues that groove for the holiday with fellow travelers such as Andra Day (“Legacy Christmas Time”), Boyz II Men (“Greatest Gift”), Keke Palmer (“Christmas Kisses”) and the Fresh Prince’s pal DJ Jazzy Jeff on the scratched-up “Brother J (Holiday).”

Boygenius, “The Parting Glass” (Interscope)

Suddenly, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Phoebe Bridgers as, in the past, she’s covered the craggy wintry songs of Merle Haggard for the holiday, and for worthwhile charities. For Holiday 2023, Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus and Irish folkies Ye Vagabonds join forces on the sweet traditional Celtic ballad “The Parting Glass,” in honor of the late Sinéad O’Connor, who recorded the track in 2002 and whose face adorns this single’s cover. As for 2023’s charity, Interscope and all-assembled donate the single’s sales’ proceeds to the Aisling Project, an after-school program for children raised in Dublin’s most disadvantaged regions.

The Cowsills, “A Christmas Offering from the Cowsills” (Omnivore Recordings)

The wonderfully weird and happily harmony-driven, post-psychedelic-era, sibling inspiration for “The Partridge Family” not only tackle a wooly acapella take on “Winter Wonderland.” Susan, Bob, Paul and John Cowsill sing their melancholy way through ruminative, wintry originals such as “Some Good Years” and “Christmastime (Song for Marissa).” Truly impressive stuff, this, be it holiday and beyond.

Robert Glasper, “In December” (Apple Music)
Not-so-straight ahead jazz keyboardist and composer Robert Glasper makes a Christmas album not so different from his kaleidoscopic “Black Radio” series of albums that pairs the funky-but-chic bandleader with a handful of genre-jumbling vocalists and rappers. That means a murky mash-up of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” with “Carol of Bells” starring actor-singer Cynthia Erivo, an emotional “Memories with Mama” co-written by its featured vocalist Tarriona “Tank” Ball and a rainbow’s worth of colorful, jazz-not-jazzy tones.

Wheatus, “Just a Dirtbag Christmas,” (Legacy Recordings)
Brendan B. Brown’s happily sleazy NY state rock band Wheatus has what sounds like the most uproarious time on this EP punking their biggest hit “Teenage Dirtbag” as it morphs into (what else) “Christmas Dirtbag.” While Brown has doubts as to the effectiveness of Santa’s gift-giving vision on the EP’s lead track, all is well by the time we get to “You Made Me Believe in Christmas.”

Chlöe, “Merry Christmas Baby” (Amazon Music Originals)
Now that Chlöe Bailey is making adult-branded R&B with last winter’s “In Pieces” album, she’s ready for some grown-and-sexy holiday music with her take on Otis Redding’s seasonal soul-ster, Merry Christmas Baby” (used in the opening credits of Eddie Murphy’s new “Candy Cane Lane” on Prime Video) and something sweeter in “Winter Wonderland.”

Various Artists, “A Philly Special Christmas Special” (Vera Y Records)

As if the success of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2022 holiday album, “A Philly Special Christmas,” wasn’t enough, producers Charlie Hall (from The War on Drugs), Connor Barwin and footballer Jason Kelce recorded a fresh brotherly duet with Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce just in time for his relationship with Taylor Swift and the media frenzy that followed. On a quieter note, the Brothers Kelce tackled a localized version of the Pogues’, Shane MacGowan’ and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” (now, “Fairytale of Philadelphia”), much to Shane MacGowan’s delight; his last ever tweet before dying read, “Tell them I am knocked out.” Also included in the charitable, new all-Philly Christmas album are local Patti LaBelle, Amos Lee, the Hooters’ Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, DMHotep (Sun Ra Arkestra), members of the War on Drugs, Dr. Dog and more.

Liam Forde with Billy Stritch, “The Holiday Season” (Ballyhoo Music)

Bold jazz-cabaret vocalist and composer Liam Forde pulls a page out of actor-turned-writer Kay Thompson’s (“Eloise at the Plaza”) songbooks for a rare, standalone and decidedly swinging version of her smart, Christmas classic “The Holiday Season” with none other than the toast of New York pianissimo, Billy Stritch.

Alanis Morissette, “Last Christmas” (Epiphany)
Just in time to celebrate a family with a husband and three kids, Morissette’s turns jagged little pills into holiday sweets with a winsome, whimsical four-song EP of modern-day classics:  Wham’s “Last Christmas,” John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” and warm traditional tracks such as William Chatterton Dix’s “What Child Is This?” and Katherine Kennicott Davis’ “Little Drummer Boy.”

Manzanera & Mackay, “Christmas” (Expression)
Now that Roxy Music’s co-founding guitarist and saxophonist – respectively – Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay are done with the glam band’s 50th anniversary tour, they can focus on their joined-as-one solo project and some of its more disparate music – such as the first-ever physical (LP, CD) release of their 1989 instrumental album, “Christmas.” Oddly enough, for two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame glitter rockers, their take on traditionals such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “Coventry Carol” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has a shockingly acoustic Appalachian vibe to its proceedings.

DaBaby, “No Finsta” (South Coast Music Group/Interscope)
Jovial Cleveland-by-way-of-Charlotte, NC rapper DaBaby may have dropped the percolating “No Finsta” track as part of the autumn’s “Let’s Do It” EP, but he’s not letting the ho-ho-ho-holiday go by without turning his newest track into a Christmas video’s wonderland filled with Santa hats, red plastic cup revelers, a little seasonal larceny and so much more.

Julie Benko, “Christmas with You” (Club44 Records)
Actor-vocalist Julie Benko has had quite the year-and-a-half. When she wasn’t busy being Broadway’s Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” (in-between Beanie Feldstein and Lea Michelle) and working for Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s finally-on-the-Great-White-Way in “Harmony,” Benko – named among “10 Broadway Stars to Watch for 2023” by Variety – wrote new songs (such as “I Never Had a Christmas with You”) and tackled unique traditionals such as “Tumbalalaika” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (with her husband, producer and organist Jason Yeager) for her first-ever holiday record.  Delightful.

Jimmy Buffett, “Christmas Island” (MCA/UMe)
To celebrate the late, great Buffett, the son-of-a-son-of-a-sailor’s holiday album gets its first-ever vinyl release (on seasonal red) with his rich humor intact on originals such as “A Sailor’s Christmas” and “Merry Christmas, Alabama (Never Far from Home)” and salty, island-themed soliloquies such as “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.”

Hannah Waddingham, “Home for Christmas” (Platoon)
The comic star of “Ted Lasso” has a smooth, big singing voice and tackled a handful of brassy holiday classics – and then some – for her recently-debuted Apple TV+ Christmas spectacular. And along with her snazzy, jazzy take on “What Christmas Means to Me,” Waddington welcomes guests to London’s Coliseum such as Sam Ryder, Leslie Odom Jr., Luke Evans, the London Gay Men’s Chorus, the English National Opera and The Fabulous Lounge Swingers, all accompanied by an 18-piece band.

Seth MacFarlane and Elizabeth Gillies, “We Wish You the Merriest” (Republic/Verve)
Speaking of brassy big band ballsiness, smiling “Family Guy” Seth MacFarlane and his longtime, singing friend Elizabeth Gillies do Christmas right (for MacFarlane, a second time) as they jump on 13 Sinatra-like takes on the holiday from Irving Berlin, Hugh Martin, Les Brown and more.

Bright Eyes, “A Christmas Album” (Dead Oceans)

Bright Eyes with John Prine, “Christmas in Prison” (Oh Boy Records/Thirty Tigers)
The Christmas holiday’s least likely carolers Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott not only re-release Bright Eyes melancholy seasonal classic on red clear vinyl for 2023, they cover one of the saddest and funniest of the late John Prine’s tales of ordinary madness wutg a sample of “A John Prine Christmas” for that extra lump of coal in your stocking and lump in your throat. “Christmas in Prison” sales will raise money for the Hello In There Foundation which Prine’s family started following his death for the foundation’s 2023 grantees Renewal House, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Porter’s Call and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Willie Colón, Asalto Navideño II (Fania/Craft Recordings)
Fifty years ago, salsa music trombonist/bandleader Willie Colón, vocalist Héctor Lavoe, cuatro player Yomo Toro and percussionists Milton Cardona and José Mangual Jr. turned traditional Puerto Rican Christmas favorites such as “Pescao (Popurri Sambao)” and “La Banda” on their ear with a flavorful country touch of música jíbara, some Afro jazz touches and the brisk vibe of Cuban guaguancó rhythms. Now out on vinyl for 2023, this salsa-riffic “Christmas Assault” is geared only for holiday parties where dancing is encouraged.

Samara Joy, “A Joyful Holiday” (Verve/UMe)
Jazz crooners who win best new artist Grammys are few and far between. Like, three. So, to have the low, sultry singing 2023 Grammy victor take on a history of Christmas traditions, old and new, on her freshly-released six-track holiday EP is rapturous indeed. In particular, take note of the smoldering slow “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” featuring Sullivan Fortner. Just, wow.

Various Artists, Punk Goes Christmas 10th Anniversary Edition (Fearless)

If you hurry you can probably still find copies of Record Store Day Black Friday’s 10th anniversary double-LP holiday compilation “Punk Goes Christmas” in green vinyl and starring the rough-edged likes of The Ready Set, All Time Low, Yellowcard, New Found Glory, August Burns Red and more. Plus, if you’re keeping track, this is the first vinyl reissue to feature the four bonus tracks which appeared on the deluxe edition CD in 2015.

Elvis Presley and Kane Brown, “Blue Christmas” (RCA)
Spliced together for the first time, Presley’s voice on this version of his holiday classic is pumped higher in the twangy mix, before a handful of loops and loud steel guitar twangs. Nicer though, and not distracting, is how Kane’s shushing baritone acts as a pleasant counterbalance to the King’s weighty voice.

Coco Jones, “A Timeless Christmas” (Def Jam)
The sonorous, quiet storming alto R&B vocalist with a quiver in her (Auto Tuned-up) voice croons her way through a warmly string-laden new jam co-written by Tiyon “TC” Mack and produced by Johnny “JT” Thomas Jr. Jones really likes the holiday season as she dropped a merry version of Destiny’s Child’s “8 Days Of Christmas” for Apple Music’s 2023 “Carols Covered” series, and a sinewy “Silver Bells” for Def Jam’s “Def The Halls” compilation from 2022.

Meghan Trainor, “Jingle Bells” (Amazon Music)
Like Coco Jones, the chipper and decidedly more poppy Trainor is a big fan of the holiday season considering she dropped “A Very Trainor Christmas” in 2020 and the “Kid on Christmas” duet with Pentatonix last year. For Christmas 2023, she’s celebrating hard and happily on “Jingle Bells,” and can be found on an even-newer seasonal pairing with Jimmy Fallon for “Wrap Me Up.”

Various Artists, “Stax Christmas” (Craft Recordings)
These Stax Christmas sides – longtime funky favorites of the holiday – have never been compiled in this fashion, let alone in white or red vinyl as they are this season. Along with the ice-cold jittery blues of guitarist Albert King’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” and Isaac Hayes’ swanky “The Mistletoe and Me,” “Stax Christmas” features a rare alternative mix of Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” and a barnstorming, previously unreleased version of “Blue Christmas” by Carla Thomas. Mercy mercy, merry merry and all that.

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