From Aled Jones’ One Voice At Christmas to Katie Melua’s haunting vocals and Gareth Malone’s A Great British Christmas, we round up the best of the festive releases.
This gentle wintry album from the angel-voiced Melua, who grew up in Belfast, is buoyed by backing from the transcendent Gori Women’s Choir — she returned to Georgia, her country of birth, to record with them. It’s her first album without The Wombles’ creator Mike Batt — and it shows. It’s neatly bookended with two pieces, which both incidentally feature on that most Christmassy of films, Home Alone: the insistent Carol Of The Bells (here as opener The Little Swallow, sung by the choir) and ethereal closer O Holy Night. Melua’s soaring vocal on the refrain of Joni Mitchell’s River: “Wish I had a river/I could skate away”, reminds us why she’s had six previous top 10 albums. The unaccompanied Cradle Song gives the Gori Women’s Choir, masters of the ancient art of polyphonic singing, a chance to shine, while the Georgian folk song, If You Are So Beautiful is a haunting back-and-forth between Melua and the choir. Dreams On Fire (“If all your dreams were on fire, which one would you save?”) is another stand-out on an album that’s not so much Merry Christmas, as calmly contemplating the departure of an old year.
For a taste of Christmas with a tropical holiday twist, Kacey Musgraves’ A Very Kacey Christmas is the one. Offering a mix of festive classics given a Taylor Swift-style clean-up and made into something a bit more special — embracing a mix of swing and mainstream pop. The hint of Hawaiian flavour along with the sleigh bells is a welcome break from a lot of the schmaltz that hits the airwaves this time of year. Musgraves hasn’t just settled for a covers album, penning four of the tracks herself. A highlight being the light-hearted A Willie Nice Christmas featuring Willie Nelson, not taking themselves at all seriously and urging the listener to find their own paradise. While the fabulously titled I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas flashes back to Musgrave’s own childhood. Other guests include The Quebe Sisters who help imbue a feeling of yesteryear on Let It Snow and Mele Kalikimaka (another island track). A Very Kacey Christmas should be on your wish list.
Aled Jones duets with his younger self for a second album, following the popularity of One Voice. This time, the likeable Jones has dug out some old recordings of festive songs and carols, including his best known song, Walking In The Air. Howard Blake, who wrote the song for the animated TV version of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman and later recommended Jones cover it, has created a new arrangement for the charming duet. Guitarist John Williams joins Jones for Silent Night and boys from vocal group Libera add layers of sound to Jesus Christ The Apple Tree and Away In A Manger. But it is Jones’ 2008 Children in Need duet of Little Drummer Boy with the late Sir Terry Wogan which will not only bring a smile, but also a lump to the throat.
Gareth Malone’s first Christmas album “aims to unite the country through music” and there’s certainly a heart-warming mix of songs. The popular choirmaster and his Voices choir have worked with musicians from across the Uk, including here, to create fresh versions of classics like Walking In The Air and O Holy Night. Malone’s voice alone is layered into a choir for a cover of Yazoo’s Only You. Malone is best known for coaxing groups of people into fantastic choirs and those featured here include The Invictus Games Choir and The British Women’s Hockey Team. Most surprising is perhaps astronaut Tim Peake on Chris de Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling. The standout tracks are Malone’s new ballad Paradise Street, featuring Ricky Wilson with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and Naomi Banks leading Hornsey School for Girls Steel Band and Birmingham Gospel Choir on a version of Freiheit’s Keeping The Dream Alive.
Finding a Christmas compilation that isn’t a quagmire of sickly sentiment and over-familiar classics can be quite a feat, but She & Him bring an indie vibe to this seasonal staple. With their second Christmas album, actress Zooey Deschanel (best known for Elf and New Girl) and US alt-rocker M. Ward offer festive cheer without the schmaltz on songs you’ll know (Let It Snow, Winter Wonderland) and some you won’t (Mele Kalikimaka, The Man With The Bag). Given the era many of the songs are from, there’s a definite Phil Spector feel to the album, coupled with a folksy Americana. What it lacks at times though is warmth. Christmas Party may be cool but sometimes it leaves you a bit too cold.
The latest musical offering from king of CBeebies Justin Fletcher and his alter-ego Mr Tumble is packed with 20 festive favourites. The Twelve Days Of Christmas is sung by Fletcher, Mr Tumble and a selection of his other characters from hit show Something Special, and the antics of Grandad Tumble, Lord Tumble and Aunt Polly will delight pre-school children. The Tumble family’s take on We Wish You A Merry Christmas will also amuse young children. But there is contrast with songs like Little Drummer Boy stripped of gimmicks. Fletcher doesn’t appear to have a wide vocal range, but he can carry a tune, so, while the album’s greatest fans may be the under fives, it won’t send parents reaching for earplugs. In fact, they may find themselves singing along.