TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For better or worse, it's that time of year for new Christmas albums. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to a lot of them in genres ranging from pop to rock to soul to "Downton Abbey." Here's his choices for the best of the batch.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR")
RUFUS WAINRIGHT: (Singing) It's the most wonderful time of the year, with the kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer. It's the most wonderful time of the year.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Rufus Wainwright singing "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," a song popular in the 1960s in a similar version sung by Andy Williams. Wainright plays it straight on the soundtrack album to a recent comedy film "A Merry Friggin' Christmas," starring Robin Williams and Joel McHale. The soundtrack features quite a few good original Christmas songs as well, such as this one by the Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Culwell called "It's Christmastime, I Know (Ho Ho Ho)."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S CHRISTMASTIME, I KNOW")
RYAN CULWELL: (Singing) Santa Claus is coming to town, ain't no one else stopping at my house. Jingle bells or something else. I do my jingling all by myself. Hang a star on the evergreen. Baby, the Nativity just ain't my scene. It's Christmas time, I know - ho, ho, ho.
TUCKER: Baby, the Nativity just ain't my scene. That's a good line in a country pop song. There are a lot of Christmas albums out this year, and I've worked my way through a bunch of them, from Darius Rucker to the Blind Boys of Alabama with Taj Mahal to a two-disc "Christmas At Downton Abbey." Its high point is Elizabeth McGovern, the countess of Grantham herself, singing "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT CAME UPON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR")
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (Singing) It came upon a midnight clear that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the Earth to touch their hearts of gold. Peace on the Earth, good will to men from heaven a gracious king. The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
TUCKER: Another lively new collection is one from the veteran R&B group Earth Wind And Fire called "Holiday." It features singer Philip Bailey and the rest of the group working soulful variations on some old chestnuts, which could have been corny. Instead, it's pretty darn funky.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")
EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Somebody sing joy one more time. Joy to the world. Come on, yes. Joy to the world. Be seen - yes come on. receive Let Earth receive her king. Yes, come on. Let's prepare him every heart. Prepare him every room. Prepare him room. And what? And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. Yes. And heaven and nature sing.
TUCKER: The best new Christmas album I've heard is from the folk group The Living Sisters. This female quartet album titled "Harmony Is Real" features fine versions of classics like "Silver Bells" and "Little Drummer Boy." I am especially fond of this original tune - "Merry Happy Christmas."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY HAPPY CHRISTMAS")
THE LIVING SISTERS: (Singing) Now when love turns to a minor key and you're itching to be heard, but there's never the right words. And you're kissing through all those salty tears. One of the ways that I get by, if it's the worst day of my life, I say goodnight. Well, I know it's hard, so these words from the bottom of my heart. Say merry happy Christmas. Oh Christmas, may you be good, may you be loved, even if you're not mine. Say merry happy Christmas...
TUCKER: Christmas pop albums are always dicey propositions with sentimentality frequently trumping spirit. But these albums get the tenor of the season as many of us experience it just about right - some child-like enthusiasm, a dollop of earnest passion here, a little bit of savvy commercialism there. And like the best music, excellence or fun is never merely seasonal.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the albums "The Soundtrack Of A Merry Friggin' Christmas," "Holiday" from Earth Wind and Fire, "Christmas At Downton Abbey" and "Harmony Is Real" by The Living Sisters. You can find his list on our blog at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELLS")
THE LIVING SISTERS: (Singing) Jingle - jingle, jingle - jingle, jingle, jingle, all the way. Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh. Jingle - jingle, jingle...
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