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What are this year’s essential Christmas albums?

November 28, 2018

Album Art for John Legend’s first holiday album. (Columbia Records/TNS)

The spirit of inspiration runs stronger than usual through this year’s batch of new holiday music collections, with fresh melodies and lyrics in some of the best.

Albums, listed alphabetically by artist, are ranked on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (classic). Let the roundup begin:

Eric Clapton

“Happy Xmas”

(Bushbranch Records/Surfdog)

Three stars

Of course, Slowhand takes on Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” probably the bluesiest seasonal song ever — and wrings every ounce of melancholy from it. The pleasant surprise is the balance between his blues and adult pop instincts that’s broad enough to include a fascinating disco-rock meeting-of-the-minds rendering of “Jingle Bells” and his canny interpretations of “White Christmas” and “Away in a Manager,” along with one original, “Christmas Tears.”

Rodney Crowell

“Christmas Everywhere”

(New West)

Three and one-half stars

One of Americana music’s most astute singer-songwriters applies his well-honed wit and observational prowess to a dozen original songs that mine the full spectrum of emotions that go with the season like tinsel and garland, coal and stockings. Healthy doses of humor sit side-by-side with sincerity in this smartly conceived, engagingly executed holiday song cycle.

John Legend

“A Legendary Christmas”

(Columbia)

Three stars

The R&B-pop singer-songwriter finds a way to bring urban music sensibility even to something as quintessentially foursquare as “Silver Bells.” Mixed among the chestnuts, he’s also written or co-written a handful of seasonal originals; a couple feel more like embellished riffing than future holiday classics, though the attempts are sincere. To amp up the star power even more, he’s enlisted Stevie Wonder and Esperanza Spalding as guest singers.

Mike Love

“Reason for the Season”

(Meleco)

Two stars

The Beach Boys co-founder engages his current lineup of the long-running group for a session that includes a new rendition of “Little St. Nick,” which departs little from the original except for the absence of any Wilson voices. Points for attempting some original tunes to flesh out the carols and pop standards, although none seem destined to become evergreens.

The Mavericks

“Hey! Merry Christmas!”

(Mono Mundo)

Four stars

It’s hard to think of an act with an essential joie de vivre better suited to the joyful spirit of the holidays than the Mavericks. The Nashville-based, label-defying group has cooked up eight effervescent originals and added its stamp to a couple of Yuletide chestnuts: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in a performance that doesn’t instantly make you yearn for the original, and Irving Berlin’s second best-known song of the season, “Happy Holiday.” Lead singer nonpareil Raul Malo delivers one of the most unabashedly romantic vocals on “Christmas for Me (Is You).” Boogie-woogie, Tex-Mex, heart-melting pop, retro blues — it’s all here in one irresistible package.

Martina McBride

“It’s the Holiday Season”

(BBR/BMG)

Two and one-half stars

The country singer with the titanium pipes goes old school yule with big band/orchestral arrangements by Patrick Williams in keeping with the stuff Sinatra and Dean Martin used to do for the holidays. There’s a lot of swing in the nine-song set and, for better or worse, no surprises in the song selection, which emphasizes the war horses over lesser-trod turf. Her delivery, as usual, is impeccable.

Michael McDonald

“Season of Peace — the Christmas Collection”

(Chonin/BMG)

Two stars

The blue-eyed soul singer leans on the gospel side of the holiday musical tradition with this collection. But there are times here where he puts so much effort into pushing his soul-R&B chops that he sounds uncomfortably close to someone with a foot caught in the fireplace flue. This one’s for those who prefer their holiday music on the slow-jam end of the spectrum.

The Monkees

“Christmas Party”

(Rhino)

Two and one-half stars

Carrying on the spirit of the group’s 2016 outing “Good Times!,” surviving members Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork turn in latter-day performances of a blend of originals written by Monkees fans, including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, XTC’s Andy Partridge and choice covers including Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ” and Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” Nesmith brings grown-up emotion to his recordings of Mel Torme and Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song” and Claude & Ruth Thornhill’s rarely recorded “Snowfall.” But the big calling card may well be two vocals that Davy Jones recorded in 1991 and that are newly outfitted in fresh instrumental accompaniment pulled together by album producer Adam Schlesinger.

William Shatner

“Shatner Claus”

(Cleopatra)

Three stars

No need to feel guilty over the pleasures in the famously histrionic actor’s readings of more than a dozen holiday tunes, the majority featuring guest collaborators from punk rockers Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins to country star Brad Paisley, folk veteran Judy Collins and prog-rock luminaries Rick Wakeman and Ian Anderson. He’s honed in on narrative songs that are well suited to a spoken delivery out of the Robert Preston-Rex Harrison-Richard Harris school of nonsinging actors. A delightfully dramatic outing.

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