Latin Light, Gospel Power And The Blues: 2019's New Roots Christmas Albums
Christmas albums present a chicken/egg conundrum. Do you spin them to get in the spirit or because you're already in it? I'm usually in the former category and with albums as good as this year's bounty, they had their intended effect. I put up some lights and turned up the stereo and in only a few minutes I was able to put closure on Thanksgiving and look forward to the coming weeks of light and mirth. Fears of slogging through redundant versions of "Let It Snow" were relieved by the original songcraft of Josh Rouse, the radical makeovers of classics by the McCrary Sisters and a set of carefully curated folk songs from Los Lobos. Besides the five picks here, you might also be on the lookout for a new collection from the Oak Ridge Boys (their eighth holiday opus!) produced by Dave Cobb at Studio A, a sweet collection of singles from Drew Holcomb duetting with his wife Ellie and a kind of clunky soundtrack from Kacey Musgraves' televised Christmas special. Her 2016 Very Kacey Christmas, a classic, is more worth your time. And so are these new efforts from some icons and some good Nashville friends.
Los Lobos - Llegò Navidad
Put it off long enough, and you might become a legendary band approaching your 50th year having never done a Christmas album. Ay caramba! Los Lobos decided to rectify that remarkable oversight and did so with their usual class and dedication to getting things exactly right. Llegò Navidad is an authentic roots album, with a range of traditional and regional folk songs and styles curated from nearly 150 or so that the band scouted from across the Spanish speaking world. Opener "La Rama" is in the son jarocho style from Veracruz. "Amarga Navidad" is swooning and romantic. "La Murga" rolls on baritone sax and sparkling high strung guitars as it evokes South American Carnivale. Recorded in the East LA neighborhood where the guys in the band grew up, this couldn't sound more at home or welcoming.
The McCrary Sisters - A Very McCrary Christmas
Nashville's beloved sisterly chorale brings signature voices, everyday joy and abundant faith to a project that definitely needed to happen. What makes it unpredictable are the arrangements, which are classic and flowing in some cases and unexpectedly funky in others. They offer, for example, a Stax Records swagger in "Joy To The World" and a smooth soul take in "O Come All Ye Faithful," with guest lead vocals by Houston gospel singer Steve Crawford. As for guests, they are plentiful and testimony to the McCrarys' wide reach and high regard. Alison Krauss raises chills on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," while the iconic Shirley Caesar leads a romping, hand-clapping, falling-out jazz-gospel "Joyful Joyful" that ought to leave you dancing around with your jaw on the floor. You'll shout "hallelujah" more than a few times during this disc.
Keb' Mo' - Moonlight, Mistletoe & You
Nashville's own modern day blues man brings sincerity and a dash of snark on this polished package of seven originals and three covers. The title track is a genuinely romantic, but pretty soon he's singing "Christmas Is Annoying," in which the holiday is dinged for its excesses. It had to be said. But mostly it's a sweet-sounding R&B affair with those warm, Grammy winning vocals we love from Keb'. It has fewer guest stars than usual for the artist, but on "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," he's joined by Melissa Manchester, which is kind of wild and fun. The rootsiest number here is "Santa Claus Blues" which the album traces to the St. Louis artist Charley Jordan, who cut the song in 1931. The blues treatment goes more upbeat, electric and Chicago-flavored on "Santa Claus, Santa Claus," a classic in the hands of another Jordan - Louis - years ago.
Josh Rouse - The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
Of this year's new offerings, this may be most likely to strike you as a regular album. It's definitely a Christmas album with Christmas references, but they're subtle, which is a hallmark of Josh Rouse's esteemed career. There are cool, calm chords, lounge vibes, vibraphones and an urbane eye on a world in winter time. Opener "Mediterranean X-Mas," a stealthy Steely Dan kind of number, must be influenced by the artist's long time Spanish home base. "New York Holliday" borrows Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown piano for a gorgeous postcard, while "Heartbreak Holliday" is far more bright and bopping than it sounds. You could loop this album for hours and feel cozy.
Nate Strasser and Matt Combs - Americana Carols
For those seeking a mostly instrumental soundtrack to the season, this is a shiny little gem released independently by East Brentwood Presbyterian Church as a fund-raiser. Strasser, the church's music director, plays piano. Combs is a veteran Nashville fiddler/violinist with major credits on the road, stage and studio, including recent work for Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Records. Most of these selections pair the musicians in fresh arrangements of classics. Singer Briana Tyson joins on "O Holy Night" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain." The showpiece here is "Appalachian Rhapsody," a co-composed, 16-minute orchestral work in the American classical school that was immaculately recorded at Oceanway Studio.