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Lots of new holiday music this season

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Here are The Associated Press' reviews of selected holiday albums:

“CeeLo’s Magic Moment”

(Atlantic Records)

CeeLo Green is certainly having a pop culture moment, but he can’t sustain the magic throughout this uneven album of 14 Christmas cover songs. The opening track, “What Christmas Means To Me,” kicks things off with a flourish of horns and keyboards, but by the time Kermit the Frog appears for “All I Need Is Love” and Straight No Chaser joins him for “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” you’ll be hitting the skip button.

In between there’s a decent duet with fellow “The Voice” judge Christina Aguilera on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and a rather bland rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

It’s when the beat slows and the instruments are mostly stripped away that CeeLo shines. His voice soars over piano and strings on “Mary, Did You Know?” and he does Joni Mitchell proud on “River.”

All in all, a decent disc for the background music at a holiday party. Just keep the remote handy.

– Rob Merrill, Associated Press

Lady Antebellum

“On This Winter’s Night”

(Capitol Nashville)

Lady Antebellum gave us a Christmas tease two years ago with “A Merry Little Christmas,” an EP that had only a handful of tracks. On their first full-length holiday album, “On This Winter’s Night,” they show there’s more where that came from, offering plenty of holiday cheer with their trademark gorgeous harmonies, interwoven with beautiful renditions of holiday staples.

The trio puts their unique stamp on songs like “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” turning Mariah Carey’s upbeat classic into a lovely, soulful slow groove; do Donny Hathaway proud on “This Christmas”; and give an emotional, stirring version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” There’s not a rendition on the album that disappoints. Lady Antebellum also offers an original song with the album’s title track: their voices meld together beautifully on this tune about the true meaning of Christmas.

“On This Winter’s Night” is full of Christmas classics – and deserves to become one in its own right.

– Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Music Writer

Various Artists

“NOW That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas”

(EMI/Capitol Records)

Let’s keep it real – listening to a Christmas album from one single artist can be tiring. Sure, sometimes it’s magical. But most of the time it isn’t.

That’s why “NOW That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas” is so appealing. True, some songs borrow from singers’ full-length Christmas albums, like Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” Mariah Carey’s “Oh Santa!” and Christina Aguilera’s decade-old jam “Christmas Time.” But this album has new tunes, too, and overall, the 18-track set is an adventure.

Carly Rae Jepson is super cute on “Mittens,” Coldplay shines on “Christmas Lights” and the talented Sara Bareilles is top-notch on “Love Is Christmas.”

What’s even better is OneRepublic on the warm “Christmas Without You” and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals on “Please Come Home for Christmas,” the soulful 1960s number by Charles Brown. Potter’s got grit, soul and much more.

Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles is also impressive on “Silent Night,” where she sings in Spanish. And then there’s Carrie Underwood on “The First Noel.” Need I say more?

– Mesfin Fekadu, AP Music Writer

Various artists

“Holidays Rule”

(Hear Music)

The perfect soundtrack for your hipster holiday party, “Holidays Rule” features classic Christmas tunes interpreted by indie rockers such as the Shins, Rufus Wainwright, the Civil Wars and fun.

Paul McCartney offers a warm, jazzy take on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” while the Shins’ “Wonderful Christmastime” harkens to the Beach Boys’ sunny sound. Wainwright, with Sharon Van Etten, turns in a sultry version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that makes listeners want to cuddle by the fireplace.

The party will be kicking when guests hear “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With the Bag,” an upbeat, horn-and-harmonica-tinged tune by Black Prairie featuring Sallie Ford. Other highlights include “Senor Santa” by Y La Bamba, which sets holiday sentiments to the tune of “Mr. Sandman,” and Andrew Bird’s happy, fiddle-enhanced version of “Auld Lang Syne.”

– Sandy Cohen, AP Entertainment Writer

Blake Shelton

“Cheers, It’s Christmas”

(Warner Bros.)

There’s nothing wrong with Blake Shelton’s new Christmas album, “Cheers, It’s Christmas.”

It’s full of mellow, tasteful renditions of holiday classics and packed with featured performers. His wife Miranda Lambert appears on “Jingle Bell Rock” and her trio Pistol Annies lends a hand on “Blue Christmas.” Reba McEntire shows up on “Oklahoma Christmas” and his former “The Voice” cohort Xenia makes two appearances. Even pop stars Kelly Clarkson and Michael Buble make contributions.

The earnestness reaches a peak with an appearance by Shelton’s mother, Dorothy Shackleford, on “Time For Me To Come Home.”

In fact, “Cheers, It’s Christmas” has just about everything you could want – except a laugh.

Shelton, the recent Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award, is one of the funniest men in show business. You see a glimpse of it during his weekly appearances on “The Voice.” And you get the full, occasionally raunchy blast if you follow him on Twitter.

With a title like this, you’d expect a few lighter moments on the album. Perhaps “The 12 (Drunken) Days of Christmas” or a naughty noel or two.

Yet it’s a completely sober experience.

Oh, well, maybe next time.

– Chris Talbott, AP Music Writer

Rod Stewart

“Merry Christmas, Baby”

(Verve)

There’s not a dentist office in America that won’t be piping this album into its waiting room this holiday season. And that’s not a good thing, considering it comes from the man who gave us “Stay With Me,” ‘’Hot Legs” and “Young Hearts.”

Rod Stewart’s first Christmas album is so safe, so tame and so unimaginative that it sounds like 100 other Christmas albums before it. There’s literally not one truly memorable (or even halfway engaging) arrangement on this disc, despite a roster of all-star talent that lends a hand.

Drenched in strings, leaning on jazz-combo stylings or tranquil acoustic guitars, this album starts off with the sleep-inducing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and goes nowhere from there. Not even Mary J. Blige can save this rendition of “We Three Kings,” and Michael Buble’s duet with Stewart on “Winter Wonderland” doesn’t exactly break new ground, either.

The one modestly interesting track here is the title track, with an early ‘70s Jackson 5-style groove, with an assist from CeeLo Green and Trombone Shorty. Technology and recording studio magic enables Stewart to do a “virtual duet” with Ella Fitzgerald on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

A humble suggestion: take the $15 or so that you would have spent to buy this disc, and donate it instead to a charity helping the victims of Superstorm Sandy. THAT will give you the holiday feeling this disc is utterly incapable of creating.

– Wayne Parry, Associated Press

“A Laurie Berkner Christmas”

(Two Tomatoes Records)

If you have kids under the age of five in your house, this is probably the only Christmas album you need this year.

Never let it be said that this mother doesn’t know her audience. There are 15 tracks here, including three originals. Every song is simple, melodic and sung with an infectious joy that the preschool set immediately appreciates.

The best feature children singing along, like “Santa’s Coming To My House Tonight.”

There are also a few traditional holiday songs for kids like “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” ‘’Frosty the Snowman” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Each features simple beats, a sing-song cadence, and even a muted trombone or two.

The only clunker is a cover of the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” While I’m sure the kids will appreciate all the counting (“Two for Paul and Silas/One for the little bitty baby”), the Biblical references will likely zoom over their heads. Skip it and re-cue the opening track and try not to smile when Berkner belts out: “I like those J-I-N, G-L-E, B-E-double L-S bells!”

– Rob Merrill, Associated Press

Tracey Thorn

“Tinsel and Lights”

(Merge Records)

Christmas, of course, is a religious holiday, but it is also much more. It is a season of reflection, a time for quiet amid the “Tinsel and Lights,” which is the fitting name for this collection by Tracey Thorn.

Thorn, best known as the vocalist half of Everything but the Girl, has crafted an intimate and emotionally layered album that gracefully captures the season through non-standard Christmas songs such as Jack White’s sultry “In the Cold, Cold Night” and the melancholic “Snow” by Randy Newman. Two stand-outs are a rendition of Sufjian Stevens’ “Sister Winter” and an achingly beautiful version of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” in which Thorn’s textured contralto is supported by a horn arrangement conjuring the image of a brass band in the snow.

With understated instrumentation throughout the album, Thorn’s mellow voice also shines on her own pieces, such as the title song and the opening “Joy,” in which she honors the contrasts that many of us experience at holiday time: “It’s because of the dark/We see the beauty in the spark,” she says, “That’s why, that’s why/The carols make you cry.”

– Michelle Morgante, Associated Press

Andre Rieu

“Home for the Holidays”

(Hip-O Records)

There’s something wholesome and homey about the holiday offering from Andre Rieu, the Dutch violinist and composer.

The 14 songs on “Home for the Holidays” are smooth and soothing – he’s playing the violin beautifully over classics like “White Christmas,” ‘’Silver Bells” and “Ave Maria.”

He’s joined by guest vocalists, too, and those tracks help break up the album’s instrumental and background music-sounding feel. Brazilian opera singer Carla Maffioletti, South Africa’s Kimmy Skota and Dutch-Australian soprano Mirusia Louwerse contribute to the songs, and they sound stunning throughout. That’s especially on “Old Toy Trains,” which is mellow and soft. You’ll easily hit the repeat button.

And there’s more where that came from: There’s also a Target edition of the album with four bonus tracks and a DVD. Kick off your shoes and relax your feet – and your ears

– Mesfin Fekadu, AP Music Writer

“A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years Bringing Joy to the World”

(Big Machine Records)

Like the tide, each holiday season flows with new music, and ebbs it away for the next batch the following year. That makes most of each season’s releases replaceable to all but the most devout fans of a particular artist. But that’s not usually the case with the “Very Special Christmas” series.

“A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years Bringing Joy to the World” marks the anniversary of the series that began in 1987 as a means to benefit Special Olympics. Since then, it’s become one of the most successful charities in recording history, generating more than $100 million dollars for the organization.

This is the eighth installment of the series that began with Madonna, U2, and Run DMC reinventing the holiday music genre. And the latest roster shows no sign of breaking tradition with a solid set of 16 tracks.

Standout performances include Cheap Trick redoing their “I Want You to Want Me” as “I Want You For Christmas,” the seasonal crooning of Michael Buble on “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” and a live version of “Christmas Song” by the Dave Matthews Band. And then there’s Jewel, who offers her angelic tone to appropriately titled, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

In between, there are contributions from Rascal Flatts, Jason Mraz, Jordin Sparks, One Republic, and others.

– John Carucci, Associated Press

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta

“This Christmas”

(Universal Music Enterprises)

Anyone who is a fan of “Grease” will be intrigued by the idea of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John teaming up for a new Christmas album: Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsen are together again!

“This Christmas” features holiday favorites like “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” ‘’Winter Wonderland” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” while Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Kenny G and James Taylor also make appearances. There’s also an original song called “I Think You Might Like It” written by John Farrar, the songwriter who penned “You’re The One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted” from “Grease.” The tune is upbeat and snappy but isn’t nearly as good as its predecessors. It also probably won’t go down in the books of holiday classics.

Still, the album captures the chemistry between the two performers, will tickle “Grease” fans and it’s intended for a good cause. Proceeds go to Newton-John and Travolta’s respective charities: The Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center and the Jett Travolta Foundation.

– Alicia Rancilio, Associated Press

Richard Marx

“Christmas Spirit”

(TourDForce)

Richard Marx’s “Christmas Spirit” might be the perfect synopsis of Marx’s career: A few great songs mixed with some average tracks and a couple of middling ones, leaving you entertained enough but not yearning for more.

The album starts off out on a lovely note with a lush version of “The Christmas Song”: Marx’s voice sounds sweet and tender and blends perfectly the lush arrangement of the classic song.

That note gets less endearing on other tracks as his thin voice starts to grate on you. His nasally pitch takes away from songs like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and he’s not helped by the repetitive guitar chords on “Little Drummer Boy.”

But just when you’re thinking of shuffling to some other artist, he’ll surprise you – like with the jazzy, warm version of “White Christmas” – and he’s got you smiling again. If only that mood lasted for the entire album.

– Nekesa Mumbi Moody, AP Music Writer

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