ST. LOUIS — The words come naturally, and the tunes are familiar. Yet this year's batch of new Christmas albums proves the endless possibilities for holiday favorites.
Along with the traditional choral arrangements, the selections this year run the gamut from country jingles to swinging big-band sounds. Whatever your preference, somebody is making merry music to fit the category.
To add a jazzy feel to the season, listeners can turn to Boney's Funky Christmas (Warner Bros. Records). Saxophonist Boney James smooths out the edges of traditional tunes such as "Jingle Bells" and "The Christmas Song" while throwing in a few of his own festive offerings. Altogether, it is one of the nicest surprises in this year's pile of releases.
Those looking for a little bit of the Big Band sound during the holidays will relish Swing Ye Noel (Sony Classical). The 18-piece Ritz-Carlton Orchestra provides a warm, old-fashioned sound through 15 yuletide arrangements. The selections are upbeat and fun, ranging from "Jolly Old St. Nick" through "Frosty the Snowman" and closing with a zippy version of "Jingle Bells."
For a more down-home approach to the festivities, A Country Christmas, 1996 (MCA Records) features contemporary country stars singing traditional and original holiday tunes. Wynonna makes an appearance with her rousing song "Let's Make a Baby King." George Jones gives us his own version of "Silent Night." And Trisha Yearwood performs a breathtaking rendition of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Half of the album's selections are previously unreleased recordings.
On Silent Night: Beautiful Christmas Melodies (Sony Music), harpist Ayako Shinozaki gives us the perfect complement to the peace of a snowy night. The harp's versatility comes through in such diverse tunes as "Ave Maria" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
For music connoisseurs, Gregg Miner's A Christmas Collection (Delos International) offers an instrumental history through two volumes of holiday songs. The album draws on a musical wonderland of instruments culled from "The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic, and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments." They include lutes, banjos, mandolins, harps, recorders, ukuleles, zithers, and every possible hybrid guitar. The first volume succeeds in making old friends such as "O Tannenbaum" suddenly more intriguing through the use of zithers and other interesting instruments. But things go a bit too far on the second volume when Miner introduces a sitar for "The Little Drummer Boy" and Japanese koto for "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
Never fear. Traditional choral groups certainly haven't stopped recording Christmas music. Three albums of carols stand out:
Glad Tidings! (Sony Classical) features The Chestnut Brass Company and the Ama Deus Ensemble, a Philadelphia choir focusing on Baroque and Classical music. The group sings two dozen carols accompanied by organ and brass. Song sheets for six singers are included with the compact disc, and the final eight tracks are instrumental accompaniments of traditional favorites such as "Silent Night" and "The First Nowell."
The Chestnut Brass Company makes another appearance with the Choral Guild of Atlanta on The Joy of Christmas (Sony Classical). This album includes songs from England, France, Germany, and Ukraine, dating from the 14th century through the 1800s.
The famous singing boys of Harlem invite you to spend Christmas With the Boys Choir of Harlem (127th Street Records). The group's founder and director Walter Turnbull sticks closely to traditional favorites, and the voices of children are well-equipped to capture the joy of the season.
Along with traditional choral arrangements, selections run the gamut from country jingles to big-band sounds.