Top Picks: Our staff selects the best of holiday music

From Nick Lowe's folksy 'Quality Street' to Mary J. Blige's refreshing take on winter standards, here's some new music worth checking out this holiday season.

Musical Gifts
Quality Street
The Sounding Joy

Christmas choir

Italian heartthrob Vittorio Grigòlo was a contralto in the fabled Sistine Chapel Choir, one of the world’s oldest choirs, whose purpose is to uphold the highest standard for religious music. The arrangements on Ave Maria were composed especially for the choir and have never been recorded or sung by anyone else. Four of these works are by two choirmasters/composers – Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and Padre Giovanni Maria Catena – whom Grigòlo knew personally.

Family warmth

Nick Lowe, the enfant terrible of Britain’s 1980s new wave music invasion, continues to write and record witty and winning songs. His first holiday-themed album, Quality Street, is warmhearted and folksy, like the man himself. In this collection, Lowe has penned a few new songs that, if anybody’s listening, should become holiday classics. “I Was Born in Bethlehem” features a quiet but compelling Jesus describing the night he was born in touching detail. Prepare to be moved, in heart and soul.

Glittery starlight

On her debut Christmas album, Wrapped in Red, the first – and still the best – “American Idol” winner, Kelly Clarkson, relies on the same kind of slick, radio-friendly production that has kept her hovering at the top of the charts for a decade, with mixed results. When she wants to be soulful, she sure can bring it. The Eagles’ “Please Be Home for Christmas” and the bluesy “Every Christmas” are right in her Texas wheelhouse. But most of the album feels shiny and somewhat distant, like the star on top of the tree.

Cross-cultural holiday

Because violinist Joshua Bell’s late father was an Episcopal priest and his mother is Jewish, he wanted Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends to be a broader-than-usual holiday album. An admirer of classical wunderkind Jascha Heifetz, who recorded with icon Bing Crosby, Bell follows suit with an eclectic mix of collaborations with names from all over the musical landscape, such as Gloria Estefan, Alison Krauss, Kristin Chenoweth, Chick Corea, Renée Fleming, Michael Feinstein, and Plácido Domingo.

Childlike wonder

The Sounding Joy is a lively amalgam of folk carols drawn from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1953 songbook, “American Folk Songs for Christmas.” Elizabeth Mitchell calls on a long list of musical friends to celebrate the heart of community and homespun traditions that existed in times before the commercialization of Christmas. Collaborators include Natalie Merchant, Aoife O’Donovan, Amy Helm, John Sebastian, Dan Zanes, and Happy Traum.

In from the cold

Teaming with crooner Michael Bublé’s superproducer David Foster might seem like a weird choice for a singer with Mary J. Blige’s R&B cred. But the yin and yang work beautifully on A Mary Christmas, with Blige’s rough-and-ready vocals sanding down the overly smooth surfaces of Foster’s arrangements. She breathes some genuine humanity into a familiar list of Christmas standards, giving “The Little Drummer Boy” a soulful lift and putting a sultry spin on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

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