Plenty of (out) recording artists — from Dave Koz to Johnny Mathis to Michael Feinstein and more — want to be your new favorite for holiday music
Admit it: You have Christmas albums from The Carpenters, Nat King Cole, Trans Siberian Orchestra and maybe Garth Brooks, but otherwise your collection of holiday standards isn’t updated nearly as often as it should be. There have been Christmas songs written since “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as a host of artists hope to prove with a slate of new CDs — some with standards, some with new music but all in the spirit of the season.
For his first holiday album, A Michael Feinstein Christmas (Concord), Great American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein doesn’t stray too far from his roots. Accompanied by acclaimed jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, Feinstein’s renditions of Christmas classics are sources of endless joy. The arrangements allow both Feinstein and Broadbent to shine like the lights on a Christmas tree. Sure, we know these songs — including “The Christmas Song,” “There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” by heart — but Feinstein touches our hearts with these simple and pleasing renditions. Leave it to a nice, gay Jewish boy to refresh these timeworn classics in the way that Feinstein has.
Gay smooth jazz sax man Dave Koz’s annual holiday music tour, billed as Dave Koz & Friends, has hit the road this holiday season. Some of Koz’s friends (musicians and singers) join him on his latest holiday recording The 25th of December (Concord). In fact, a cover of the Beatles standard “All You Need Is Love,” features Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Richard Marx, Heather Headley and Mr. Christmas himself, Johnny Mathis. Mathis can also be heard on “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” India.Arie is joined by Trombone Shorty on “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” And it’s a battle of the nice Jewish boys on “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow,” with Koz going toe-to-toe (or is that horn to horn?) with Kenny G.
The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/ Legacy), a re-release by the aforementioned Mr. Mathis, consists of selections from the crooner’s considerable cache of Christmas albums, dating as far back as 1958’s mega-bestselling Merry Christmas. It also features Mathis’ duet with Bette Midler on the “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow!” medley, as well as two previously unreleased numbers, “Ol’ Kris Kringle” and “Give Me Your Love For Christmas, both from 1961.
Australian vocal group Human Nature will be familiar to anyone who watches PBS and has seen its Motown show featuring Smokey Robinson. The foursome, featuring gay member Toby Allen, gets festive on The Christmas Album (HN Entertainment). With the exception of a pair of a cappella numbers, including “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the bonus track “Mary’s Boy Child,” Human Nature is backed up by a band on holiday favorites such as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Winter Wonderland” and “This Christmas.” The guys are joined by HLN anchor Robin Meade (!) on “Sleigh Ride” and the previously named Robinson on “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Human Nature isn’t the only vocal group to feature an out gay member. A cappella favorite Pentatonix boasts openly queer Mitch Grassi among its ranks. For the quintet’s first full-length holiday album That’s Christmas To Me (RCA), they give their vocal muscles a workout and throw in a few delightful surprises. A cover of “Let It Go” from Frozen is a pretty inspired choice. The group also earn points for including an original tune – the cheerful title track – which is a nice addition to the holiday songbook. Pentatonix spark “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping gospel experience and take “Silent Night” to church.
Gays love their divas and this year the hottest diva around, Idina Menzel, releases her first Christmas album Holiday Wishes (Warner Brothers). She makes sure we hear her on “Do You Hear What I Hear” and out-Mariahs Mariah Carey on her blazing rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Menzel raises the standard on the holiday standard “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” adds her own touch with the original “December Prayer” (co-written with Walter Afanasief and Charlie Midnight), tips her fur-lined hat to her Disney clan with a cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and adds her name to the list of artists who have interpreted Joni Mitchell’s modern Christmas classic “River.”
Frumpy TV talent show diva Susan Boyle’s new album Hope (SYCO/Columbia) isn’t exactly a holiday album. However, religious-oriented numbers such as “Abide With Me,” “Oh Happy Day,” “You Raise Me Up,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Can Only Imagine” (originally performed by Christian rockers MercyMe) certainly give the album a specific bent. The real holiday gift here is Boyle’s reading of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Not. Kidding.
Hipster gays love their divas, too, and they have four to choose from when it comes to The Living Sisters. Growing from a trio (Inara George, Eleni Mandell and Becky Stark) to a quartet with the addition of Alex Lilly (of Obi Best), The Living Sisters present Harmony Is Real (Vanguard), the best holiday album of 2014. What makes it so? First, The Living Sisters’s harmonies are pure perfection. With the exception of the gals’ interpretations of “Jingle Bells” (which must be heard!) and “Little Drummer Boy,” The Living Sisters Harmony Is Real is a stellar set of new songs for the season, as lovely and lively as the Sisters themselves. Mandell’s “Kadoka, South Dakota,” “Baby Wants a Basketball For Christmas,” “Hanukkah” and “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve” are especially brilliant.
— Gregg Shapiro
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 5, 2014