Santa Is Real: Seasonal Platters

Pick of the holiday album litter

Santa Is Real: Seasonal Platters

Instead of recording whole Christmas albums, many artists now release a song digitally and offer it as a free download – like Austin’s Erin Ivey. On the other hand, the Largehearted Boy blog offers legal downloads daily, and there’s ample holiday mp3s. Even so, plenty of Xmas discs abound this year, so let’s jingle some bells.

Locally, the Xmas-Men tops the stack with Santa is Real, an instrumental collection of classic tunes. When not hitting the egg nog, they’re Robert Earl Keen’s band: Rich Brotherton, Marty Muse, Bill Whitbeck, and Tom Van Schalk. Together, these music pros brew up inspired country arrangements, while welcoming Floyd Domino and his piano for a deviously sweet take of Keen’s classic “Merry Xmas from the Family.”

Highly recommended for those who think The Ventures’ Christmas Album remains the only seasonal platter that matters.

Miranda Dodson offers It’s Merry Christmas Time, a four-song EP with two original tunes, including the slow-building title track. It serves as a charming and impressive introduction to the Austinite’s powerful music stance, so we’ll definitely check out her next gig.

The most soul satisfying new disc comes from the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal on Talkin’ Christmas!, a gospel-blues hybrid refreshing for its boldness, inspired musicality, and – save for a stylish reading of “Silent Night” – lack of the same old songs. The sweetly sung “There’s A Reason We Call It Christmas” and deeply funky title track stand out on an album filled with the true spirit of the season.

An Americana Christmas seems like an excuse for New West Records to package some of its younger acts – Robert Ellis, Nikki Lane, Max Gomez – with bonafide legends: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, and Dwight Yoakam. The disc flows sweetly on Valerie June’s happy, clappy “Winter Wonderland” and the Old 97’s earnestly swaying “Here It Is Christmas Time” among newer readings striking holiday gold.

Those that revel in harmonies are sure to fall in love with the Living Sisters. Folkies Eleni Mandell, Inara George, Becky Stark, and Alex Lilly twist their voices into a variety of settings and recall stylists from the Andrews Sisters to the Beach Boys on Harmony is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday. Original tunes recall the sass of the Waitresses, and covers like “Jingle Bells” and “Little Drummer Boy” are handled deftly with a touch of originality.

Fans of Cincinnati-based duo Over the Rhine will delight at the all-original seasonal release Blood Oranges in the Snow, their third album of Christmas-themed music. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergqvist create haunting soundscapes worthy of the Cowboy Junkies and Emmylou Harris at their most passionate. Check the latter’s warbling rendition of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” which aches in all the right spots.

For the more traditionally minded, Sony Legacy mines its vaults for eight new collections in the Classic Christmas series. Career spanning discs by Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis have previously unavailable material, while Los Lonely Boys perform an acoustic “Feliz Navidad” among tracks from the Backstreet Boys, Big Time Rush, and Menudo on Classic Christmas Pop. Willie Nelson joins Kenny Chesney for “Pretty Paper” on Classic Country.

There’s also discs from Barbra Streisand, Il Divo, and Perry Como, as well as a compilation dubbed Hard Rock with guitar stars like Ted Nugent, Jeff Beck, and Joe Satriani. Headbang for the holidays.

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