Tired of the holiday music that's been piping forth from every storefront since Black Friday? Here are two recent Christmas albums that fare better than most, as well as two to avoid.
Like a hipper version of Josh Groban's "Noel," this holiday album samples equally from traditional pop music and more current genres, with Mr. Buble's honeyed baritone taking center stage on every song. Come for the doo-wop rendition of "White Christmas," modeled after the Drifters' 1950s arrangement; stay for "Cold December Night," an original song co-written by Mr. Buble.
50 Words for Snow
A Christmas album that refuses to be boxed in by holiday conventions, "50 Words for Snow" takes some wonderfully unexpected turns. The first track, "Snowflake," breathes new life into a common wintertime theme, but Miss Bush also dives into more arty territory with songs such as "Wild Man," a seven-minute tribute to the mythical Yeti.
A Very Gaga Holiday
Released with little advance notice, this "surprise" Christmas EP only contains two holiday songs. The other tracks are stripped-down performances of songs from her second album, "Born This Way," making "A Very Gaga Holiday" feel like an unnecessary wintertime cash-in.
Where's your Christmas spirit, girl?
Under the Mistletoe
Your daughter's favorite teen idol returns to the top of the charts with another batch of R&B-accented pop tunes. Some of the holiday references feel forced, especially during the original numbers, which feel like regular songs retrofitted to suit the season.
Justin Bieber deserves credit for co-writing more than half of the album, but he's weighed down by his guest stars, who either outshine him (Mariah Carey) or sound sorely misplaced (Busta Rhymes, on a clunky version of "Little Drummer Boy").
Although a member of the Barenaked Ladies for the past 16 years, Kevin Hearn has a long history of popping up in different combos, serving as the leader of Lou Reed's touring group one minute and recording with Rheostatics the next. On "Cloud Maintenance," he returns to the solo career he's been nurturing since 1997.
"Cloud Maintenance" is a good-natured folk-pop album, slower in places than most Barenaked Ladies records but not too far removed from that band's lighthearted, hook-filled sound. Mr. Hearn is clearly the ringleader here, with most of the songs revolving around his piano chords and wistful vocals, but he also relies on a revolving door of A-list players to help shape the sound. Tony "Thunder" Smith, Mr. Reed's drummer, plays on several songs, and Garth Hudson, former keyboardist for the Band, handles piano duties on "The House of Invention."
The collaborative spirit serves Mr. Hearn well. He's always been more of a team player than a star, remaining behind the keyboard for much of the Barenaked Ladies' career and only assuming a larger role in recent years, after Steven Page's departure left the band in need of another person to share vocal duties. He's generous with the spotlight as a result, beefing up his melodies with harmonies from other singers - including doo-wop veteran Arnold Robinson, who sang bass for the Platters - and soliciting other contributions from members of Thinbuckle, another one of his side projects.
Sometimes, it feels as though Mr. Hearn and company are in danger of taking their jokes too far. "When I'm feeling blue, I pick up a shoe, pretend it's a telephone and that I'm talking to you," goes a line in the third song. "Monsters Anonymous," which ends the album on an equally slapstick note, tells the story of several creatures - a dinosaur, a Minotaur, a Cyclops, Frankenstein - who've come to air their grievances at a group therapy session.
"Cloud Maintenance" usually falls on the right side of the comedy-pop divide, though, taking its cues from both genres while making sure to balance the hammed-up camp with strong pop hooks. Those who already listen to the Barenaked Ladies will gravitate toward these brainy, half-serious songs more readily than most, but you can't blame Mr. Hearn for taking aim at the audience he knows best.
By Elaine Donnelly
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