One miracle of the modern holiday season is that anyone can find fresh takes on this music, yet the former Eurythmics singer seems to hear, and thus sing, the songs she's chosen as if for the first time. Unexpected harmonic, melodic and rhythmic choices buoy such stalwarts as "The First Noel," "The Holly and the Ivy" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and she brightens the mix further with lesser-known tunes including "See Amid the Winter's Snow," "As Joseph Was A Walking" and one anthem-ish original, "Universal Child."
The wild child of alt-country singer-songwriters plays it pretty straight on her holiday outing, contributing two blues originals ("Ain't Nothin' Like Christmas" and "Xmas") to her touchingly spare, uncommonly intimate performances of seasonal standards ("O Holy Night," "Silent Night") and pop and country chestnuts ("Christmas Time's A-Comin'" "Silver Bells" and the Peanuts gang's "Christmas Time Is Here").
Katharine McPhee "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" (Verve Forecast)
The "American Idol" Season 5 runner-up sounds as shimmering and lush as you'd expect, with fewer surprises up her sleeveless gown than you might hope. Her gospelized attempt at "Jingle Bells" doesn't click, and "It's Not Christmas Without You," which she co-wrote, comes off more self-pitying than she probably intended. Her "AI" fans, however, likely will gobble it up.
Point of Grace "Home for the Holidays" (Curb)
The country-pop trio gets all misty-eyed and sugary over everything the holiday season represents to them. That translates into a mix of secular sentiments ("White Christmas," "Silver Bells") and less well-trod contemporary Christian-minded choices ("Immanuel," "Labor of Love").
The Puppini Sisters "Christmas With the Puppini Sisters" (Verve)
There's only one Puppini — singer and multi-instrumentalist Marcella — so the sisterhood is strictly musical within this British trio that also features Kate Mullins and Stephanie O'Brien. Their obvious affinity for old-school pop harmonizing a la the Andrews Sisters is a great fit with this mélange of largely secular numbers from the period ("White Christmas," "Here Comes Santa Claus") and a couple of rock-era entries ( Elton John's "Step Into Christmas," George Michael's "Last Christmas"). Christmas swings.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra "Christmas Comes Alive!" (Surfdog)
Since releasing his first big-band swing collection of holiday music in 2002, the British singer and guitarist has turned the season in to a cottage industry with a follow-up album, a couple of Christmas compilations and more than 100 Yuletime CQ concerts. This was recorded last year with his 18-piece band and captures a fairly sizzling performance of many of the numbers he'd released in studio versions.
Sean Smith "Christmas" (Tompkins Square)
Bay Area guitarist Sean Smith's solo acoustic recording harks back — favorably — to John Fahey's celebrated Christmas recordings. The spare arrangements and reverential performances quietly convey the humble spirit of the holiday's origin.