Last week the Wall Street Journal asked me for a roundup of my six favorite holiday CDs. The result appears in today's "Friday Journal" section of the paper—or at WSJ.com if you're a subscriber. Yesterday, WSJ Live's Lunch Break had me in to talk with anchor Kelsey Hubbard about my picks. The video clip is below (and yes, I know, I need a haircut).
Holiday CDs are tricky. If they're too greeting card, I pass. If the collection has been re-issued endlessly over the years, I pass. And if they're too somber, I also pass. What gets me misty? Collections that capture the holiday spirit without making me feel like I'm in a store shopping or taking it all too seriously. In other words, joyous and fun, tasteful and sophisticated.
Here are my six new favorites...
Michel Legrand—Noel! Noel!! Noel!!! (Verve). Dreamy cinematic orchestrations by the famed French film composer. We're talking 50 musicians plus a choir. Now add to this snow-spray backdrop hipster singers like Carla Bruni, Jamie Cullum, Madeleine Peyroux, Rufus Wainwright, Emilie Simon and Iggy Pop. The songs choices are all terrific American and French evergreens, and you get to hear Pop sing in French. Perfect with a glass of champagne.
She & Him—A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge). If you're unfamiliar with She & Him, you'll dig them after hearing this CD. Zooey Deschanel (She) and M. Ward (Him) sing and play all of the instruments on this stripped down album of holiday favorites. Deschanel has this seductive, talent-contest voice that just melts your heart while Ward plays a very cool Gibson "Johnny A" model behind her. Rockabilly meets Brooklyn. Perfect with a Manhattan.
Mark O'Connor—An Appalachian Christmas (OMAC). O'Connor is a classical violinist but he also has bluegrass ears. The 16 tracks on this album include a clutch of metro singers (including Jane Monheit, Renee Fleming and James Taylor) and down-home spirit. But the depth of this CD lies in the instrumentals, particularly O'Connor's fiddling. After a few listens, you start to smell the birch logs burning from afar. Perfect with a glass of sherry.
Alexander O'Neal—My Gift to You (Tabu). Soul-singer Alexander O'Neal was part of the Prince and Morris Day crowd in Minneapolis back in the '80s. In 1988, he released this holiday album. Then it vanished, appearing again remastered on CD in 2002. Then it was gone again, available only as a download. Now it's back on CD, complete with O'Neal's powerful voice, synthetic-sounding drums and programmed, crystalline-sounding keyboards. Perfect with a glass of cognac.
Doug Munro—A Very Gypsy Christmas (Got Music). This isn't gypsy as in fortune tellers or colorful wagons in the woods. Instead, it's akin to the Hot Club of France. In the spirit of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, guitarist Doug Munro and his group swing through 15 holiday classics. The best part is the addition of clarinetist Ken Peplowski, who adds a coolness to the Romani heat. Perfect with a glass of riesling.
Laurelyn Dossett, Rhiannon Giddens, Mike Compton, Joe Newberry and Jason Sypher—The Gathering (Sycamore Road). Over the summer, five musicians went into a rustic house in Greensboro, N.C., and recorded this holiday album. The first six tracks by guitarist-singer Laurelyn Dossett were commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony. The balance are seasonal sleepers. All get the folk-roots treatment complete with three harmonized voices accompanied by banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle. The esteemed bluegrass quintet is rounded out by Rhiannon Giddens on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin and mandola, Joe Newberry on banjo and guitar, and Jason Sypher on bass. Perfect with a glass of bourbon.
Coming on Monday: In keeping with an annual JazzWax tradition, I will reveal my pick for this year's best classic holiday jazz-pop recording. Jo Stafford, June Christy and Eddie Higgins are past winners. My pick is always a sleeper—one you either don't know or have long forgotten.
JazzWax clip: Here's lil' ol' me at the WSJ talking up the holiday six...