15 Fresh Takes on a Classic Tradition: The Holiday Album

Holiday albums are more than background music played in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. They offer artists a chance to recontextualize themselves, play around in a nostalgic format, reinvent traditions and even strike gold in what’s become a lucrative season for the music business. Here’s a spin through 15 of the latest releases.

Louis Armstrong, ‘Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule’

Of all the music Louis Armstrong made in his lifetime, none of it was recorded for a Christmas album (despite Armstrong having put out a bunch of Christmas songs). But on “Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule,” we hear his unmistakable voice in all its remastered glory on standards like “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas,” and originals like “Christmas Night in Harlem” and “Christmas in New Orleans.” “What a Wonderful World,” Armstrong’s most recognized song, isn’t quite a holiday tune but shows up on this compilation anyway alongside “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” a reading he recorded at home shortly before his death in 1971. What wound up being his last recording ends this album on a wistful note. MARCUS J. MOORE

Backstreet Boys, ‘A Very Backstreet Christmas’

Backstreet Boys offer up the expected blend of poppy R&B, tight harmonizing and soft-focus romanticism on their first holiday album, “A Very Backstreet Christmas.” The group fares best with competently sung, lightly modernized renditions of classics like “O Holy Night” and “White Christmas”; it sounds out of its depth grappling with the singer-songwriter poeticism of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” The album closes out on an upbeat note, though, with the peppy, self-referential (“We’re gonna party like it’s 1999”) new song “Happy Days,” which its members said was partially inspired by “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” the 2016 hit from — of all people! — Justin Timberlake. Happy Xmas, boy-band war is over (if you want it). LINDSAY ZOLADZ

Regina Belle, ‘My Colorful Christmas’

Christmas has long been associated with snow and warm cider. But Regina Belle’s reggae-centered version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” evokes hot sand and rum punch. She follows this thread throughout her first Christmas album, flipping gospel standards like “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” into bouncy modern soul with cross-generational appeal. MOORE

Kadhja Bonet, ‘California Holiday’

The first holiday EP by the pensive soul singer Kadhja Bonet consists mostly of supple covers of connoisseur Christmas classics — “Keep Christmas With You” from “Sesame Street”; the Jackson 5’s “Little Christmas Tree.” But the title track, an original, is something different: a lightly exhausted digest of a relationship that never seems to break free of cyclical fatigue. “Another holiday,” Bonet sighs. “Another holiday.” JON CARAMANICA

Ray Charles, ‘The Spirit of Christmas’

Be it country, R&B or gospel, Ray Charles knew how to put his own spin on well-worn classics, turning them into bluesy ballads with soulful piano at the center. That was evident on “The Spirit of Christmas” from 1985, reissued this year as a set that includes tried-and-true favorites like “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” as well as the cult classic “That Spirit of Christmas,” which was featured in the holiday film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” But Charles’s brilliance comes barreling through on the down-tempo “The Little Drummer Boy”: Mixing the twang of country and the melodic stomp of gospel-soul, he lands on something that isn’t quite either, but is glorious all the same. MOORE

Davis Causey and Jay Smith, ‘Pickin’ on Christmas’

In 1998, two guitarists from Georgia, Jay Smith and Davis Causey (who, among many credits, was a member of jazz-tinged Southern rock bands led by Randall Bramblett and Chuck Leavell) gathered a studio band, recorded an instrumental Christmas album and pressed 100 CDs for family and friends. Smith died soon after the album was made. It wasn’t a casual jam session; the tracks are thoughtfully arranged, often with multiple layers of lead and rhythm guitars. Now released publicly, the album radiates companionship, with the guitars — acoustic and electric, picking and sliding — entwined in amiable colloquies. “Silver Bells/Silent Night” turns into a chugging, countryish boogie; “We Three Kings/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” eases toward modal jazz and psychedelia, and “What Child Is This?” moves from a tentative duet to a swinging jazz waltz. The familiar songs become shared confidences. JON PARELES

Gloria Estefan, Emily Estefan and Sasha Estefan-Coppola, ‘The Estefan Family Christmas’

One of Latin pop’s queens shares top billing with her 28-year-old daughter, Emily, and 10-year-old grandson, Sasha, on her second Christmas album (the first came out in 1992). A solo Emily shines — and sounds remarkably like her mother — on a poignant ballad she wrote herself, “When I Miss You Most,” though much of the record relies a bit too much on Sasha’s precocity. Delightfully, the LP finds the family sharing the spotlight and the occasional laugh, and even a surprise: A Spanish-language rendition of the Paul Williams tune “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus” features the sweetly assured singing debut of Gloria’s husband, Emilio. ZOLADZ

Clockwise from top left: holiday albums by Chris Isaak, Thomas Rhett, Lindsey Stirling and Regina Belle.

Debbie Gibson, ‘Winterlicious’

Debbie Gibson has been a fixture on Broadway far longer than she was atop the pop charts in the late ’80s, which explains why the songs on “Winterlicious,” her first holiday album, skew toward the sorts of tunes that connect plot points in a musical — fiercely restrained singing with heavy syllabic emphasis, a curious abundance of detail, a saccharine quality that feels like a Christmas cookie overdose. CARAMANICA

Vivian Green, ‘Spread the Love’

Vivian Green and her co-producer, Kwame Holland, wrote four of the five songs on her EP “Spread the Love.” Togetherness (and absence) is on her mind in all of them. She’s eagerly anticipating it in the Motown-meets-reggae “Spread the Love (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza)” and in the hand-clapping, pointillistic “Everybody’s Gathered.” And she bemoans being separated — even by her own choices — in the torchy “Around the Tree” and in the tinkling march “No Holiday.” Whether she’s convivial or lonely, she’s always got eager backing vocals for company. PARELES

Chris Isaak, ‘Everybody Knows It’s Christmas’

The holidays arrive with plenty of twang and reverb on Chris Isaak’s suavely retro “Everybody Knows It’s Christmas.” Isaak wrote most of the songs, offering a little comedy (“Almost Christmas,” about last-minute shopping, and “Help Me Baby Jesus,” about a plastic yard display) and some convincing lonely-guy melancholy (“Holiday Blues,” “Wrapping Presents for Myself” and “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”). The sound harks back to 1950s country and rockabilly, with Isaak’s voice echoing Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and, in a big-finish “O Holy Night,” Elvis Presley, completing a slyly poised period piece of an album. PARELES

Alicia Keys, ‘Santa Baby’

Alicia Keys brings her coziest voice to the largely secular songs on “Santa Baby.” Her delivery is high, breathy and playful, and she allows herself to show scratches and imperfections. The productions often tuck elaborate arrangements under a low-fi veneer, like her version of “The Christmas Song,” which begins as a piano-and-voice, mistakes-and-all version and suddenly sprouts strings and voices. The album touches on old-school soul — her gospelly, tear-spattered versions of “Please Be Home for Christmas” — as well as the willful eccentricity of “My Favorite Things,” which has modal-jazz piano chords, a wordless version of the Rodgers melody and spoken words about favorite things like “feeling so good, we drama-free.” Four songs of her own — including a reprise of “Not Even the King” from “Girl on Fire” — are about longing and affection, and she radiates fondness in “December Back 2 June” and “You Don’t Have to Be Alone.” Throughout the album, she invites loved ones closer. PARELES

Nelson, ‘A Nelson Family Christmas’

The brothers Nelson approach “O Come All Ye Faithful” with a pair of billy clubs, beating upon each syllable as if playing a mirthless game of Whac-a-Mole. Not all of this holiday collection is so violent — it includes a handful of shimmery tracks from their elders, father Ricky and grandfather Ozzie; and also a soothing “This Christmas,” sung with Carnie and Wendy Wilson, Brian’s daughters. The Nelson brothers’ take on “Blue Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” are lightly comforting, but Lord, please protect “Away in a Manger” and “Mele Kelikimaka.” CARAMANICA

Thomas Rhett, ‘Merry Christmas, Y’all’

The gentleman country kingpin Thomas Rhett is Nashville’s MVP of singing within the lines. And he might have gotten away with it on this EP, his first Christmas collection in a decade-plus career. But on “Winter Wonderland,” he’s nudged along by a horn section that’s more curious than he is. And if you detect a touch of ambition on “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” maybe it’s because the band simply will not stop rejoicing, so what’s he got to lose? CARAMANICA

Lindsey Stirling, ‘Snow Waltz’

A millennial violinist with spirited energy and a large YouTube following, the 36-year-old Lindsey Stirling builds on the strengths of her 2017 holiday record, “Warmer in the Winter,” with this lively new collection. The thumping electronic beats that accompany her arrangements of classics like “Sleigh Ride” and “Joy to the World” are tasteful enough to resist gimmickry, and originals that feature pop vocalists like Bonnie McKee and the “American Idol” alum David Archuleta are effectively cheery. The title track is also a new composition that turns Stirling’s instrument into an expressive vessel for wintry melodrama and childlike wonder. ZOLADZ

Joss Stone, ‘Merry Christmas, Love’

Joss Stone reaches for old-school Hollywood luster and unblinking sincerity on “Merry Christmas, Love.” She deploys sleigh bell-topped orchestras and choirs in holiday standards (“Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “Away in a Manger”) along with the Motown perennial “What Christmas Means to Me” and a less familiar Irving Berlin Christmas song, “Snow.” Stone sings with clarity and earnest humility. When she does let loose her cutting high register on a new song of her own, “If You Believe,” it’s clear how carefully she was holding herself back. PARELES

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