For centuries, carols have been used to reinforce the central message of Christmas as well as express seasonal messages of peace on Earth, feelings of joy, hope for the future and the goodness of spirit. As secular songs have come along, they, too, have been incorporated into the fun and festivities.
Each year brings new offerings and interpretations of old classics. Here's a look at some of what the 2010 season has to offer:
DAVID BLASUCCI, "The Christmas Album" (Covenant).
David Blasucci's musical career has included touring with Bo Didley and Bobby Kimball (TOTO), opening for the likes of Rod Stewart, Hootie and the Blowfish, playing with Bruce Springsteen and singing a duet with Donny Osmond. He's appeared on screen, had a song nominated for a Oscar and was highlighted a soundtrack that won a Grammy. So, he brings a lot of experience to his Christmas project, his second CD for the local market. He offers a mellow take on the holidays with his acoustic guitar and smooth lyrics; there's a bit of soft jazz and blues tossed in for good measure. His original "Santa's Coming" joins traditional carols and songs such as "Away in a Manger," "Mary, Did You Know?" "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Breath of Heaven."
ALEX BOYE, "My Christmas Wish" (Shadow Mountain).
Before devoting his talents to inspirational music, British-born Alex Boye was the lead singer for the European boy band Awesome. So it's not surprising you get a blend of pop and rock as well as neo-soul and gospel on his first Christmas album. "I see it as a fun mix of Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, with a touch of Frank Sinatra tossed in," he says. He gives this treatment to spirituals and carols such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "What Child Is This," as well as familiar melodies such as "Christmas Time Is Here." His original title track offers a poignant message for our times.
SUSAN BOYLE, "The Gift" (Sony Music).
The British singer who grabbed international attention when she appeared on the reality TV show, "Britain's Got Talent" and has had some ups and downs since, turns her attention and talents to Christmas with a lovely collection of seasonal songs. Included are traditional carols such as "The First Noel," "O Holy Night" and "Away In a Manger." She also takes songs such as "Perfect Day," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and "Don't Dream It's Over" and gives them a nice seasonal context. The collection is simple, straightforward and beautiful and entirely suited to her voice and style.
ARTURO DELMONI AND FRIENDS, "A String Quartet Christmas" (Listen).
There is something to be said for "sincere, straightforward renditions" of Christmas music, and this three-disc collection says it well. Originally released as three albums in the late 1990s, they are combined in this set, which includes practically every carol you can think of (as well as some you may not know, such as "O Little One Sweet," "Lute-Book Carol" and "Six Noels for Harp.") In all, there are nearly three hours of string quartet magic and joy that can't help but put you in a mellow mood.
DR. ELMO, "Bluegrass Christmas" (Time Life).
Elmo Shropshire started out as a bluegrass artist and then had the fortune (or misfortune, as he might say) to write "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," which sent his career into the humor genre with a vengeance. He returns to his roots in this collection of toe-tapping, banjo-picking, unabashedly twangy bluegrass carols. Traditional songs such as "Greensleeves," "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Halls" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" are mixed with originals such as "Come on Boys It's Christmas," "Here's to the Lonely," and "Feels Like Christmas." And, yes, "Grandma" does show up, but in a lively, rollicking all-instrumental version.
JACKIE EVANCHO, "O Holy Night" (SYCO/Columbia).
Ten-year-old prodigy Jackie Evancho was a huge hit on "America's Got Talent" last summer and has wowed millions more on YouTube. She carries that success into the Christmas season with an introductory CD/DVD package. There are only four songs on the CD — the title cut, "Silent Night," "Panis Angelicus" and "Pie Jesu" — but they showcase her pure and angelic voice that seems way bigger than she is. The DVD includes her TV appearances, the audition tape that got her on the show and a post-competition interview. It will be fun to see where she goes from here.
ANNIE LENNOX, "A Christmas Cornucopia" (Decca).
You might say British pop icon Annie Lennox was born to do a Christmas album — after all, her birthday is Dec. 25. But it took awhile; this is her sixth solo album since Eurythmics. For it, she chose carols and songs that she's sung since she was little. "They're just in me," she writes, "so it was not an arbitrary selection." But they highlight her love of world culture, and they showcase her distinctive, smoky voice. Her concern for children is also represented by the African's Children's Choir, which appears on many of the selections, and by her own "Universal Child." The album has a vintage sound, with a modern twist — as she puts it, without "the glaze, and the overcommercialized festive gloop."
MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," with Natalie Cole and the Orchestra at Temple Square (Mormon Tabernacle Choir).
The latest in what has become a much-anticipated tradition, the CD based on last year's Christmas concert offers seasonal music at its finest. From the opening processional, "Come, O Come," featuring music by Mack Wilberg, through other traditional carols ("Holly and the Ivy," "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"), popular favorites ("Grown Up Christmas List," "The Christmas Song") to the signature "Angels From the Realms of Glory," the collection sparkles with Christmas spirit. Natalie Cole adds class and distinction to familiar favorites. Richard Elliott has fun at the organ with "Good King Wenceslas." "Christmas Carols in the Air" takes you on a spirited worldwide journey. Wilberg's arrangement of "O Holy Night" is as pretty as you'll ever hear. To use Cole's favorite description, it's "unforgettable."
The same can be said for the companion DVD, which includes the entire concert, including narration and stories by award-winning historian and author David McCullough and the dancers. Truly a treasure.
STEVEN SHARP NELSON, "Christmas Cello" (GVC Records).
Steven Sharp Nelson does just about everything you can do with a cello, from playing it like a guitar to eliciting soulful sounds and deep feelings. Not surprising from someone who claims Victor Borge, Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin all as influences. His impeccable technique and evocative approach serve him (and listeners) well on this collection of beautiful carols, hymns and songs. Special guests include pianists Paul Cardall, Jon Schmidt and Marshall McDonald, guitarist Al Van der Beek and percussionist Giles Reaves. Songs include "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Simple Gifts," "Still, Still, Still," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and "Winter Winds."
O'JAYS, "Christmas With the O'Jays" (Saguaro Road Records).
Soul superstars The O'Jays serve up "plenty of reasons to groove around the Christmas tree" with a Christmas album done with their inimitable sense of style. Included are holiday classics such as "The First Noel," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "What Child Is This," and a couple of brand-new offerings: "I'm What You Want" and "'Cause It's Christmas." The CD was "created with the best intentions and in good spirit," says Walter Williams Sr. That genuineness and heart-felt emotion comes through clearly.
BEN RUDNICK & FRIENDS, "It's Santa Claus" Bartlett Ave. Records).
The motto of Ben and Friends is "fun for all." They are clearly having a good time with this collection of classic Christmas songs such as "Jingle Bells," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Frosty the Snowman" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." There's some great picking on an instrumental "Greensleeves," and their original title song will get your toes tapping as well. It's an album that the whole family will enjoy. Lot of energy, liveliness and fun.
TERRY OLDFIELD, "Silent Night, Peaceful Night" (New Earth).
Australian musician Terry Oldfield is known for his "unique ability to bring the spirit of nature into his compositions," and this Christmas collection is no exception. Ethereal music produced by keyboards and flutes combines with lyrical vocals to capture the peace and serenity of the holiday season. Included are traditional carols such as "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "The First Noel" and "Once in Royal David's City." There's a beautiful version of "The Rocking Carol" and an equally soft and gently "See Amid the Winter Snows."
DAVID TOLK, "Christmas" (Old World Music).
David Tolk's fingers seem to fly across the keyboard, sometimes picking out the melody, sometimes the harmony and background, but always with amazing technique and feeling. Included are traditional carols such as "Holly and the Ivy," "What Child Is This," "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Savior of the Nations Come." He's joined by local artists Ryan Tilbey on a variety of string instruments, Aaron Ashton on violin, Daron Bradford on the winds and Mackenzie Tolk, with vocals. Together, they create a soft and flowing, multilayered sound that is a joy to listen to. The J. Kirk Richards painting of the album's cover also captures perfectly the spirit the music evokes.
VARIED ARTISTS, "Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album" (Columbia).
Showing off the youthful exuberance and musicality that has made "Glee" a TV phenom, this Christmas collection is lively and bright. Highlighting various cast members of different numbers, with the trademark harmonies of the show, it features traditional carols and songs such as "O Christmas Tree," "O Holy Night" and "Jingle Bells," as well as pop standards such as "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Guest artist k.d. lang appears on a fun version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."
VARIED ARTISTS, "Yule Log DVD"s (Sony).
If you want to cuddle up by the fire to listen to Christmas music — but don't have a fireplace — here's just the thing: DVDs that provide background music while the screen turns into a realistic fireplace. (You can also choose a "Cozy Cottage" or a "Snowy Cabin" option.) There's music to suit all tastes with separate DVDs featuring Elvis Presley's "Elvis' Christmas Album"; REO Speedwagon's "Not So Silent Night: Christmas With REO Speedwagon"; Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift For You"; and Barry Manilow's "A Christmas Gift of Love." Each provide Christmas classics, both carols and secular songs, in classic performances by the various artists. (Elvis throws in a few gospel songs, as well.)
VOICE MALE, "Christmas Live" (Voice Male Music).
As they promise on the album cover, this two-disc set offers not only the music, but also "all of the banter, laughs and jollification" of a Voice Male concert. It truly is the next best thing to being there. The a cappella group is comprised of John Luthy, Phil Kesler, Mike Bearden, John Huff, Richard McCalister and Mike Wilson, who have been together since college days at Utah State University. Parts of the album were recorded during several concert seasons, so you get an authentic feel for what they do. But it also serves as a memorial to Kesler, who died of cancer two months after the 2009 Christmas concert season. The collection includes all their standard Christmas songs: "Jamaican Noel," "Let It Snow," "Little Drummer Boy" and more. There are also concert favorites, such as "Rubber Ducky," "It's A Small World" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." It's a treasure for all Voice Male fans, and a good introduction for those new to the group. They have a great time, and so will the listener.