New Holiday Albums: The Best of 2020

One of the most essential parts of the holiday season is the music we listen to with our family and friends. This year, we especially need to come together to celebrate (virtually or in person), so we’re offering our list of the most comforting and inspiring holiday albums that have been released over the past few months. Included are brief reviews of our top six holiday albums of 2020, including releases from Leslie Odom Jr., Warren Wolf, the original cast of Hadestown, Amber Weekes, Lynda Randle, and Pentatonix. Also included is a list of honorable mentions, since there were too many amazing albums released this holiday season to cover in depth. Although this Christmas and holiday season may be a bit different from what most of us are used to, we hope these new music selections will help make this Christmas feel just as special as the last.

Title: The Christmas Album
Artist: Leslie Odom Jr.
Label: S-Curve Records
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: September 18, 2020

Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr.’s second holiday release, The Christmas Album, is quiet, intimate, and inclusive. The subdued production perfectly carries Odom’s smooth voice across every track, truly highlighting his unique artistry in this season full of the same old same old. Alongside the traditional favorites like “O Holy Night,” and  “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” true standouts in this project include “Winter Song,” a track featuring fellow Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo, and “Ma’Oz Tzur, a stunningly beautiful traditional Hanukkah song that feature’s Odom’s wife, actress and singer Nicolette Robinson. Where Odom shines best is on the final track, “Heaven & Earth,” an original song with incredible production quality that showcases Odom’s beautiful tone and amazing vocal control. The Christmas Album is a powerful project that feels less like a “Christmas album” but more so a “Leslie Odom Jr. album,” and that’s more than good enough for me.

Title: Christmas Vibes
Artist: Warren Wolf
Label: Mack Avenue
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: September 18, 2020

Here comes my favorite album on the list! Jazz vibraphonist Warren Wolf has released his first Christmas album, Christmas Vibes. This has to be most aptly named project on this list, because I felt the Christmas vibes from this album. As soon as I started listening, I was instantly transported back to when I was ten years old at my grandma’s house, watching movies like A Charlie Brown Christmas with my family next to a Christmas tree with presents underneath that I unfortunately couldn’t open yet. Those are the kinds of emotions that Christmas Vibes hit me with from the very first track to the very last and are the kinds of emotions I want to feel when I play a holiday album. From the household favorites such as “O Christmas Tree” and “Do You Hear What I Hear” to his original, “Wake Up Little Kids It’s Christmas,” Wolf infuses every track with jazzy rhythms and soulful melodies, creating music that wonderfully incapsulates the meaning of Christmas, making Christmas Vibes the perfect soundtrack for the holidays.

Title: If The Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album
Artist: Hadestown Original Broadway Company
Label: Broadway
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: November 20, 2020

Featuring the cast of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical Hadestown, “The Fates” Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad perform If The Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album. Produced by Grammy Award winner David Lai and Tony Award winner Todd Sickafoose, with Robinson, and Gonzalez-Nacer, this project is comprised of holiday classics and originals composed by Gonzalez-Nacer, Hadestown’s Tony Award-winning songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, and Hadestown music director Liam Robinson. Every song features elements of blues, folk, and jazz, which really stand out in classics like “Sleigh Ride,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The best part of this album is the wide variety of holiday standards, ranging from Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas” to Queen’s “Thank God It’s Christmas,” which are not usually covered by today’s artists. Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad’s beautiful voices and rich harmonies are the stars of this album, which is a must-listen for the Broadway musical lovers out there.

Title:  The Gathering
Artist: Amber Weekes
Label: Amber Weekes
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: October 15, 2020

Jazz vocalist Amber Weekes has released her first Christmas album, The Gathering. Produced by violinist Mark Cargill, Weekes’ project features a plethora of Los Angeles-based musicians, such as pianist Josh Nelson, bassist John B. Williams, and tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, who help deliver charming and soulful renditions of holiday favorites, alongside a few original tracks, such as the uplifting and festive title track, “The Gathering.” Other notable songs include the opening track “The Christmas Waltz,” the slow and sweet “Silent Night,” and the passionate arrangement to the Rodgers and Hart classic, “My Romance.” Weekes’ playful and sensual vocals are on full display in The Gathering and bring a much welcomed appeal to the holiday classics we love.

Title: White Christmas
Artist: Lynda Randle
Label: Gaither Music Group
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: October 16, 2020

Dove Award-winning gospel singer Lynda Randle returns with her second holiday studio album, White Christmas. Honestly, Randle’s beautifully rich and smooth vocals are what truly shine in this project full of very familiar tracks and less-than-original arrangements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, and that’s probably what I love most about it. The album features mostly classics, including the opener and my favorite holiday song of all time, “The Christmas Song,” as well as the carefree “Winter Wonderland” and the soothing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” There are a couple of unique standouts, such as the Middle Eastern-influenced “Do You See What I See,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with its jazzy ending. Despite everything, when it comes to Christmas music specifically, most people out there are looking for those familiar and nostalgic tracks to play in the background while they decorate the tree and wrap presents for their family. This probably explains why the most popular holiday albums are those we have heard a million-and-one times already. White Christmas has this exact same appeal and definitely evokes those nostalgic emotions, which makes it perfect for listening with a cup of hot cocoa in hand on a cold Christmas Eve.

Title: We Need A Little Christmas
Artist: Pentatonix
Label: RCA
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: November 6, 2020

Back once again this holiday season, the three-time Grammy Award-winning vocal group Pentatonix offers their sixth holiday album, We Need A Little Christmas. This project is full of beautifully arranged adaptions of traditional holiday classics such as “White Christmas,” featuring Bing Crosby’s original vocals which are backed by Pentatonix and the London Symphony Orchestra. Ariana Grande’s upbeat “Santa Tell Me,” while not necessarily a classic, is a comparatively newer addition to the Christmas playlist that is covered quite amazingly here. Other songs such as “12 Days of Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Pop” are very appreciated additions that do a great job of tingling the Christmas itch we’ve gotten every year since our childhood. Additionally, Pentatonix has added several seasonal favorites including Anastasia’s “Once Upon A December,” Rent’s “Season of Love,” and Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.” While none of those particular evoke the Christmas spirit, their arrangements and performances are very impressive. We Need A Little Christmas is a very refreshing holiday album that effortlessly improves the mood and provides a variety that is hard to come by in this time of the year.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some more new and unique albums for your holiday listening pleasure: Tori Kelly’s A Tori Kelly Christmas (produced by Babyface), Jamaican saxophonist Dean Fraser’s Nyabinghi Christmas, jazz vocalist Lauren Henderson’s Classic Christmas EP, jazz bassist Brian Bromberg’s Celebrate Me Home (with an all-star cast Including Najee, Everette Harp, Maysa, Elan Trotman and Chris Walker), Big Freedia’s Smokin’ Santa Christmas (due December 11), Miami-based R&B singer Emma Stackhaus’ Have Yourself A Magically Delicious Christmas, Black Violin’s Give Thanks, Love Renaissance’s Home For The Holidays (ft. 6LACK & Summer Walker), Cory Henry’s Christmas With You (due December 11), a vinyl reissue of Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues, and the jazz compilation Verve Wishes You A Swinging Christmas.

Reviewed by Jared Walker