2016 Holiday Music Overview

Another December brings another batch of holiday albums from artists across a variety of genres.  Though there are fewer new releases this year, we’ve compiled a short list of the most interesting projects featuring new arrangements of classics as well as original songs composed for the season.

Title: A Kenny Lattimore Christmas

Artist: Kenny Lattimore

Label: Motown Gospel

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016


Kenny Lattimore seamlessly merges contemporary R&B with contemporary Christian music on A Kenny Lattimore Christmas. Original songs such as “Real Love This Christmas” and “Everybody Love Somebody” are full of energy and hip hop beats, with lyrics about the importance of community and faith. Lattimore includes many classic Christmas songs on the album, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and a grand, symphonic arrangement of “O Holy Night.” He also adds worship songs such as “I Cry Holy” and the gospel-chorus backed “We Want to See You.” Overall, it is a marvelous holiday album for any gospel music fan looking for something that combines tradition and innovation.


Title: Merry Christmas from Andra Day

Artist: Andra Day

Label: Warner Bros.

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016


On the five track EP Merry Christmas from Andra Day, the jazz/R&B chanteuse breathes new life into holiday classics with her highly distinctive, instantly recognizable voice. Opening with the Stevie Wonder duet “Someday at Christmas,” the two singers present an upbeat, optimistic song that immediately captures the season’s spirit with themes of peace and harmony:

Day then segues into a swinging arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” followed by a sumptuous rendition of “Winter Wonderland.” Guitarist Chris Payton contributes to “Carol of the Bells,” providing an acoustic accompaniment to Day’s supremely soulful arrangement that renders this chestnut nearly unrecognizable, in the best possible way. Closing with “The First Noel,” Day takes a more straight forward approach, using a simple arrangement with keyboard, but adding enough modulations and embellishments to keep things interesting.


Title: Simply Christmas

Artist: Leslie Odom, Jr.

Label: S-Curve Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 11, 2016


While Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. has quickly risen to fame this year as the rapping Aaron Burr, his classically trained Broadway voice stays steady and velvety smooth on his first holiday album Simply Christmas. Odom does not stray from the typical Christmas repertoire, except for adding a version of Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Winter Song.” Otherwise, with tracks ranging from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “The First Noel,” this is a traditional Christmas album full of easy listening holiday cheer.


Title: The Gift of Christmas

Artist: Bob Baldwin

Label: Red River Entertainment

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 28, 2016


Great for any contemporary jazz enthusiast on your Christmas list, pianist and composer Bob Baldwin’s The Gift of Christmas adds his spin to holiday classics such as “This Christmas” and “Greensleeves/What Child Is This?” Baldwin combines tradition with modern styles on tracks such as “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful / Celebrate the Son Remix,” which mixes electronic beats, vocals from gospel artist Corvina Nielsen, and a soulful keyboard solo. Nielsen also guest stars on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “We Three Kings / Yonder Star Remix,” with her soaring, soulful vocals adding a unique dimension to the album. Ending on the beautifully calm and melancholy track “December 25th,” Baldwin returns to a more traditional smooth jazz sound. On The Gift of Christmas, Baldwin constantly challenges our expectations of what Christmas songs should sound like through surprising arrangements and delightful collaborations.


Title: 12 Nights of Christmas

Artist: R. Kelly

Label: RCA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 21, 2016


If you like non-traditional Christmas songs, R. Kelly’s 12 Nights of Christmas is perfect for you. Kelly combines his signature R&B vocals and sensual lyrics with lush orchestral arrangements on holiday themed songs such as “Snowman,” “Flyin’ On My Sleigh,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.” Though some of these tracks may be borderline “not safe for work,” there are also more innocuous songs such as “My Wish for Christmas” and “Home for Christmas”—his modern day twist on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:

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Title: A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz

Artist: Big Freedia

Label: Queen Diva Music

Formats: MP3

Release date: December 9, 2016


If you’re looking for something naughty but nice for your holiday party, look no further than this 5 track EP from the bounce queen of New Orleans. A Very Big Freedia Christmazzz offers some very unique takes on holiday classics such as “Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” who knows how to twerk, and “Jingle Bell Rock” which will get you on your feet to “shake the night away.” Freedia’s “Twas the Night” is a hip hop version of the classic Christmas story with a NOLA twist:

Twas the night before Friday and all through the club,
They were drinking and smoking and tearing it up,
It was a cold night but the place was lit,
It was packed wall to wall no room to sit . . .
Chorus: All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat
All I want for Christmas is the beat, beat

Original tracks include the highly infectious “So Frosty” that’s sure to heat up the dance floor, and “Santa is a Gay Man” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman” (definitely not safe for work).

Reviewed by Anna Polovick and Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Andra Day – Cheers to the Fall

andra day cheers to the fall

Title: Cheers to the Fall

Artist: Andra Day

Label: Buskin/Warner Bros.

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 28, 2015



San Diego’s soulful songstress Andra Day is riding a wave of publicity this year resulting from several high profile projects. Her remake of “Mississippi Goddam” is featured in the acclaimed documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, her single “Rise Up” is the soundtrack for the inspirational Serena Williams’ Beats By Dre commercial “Rise,” and her performance at the Sundance Festival caught the attention of Spike Lee, who agreed to direct the video for her the first single, “Forever Mine.” So it’s no surprise that by the time her major label debut, Cheers to the Fall, dropped last month, the press was already proclaiming Andra Day as the next (take your pick) Amy Winehouse, Eartha Kitt, Etta James, or Billy Holiday. She certainly possesses a distinctive retro fashion style and voice, but does her album live up to the hype?

English rocker Adrian Gurvitz produced Cheers to the Fall with assistance from R&B singer Raphael Saadiq, creating an intriguing blend of British and American pop and soul. This is immediately apparent on the retro opening track “Forever Mine,” which sets the mood with treble ostinato chords over a steady drumbeat and a bit of reverb, before Day sashays in with her full throaty voice, digging into the groove, bending notes, and then scatting over the chorus:

Following is “Only Love,” an obvious nod to a Goldfinger–era James Bond theme song featuring The Roots’ James Poyser (production) and Questlove on drums, Pino Palladino on bass, and scratching from DJ Jazzy Jeff—with the Dap-Kings injecting a Latin flavor and the Wired Strings a cinematic quality.

Day switches to a more radio-ready style for the midtempo “Gold,” as well as the Adele-inspired tracks “Rearview” and “Red Flags.” Saadiq picks up the guitar and bass on “Mistakes,” with Charles Jones providing the organ riffs and Wired Strings filling out the harmonies. “Honey or Fire,” again backed by Saadiq and Jones, enters hard rock ballad territory on the chorus, where Day has no difficulty swapping her sultry vocals for a more strident sound.

But the meat and potatoes of this album is retro soul, which returns in spades with the seductive ballad “Not Today.” Featuring a string-heavy chorus built on Motown-era girl group harmonies, this stand-out track is a cross between Etta James and Martha Reeves. The album closes with several fan favorites: the ballad “Gin & Juice (Let Go My Hand)” which slithers right up the spine, the hit single “Rise Up,” and finally the title track. Saving one of the best for last, “Cheers to the Fall” is a more contemporary R&B/pop song, once again featuring Saadiq, Jones and the Wired Strings, with Day stretching her vocal range and losing some of her affectations.

Like many singers with a very distinctive voice, Day must be careful to provide enough variety or the novelty will begin to wear thin by the fourth or fifth track. Day pulls this off with aplomb, creating an album of original songs that will appeal to a multi-generational audience while also showcasing her vocal dexterity and roots in jazz, soul and pop.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss