No matter how many times you’ve heard the line “make the yuletide gay,” it takes on a different – definitely more literal – meaning when Melissa Etheridge sings it. Yeah, I did go there, and if Kristin Chenoweth can turn a “Sesame Street” standard into a cutesy holiday tune, then let’s call it even – OK? Both polar-opposite singers – one a lesbian, the other one lusted over by lesbians (she’s adorable, ain’t she?) – are making the yuletide gayer. I can’t say the same for The Boxmasters or Faith Hill, who are also part of our annual Holiday Hear Me Out, but I’m betting, guys, you’ve had a fantasy or two involving Hill’s hubby, Tim McGraw. And that’s pretty gay.
Melissa Etheridge, ‘A New Thought for Christmas’
You like whiskey over wine to take the edge off the holidays? Based on her first-ever Christmas album (and, let’s face it, she’s probably no sipper), I’m betting Etheridge does, too. The lesbian leader’s sandpaper-y tone on growlers – the sexy “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and original war-lament “Christmas in America” – frame her rock-out style, seemingly ill-fit for the sweet snowman-making of Christmas. But sprinkled between faithful classics like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” (a perfectly picked ornament), her 10-song set isn’t about frolicking in a winter wonderland; it’s about love, war and peace – all as-of-late Etheridge muses. “Glorious,” which borrows from “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Silent Night,” is a love-spreader, while call-for-change “Ring the Bells” and “It’s Christmas Time” sound like holiday-tinged takes from her sociopolitical album, “The Awakening,” released last year. Closing with “O Night Divine,” Etheridge’s shoot-’em-dead delivery – that note near the end: holy lesbian! – is rousing, but who really expected anything less? B
Kristin Chenoweth, ‘A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas’
Fit for a magical musical – fittingly, considering Chenoweth’s champion theater run in “Wicked” – the sweetly-affecting girly-soprano’s third album is a whimsical wonder. Some is oft predictable, like “Silver Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” but spirited takes on “Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World” and the Southern-styled “Come on Ring Those Bells” sparkle. Partial to holiday staples, the almost-retired “Pushing Daisies” (which was recently axed by ABC) star and soon-to-be gay-icon inductee tacks on a Walter Afanasieff number, “Home on Christmas Day,” a pretty piano-led ballad, and “Sing,” a re-imagined “Sesame Street” theme song. The Hawaiian vibe of “Christmas Island” is a bit kitschy, but with more huggable cuteness than Rudolph, Chenoweth pulls it off. A lovely way to spend Christmas, indeed. B
The Boxmasters, ‘Christmas Cheer’
Cheer? More like, “Bah, humbug!” Billy Bob Thornton’s done the un-jolly shtick before in film – “Bad Santa” was like The Grinch (if the green guy had backseat sex, drank to oblivion and robbed shopping malls). And now the actor is at it again with his trio’s un-spirited semi-sarcastic second album. With twisted irony, like celebrating the holiday (or, what they call, “a livin’ hell”) from a dingy prison cell, the brief 10-song set is dressed in fiddle and mandolin, and bitter wit that rarely works. But, hey, if your idea of a merry Christmas means mom getting sucker-punched by dad, then novelty songs like “My Dreams of Christmas” and “I Won’t be Home for Christmas” will be your milk and cookies. C
Aretha Franklin, ‘This Christmas Aretha’
If oohs and aahs were decorative lights, our home-grown Queen of Soul would need a loan to pay her electricity bill. Heavily Aretha-ized, her first-ever-in-her-half-century-career (!) Christmastime album – generically titled, by the way – is wrapped in smooth soul (“This Christmas” – featuring son Eddie) and churchy gospel (“The Lord Will Make a Way”). And the bow? It’s the sassy, gut-busting spoken-word “Twas the Night Before Christmas” – given her, ah, “personal” touch. (Available only at Borders and Waldenbooks)
Faith Hill, ‘Joy to the World’
Gotta have Faith. If not for her last album (can’t blame ya), then now with her traditional big-band-sounding Christmas debut. “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night,” blanketed with strings and a choir, are tender beauts, but it’s not all sleepy-time lullabies; it’s worth strolling through her “Winter Wonderland,” too. “A Baby Changes Everything” – no, not advice for Jamie Lynn Spears – is a baby Jesus parable. In fine voice throughout, Hill’s un-country Christmas is a good (sleigh) ride.
Ledisi, ‘It’s Christmas’
Truly a gift is the genius vision of this New Orleans-bred two-time Grammy nominee. Dodging mawkish material, Ledisi pushes subtle-but-refreshing-makeovers – even on heard-it-a-hundred-times “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And after lung-exercisers like “Give Love on Christmas Day,” you’ll wanna give this love for more than just those 24 hours.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, ‘Come Darkness, Come Light’
Come – sit in front of the fireplace. That’s pretty much what Carpenter’s semi-holiday album suggests through its artfully cozy 12 songs. “Hot Buttered Rum” is a simple lovey-dovey slow-dancer, honeyed by Carpenter’s warm-as-nuked-cider voice, while “Christmas Carol” is a piano-led call for peace – and a white Christmas. Less a holly-jolly holiday album, and more an exquisitely crafted Mary Chapin Carpenter LP, this original piece is worth repeated plays. Even without snow.