Norah Jones, Rob Thomas and more: 9 new holiday albums to set the season's soundtrack

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  • Norah Jones
    Norah Jones
    American singer, songwriter and pianist

In these days, when we could use all the tidings of comfort and joy we can get, the artists have us covered.

2021 marks one of the strongest years for new holiday music in recent memory. Perhaps singers and songwriters were stuck inside during the pandemic, dreaming of simpler, more soulful times. Whatever the inspiration, this selection of albums travels a wide musical and emotional road, leading us toward feelings of home, tradition and beginning again.

Here's a brief look at some of the more notable holiday titles to emerge in 2021.

Classic Christmas vibes

"I Dream of Christmas"
"I Dream of Christmas"

Norah Jones, "I Dream of Christmas" On this near-perfect holiday album, Jones distills what she does best — then invests each of these 13 songs with smoky vocals, subtly inventive jazz arrangements and a warmth born both of melancholy and hope.

At moments, the songs here sound piped in from some former gilded age; at others, it feels as though Jones is right in the room with you. Either way, "I Dream of Christmas" is a wonderful gift of a record, and one that deserves inclusion with the best holiday gems across eras.

Key tracks: "Christmas Don't Be Late," "White Christmas," "It's Only Christmas Once a Year" (Rating: 5 out of 5 ornaments)

Kelly Clarkson, "When Christmas Comes Around ... " On her second holiday album, following 2013's "Wrapped in Red," Kelly Clarkson pulls out all the trappings and trimmings of a classic Christmas experience. The singer draws from conventional — but no less lovely — jazz and pop language to create something familiar and warm.

Clarkson's at her best here when singing the standards, but doesn't waste any opportunities with her original songs. Folding guests such as Ariana Grande and Chris Stapleton into the mix, Clarkson and Co. have made a holiday record that's perfectly warm and welcoming, even if it doesn't do anything particularly fresh.

Key tracks: "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas," "Glow," "Last Christmas" (Rating: 3 out of 5 ornaments)

Have yourself a thoughtful little Christmas

"O Come All Ye Faithful"
"O Come All Ye Faithful"

Hiss Golden Messenger, "O Come All Ye Faithful" "It's Christmas, baby / Thank God we made it," MC Taylor sings on the first track from his new holiday record — and, in 2021, who can't relate? As Hiss Golden Messenger, Taylor makes a habit of hearing, then relaying, the soft and complicated emotions that dwell inside us all.

"O Come All Ye Faithful" is no different, a beautiful and reflective set for any late-autumn or winter days. The record offers meditative, soulful touches of jazz through organ, piano and horns, tastefully embellishing Taylor's signature sound — wistful folk-rock that leans toward the groove and leaves plenty of room for listeners to respond through the rests.

Key tracks: "Hung Fire," "By the Lights of St. Stephen," "Silent Night" (Rating: 4 out of 5 ornaments)

Brian Fallon, "Night Divine" Cut from the same earnest cloth as songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Fallon — known for fronting The Gaslight Anthem before establishing himself as a solo act — offers a quiet mix of Christmas standards, hymns and other sacred songs.

"Night Divine" almost feels too slight at times, but ultimately succeeds on the strength of Fallon's gravelly voice and his deep sincerity.

Key tracks: "Virgin Mary Had One Son," "The First Noel," "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Rating: 3 out of 5 ornaments)

Songs for a sentimental season

"Something About Christmas Time"
"Something About Christmas Time"

Rob Thomas, "Something About Christmas Time" The Matchbox 20 leader and successful solo artist still possesses one of the more expressive voices in modern music — just perfect for a holiday album that leans toward melancholy and nostalgia.

Thomas never quite settles on one overarching musical vibe, but when he finds the soul of a song, the moment resonates. His list of duet partners feels a bit random — including Ingrid Michaelson and Brad Paisley — but collaborations with gospel great BeBe Winans and singer-songwriter Abby Anderson really work.

Key tracks: "Doesn't Feel Like Christmas (Samy's Song)," "Christmas Time" and "That Spirit of Christmas" (Rating: 3 out of 5 ornaments)

Steve Perry, "The Season" At 72, the former Journey singer maintains a killer set of pipes. For the most part, Perry leans toward simple, classic pop arrangements, letting his voice do the heavy lifting. Occasional feints toward the classic rock side of the dial try to recall Perry's past glories, but end up distracting from the feeling he's established.

"The Season" is at its best when Perry and Co. clear the way for his voice to shine through like a Christmas star.

Key tracks: "The Christmas Song," "Auld Lang Syne," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" (Rating: 3 out of 5 ornaments)

Manchester Orchestra, "Christmas Songs Vol. 1" For more than 15 years, Manchester Orchestra leader Andy Hull has created wonderfully moody rock 'n' roll. From sweeping cinematic statements to hushed moments of introspection, Hull's work often captures the soul of a moment.

Here, he tries to craft a late-night, candlelit Christmas record — and the best moments are appropriately sparse and spacious. But there really is only one dynamic here, and even at eight songs and 23 minutes, the feeling wears far too thin.

Key tracks: "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" (Rating: 2 out of 5 ornaments)

Something completely different under the tree

"Hell of a Holiday"
"Hell of a Holiday"

Pistol Annies, "Hell of a Holiday" This terrific trio — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley — tweak the formula of classic girl-group Christmas records, supplying all the harmony as well as a twisted sense of holiday humor. Mingling country, rock and soul, the record sifts the many colors of an emotionally-fraught season: red, green, black-and-blue.

"Hell of a Holiday" is the right record to throw on at a holiday party, to get you ready for a particularly awkward family gathering — or for chasing one away.

Key tracks: "Hell of a Holiday," "Come on Christmas Time," "Make You Blue" (Rating: 4 out of 5 ornaments)

Amanda Shires, "For Christmas" The Roots N Blues festival stalwart delights on this largely-original holiday record. Shires' offbeat charms and superlative songwriting skills shine through on tracks which mine the season's meaning and potential for love, connection and heartache.

Elements of classic country, blues and soul gesture toward the groove and bring subtle adornment to Shires' rootsy sound on a project marked by its humor and heart.

Key tracks: "Magic Ooooooh," "Let's Get Away," "Home to Me" (Rating: 4 out of 5 ornaments)

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at adanielsen@columbiatribune.com or by calling 573-815-1731.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Norah Jones, Rob Thomas and more: 9 new holiday albums to set the season's soundtrack

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