Absolute turkey or totally gravy? 2023’s Christmas albums rated or roasted…

Made for Chering: Cher’s Christmas selection box of disco bangers, festive standards and big ballads

Cher, Christmas (Warner Records) ***

Wrapping: As expected, Cher’s first ever Christmas album at 77 is beautifully packaged with a choice of sleeve, either Rock Chick Cher, dressed in faded denim, or glamourous metallic haute couture. Choose from CD, red vinyl, or a fabulous 20-page magazine version packed full of the icon that is Cher.

Gifts inside: Lead single DJ Play A Christmas Song is yet another sub-remake of Believe, but with a memorably hypnotic hook. The remaining dozen tracks are workmanlike covers of Christmas rock standards, originals Angels In The Snow, I Like Christmas and Tyga duet Drop Top Sleigh Ride, and a few too many seasonal ballads. Stevie Wonder (What Christmas Means To Me), Darlene Love (Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) , Cyndi Lauper, Michael Bublé and a host of others join in the colour-by-numbers set.

Style: Cher’s career across seven decades has relied in three hues: old-fashioned rock’n’roll, disco and big ballads. The former two have served her well for more than half a century. However, to my ears, Cher’s voice is too big, and even clumsy, for sensitive ballads, of which there are many.

‘Tis the reason to be jolly: The artwork is gorgeous. No-one knew they needed a Christmas Cher album (as her 27th studio set) until one came along. However, under the tantalising wrapping is a Christmas album to be played once, then kept on display with the other Christmas baubles.

Scrooge moan: The thought of Canadian crooner Michael Bublé and Cher sharing a song is compelling. However, the resulting cover of Home is a Yuletide disaster. The two voices simply don’t blend. Fortunately, Cyndi Lauper’s chipper and upbeat contribution to Put a Little Holiday in Your Heart more than makes up for this faux pas.

White Christmas? Not a sign of Bing Crosby’s hit. However, we are treated to pub-rock versions of Run Rudolph Run, Please Come Home For Christmas and a rather inappropriate rendition of Santa Baby!

Blue Christmas? Well, the artwork is beautiful and the lead single is a grower. However, many would have much preferred that promised Volume II of Cher’s Dancing Queen set of ABBA covers, five years on from the first.

Stocking or shocking: Despite the negatives, this is still a Cher album. Everyone knows someone who needs a little Cher in their lives.

Ian Sime

Kate Rusby: Christmas songs merry, melancholic and dippy

Kate Rusby, Light Years (Pure Records) ****

Wrapping: Barnsley nightingale Kate in dark angel wings, feet planted in her beloved snowy South Yorkshire landscape. A pictorial theme she extends through the inner sleeve and sleeve notes, culminating in the exiting Kate walking towards winter woodland.  

Gifts inside: South Yorkshire pub carols (Spean; Nowell, Nowell); winter songs (A Spaceman Came Travelling;  The Moon Shines Bright, with Kate’s “early 50th birthday present ” of Union Station’s Alison Krauss and Ron Block guesting on vocals and banjo);  Christmas chestnuts “you hear in shops” (It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/Sleigh Ride; three Rusby compositions,  and a brace of novelty numbers (Sid Kipper’s parody Arrest These Merry Gentlemen and Sid Tepper & Roiy C Bennett’s Nothin’ For Christmas).

Style: Kate and her regular folk and Moog synth players, augmented as ever by the “Brass Boys”, on songs merry, melancholic and dippy.

’Tis the reason to be jolly: Kate’s own compositions, led by Glorious, a song of renewal, healing, love and light, composed one February day as she stood in her snow-coated garden, longing for spring, and thought of a broken angel seated in a tree. Her seventh take on While Shepherds Watched still leaves 24 pub carol versions to go because this one has a new Rusby tune and gorgeous chorus, as does the closing Joseph, complete with Damien O’Keefe’s glockenspiel.

Scrooge moan: It took Johnny Mathis from 1958 to 2023 to chalk up seven Christmas albums, by comparison with only 15 years for Kate’s holiday season septet (including the live Happy Holly Days). What took you so long, Johnny?!

White Christmas? Only on the sleeve.  

Blue Christmas?  Nowell, Nowell evokes the blue-fingered bleak midwinter of coats, scarves, holly berries and distant carol singers but the bright glory of the Nativity too. Kate’s cover of Chris de Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling (whose lyrics lends Light Years its title) is bluer than the original too.

Stocking or shocking?  Bought nothin’ for Christmas yet? Hollylujah, here comes the perfect gift for Yorkshire folk.

Eliza Carthy & Jon Boden, Glad Christmas Comes (Hudson Records) ****

Wrapping: Folk luminaries and fellow fiddle players Jon Boden (Bellowhead/Spiers & Boden) and Robin Hood’s Bay’s Eliza Carthy MBE (Waterson:Carthy/Wayward Band/The Imagined Village/Blue Murder/The Rails) in tree and candle-lit party mood with folk friends and a nodding mechanical reindeer. Later joined by a goose.

Gifts inside: Christmas in the Carthy & Boden households is a “serious business”, say E&J’s sleeve notes, and so is their debut Christmas collaboration. As heard at their December 10 Wassail (it means “be well”) at Whitby Pavilion, E&J combine evergreen carols with Norma Waterson recommendations (Stanley Brothers’ Beautiful Star and Jean Ritchie’s Winter Grace); a 2012 Boden composition, The Good Doctor; a 2021 Carthy & Boden original (Glad Christmas Comes, words by John Clare); the obligatory variation on While Shepherds (White Zion, from Boden’s local pub in Dungworth, along with The Holly & The Ivy) and a brace of 20th century interlopers, John Rox’s I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas and Shane MacGowan RIP and Jem Finer’s Fairytale Of New York. Make sure to read the sleeve notes too, painting the fullest picture behind the 16 tracks.

Style: Recorded at Yellow Arch Studios, Sheffield, the folk firmament is in full glory, from everything but the kitchen sink a la Bellowhead to haunting a cappella (Glad Christmas Comes, Remember Oh Thou Man). E&J’s fiery or mournful fiddles, E’s melodeons and percussion and J’s concertina, guitar and percussion are complemented by Backstage Brass, as warming as whisky yet as melancholic as toast gone cold, and the entwining voices of Waterson;Carthy cohorts Emily Portman and Tim van Eyken.

‘Tis The Reason To Be Jolly: Making merry with I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In; cavorting through Jingle Bells with fiddle, concertina and, yes, bells. Then, held back to the finale, having the baubles to smelt Fairytale Of New York in the Sheffield folk furnace, E & J jousting like Kirsty and Shane, changing “that line” (the one that rhymes with “you maggot”) to “You’re wasted, you’re plastered, You cheap lying bastard”, by the way. Who can resist bursting into dancing, like those mourners at Shane’s County Tipperary funeral? Certainly not the Morris-dancing Ewan Wardrop.

Scrooge moan:  Such a shame to have missed that night of Whitby wassailing with E&J…but the official carol singing season chez Carthy and chez Boden stretches from September 1 to February 1, outlasting even the winter season’s South Yorkshire pub weekend “sings”, so Glad Christmas Comes can keep a’coming.

White Christmas? No, but ‘Christmas’ bedecks two titles, Glad Christmas Comes (and its album-closing brass reprise) and J’s jocular concertina cabaret of I Want  A Hippopotamus For Christmas, boozy brass coda et al.

Blue Christmas? None bluer than Rossetti/Holst’s In The Bleak Midwinter, frosty winds made moan by E’s singing, snow on snow on snow in the brass playing, stamped Could Only Be Made In Yorkshire.

Stocking or shocking? For shepherds and wise men, carol singers and folk club devotees alike.

When A Child Is Re-born: Johnny Mathis records new version of his 1976 Christmas chart-topper

Johnny Mathis, Christmas Time Is Here (Sony Legacy) ****

Wrapping: The Grandfather of the Christmas melody, Johnny Matthis is still looking good at 88. The Seventies-style sleeve holds a choice of a marbled red or ivy green vinyl LP or a modest standard CD version. Opt for the red version if you can find it.

Gifts inside: You will know all ten classic songs, such as Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, O Little Town Of Bethlehem and a remake of Johnny’s 1976 number one single When A Child Is Born.

Style: Like a good vintage wine, Johnny Mathis improves with time. This was the very last album to be recorded at the iconic Capital Tower Recording Studio in Hollywood before major restorations. Production helmed by Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and indeed Johnny’s long-term collaborators Jay Landers and Fred Mollin, this is a festive slice of old-school easy listening.

‘Tis the reason to be jolly: This is Mr Mathis’s seventh Yuletide album (1958, 1963, 1969, 1986, 2002, 2013 and now 2023). Although visiting Christmas Past, this is a lovely selection of classics adored by many generations. Wicked/Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth also guests on Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.

Scrooge moan: You may have to search a few websites to find the lovely red vinyl version.

White Christmas? Of course, White Christmas is present and correct. As are Merry Christmas, Baby and the album-closing Auld Lang Syne.

Blue Christmas? Yes, that song is here too, typical of a tasteful album, classic in style and tone, befitting a merry gentleman of senior vintage.

Stocking or shocking:  Johnny Mathis is an essential festive favourite and every home should have at least one Christmas album by this Texan old-timer.

Ian Sime

Gregory Porter: Comfort and joy personified on Christmas Wish

Gregory Porter, Christmas Wish (Blue Note/Verve/Universal) ***

Wrapping: Classic Christmas at home portraits of Porter, in his familiar hat rather than Santa’s, by the fireside on the cover, joined inside by his family and a photograph of his mother, and giving a child a present on the back. “I’m thankful for the healing that Christmas can bring,” he writes in his festive message. No lyrics, but credits for each song. CD colour? Christmas red, of course.

Gifts inside: Raised in Bakersfield, California, where his mother Ruth was a minister, Porter was encouraged to sing in church from an early age. That can be heard in his gospel voice (and the organ on the title track about his wish to kiss his dear mother mother’s Christmas Day). Christmas Wish is one of three Porter originals, joined by Everything’s Not Lost and the closing Heart For Christmas (with its refrain of “If children is for Christmas”) to accompany the likes of Little Drummer Boy and Cradle In Bethlehem.

Style: Trademark Blue Note/Verve Fifties’ holiday album elegance and sleek sophistication, as smooth as Nat King Cole, as warm as Louis Armstrong, recorded at Sear Sound, New York City over a week in late March/early April, gold-dusted with producer Troy Miller’s velvety string arrangements for the Kingdom Orchestra at London’s Abbey Road Studios. You want soul, jazz, gospel, vintage yet resonant today, Porter delivers, from the heavenly peace of a magical, piano and strings-decorated Silent Night to a gorgeous Do You Hear What I Hear?  

‘Tis the reason to be jolly: Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?, swept off its feet with romantic yearning in a duet with the aptly named Samara Joy.

Scrooge moan: Just a little too polished, too cosy, where you might wish for Otis Redding or James Brown to burst the Bublé of immaculate perfection.

White Christmas? No, but Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s ChristmasWaltz, SomedayAt Christmas, Christmas Wish, Christmas Time Is Here and Heart For Christmas tick the Christmas box.

Blue Christmas?  No, but Purple Snowflakes (whatever purple snowflakes are?!). Clarence Paul/David Hamilton song, sung previously by Marvin Gaye on his 1965 album Pretty Little Baby, should you be wondering.

Stocking or shocking: No shocks here. Gregory Porter will be the go-to Christmas chestnut for 2023 stockings, parties and late-night liaisons alike, in the manner of Michael Bublé before him. Comfort and joy, Porter style.