Susan Boyle, “The Gift’’ Boyle’s second release, which debuted at No. 1 last week, is billed as a holiday record. But Boyle’s handlers (including former “American Idol’’ judge Simon Cowell) make some offbeat song choices. In addition to the expected (gauzy, choir-assisted renditions of “O Holy Night’’ and “O Come All Ye Faithful’’), Boyle tackles non-seasonal tunes by Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Finn in essentially the same stately and earnest fashion.
Pink Martini, “Joy to the World’’ A kitchen-sink approach has made Pink Martini one of the harder bands to classify. The same goes for the ensemble’s new holiday album that recasts the classics in new arrangements and different languages. “Auld Lang Syne’’ is transported to Brazil for a samba redux, and “We Three Kings’’ is set in an after-hours jazz joint. Joy to the world, indeed.
John Eliot Gardiner, Bach Cantatas, Vol. 18 Classical holiday listening beyond “Messiah’’? Start here. Gardiner and his collected forces performed Bach’s sacred cantatas as part of a pilgrimage across Europe in 2000, and the recordings documenting this extraordinary journey have been trickling out over the years. This final volume is strong all around, with superb soloists, performing the cantatas Bach wrote for Christmas Day and Epiphany.
James Brown, “The Complete James Brown Christmas’’ This is officially the Christmas soundtrack for people who don’t think they could ever like such a thing. This double-disc album from Hip-O Select collects all of the late Godfather of Soul’s festive recordings: “Christmas Songs’’ (1966), “A Soulful Christmas’’ (1968), and “Hey America’’ (1970), plus a handful of bonus tracks. Whether he’s funky (“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto’’) or jolly (“Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year’’), Brown makes you feel good — you knew that he would now.
Annie Lennox, “A Christmas Cornucopia’’ With her unique icy-hot vocal blend, Lennox is a natural in a musical winter wonderland. She employs all of the tools in her arsenal, moving easily from sweeping orchestral arrangements to electronic-African-drum mash-ups to a simpler piano, voice, and choir approach. This being Lennox, there are occasional darker-hued harmonic soundscapes in her bleak midwinter, but what’s a cornucopia without all the colors?
Mariah Carey, “Merry Christmas II You’’ For fans who’ve worn out their copy of the diva’s first Christmas release from 1994, Carey returns with a mixed Santa’s bag of goodies. Having scored with “All I Want for Christmas Is You’’ — included here in an “Extra Festive’’ remix — Carey offers up five originals including the bouncy “Oh Santa!’’ and the seasonal slow jam “When Christmas Comes.’’ Much of the rest of the set is Carey applying her breathy pipes to familiar carols and hymns, including a skyscraping live take on “O Holy Night.’’
The Puppini Sisters, “Christmas With the Puppini Sisters’’ It’s fitting that a trio so indebted to the Andrews Sisters would include a cover of “Mele Kalikimaka,’’ the Hawaiian-themed Christmas song made famous by the Andrewses and Bing Crosby, on their new holiday release. It’s just one of the many highlights on this terrific Christmas album that lets the Puppinis (above) have a ball, from the jazzy waltz treatment of Wham’s “Last Christmas’’ to sultry seasonal staples such as “Santa Baby.’’
Indigo Girls, “Holly Happy Days’’ This jaunty gift of a disc finds Amy Ray and Emily Saliers in fine holiday fettle exploring traditional and original seasonal songs in mostly acoustic folk, pop, bluegrass, and country arrangements, replete with their signature harmonies. Friends like Brandi Carlile, Janis Ian, and Mary Gauthier come along for the sleigh ride. As a special bonus, the Girls have also included three ready-made paper ornaments.
The Boy Least Likely To, “Christmas Special’’ “Making a Christmas album might seem like an odd thing to do, but some of our favorite songs are Christmas songs. They make me so happy and so sad sometimes, too. Just like Christmas itself.’’ So says a recent post on the website for this English band that makes indie-pop music as twinkling and delicate as a first snowfall. With eight originals and three covers, this is Christmas music for the faint of heart.
Shelby Lynne, “Merry Christmas’’ Lynne brings her signature blend of honky-tonk, blues, and dusky jazz to her first album of Christmas songs. She knows when to have a good time (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’’) and when to give the classics a twangy makeover (“Silver Bells,’’ “Silent Night’’). Two of Lynne’s originals (“Xmas’’ and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas’’) work nicely alongside the chestnuts.