The holidays are a time when people like to wrap themselves in the comfortable, familiar cloak of the CDs of Christmases past.
But every year, here come contestants for our hard-won holiday attention. Here are some new releases that sing out for attention.
'Christmas After Midnight,' Fantasia
Fantasia, known for her foot-stomping live shows, takes a jazzy route on her first Christmas album. That doesn't mean that she quells her tendency to tear through songs as if they owe her money, as evidenced on her go-to-church version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." But she was a little apprehensive when it came to another legend: "I had never touched a Frank Sinatra song before," she says, talking about "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." She -- call her "Fannie," she says -- needn't have worried. Consider it another genre checked off for the American Idol winner-turned R&B star.
'Merry Christmas,' Liz McComb
This CD has been a long time coming. Legendary ex-pat gospel singer Liz McComb, 65, finally released music to Christmas by, including church choir favorites such as "Walk in the Light" and "Joy to the World." The expected carols are there, too, with some sung in unexpected ways, such as "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Silent Night." And, my lands, that break in her voice during "O Holy Night" ... McComb is from Cleveland but has been living in France for decades. The 13 tracks on this album are infused with influences from both locales and will make you a fan if you're not one already.
'Now That's What I Call Merry Christmas,' various artists
Nothing warms the heart more than one-stop shopping. Classics sung by classic singers are here, such as "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" by Nat King Cole and "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano. The compilation also goes contemporary, with "Mistletoe" by Justin Bieber and modern singers' spins on old classics, such as Pentatonix with "Mary, Did You Know," and Josh Groban singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas." There really is something for everyone: Donny Hathaway's enduring and oft-covered hit "This Christmas" all the way to Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Canon." Want to hit play and forget it? Then this is your jam.
'Everyday is Christmas,' Sia
Huh. This is Sia's first Christmas album. The sought-after singer-songwriter is having great fun with it, too. Opening track "Santa's Coming For Us" seems a little ominous if going by title alone. Then you press play and it makes a joyful noise, setting you up for the rest of the CD. "Candy Cane Lane" feels as if it's always been around, a classic already, and the Claymation video only adds to the nostalgic feeling. And when that title track drops? Just try not to hug someone.
'Christmas Together,' The Piano Guys
Trust. These guys even offer sheet music so you can try your hand at putting someone else in a holiday mood. Their efficient and joy-filled mashup of "Ode to Joy" and "Joy to the World" is what a low-key Christmas calls for. The quartet is comprised of producer Paul Anderson; pianist Jon Schmidt; cellist Steven Sharp Nelson; and producer Al van der Beek. Schmidt, Nelson and van der Beek share songwriting duties for the theatrical group. As they said in a release, "We offer this song as a musical manifestation of what we felt." It seems they felt a lot like Christmas.
'Our Favorite Time of Year,' Us the Duo
What do you want to bet that husband-and-wife pop duo Michael Alvarado and Carissa Alvarado sing this CD as they go about their everyday? Their love story plays out during a sweet rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that's perfect for cuffing season. There aren't many surprises on this Amazon Music Original, even down to the ukulele. That's OK, because after listening to "Wonderful Christmastime," you know that no one is enjoying more tidings of comfort and joy than Us the Duo. No one.
'It's Finally Christmas,' Casting Crowns
The six-song EP is sparkling in its brevity. It doesn't feel as if anything is missing, especially with lush arrangements to songs you thought you knew. Sometimes Contemporary Christian Music gets a bum rap; admittedly, some of the remixes do not work. But Casting Crowns has been at this long enough to know its audience well enough to serve them. This Christmas, the band is a shining star.
'The Star: The Story of the First Christmas (soundtrack),' various artists
If you quit paying attention during animated movie The Star, you pick your head up after the beat drops for Kirk Franklin's "We Three Kings." The music is the star in this celebrity-laden film that tells the birth of Jesus from the animals' point of view. The cast includes Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Plummer and even Joel Osteen. The soundtrack tries to match the star power, including songs from Fifth Harmony, Yolanda Adams, Kelsea Ballerini and Zara Larsson. After Franklin, Arlington keeps representing: Pentatonix performs "Carol of the Bells." Other standout songs include Jake Owen with "What Child Is This?" and "Queen of Christmas" Mariah Carey with the title track.