It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas with a Santa’s sleigh-full of new holiday albums from country music’s biggest stars.
Track for track, the records are brimming with creative arrangements, inspired duets, new songwriting and — what we all long for — a few breathtaking gems that are sure to send holiday spirits soaring. But how to pick the ones that match your taste and mood? PEOPLE is here to help with this music-shopper’s guide.
Young’s oft-spoken love for the holidays flows through every track on this album, and his twangy voice can’t help but keep it country even when he dabbles in other genres – as he does in the Motown-infused “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Young taps Alan Jackson to ably recreate the 1993 Jackson-Keith Whitley duet, “There’s a New Kid in Town,” and Brad Paisley turns in another moving vocal blend on “The First Noel.” Young’s two original songs, both co-writes, hold their own among the standards, especially the album’s title song, a warm, inspiring ballad.
Nettles has been the host of the CMA Country Christmas special for seven years now, so it was high time for her to record her own solo holiday music (as half of Sugarland, she had a memorable holiday release in 2009). This album is a worthy showcase for Nettles’ supple, versatile voice, and thankfully, the arrangements complement it rather than compete against it. She knows when to go tender, as she does on “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” and she knows when to pull out all the stops, as she does with Idina Menzel on “Little Drummer Boy” – a heart-stopping version of the love-it-or-hate-it song (those annoying ra-pa-pa-pums!) that will win over any Scrooge.
This Big Band album makes you seriously question whether Eldredge picked the wrong genre to plant his musical flag. Think Sinatra and Martin – or at least Bublé and Connick Jr. Eldredge’s rich, pliant voice is in full swing for “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, pivots to warm and luscious on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” then finds its sweet spot in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” By all means, if you give yourself one splurge this season, pay the extra bucks for the album’s three bonus tracks, if only for Eldredge’s a cappella “The First Noel” – 123 seconds of transcendent Christmas bliss that will make you wonder why the man even needs a band.
Fans of the country power couple clamor for duets, but for whatever reason, Brooks and Yearwood decided to skimp on this album: Only three of the tracks feature both their voices. Still, the entire collection is so buoyant and cheerful, it’s hard to be sour about their decision. Brooks has turned in three co-writes, including a country-corny “Ugly Christmas Sweater” and an inspiring “What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song)”; the latter is a Yearwood co-write, but duet duties go to Brooks and James Taylor. Yearwood is at her most lush and intimate with “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” and she softens hearts with “Hard Candy Christmas.” Together, Brooks and Yearwood are at their best with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a jazz standard with a passing mention of mistletoe that they effortlessly turn into happy holiday music.
This album favors the novelty songs of the season, bringing all of Musgraves’ quirky charms to bear. (Let’s face it: An unusually madcap spirit is necessary to cover the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late.”) But just when you think you’re listening to a children’s record, Musgraves winks at listeners with “A Willie Nice Christmas,” a Willie Nelson duet she co-wrote that features the lyrics, “May we all stay higher than the angel on the top of the tree.” Always a risk-taker, Musgraves addresses the real-life sadness some feel during the holidays with the melancholy “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” another co-write that has staying power. Among the other treats are two collaborations with the Quebe Sisters, the Texas fiddling trio with sublime harmonies.
Christmas doesn’t get any more country than when it’s in the hands of the Coal Miner’s Daughter. The 84-year-old legend lends her inimitable voice to such standards as “Winter Wonderland” and “Away in the Manger,” but she also shows she’s still a songwriting force with the album’s toe-tapping title song, a duet with frequent collaborator Shawn Camp that features the irresistible lyrics, “I should be saying ho-ho-ho instead of boo-hoo-hoo.” Miss Loretta ends with a precious recitation of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” sure to send anyone off to bed with visions of sugar plums.
The powerhouse group seems to relish pairing holiday favorites with unexpected musical settings, and the result turns every track into a Christmas surprise. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson gets co-credit for arranging “Deck the Halls,” and it shows with a catchy doo-wop melody reminiscent of “Surfer Girl.” “Joy to the World” bounces to a boogie beat, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” arrives with a heaping helping of funk. No matter the musical vibe, though, the Flatts play to their strength: their lustrous signature harmonies.