Best Holiday Collection by a Former Pop Diva.
Annie Lennox delivers an artful seasonal sampling on A Christmas Cornucopia, her sixth solo album. The former Eurythmics singer's deep, powerful voice evokes the snowbound austerity behind "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "Lullay Lullay (The Coventry Song)," which of course leads to the solstice celebration of old favorites such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "The First Noel." Lennox's new "Universal Child" was inspired by her activism in children's issues, and the African Children's Choir helps make her case.
Best Holiday Package With International Appeal.
Portland, Oregon's Pink Martini is like a lounge act on politically correct steroids. Known for sharp retro arrangements and stylistic diversity, the 12-member group wanders all over the globe on Joy to the World, beginning with a sweet version of "White Christmas" sung by Saori Yuki (AKA "the Japanese Barbra Streisand"). The multilingual merriment continues with a Ukrainian bell carol, a Hebrew prayer, a Chinese New Year song, a Verdi aria, and an Arabic "Silent Night" and "Auld Lang Syne." Classy and clever.
Best Male A Cappella Holiday Album.
Roasting chestnuts have nothing on the warm, wood-burnished tones of 30-year-old a cappella combo Take 6, who combine jazz, gospel and doo-wop. The haunting and effervescent "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" tops the combo's third holiday album, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
Just Plain Folkiest Holiday Music.
The Indigo Girls — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — holed up in Nashville to record Holly Happy Days with some of the city's finest pickers. "I Feel the Christmas Spirit" kicks things off with a bluegrass bang. The Girls harmonize the heck out of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Happy Joyous Hanukkah." They also contribute a trio of new tunes — each accompanied by a die-cut ornament included in the package — including Ray's bittersweet "Mistletoe" and Saliers's rollicking, adamantly nondenominational "Your Holiday Song," which declares, "When our faith calls our name, someone else's does the same."
Funkiest Christmas Collection.
Santa's got a brand new bag. The Complete James Brown Christmas collects Soul Brother Number One's three holiday albums onto two CDs, and proves that the late singer devoted only slightly less cold sweat to "Merry Christmas, I Love You" than to "I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)." The first R&B artist to release an entire album's worth of holiday music (in 1966), Brown testifies directly to listeners in "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something," reprises Charles Brown's imploring "Merry Christmas Baby," and pleads for one nation under a peaceful holiday groove in "Hey America" ("it's Christmas time!") on this hard-to-ignore set.
Most Global Holiday Album.
"We wish you a irie Christmas, and a dancehall New Year," croons the late reggae star Jacob Miller, who spreads good tidings with a hint of Jamaican patois on the Putumayo label's World Christmas Party. Ukulele-slinging Hawaiian duo Keahiwai ("Rockin' Round the Christmas Tree"), Texas ska satirists Brave Combo ("The Christmas Song"), Venezuelan salsa saxophonist Ed Calle ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"), and Mozambique guitarist Costa Neto ("Boas Festas Moçambique") prove that, at least when it comes to Christmas, it's a pretty small world after all.
Most Futuristic Holiday Music.
If you've ever wondered what it might sound like if the Jetsons invited Henry Mancini over to their space-pad home for cosmopolitans, look no further than 11 Acorn Lane's Happy Holy Days. The duo tosses everything from "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" to "Kling Glöckchen" into their musical blender, resulting in a bubbling mishmash of Mad Men-era lounge music and contempo electronics.
Hippest Holiday Music by a Former Hippie.
The jaunty crooners, fleet-fingered pickers and snappy dressers comprising Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks have been making '40s cool fashionable since the San Francisco '60s. Hicks rewrites his own "Where's the Money?" as "Christmas Mornin'," retrofits "Choo Choo Ch'boogie" as "Santa Gotta Choo Choo," and waxes righteously indignant on "Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit." Good enough to listen to all year long.
Best New Carols From the Middle Ages.
Nothing conveys the centuries-old roots of the winter-solstice tradition quite as directly as the medieval sounds of Anonymous 4, classical music's preeminent female a cappella quartet. The title track of The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas is an early-twentieth-century Appalachian Mountains version of a 15th century carol in which Jesus reveals himself to Joseph from within Mary's womb by making a cherry tree bend down its branches. The album's other very vintage carols are no less glorious and striking.