Whether you're wrapping presents, trimming the tree, sharing a family dinner, or simply preparing your heart for the celebration of Christ's birth, holiday activities just wouldn't be the same without Christmas music. If you're looking for some new holiday music to help you celebrate the season, you've come to the right place! Following is a list of new Christmas albums this year, and as you can see, there's something for everyone. As always, click on the album image to instantly find it at Musicforce. Read on for great gift ideas — for others or for yourself!

(A little disclaimer: Not all these review titles are mine! You have been warned … )

Jaci Velasquez | Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir | Mannheim Steamroller
Happy Christmas Vol. 3 | NewSong | Hillsong Music Australia
Your King Has Come | Christmas in Havana

Timeless and Traditional

Jaci Velasquez (Word / Epic)

Available in both English and Spanish, Jaci's first Christmas album is a traditional sounding blend of Christmas carols, holiday favorites, and three brand-new songs. It begins with a beautifully ambient and haunting rendition of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" that's reminiscent of an arrangement Margaret Becker did some years ago. One of the new songs "Season of Love," a duet with fellow Word artist Pete Orta, has a pleasant but typical Christian holiday pop feel. And of course, "Feliz Navidad" is a fun and up-tempo Latin pop arrangement, faithful to the original. My advance copy didn't include the playful rendition of "The Chipmunk Song," though I'm told it's also a fun track.

The rest of the album is a mixture of soft jazz and lush pop. Songs such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The First Noel" are exactly what you'd expect from a pop-orchestral arrangement - beautiful strings, a little bit of holiday ambiance, and Jaci's dynamic vocals. Likewise, "Let It Snow" fits the big band jazz mold that you've heard so many times before. Of the other two new songs, Chris Eaton's "The Angel Song" is a gorgeous follow-up to his classic "Breath of Heaven" (which Amy Grant made famous), and the romantic piano ballad "It Wouldn't Be Christmas," written by Scott Krippayne, sounds like his signature style of pop songwriting. The latter nicely shifts into a Vince Guaraldi Trio-styled ending (i.e. Charlie Brown). I suppose some Christian listeners may be disappointed by Christmas since the song selection generally favors secular holiday favorites over the traditional hymns. Those looking for innovation aren't going to be satisfied either, since Jaci and producer Chris Harris follow the Christmas pop album playbook word for word. But let's be honest - you'd be lucky to find one new innovative Christmas album in a given year. Jaci Velasquez's Christmas is a beautifully crafted album with a timeless holiday sound that both young and old can appreciate.

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"Sing Choirs of Angels … "

Light of the World
Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (M2)

This year's big choral release comes from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, a multi-cultural 275-member choir from inner-city New York under the direction of Carol Cymbala (whose husband, Jim, is the church's pastor). Odds are you've sung a Cymbala arrangement at some point if you've ever been in a church or high school choir. Accompanied by a full orchestra and a small backing band, the Choir's new Christmas release is reminiscent of what you'd hear on television from the Crystal Cathedral or a Christmas at the White House special. The music is a blend of gospel and easy-listening pop with large, spacious, and beautiful arrangements that cover both traditional and contemporary sounds. Carol has always done great work with her pop choral arrangements, and Light of the World is no exception with its selection of traditional carols, show-stopper medleys, and brand-new Christmas pieces. If your church is up to the task, there are great arrangements to glean from this album for your choir. If not, sit back and enjoy the show. Of all of this year's new holiday albums, Light of the World instantly put me in the Christmas spirit, probably because it reminds me the most of my church.

Rolling Out More Holiday Favorites

Christmas Extraordinaire
Mannheim Steamroller (American Grammaphone / Sparrow)

For nearly twenty years now, Mannheim Steamroller has become a name almost synonymous with Christmas music. The group's founder, composer and musician Chip Davis, has released several projects for years under the Steamroller name, but it's the three Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums that have made them the best-selling Christmas artist of all time. Which brings us to Christmas Extraordinaire, the fourth Christmas venture from the pop-instrumental group and the first of their albums to receive distribution in the Christian music market via Sparrow Records. In a nutshell (or should that be chestnut-shell?), the new Christmas album is more of the same, with more rhythmic synth-pop-orchestral arrangements of Christmas favorites such as "Do You Hear What I Hear?", "Away In a Manger," and Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus (which sounds a lot like Vangelis' "Chariots of Fire" here). The ending of "White Christmas" sounds gorgeous with its '40s-styled female chorus and harpsichord; the rhythmic interpretation of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries" from The Nutcracker is fun; and I like the way "The First Noel" winds down as if you're listening to a music box.

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The Steamroller even breaks a bit from tradition with "O Tannenbaum" by featuring a well-known vocalist for the first time, in this case Johnny Mathis with the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club and a small women's chorus. The results aren't quite as spectacular as you'd think. The earlier Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums were truly original for their time, but ultimately they don't stray very far from the dated '80s synthesizer sounds or Chip Davis' love of Renaissance music. You'd think that as a composer, he'd want to challenge himself and tread new musical territory. On the other hand, why fix what isn't broken? Fans will still buy this by the millions, and you'll enjoy having this in the background for your Christmas activities.

Not So Silent Night

Happy Christmas Vol. 3
Various Artists (BEC)

(Note: My apologies to BEC and the fans! I've had to re-write this one because I was only sent a 10-song pre-release of the album — I didn't know it wasn't a complete copy.) BEC's Happy Christmas series features a variety of today's popular Christian alternative rock artists performing Christmas songs that range from sacred to secular, classics to originals, and serious to silly. Far and away the best track on Volume 3 comes from Earthsuit, with their perfect rendition of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," in which they nail the classic keyboard sounds while modernizing it with drums and a new middle section. Starflyer 59 incorporates its usual dreamy, ethereal pop sound to "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and the result is bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Blink 182 fans will enjoy Hangnail's rock version of "Do You Hear What I Hear" as well as Relient K's immensely silly "Santa Claus Is Thumbing to Town."

Unfortunately, Cadet's "The First Noel" and Bleach's "What We Call Christmas" are somewhat mundane and straightforward alternative pop. Kendall Payne's dark interpretation of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is marred by bad production (particularly the klaxon alarm at the end that sounds like something from a submarine). Joy Electric fans can say what they want, but the synth pop group's rendition of "Mrs. Santa Claus" sounds like every other Christmas contribution they've made to the previous Happy Christmas projects. Originally, I thought that the album's closer by Matthew Thiessen & the Earthquakes (aka Relient K) was too depressing. They do a great Ben Folds Five impression on the melancholic "I Hate Christmas Parties," but its portrait of a broken heart at Christmas ironically became my theme song this year. I suspect the teens for whom this album is aimed will appreciate this album's angst and honesty too. Although I prefer the first two volumes (and despite that last song's title), Happy Christmas Vol. 3 is still a pretty good album for any teen / college-age Christmas party.

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Something Old, Something New

The Christmas Shoes
NewSong (Reunion)

Alright, I admit it. Call me a Grinch or Scrooge, but I didn't care much for the song "The Christmas Shoes" a year ago, and I still think it's overly schmaltzy today. But what do I know? The song shot straight to the top of the Billboard Adult Contemporary radio chart, so thousands of other people must really enjoy it. Forget I mentioned it and let's instead focus on the other 11 tracks on NewSong's first Christmas album, named after their popular hit single. Since NewSong's strengths have always been in their smart arrangements and flawless pop production, they're perfectly suited for a Christmas album. After all, Christmas albums are less favored for their originality than their execution, and NewSong pulls off a near-perfect Christmas pop album, blending lush orchestral arrangements with impressive power pop.

You can't help but be impressed with the incredible harmonies on the Charlie Brown Christmas classic, "Christmas Time Is Here," which melds effortlessly into a jazz-pop version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Their bouncy pop arrangement of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is infectious with its horns and thick drum sounds. The cover of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is a real hoot, as bombastic and campy a song as Queen ever was. I never would have figured "Away In a Manger" could be used in conjunction with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" because they're so different sounding (one is like a lullaby, the other a dark English carol) — but sure enough, NewSong pulls it off in an amazing pop arrangement. The group also gives admirable power-pop performances of "The First Noel," "What Child Is This?," and "O Holy Night," the latter featuring an impressive vocal performance from Michael O'Brien. NewSong applies the same glossy pop sounds to their original songs, such as "Sing Noel" and a remake of their 1990 favorite "Light Your World," making them quite memorable well after the CD player has turned off. Because of the vocals, production, and original arrangements, I'd have to say NewSong has delivered one of my favorite Christmas albums of 2001. Are there any flaws on it? Well yes, there's this song called "The Christmas Shoes" …

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Outback in a Manger

Jesus Christmas Worship Down Under
Hillsong Music Australia (Hillsong / Integrity)

So many churches do such wonderful work with their Christmas worship services, it makes me wonder what Christmas is like at some of the church giants around the world, such as Hillsong Church in Australia, home to Darlene Zschech and the Hillsong worship team. Jesus Christmas Worship Down Under (what a title!) is a studio recording that gives a glimpse of an answer, offering a mix of straightforward arrangements of classic Christmas carols and originals written by the members of Hillsong. Surprisingly, few of the songs have the same power and energy Darlene Zschech and company usually exhibit in their recordings. Instead, the album is filled with the usual soft, programmed pop you'd expect from artists such as Avalon and Point of Grace. There are no musicians (according to the credits), only vocalists singing to pretty, programmed music on a computer.

Almost all of the songs have a slow, easy-listening feel — only the disco-like "Rejoice" and the up-tempo pop of "Glory to God" break up the monotony of the 12 other slow ballads. I did like the majestic and rhythmic treatment of "O Come All Ye Faithful," with its clever marriage to the worshipful "Jesus You Are All I Live For." Indeed, some will profess this to be a "more worshipful" Christmas album than most, based on the artists involved. I'd argue that most all Christmas carols are worshipful, and that some of these new songs aren't worship. For example, the gentle "Perfect Love (Mary's Song)" is written from Mary's perspective at Jesus' birth, but its not a song a man can use to worship God. It might have been better if they'd done a live recording of their Christmas celebration with a live band and orchestra (assuming that's what they usually do at Hillsong). Still, fans of Christian pop will enjoy this, and the song arrangements (both originals and carols) are simple enough to translate into your church's Christmas services.

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Coffee Shop Christmas

Your King Has Come
Various (detuned)

If you enjoy the "alternative folk pop" of artists such as Bebo Norman and Caedmon's Call (or Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, and Bob Dylan for that matter), then you'll love this Christmas release from 2000. The album is receiving wider distribution this year, so you should be able to find it in most Christian retail stores. (Unfortunately, Musicforce.com still isn't selling it, but you can find it at grassrootsmusic.com and yourkinghascome.com.) Most of the artists on Your King Has Come are independent and unsigned, but even if most of the names are unfamiliar, the quality of the performances is great. Many of the songs are straightforward acoustic arrangements of the best Christmas hymns, such as "What Child Is This?" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."

You'll also find a few familiar names in the line-up, such as Jill Phillips, who sings a beautiful and soft acoustic version of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Sandra McCracken joins her husband, Derek Webb (Caedmon's Call), for a new version of "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," adapting a new tune to classic lyrics as she did on the recent Caedmon's Call worship project. Andrew Osenga (The Normals) contributes a Dylan-esque version of the old hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten" that's bluesy, haunting, and beautiful — I think it's the best of the most commonly overlooked Christmas hymns of the church. The album closes with a wonderfully ambient cover of "O Holy Night" by Matthew Perryman Jones — very simple, yet very powerful. This may not be a groundbreaking album, but I enjoyed Your King Has Come for its gentle rawness and simplicity. It's quiet, contemplative, and very much focused on Christ and the poetry of the old hymns that so beautifully illustrate the wonder of that night 2,000 years ago.

Havana Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Christmas in Havana
Various Artists (One Voice)

Looking to add some spice to your Christmas? Christmas In Havana assembles many of the Latin music world's top instrumentalists to create an authentic Cuban recording of traditional and inspirational holiday favorites. Note that this isn't an album capitalizing on Latin pop sensations such as Ricky Martin or Enrique Inglesias. Instead, this is an album for fans of classic Latin jazz artists, such as Tito Puente. The music is completely instrumental, almost always featuring a horn section backed with bass, piano, and a strong percussion section. Only a few of the songs, such as "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," feature guitar. It's fun to hear the Latin-ized versions of holiday favorites, but there are a few, such as "Burrito Sabanero" and "En El Portal de Belen," that will only be recognizable to those seriously into Latin music. Because they're instrumental and unfamiliar, many will wonder if they're really Christmas songs. Also, a lot of the music is homogenous and repetitive after a while, often breaking into improvisational jazz sections that may bore the average listener. On the other hand, the album is reasonably priced at $9.97, and it's not every day you hear Christmas music with a Latin influence. I recommend it to fans of the genre.

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Even more new Christmas music on Page 2!