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Holiday songs from Cher and the Cowsills bring warmth and cheer to the season

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every year, a sleigh full of Christmas music gets released, and rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to a lot of it. He's narrowed down his list to two new releases. Cher has put out her first Christmas album, which is also her first collection of original material in a decade. Ken also really likes the new three-song holiday EP from The Cowsills, the family group that first gained fame in the 1960s and was the inspiration for "The Partridge Family" TV show. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DJ PLAY A CHRISTMAS SONG")

CHER: (Singing) No one on the streets, and the city is quiet. I should be asleep by the heat of the fire, but I'm on my way out. And I'm going to stay out. I can feel the pulse as I walk in the door. Take me through the crowd to the middle of the floor. The red and the green lights are hitting me just right. Nothing more. Nothing less. I got one request. DJ play a Christmas song. I want to be dancing all night long. It's cold outside, but it's warm in here. And that's the only thing I want this year. DJ...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: What's that autotune I hear? Why, it's Cher coming down our chimneys with a new album called "Christmas." Its lead off cut is the song I just played called "DJ Play A Christmas Song." It's designed to remind you of her last huge hit 25 years ago, "Believe." This album is stuffed with guest stars including Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper and Michael Buble, but I most enjoyed her solo crooning on a nicely wistful tune called "I Like Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE CHRISTMAS")

CHER: (Singing) I like Christmas. I like a real Christmas tree. I like a mall Santa Claus that lets me sit on his knee. I like a big, red bow and mistletoe with you underneath. 'Cause I know it means you'll be kissing me. I like Christmas, I like a jingle bells song. I like it best when my friends are there to jingle along. You and me in harmony with everyone the singing at the top of my lungs. Christmas time...

TUCKER: Oh, sure, there are a few clunkers here. Sorry, Cher. No one but Chuck Berry can rock it through his "Run Rudolph Run." And I'm afraid she's put in the shade of Darlene Love's radiance on their duet of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." But this is no cheap, throwaway effort. Cher's phrasing, especially without the autotune, is terrific, and the arrangements aren't sticky with candy-cane sentiment. Plus, she offers something different for a holiday album - a New Year's song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WILL BE OUR YEAR")

CHER: (Singing) The warmth of your love's like the warmth of the sun. And this will be our year. Took a long time to come. Don't let go of my hand now the darkness has gone. This will be our year. Took a long time to come. And I won't forget the way you held me up when I was down. And I won't forget the way you said, darling, I love you. You gave me faith to go on. Now we're there, and we've only just begun. And this will be our year. Took a long time to come.

TUCKER: The Cowsills was a family pop group that had a big hit in 1967 called "The Rain, The Park & Other Things." When they started out as kids and had that hit, their mom, Barbara, went on the road with them when they toured, which inspired the 1970s sitcom "The Partridge Family." The current version of The Cowsills are siblings Susan, Bob and Paul Cowsill, and they've just put out a three-song EP titled "A Christmas Offering From The Cowsills" that includes this lovely song called "Christmastime (Song For Marissa)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMASTIME (SONG FOR MARISSA)")

THE COWSILLS: (Singing) It's Christmastime, a special time when all the world shares the wonder of the holiday with evergreens and caroling and logs by the fire, the feeling that love is everywhere. Now the snow falls so softly and silent tonight as it blankets a peaceful world. Yuletide...

TUCKER: Over the years, Susan Cowsill has done backup vocals for some of my favorite acts, such as Carlene Carter, Dwight Twilley and The Smithereens. She had a duo act with Vicki Peterson of The Bangles and has put out a few solo albums. The current Cowsills lineup does a fine job of reproducing the family's original, beautiful, close harmonies, as can be heard on their version of "Winter Wonderland."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINTER WONDERLAND")

THE COWSILLS: (Singing) A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland. Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland. Gone away is a bluebird. Here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland.

TUCKER: Both Cher and The Cowsills came to prominence in the 1960s, but they still possess the distinctive sounds that brought them their initial success. Our warm feelings toward them are rekindled by these new releases, which is in itself appropriate as the chilly season settles in from much of the country. Happy holidays to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS AIN’T CHRISTMAS WITHOUT YOU")

CHER: (Singing) It's Christmas Eve, and I won't sleep tonight. I've been a good girl. Well, at least I've tried. So come on, hurry down the chimney with a kiss for me. And let me wrap my arms around you. I'm so lucky that I found you.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed Cher's new album called "Christmas" and the digital three-song EP called "A Christmas Offering From The Cowsills." And there will be more Christmas music on Wednesday when David Byrne, co-founder and frontman of The Talking Heads, joins Terry to play some of his favorite Christmas recordings. His playlist includes songs by Prince and Run-DMC. And they'll play one of Terry's new favorites, a song written and sung by David Byrne. If you get depressed around Christmas, there will be songs for you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember actor Andre Braugher, who died last week at the age of 61. He's best known for his roles in the TV series "Homicide" as a police detective and in the comedy series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" as a police captain. He was also acclaimed for his stage performances in Shakespeare plays. We'll feature interviews with him from 1995 and 2006. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Challoner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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