Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Christmas music is getting cooler by the year. Last year, Cheap Trick, the Minus 5 and Dude York brightened the season with their Christmas albums.
This year, the selections are even better, as JD McPherson, the Mavericks, Rodney Crowell and the Old 97’s are among the acts bringing welcome originality and a nice change of pace from the albums populated with the typical standards.
The only problem with this stellar year for holiday releases is there are too many albums to cover in detail in this column. Hopefully these reviews will give you a sense of what albums you might like best.
This year’s best:
JD McPherson: “Socks” — One of the best artists to come on the scene over the past few years, McPherson puts his grooving modern blend of early rock ‘n’ roll, edgy country and blues to work on a set of original holiday songs. He and his band put some lively swing into the tale of a fit and trim Mr. Claus, “Hey Skinny Santa;” sway through a tale of the worst gift since the vacuum cleaner on the title track; roll and tumble on “Every Single Christmas”; and spin out this season’s most clever wordplay on the snappy “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy.” McPherson hits a lot of right notes on “Socks,” an album that puts some serious retro cool into Christmas.
The Mavericks: “Hey, Merry Christmas!” — No other band brings together early rock ‘n’ roll, country, Tex Mex, soul, blues and jazz like the Mavericks. Their stylistic blend works well on this set of mostly original, sharply written Christmas music, making “Hey, Merry Christmas!” the party album of this year’s holidays.
Rodney Crowell: “Christmas Everywhere” — One of the finest songwriters going, Crowell puts his considerable talents to work on this unconventional holiday album. Rather than simply celebrating the season, Crowell frequently uses Christmas as a backdrop for songs with wider and often darker meanings. For instance, “Merry Christmas From an Empty Bed” is an aching ballad about a lost love, while “Christmas In Vidor” paints anything but a picture of joyous snowy fun with family and friends. There’s lighter fare, too, and the album as a whole packs a lasting emotional punch and more than enough musical depth to have you enjoying — and relating to — this album well after the holidays are over.
The Old 97’s: “Love the Holidays” — The holidays get a healthy bit of twang and a rhythmic kick in the keester courtesy of the Old 97s, who put some rollicking and rowdy country rock into this set of originals and covers. The title song is a hyper-speed shuffle complete with horns and plenty of mirth. “Gotta Love Being A Kid” creates a pleasant rumble and gets some sting from its lead guitar lines. “Rudolph Was Blue” jumps into a festive gallop while expanding on the legend of the red-nosed reindeer. There are more highlights where those came from on this album, which should liven up any Christmas season occasion.
Eric Clapton: “Happy Xmas” — Given the way Clapton has moved in recent years toward material that’s closer to “Tears in Heaven” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which he’s played on tour) than “Sunshine of Your Love,” one would reasonably expect a pretty mellow Christmas album from him. Sure enough, several songs are in the “Tears in Heaven” vein (“Home for the Holidays,” “For Love on Christmas Day” and “Sentimental Moments”). But happily, there’s also enough grit within the easy-going swing of “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” “Away in a Manger,” (which is done in the mold of the MTV Unplugged version of “Layla,”), “Lonesome Christmas” and “Christmas Tears” to keep this holiday album on playlists for years to come.
John Legend: “A Legendary Christmas” — With his supple and smooth voice and classic soul sensibilities, Legend has always seemed like a natural to make a Christmas album. He doesn’t disappoint. He puts his own stamp on the several standards, while some fine originals help “A Legendary Christmas” stand out from and surpass most Christmas albums that arrive in any given year.
Aloe Blacc: “Christmas Funk” — The title is a good clue about what to expect from Blacc’s first Christmas album, as he brews up a soulful and, yes, funky collection of eight originals and two covers. That’s a good start, although the hip-hop of “I Can’t Wait for Christmas” and “The Mrs. Saved Christmas” are a bit too one dimensional musically. But what makes “Christmas Funk” work, more often than not, is that Blacc marries sweet grooves to solid melodies, as on the classic soul of “All I Have is Love” and “I Got Your Christmas” and the sticky hip-hop and funk of “Funky Ass Christmas,” “Tell Your Mama” and “At Christmas.”
The Monkees: “Christmas Party” — The TV band’s original 1960s hit albums featured help from top songwriters and studio musicians. On “Christmas Party,” the assists come from songwriters that include Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Peter Buck and McCaughey of the Minus 5 and R.E.M. and XTC’s Andy Partridge, while Adam Schlesinger, Jody Porter and Brian Young of Fountains of Wayne play most of the instruments, with Schlesinger producing the album. The Monkees’ main duty is singing, with Micky Dolenz handling most of the leads. While “Christmas Party” sounds a bit cobbled together, it fits the sound and spirt of the early Monkees reasonably well. That’s worth a banana or two.
Other worthy titles that are entertaining, but come with a few flaws:
Ingrid Michaelson: “Songs for the Season” — Michaelson goes retro with a big band feel on her holiday album. Her singing is lovely and if nostalgia fits your musical tastes, “Songs for the Season” might fit the bill.
Diana Ross: “It’s Christmas Time” — Ross hears a symphony and uses it — sometimes too much — in her otherwise elegant versions of Christmas classics.
Jessie J: “This Christmas Day” — The R&B singer casts herself in big band and orchestral settings on “This Christmas Day.” It all feels a bit contrived, but it’s fairly entertaining as well.
Dailey & Vincent: “The Sounds of Christmas” — This album has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it orchestral? Is it bluegrass or string band? Country? Spiritual or inspirational? Holiday fun? Novelty? It’s all that and more, and it’s mostly done well and enjoyable.
Delicate Steve: “The Christmas Album” — Steve Marion plies his guitar skills to instrumental versions of nine holiday favorites. The 14-minute Hendrixian blowout on “Frosty The Snowman” is special, but sometimes his arrangements and guitar work is a bit more languid than I would like.
Engelbert Humperdinck: “Warmest Christmas Wishes” — Humperdinck sounds far younger than his 80 years as he delivers classy versions of some fine lesser known holiday tunes (“Driving Home for Christmas”), a couple of new tunes and a few enduring standards.
Mike Love: “Reason for the Season” — The Beach Boys frontman puts his group’s famous harmonies and sunny disposition to work to a collection of originals and holiday standards.
The Wild Card:
William Shatner: “Shatner Claus” – Looking for an offbeat holiday album, here’s the one. Shatner recruits an eclectic cast of guests (Iggy Pop, Billy Gibbons, Todd Rundgren, Ian Anderson, Judy Collins and Henry Rollins) to assist on a baker’s dozen holiday standards. It’s good for a snicker or two, but Shatner shouldn’t turn down any Price Line commercials just yet.
A few other titles to consider, these releases stick almost entirely to familiar Christmas tunes and are fine, if not as imaginative, as the other albums in this column:
Martina McBride: “It’s Holiday Season”
Jesse James Decker: “On This Holiday”
Pentatonix: “Christmas Is Here”
David Archuleta: “Winter in the Air”
Paul Cardall: “Christmas”