With the holiday season comes the annual return of favorite Christmas songs, not to mention those questionable ones you’ve happily avoided for the past 11 months (sorry, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”). From somber traditional hymns to countless versions of “Run, Rudolph, Run” and “Little Drummer Boy,” the introduction of new songs and albums into the mix is as welcome as that second shot of whiskey in an Irish coffee, if only to make the oft-repeated tunes a little more palatable. Here are 10 of this year’s most satisfying new entries in the Christmas canon, with nary a reindeer-flattened senior in the bunch.
Nobody puts the Feliz in Navidad quite as jubilantly as the Mavericks. This new track, the first original Christmas tune from the Mavs, delivers unbridled seasonal cheer in a package festooned with sax, trumpet, accordion, keyboard and guitar, and featuring lead singer Raul Malo’s voice as the multi-colored wrapping. A nod to Phil Spector’s iconic Wall of Sound production adds to the vintage feel, ensuring this party-hopper will be returning year after year.
Thanks to the likes of Nat King Cole, Christmas music got a whole lot more hip in the Fifties and Sixties, and courtesy of rock & roll, it has maintained its cool factor. In a loopy homage to those vintage vinyl LPs once again spinning on turntables – right down to the Beach Boys Christmas Album-inspired cover art – singer-songwriter-producer Butch Walker and his Holiday Players present eight seasonal classics in a live and loose studio session. The result is 2017’s best new Christmas collection. Emphasizing tinsel and twang over professional polish, the tunes include a two-stepping “Jingle Bells,” angelic harmonies on “Lil Drummer Boy” and an exceptionally faithful remake of Springsteen’s take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Highlighting the set is an irresistibly cool and goofy rendition of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Visions of Christmasy sugar plums mingle with another holiday, Valentine’s Day, as Cupid aims his arrows at Blake Shelton and girlfriend Gwen Stefani in this giddy, romantic duet, the title cut from Stefani’s Christmas collection. Although the tune emphasizes the stylistic differences in their voices, there’s a delicious, candy-coated sweetness in how well the two singers blend together. An exuberant celebration comparing new love to delectable holiday treats and the joyousness of the season, the bonus here is that repeated listens are guaranteed – and calorie free. Another highlight of Stefani’s album is her original “Christmas Eve,” which Shelton also recorded for the 2017 reissue of his holiday offering, Cheers, It’s Christmas.
Lonely Christmases are an all-too-common theme this time of year, not just in real life but in the country songs that vividly reflect it. This acoustic gem from acclaimed songwriter Erin Enderlin recounts the joyless existence of a Montana cowboy forced to work during the holidays, where his only companion is his cattle dog, Gus, and the only fire he’s warmed by is the one on which he heats his Christmas meal of cornbread and beans. But like many who find themselves alone, whether by choice or circumstance, our cowboy hero finds a measure of comfort and joy in the story of that very first Christmas long ago.
Loose Cattle cut their joyfully tongue-in-cheek holiday LP, Seasonal Affective Disorder, in both Brooklyn, where Tony-winning actor Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye formed the group in 2011, and in New Orleans, hence the delightful nod to the Cajun musical tradition and the lyrics that speak of making a concerted effort to avoid as much familial conflict during the holidays as possible. With lyrics in French and English, and Cajun musicians the Lost Bayou Ramblers joining them, the homey scenes depicted in the accompanying video present a Christmas that’s free of drama (and politics), one your mama would probably treasure more than that new ironing-board cover you bought her.
With a voice that’s spicier than a plate full of gingerbread cookies, Kelleigh Bannen offers a 21st century take on this 19th century hymn celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Written in French in the 1840s and given English lyrics in 1855, the song was the first original piece of music played on AM radio in 1906. Ten years later, famed tenor Enrico Caruso recorded it and since then it has become an all-genre chestnut. Recordings by both John Berry and Martina McBride have hit the country charts multiple times, but Bannen’s rich, gospel-inspired pipes and a gently rocking production imbue the tune with equal helpings of reverence and soul.
More than a decade before he was cooking meth on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston was the original “re-gifter” on an episode of Seinfield. Today, the concept of re-giving a holiday gift even has its own day of observance. National Regifting Day falls on the Thursday before Christmas Day (December 21st this year) and was first officially recognized in Colorado in 2008. Stranger Friends, the sparkling country-pop duo of Jamie Floyd and John Martin, offer lighthearted proof of the popularity of regifting with their first holiday tune about repurposing a “gift that’s just not fitting.”
Currently on a Christmas tour in their home province of British Columbia, Canadian sisters Twin Kennedy (Carli and Julie) know a thing or two about how to cope with cold weather. With warm sibling harmonies, the pair blend a handful of shimmering holiday favorites (“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) with original tunes like “Cold Weather,” which gets a retro, Mad Men-inspired video treatment in a storyline about a harried businessman returning home to ignore his doting wife. His eventual transformation – and indoor ingenuity – will warm the Grinchiest of hearts.
Fifty-nine years ago when “Little Miss Dynamite,” 13-year-old Brenda Lee, recorded what would become one of the top five Christmas songs of all-time, its blend of rock & roll and country was accentuated by the playing of future Nashville legends Grady Martin on guitar and Boots Randolph on saxophone. Now one of the most covered holiday tunes, it has transcended musical genres in versions by everyone from the Partridge Family to Green Day. Award-winning North Carolina bluegrassers Balsam Range include it on their 2017 EP It’s Christmas Time, and alongside mandolin, fiddle and superb harmonies, there’s the bonus gift of a sax solo.
The winner of a 1950 Best Original Song Oscar, this perennial multi-genre favorite – Brett Eldredge and Meghan Trainor recorded it last year – finds a woman being relentlessly wooed by a suitor who tries to convince her that rather than brave the elements, she should let the festive merrymaking continue. Innocent as it may have seemed post-WWII, lines such as “Say, what’s in this drink” may be less palatable today. Best to skip the suspect eggnog and revel in two of country music’s most distinct voices sharing a warm – and consensual – night in.