50 New Christmas Albums, Reviewed – Rolling Stone
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50 New Christmas Albums, Reviewed

More than 600 holiday songs came out in 2018: Here’s a guide to the good covers, the bad art and the utterly unlistenable

Update: Since publishing our list of 40 new Christmas albums the holiday music machine churned out a few more 2018 notables for a new total of 50 albums. (Honestly, how could we leave off a new version of “Back Door Santa”?) Enjoy these new, last-minute recommendations for your holiday playlist.

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It’s that time of year again where we put aside our differences and agree that there are too many new Christmas albums. The yearly jingle bell-bottleneck is a modern pop music phenomenon. Whether artists are propelled by morality, money or Mariah Carey, we just want to know: is anything in the 2018 slush pile worthy of the Christmas canon? Rolling Stone enlisted comedian, actor and Secular Xmas enthusiast Connor Ratliff to find out. He furnished an exhaustive — yet merry! – holiday guide after listening to more than 50 new Christmas albums (that’s over 600 songs) taking into consideration album art, originality and deducting for title-track overuse. Let’s begin.

Editor’s Note: This list does not include one-off Christmas singles or spur-of-the-moment covers, apologies to Katy PerryQueens of the Stone Age and time-traveling Elton John.

 

John Legend A Legendary Christmas
1

John Legend: ‘A Legendary Christmas’

TITLE: Wordplay! Good! It has a unique meaning specific to this record. If anyone else used this title, it would be dumb.

COVER ART: Crisp and clean, iconic. It’s a picture of John’s face, he has a wry smile and is wearing a Santa hat. You really couldn’t ask for anything better than this.

LISTENING: Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on the opening track, and I am on board. Second track features horns and strings and backing singers. Legend played Jesus Christ on live TV last Easter and even though I am Team Secular XMAS all the way and have no use for Religious Christmas, what Legend is delivering is both sincere and fun.

VERDICT: Stream it! Add it to your holiday playlists, it’ll mix in nicely.

Martina McBride It’s The Holiday Season
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Martina McBride: ‘It’s The Holiday Season’

TITLE: This feels aggressively to-the-point, as if it is answering the question, “why did you make this album?” with the implied subtitle “(and these things sell like hotcakes).”  I would like this title more if it had a period at the end of it and it was all depressing songs sung by Stephen Merritt: “It’s The Holiday Season.”

COVER ART: It’s fine!  It doesn’t quite look “vintage” but instead looks like someone very quickly going for a vintage vibe using a decent computer on a tight deadline.

LISTENING: She sounds good, and the music sounds good.  What do you want me to say?  It’s basic.  No risks taken, but if you like classic Christmas music, this can slot harmlessly into the mix.  However, if this album suddenly vanished from your collection, you would not spend time trying to find it.  I don’t mean this as an insult!  She’s good.  But there are a million Christmas albums and the is simply another one.  If all the others vanished, this would be a treasure to cherish, but we’re not there yet.

I scan down the track listing to see if there are any potential curveballs — there aren’t!  I am moving on.

VERDICT: If you hear this playing in a coffee shop or a shopping mall, it will feel nice but you also might not even notice it or ask anyone “who is this?”

Eric Clapton Happy XMAS
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Eric Clapton: ‘Happy XMAS’

TITLE: I love it.  As someone who celebrates Secular Christmas instead of “Religious Christmas,” I am always on board for the four-letter-word that designates it as the holiday of Santa and Frosty and not the one with the horrible innkeeper and King Herod slaughtering all those children.

COVER ART: Fun!  A terrible drawing of Santa and the title is scrawled.  It is signed by “E.C.” which to me means “Elvis Costello.”  Yes, yes, Clapton predates Costello, whose real initials are “D.M.” anyway, but let’s not fight.  Eric also scratches down three X’s to indicate kisses, to us, the listeners, which is a good amount of kisses.  This is the least seriously anyone has ever taken the cover art to an album, and I think that’s kind of great.

LISTENING: The album is bluesy, it sounds exactly like what I thought it would, at least to begin.  I skip ahead to the one Clapton original — it’s fine, but not for me.  I’m bored.  I skip to “Jingle Bells (In Memory Of Avicii”) and it is six minutes of EDM insanity that seems like it crash landed from some other record and barely even hints at being “Jingle Bells.”  I would add this track to a holiday party Spotify list for shits & giggles, assuming it was an insanely long playlist, too long for the party.  The rest of the album would be fine to play at a Barnes & Noble while its upper management runs that company into the ground for what could be its final holiday season.  I was gonna say this is for dads but times have changed and this is for grandfathers now.  Give this to the Baby Boomer guys in your life who like this kind of thing.

VERDICT: It’s not for me.  But I will add “Jingle Bells (In Memory Of Avicii)” to my personal Spotify holiday playlist because it is bonkers.

Jesse J This Christmas Day
4

Jesse J: ‘This Christmas Day’

TITLE: I’m not a big fan of title tracks, and that’s a common thing for these albums.  I feel like it’s lazy.  You made a record, give it a distinctive name!  Think up a title.  If this was called “Jingle Bingle Blammo!” that would be a terribly unsuitable title but at least it would feel like someone spent a few minutes cooking something up.

COVER ART:  Classy!  They gave her a giant red bow to hold over her head and her expression is dead serious, but in a way that says “I’m not serious, this is playful.”

LISTENING: Jazzy and professional.  I’m sure there are a great many differences between this and the McBride album but my mind is already blurring them together, I cannot help it.  The first track contains a part where she laughs and at the end she casually laughs again and says “Merry Christmas.”  I mean, it’s fine.  It’s not for me.  You’ll know almost instantly if this is for you or not.  I wouldn’t be unhappy if someone put this on in the background at a holiday party but also there is an aspect to a record like this that feels like it is exactly what people hate about Christmas music— the same 10 songs being modernized by 20 new artists every year, in more or less the same way.

VERDICT: Another one for the coffee shop or shopping mall.

Serena Ryder Christmas Kisses
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Serena Ryder: ‘Christmas Kisses’

TITLE: Another title track!  I would like it so much more if they pulled the title from deeper within the lyrics.  Why couldn’t this be called “Kisses For Christmas” instead?  (This is a pet peeve, admittedly.)

COVER ART: Unlike Eric Clapton, Ryder gives us no X’s for kisses on the cover, so I’m immediately taking points off, since an album called “Christmas Kisses” should have at least a few of them.  To be fair, she had no idea that Clapton would set this new expectation of writing down kisses on the cover art, but if/when there is a deluxe reissue, I expect this to be remedied.

LISTENING: The opening track is pleasant and fine but track two is an original and I like it a lot.  She rhymes “rainbow dolphin” with “Mary Poppins” and I am SOLD.  The rest of the tracks are familiar and I only listened to a snippet of each one but it is understated and sounds sincere as heck.  I put this into the KEEPER pile, based on the original alone with added points for sounding like she really wanted to make this record.  I’m not questioning the sincerity of everyone else, but it’s not enough to mean it, you have to really SOUND like you mean it.

VERDICT: Stream it!  Add the title track to your Christmas playlist.

William Shatner Shatner Claus The Christmas Album
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William Shatner: ‘Shatner Claus: The Christmas Album’

TITLE: They didn’t trust that you would get that it was a Christmas album from “Shatner Claus” alone.  This tells you all you need to know.

COVER ART: Who cares?  Bill Shatner dressed up in a Santa hat and this cover art is exactly what it needs to be.  Three fonts used.  Nothing matters.

LISTENING: It is 2018 and I think by now if you are still on board for the joke that William Shatner cannot sing but often does, then this album is for you.  I like Star Trek and that one SNL sketch of him talking to fans is terrific, but other than that I have no time for the Comedy Stylings of Bill Shatner.  This record has a big, impressive list of guest stars, but it’s all in service of the same joke, so listening to this is not fun for me.  It exists in a no man’s land equidistant from Comedy, Music and Christmas, a joyless place where not being good at something is enough reason to keep doing it.  Also –
[NOTE: I redacted the rest of what I wrote for this one, because even though I 100% meant it, it was too harsh and I don’t feel like getting trolled just because a novelty album put me in a bad mood.  Maybe you will like it. I will unseal my full review in 2040, when environmental calamity will make everything pointless anyway.]

VERDICT: I have forgotten that this exists already.

RuPaul Christmas Party
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RuPaul: ‘Christmas Party’

TITLE: “Christmas Party” is one of those titles that a lot of people call their Christmas albums.  And in this case, it’s also a title track, so I’m tempted to take double points off!  But looking at this record specifically, I have to admit that the title is not a bad fit, so I’m gonna forgive it on both counts.  But it’s still the most boring thing about this record.

COVER ART:  It’s fine!  Nothing spectacular, but it sort of reminds me of the way they made the cast look in the opening credits of the early seasons of SNL.  I like that RuPaul isn’t smiling, but is instead gritting her teeth.

LISTENING: More fun than Shatner by a mile, because there is actual joy involved.  One of my litmus tests for newly-written Christmas songs is, “is this song saying something that hasn’t already been covered in an already-established XMAS classic?”  These songs pass the test!

VERDICT: Stream it!

The Monkees Christmas Party
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The Monkees: ‘Christmas Party’

TITLE: See what I mean?  It feels like you can just call your album “Christmas Party” and that is fine with everybody, no one says no.  I wish instead they would call those albums “It’s Christmas.” With the period.  Also, it’s ALSO a title track!

COVER ART: Cartoonist Mike Allred nails it. Nothing against photographers, but album covers drawn by cartoonists are almost always a good idea.

LISTENING: 21st Century Monkees should be a sad thing, but their last album was terrific and they seem to be doing this right, wisely seeking out made-to-order songs by the likes of Andy Partridge and Rivers Cuomo and digging up a couple of chestnuts from the vault so that even Davy can still be a part of it.  Who would have predicted that The Monkees would eventually record a song by a Beatle and that it would be “Wonderful Christmastime”?  I have heard people grumbling about this one online but by the time I get to “The House Of Broken Gingerbread” this record has passed all my personal tests for a new Christmas record.  I say YES to this and I quickly move on.

VERDICT: Buy it!  On vinyl!  Wait, it’s not out on vinyl?  Okay, well, stream it and make a note to buy it on vinyl if they ever put one out.

Ingrid Michaelson Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs for the Season
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Ingrid Michaelson: ‘Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs for the Season’

TITLE: The cover art and this title screams that she meant it.  She wanted to make this album, she likes classic XMAS LPs and wanted to add one to the canon.

COVER: Looks vintage but not in a spoofy way.  It’s serious, like all the best spoofs.

LISTENING: “Looks Like A Cold, Cold Winter” — opening with a song I’d never heard before.  I like it.  I like the sound of it.  I look at the track listing and skip ahead to Michaelson’s one original, “Happy, Happy Christmas.”  OH, it is a curveball— it sounds sad, instantly.  Ingrid, you tricked me, and I love it.  A melancholy song called “Happy, Happy Christmas”?  Yes, please.

“There’s something about this time of the year/ It’s always so dark out and you’re never here.”  

This is the song I imagine Elvis Costello might write if he ever got around to making his Christmas album.

“They say time flies and baby it’s true/So happy, happy Christmas to you.”

It is devastating in all the right ways.  When a person nails a melancholy XMAS song, it cuts me to the core and I am DONE.  I don’t even need to listen to the rest of the songs yet, I am confident that she does them right.

VERDICT: I ordered this on vinyl before “Happy, Happy Christmas” was even done playing.  It is now in the rotation with Guaraldi & Sinatra & The Longines Symphonette, competing for time on the turntable all month long.

Lindsey Stirling Warmer in the Winter (Deluxe 2018 Edition)
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Lindsey Stirling: ‘Warmer in the Winter (Deluxe 2018 Edition)’

TITLE: It’s a title track but from an original song, and every rule has its exceptions.  This is a good title.

COVER ART: Fun!

LISTENING: One look at the track listing and I can tell this is going to be a winner.  This is a record that has been put together with enthusiasm & imagination.  Opening with Tchaikovsky & transitioning immediately to Dr. Seuss?  Followed by one of three original Christmas songs co-written by Stirling?  I know this is technically a 2017 release but this 2018 “deluxe edition” includes a medley (“We Three Gentlemen,” a blend of “We Three Kings…” + “God Rest Ye Merry…” + “I Saw 3 Ships”) a cover of the main title from Home Alone and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which manages to make that song feel Christmas-y.  Those three bonus tracks alone make this an essential holiday title.

VERDICT:  Ordered it on vinyl and seriously considered getting one of the deluxe packages but I will settle for the 2-LP set.  (The fleece blanket was sold out, and that’s the thing I wanted most, anyway.)

David Archuleta Winter in the Air
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David Archuleta: ‘Winter in the Air’

TITLE: Ugh, another title track.  But I love Winter and hate Summer and I am the founder of the #TeamEndlessWinter hashtag on Twitter. I wish someone would smarten up and name their Christmas album Winter Is Coming.  Come to think of it, I want a whole album of Game Of Thrones-themed holiday songs. “White Walkers,” “Red Christmas” and “Dragons For The New Year” are the first three titles that come to mind. Quick, someone do this.  It’s a good idea.

COVER: Sitting in darkness, some snow flurries to his right, wearing a red sweater and holding his wrist as if his arm has gone numb.  Is he having a heart attack?

LISTENING: I am a Secular Christmas guy, and although I like some of the gentler aspects of “Religious Christmas” this album leans a little too far in that direction for this cheerful agnostic. Still, sincerity counts for a lot, so this could be right up your alley if you want a pretty-sounding male vocalist and if your Christmas is more Jesus-based than Santa-centric.

VERDICT: Sorry, not for me! There are things on this that I like just fine, but nothing that I can’t get elsewhere.

Gwen Stefani You Make It Feel Like Christmas
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Gwen Stefani: ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’

TITLE: I wish someone would name a Christmas album “Title Track.”

COVER:  This is a deluxe reissue from last year.  The 2017 version featured mistletoe draped across Gwen Stefani’s face, but this year it is gone, replaced by a big red bow on her forehead while she touches her face and smiles.  Both covers are good, but I would argue the new one is an improvement since mistletoe is a problematic holiday tradition, implying consent just by standing under a plant that you might not even know is there.  Or maybe you do know, but are unaware that it’s mistletoe!  Not everyone is a botanist!

LISTENING: Blaring horns open the album and I am sold.  I already like Stefani’s music, and I trust her taste – I know before I scan through this that I am gonna like these choices & arrangements, and a quick listen confirms it.  Plus, it is basically 50/50 originals & standards, (and two of the five bonus tracks) so this is no quick cash grab nostalgia thing.

VERDICT: “My Gift Is You” should be better-known and “Cheer For The Elves” is a pro-labor anthem that is long-overdue in an age when automation is a threat to workers in every sector.

Engelbert Humperdinck Warmest Christmas Wishes
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Engelbert Humperdinck: ‘Warmest Christmas Wishes’

TITLE: Nothing spectacular, but at least it’s not a title track.

COVER ART: There is something slightly sinister about it that I can’t put my finger on.  This is unfair, I know: the cover is well-intentioned, but I get a Leland Palmer-in-a-tux vibe.

LISTENING: I’ll admit going into this, the main things I know about Engelbert Humperdinck is that when I was a kid I thought this was a make-believe person like John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt then later I found out he was real and that he had prevented “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” from being a #1 single, really damaging that Beatles compilation of #1 songs.  I tried not to hold that against him when listening to this, and you know what?  I kind of like it.  “Driving Home For Christmas” feels like Springsteen meets Neil Diamond.  I’m embarrassed to admit I am unfamilar with this song by Chris Rea.  Englebert is not exactly reinventing the wheel, but I like his vibe.

VERDICT: Stream it!  Gonna also go back and listen to his previous Christmas album from 40 years ago.

Rodney Crowell Christmas Everywhere
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Rodney Crowell: ‘Christmas Everywhere’

TITLE: I guess no one likes coming up with titles.

COVER ART: A fun pic of Rodney walking away from a weird painting of Santa on a doorway to some kind of locked barn or shed.  Santa is wearing dark sunglasses and shrugging.  What is in that shed???

LISTENING:  These are gently comedic Christmas songs that sound like the kind of thing you might hear on A Prairie Home Companion.  Wait, come back!  It’s not bad.  It reminds me a little bit of Nick Lowe’s Christmas record, which is high praise coming from me.  One of the songs is about Christmas in the same town where part of the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line takes place.  Have you ever seen that?  It is a great film about how the American justice system is rotten to its core.  Anyway, “Christmas In Vidor” also brings to mind Randy Newman’s horrifying “Christmas In Cape Town.”

VERDICT: Stream it!  This is close to being an anti-Christmas album and be warned that it will throw a monkey wrench in any holiday playlist meant to be purely festive, but it is a refreshing change of pace.

Mitch 'Devil With a Blue Dress Ryder Christmas (Take a Ride)
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Mitch ‘Devil With a Blue Dress’ Ryder: ‘Christmas (Take a Ride)’

TITLE: Not a title track!  Award him one million points.

COVER ART: Retro, but in a funny way.  Dana Delaney/Lorelei Gilmore-looking woman sits on the floor by the Christmas tree with a pile of records.  They are out of their sleeves.  It’s awkward.

LISTENING: The opening track starts out and it reminds me of the theme music for David Simon’s Treme.  You ever watch that show?  It is actually pretty great, and it has a David Morse plotline that is like a mini-Season 6 of The Wire.  Anyway, this is a rare Christmas album where the “rock & roll” elements don’t sound dumb.  The song “Santa Claus” actually fucking ROCKS.

VERDICT: This is actually damn good.  I would own this on vinyl.  Maybe next year – I have already bought too many Christmas records this year. The Sufjan Stevens vinyl box made me exceed my limit.

Samantha Jade The Magic of Christmas
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Samantha Jade: ‘The Magic of Christmas’

TITLE: There is a song on the album called “The Magic Of Christmas Time” and Samantha Jade has removed the word “time” to make this title.  Y’know what?  It’s not a huge difference, but it’s something.  At some point, surely someone suggested calling it “The Magic Of Christmas Time” and someone else insisted that it was better without that last word.  (Or maybe it was a typo.)

COVER ART: It’s not especially magical or Christmas-y, but it is a nice shot of Jade in a stylish dress sitting on a fancy couch in an empty room with a white wall behind her.  I have no idea what she’s supposed to be thinking, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is thinking about the magic of Christmas.

LISTENING: OK, this starts out sounding like a million other Christmas albums and I’m beginning to lose my mind, so I’m jumping right to the three new songs.  The title-ish track, “The Magic Of Christmas Time” is fine but doesn’t seem to be saying anything new.  Is that too much to ask?  Ugh, it’s fine.  Next original is “Home” and it’s written by Jade.  It’s about wanting to go home, and it’s pretty and slow and sad but it doesn’t hold my attention and I never make it to the part where it makes any reference to Christmas (I’m assuming it does, eventually).  Finally, the intriguingly-titled “This Candle Time Of Year” comes closest to grabbing me, but it slips away.  I don’t have a lot of associations with Christmas and candles, and this song doesn’t convince me, though it makes a valiant effort.

VERDICT: I will neither stream it nor purchase. I don’t want to be mean, but this just isn’t for me.  I’m sure it will be great for a lot of people who want another soft and pretty album of Christmas songs that sound more or less exactly like this one.  I’ve just hit my limit with this kind of record, I can’t take another one, though we are not even halfway done yet, so I have a bad feeling about this.

Nils Christmas Everyday
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Nils: ‘Christmas Everyday’

TITLE: Sigh. Tigh. Tull. Track.

COVER ART: This looks like it should be for sale exclusively at gas stations.

LISTENING: At first, this is a hard no.  Saxophone solos, synthesizers and a general 1980s aesthetic in the worst way.  Then, nostalgia for the shopping malls of my childhood kicks in and part of me thinks, “I am glad someone is still making music that sounds like this in 2018.” This is such a period piece throwback, it might as well be a fiddle band performing “Turkey In The Straw” and releasing it on 78rpm shellac.

VERDICT: Buy this on Compact Disc.  Listen to it ironically until you eventually find, to your horror, that you have developed affection for it despite your otherwise very good taste in music.

Pentatonix Christmas Is Here!
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Pentatonix: ‘Christmas Is Here!’

TITLE: OK! Not a title track! And it has an exclamation mark! I am not going to nitpick. It is a statement of fact, Christmas is here, and they are excited about it.

COVER ART: I don’t know Pentatonix, so I assume this is all of them, posed in an array of holiday shapes, dressed in colorful, stylish/fun clothes.  So far, they have my attention, before I’ve heard a single second of the music itself.

LISTENING: They are an a cappella group! I do a tiny bit of research and learn that this is their third Christmas release since 2016. And they do a cover of “Making Christmas” from The Nightmare Before Christmas, so this gets a thumbs from me automatically.

VERDICT: It’s very chipper and cheery, so avoid this if that’s not your thing. I will be returning to it (and their other releases, to carefully curate the ones I want on my Holiday Spotify playlist, avoiding the ones that are not my speed.)

Jess And Gabriel I’ll Be Home
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Jess And Gabriel: ‘I’ll Be Home’

TITLE: A partial title track.  I’m gonna go ahead and count that as not a title track, since it required them to take a moment to decide to chop off the “For Christmas” and have it be a thing that we complete in our head.  I actually like that it forces us to discover that it is a Christmas EP, rather than stating it.

COVER ART: Very tastefully cute.  Mostly white space, and a tiny drawing of a XMAS tree in the middle, some elegant/sparse font choices were made.

LISTENING:  Looking for information, I immediately discover that Jess and Gabriel are “married vloggers” and despite that horrifying label, I find nothing to dislike about this modest EP of acoustic duets.  They sound nice.  Nothing that blew me away, but it’s almost aggressively pleasant.  My guess is that they are nice people who do nice things and are kind?  I do not have time to seek out their vlog, but I hope I am correct about this.  Nobody tell me otherwise, I don’t wanna know.

VERDICT: Stream it!  If you really dig it, go see if their vlog is charming!

Various Artists NOW That’s What I Call Merry Christmas
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Various Artists: ‘NOW That’s What I Call Merry Christmas’

TITLE: Even though obviously there was no actual effort put into “thinking of a title” because this is long-running series of compilations just slots in words into whatever they are “calling” now, it’s still better than a title track.  (Although I do kind of wish someone had written a song called “NOW That’s What I Call Merry Christmas,” especially if they put the emphasis strongly on the word NOW.)

COVER ART: They make it look like it’s a wrapped XMAS present. Choice of purple and gold is unexpected. It’s fine.

LISTENING: It starts out with Bieber and moves quickly to Ariana Grande. Lotsa big names and big hits here. There are also lots of classics by Bruce Springsteen, Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, etc. so this 2018 release has some unfair advantages but also brings less “new” stuff to the table.

VERDICT: I mean, if you don’t have ANY holiday music, this is a fine starter set with some new and some old. I’ll probably just ignore it and move on, I don’t have time to be messing with repeats on my playlists. Maybe later I’ll go back and see if there are any gems I missed, but my gut tells me that I need to move on to the next thing!

August Burns Red Winter Wilderness
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August Burns Red: ‘Winter Wilderness’

TITLE: Hooray, another title track! And when it’s an EP, it means that they are pulling from an even smaller pool of titles, not that I’m sure that makes any difference.  Maybe I am the weird one: Does no one care about this but me?

COVER ART: A pic of some snow-covered trees, some snowy mountains in the background, and a river with (I assume) nearly freezing cold water. Looks good. Ooh, I think they also did an effect to make it look like the sleeve is distressed by the shape of the LP inside, a nice touch.

LISTENING: “Avalanche,” the opening track, is an instrumental and a welcome new addition to the modern canon of holiday music. You can play this one all winter long. Same with their other original on this EP, the (cough) title track. They are a metalcore band, so the sound is a little more aggressive sonically than a lot of the other holiday music, but it’s not unpleasant. They play the theme from Home Alone, which is on the imaginative end of 2018 holiday song selection, and their takes on more familiar songs are fresh, especially their initially unrecognizable version of “Last Christmas.”

VERDICT: This is available digitally and as a solid white 10”.  Go for the latter, but also go ahead and add this whole EP to your holiday playlist without hesitation.  It’ll liven up your party, maybe too much.

PJ Morton Christmas With PJ Morton
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PJ Morton: ‘Christmas With PJ Morton’

TITLE: Every time one of these actually has an original title, it makes me wish that there was a song by that name. “Christmas With PJ Morton” sounds like it would be a very fun song.

COVER ART: I like it, even though parts of it make no sense.  Is that piano too small?  Where is the piano bench, does PJ play it standing up?  (Maybe he does, forgive my ignorance!)  Regardless, the placement of the piano directly in front of his XMAS tree is strange.

LISTENING: Six covers plus two new originals by the Maroon 5 keyboardist, not a bad ratio and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, eight songs and it’s done.  I rush through it very quickly and frankly, it doesn’t sound like any of the other records this year, so points for that.  His take on the Mariah Carey song is different enough to make this worth it.

VERDICT: Frankly, I’ll confess that anyone who takes the time to issue their XMAS record on red vinyl has got my attention. I’ll probably just add it on Spotify, but if I ever see the vinyl in person I will likely buy it.

JD McPherson Socks
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JD McPherson: ‘Socks’

TITLE: A title track! But you can buy actual socks with this album, so that momentarily cancels out my title track fatigue.

COVER ART: Superbly designed, with illustrations by Anika Orrock that invoke the feel of 1950s Peanuts paperbacks.

LISTENING:  Eleven original songs, all in the style of 1950s rock & roll, and a lot of them are funny. All of them are FUN. You could easily fool someone into thinking you discovered a gem of an album from 60 years ago. Scuff one up a little and keep someone from Googling it and you might be able to pull it off.

VERDICT: I’m straight-up buying this for my Dad, immediately. I think he will love it, and I love it, too.

Paul Williams Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas
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Paul Williams: ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’ OST

TITLE: There is no song called “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” thankfully.

COVER ART: I have nothing critical to say about anything connected to Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, and that includes the cover, which shows all the main characters standing in the snow.

LISTENING: This is the first year that this classic soundtrack has been available to buy, amazingly.  Paul Williams is a genius.  He wrote “The Rainbow Connection” which means that everything else he wrote in his entire life could’ve been awful and he would still be a legend.

VERDICT: Already bought it.  Waited in line in the freezing cold on Record Store Day Black Friday just to get it. These songs might be non sequiturs on a holiday playlist for people who are unfamiliar with the TV special, but who cares? I don’t!

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Brett Eldredge: ‘Glow’

TITLE: Is this the soundtrack to that Netflix series? It’s not? Okay, is it in any way connected to the gorgeous ladies of wrestling?  It’s not? Oh, it’s a title track? Wonderful.

COVER ART: Everything feels not quite blue, not quite white.  Brett sits in a a blue chair wearing a light blue jacket in an empty room where the wall and floor are various gradations of blue and white.

LISTENING: I am unfamiliar with Eldredge and at first I think, “Oh this is Tony Bennett-ish.”  Which is a good thing, but also can be boring, right? I skip quickly through familiar song after familiar song until I hit “Glow” and it has a nice vibe. Skip, skip, skip, all these titles are the same, it is starting to feel like I’m Shelly Duvall at the Overlook and I just found my crazy husband’s Christmas album track list. Not Brett’s fault entirely, I’m just in too deep at this point.  I stop to hear his version of the Vince Guaraldi “Christmastime Is Here” and I like it. Also, this is from last year or something but is out in a deluxe edition with extra tracks.  I do not have the time to always do research on each of these.

VERDICT: Classy, croon-y Christmas.  Does that sound good to you?  I mean, like most of these, it’s not essential, but it’s a guy with a good voice and a bunch of professionals backing him up.  Most of the people who do this are pros (with exceptions like Shatner) so you understand most of these records are FINE, right?  I’m not trying to be a dick about this.  But a lot of these albums feel like a gift that the singers are giving themselves rather than a gift they are giving to the world of Christmas music.  Which is fine, but that’s also why so many people hate Christmas music.

Michael McDonald Season of Peace The Christmas Collection
26

Michael McDonald: ‘Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection’

TITLE: Not only is it not a title track, it is a title with a subtitle! OK, there is a song called “Peace” but that’s only part of the album title.  McDonald has scored big in this category.  (I’m not keeping score.)

COVER ART: A big dead tree with one healthy branch, and from that branch hangs a wreath.  In the sky above, a single star. Snow on the ground. I mean, it’s fine.

LISTENING: I remember one time a friend of mine did an impression of Michael McDonald before I knew who he was by name, and it was so good I laughed for a solid hour. I still feel a little bit like that whenever I hear the real McDonald’s voice.  It is fun.  It cheers me up. It makes me feel the way I think the Shatner album is trying to make me feel, except that McDonald can actually carry a tune.  His voice reminds me a little bit of the Swedish Chef, if that makes sense. I recognize that I may not be experiencing this album “as intended.”

VERDICT: “Christmas on the Bayou” as sung by Michael McDonald is something that must be heard, at least one time in your life, just so you can say you’ve heard it.  But the real keeper is “Every Time Christmas Comes Around” which sounds like what I first imagined when I realized that MM had made a Christmas record.  I can’t honestly say I am gonna buy this, but I am glad it exists.

The Mavericks Hey Merry Christmas
27

The Mavericks: ‘Hey! Merry Christmas!’

TITLE: Deck The Halls With Tracks Of Titles, Fa-la-la-la-la, la-Title-Track.

COVER ART: Super duper fun artwork, looks like the kind of thing that alternative comedians in L.A. during the 90s used to advertise their shows with.

LISTENING: This is mostly originals, and they sound fun and good.  I’m honestly impressed enough by the brief snippets I hear as I skip from track-to-track that I don’t have to listen to very much of it to know I like it.  I’ll come back to it later, though— I am exhausted.

VERDICT: I would buy this before even giving it a listen-through on Spotify, that’s how confident I am that it is good.  There is also a chance that I’m starting to get both cranky and sloppy.

Matt Maher The Advent of Christmas
28

Matt Maher: ‘The Advent of Christmas’

TITLE: A very DRAMATIC title. And not a title track. Points for both.

COVER ART:  Moody, purple sky.  A beam of light shines down like a UFO, and it looks like it could beam up the entire nativity scene and blast off to another galaxy.  Or possibly just the Christmas star shining brightly.  It’s a toss-up.

LISTENING: Thematically, this ain’t my cup of tea.  I celebrate Secular Christmas almost exclusively, only occasionally making exceptions for Religious Christmas songs to burst in and make a cameo in my playlist.  And this whole album is full-on Baby Jesus Christmas, with titles like “He Shall Reign Forevermore” and “Love Came Down To Bethlehem.”  Having said that, if you like church-y Christmas that feels contemporary and balls-to-the-wall dramatic like the kind of thing I imagine might be performed in one of those big super-cathedrals that look like they have a big budget for production values, maybe consider checking this out.  A brief scan through this made me wish for a second that I believed in this stuff so I could feel a connection to it.

VERDICT: Not for me!  For some people, this record might be exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s just not my holiday, y’know?

LeAnn Rimes It's Christmas Eve
29

LeAnn Rimes: ‘It’s Christmas, Eve’

TITLE: In some ways this is a double title track, because this is the soundtrack to a Hallmark Channel Original Movie and it’s also the name of a song on the soundtrack. However, I am semi-fond of the wordplay element of this title.

COVER ART: It looks like a pop-up ad for a Hallmark Original Movie. It also just looks like some couple’s nice holiday portrait, slightly airbrushed.

LISTENING: I listened to it, I promise. It’s all Christmas songs, and they all sound like Christmas songs, and some of them were unfamiliar but even the unfamiliar ones sounded familiar, y’know?  If I had listened to this one first, I know it would have felt slightly better.  This is the one where I started to feel as if I had locked myself inside Christmas Jail on Christmas Day and found out that every day would now be Christmas, forever.  And this is coming from a guy who LOVES Christmas.

VERDICT: I can’t imagine purchasing this in any format. I think the right people will find it, and I don’t mean that as an insult even though I know that sounds condescending.  My brain is just starting to break a little, and I worry that I won’t fully be myself again at the end of this.  I am gonna add Rimes’ version of “Carol of the Bells (Rung Out Remix)” to my playlist, along with Michael Plowman’s “Suite from ‘It’s Christmas, Eve” which is nice and Christmas-y. ALSO: if the slightly bonkers “Christmas Jam On Snow” is ever available as a karaoke song in a non-holiday month, I will pick it and perform it, I promise you.

Old 97’s Love the Holidays
30

Old 97’s: ‘Love the Holidays’

TITLE: Title track is also the opening track. Does that make it better than if it was somewhere in the middle of the track listing? Maybe.  I don’t know anymore.

COVER ART: Funny and retro-looking, poking gentle fun at the way holiday records used to look, although I think so many people do this kind of thing that it’s also the way they still look?

LISTENING: Rough & tumble rock & roll and alt-country. At first I think, “I can’t do this anymore.  I have lost patience and the ability to tell good from bad.”  But then “Wintertime In The City” wins me over and their new sequel song “Rudolph Was Blue” intrigued me from its first lines, curious to see where they took the story.

VERDICT: Apparently this is out on candy cane colored vinyl?  Oh dear God, I can’t.  I’m out of money.  I will never catch up now.  But you should definitely buy it after testing out on Spotify to make sure you like it.

Mindi Abair All I Got for Christmas Is the Blues
31

Mindi Abair: ‘All I Got for Christmas Is the Blues’

TITLE: Another title track/opening track.  I have now decided it is slightly better if it’s the first track.

COVER ART: The vibe isn’t especially festive, but it’s striking to look at. There is a skull in the middle.

LISTENING: I struggle to connect with this one until I get to the closing track, “Christmas Fool,” which I enjoy, possibly because I relate to the title character. The rest of the record just doesn’t do it for me, although that might be because I am starting to wish I hadn’t offered to listen to forty Christmas albums. Why not 20? Twenty is good number. I felt whole when we were at twenty.

VERDICT: “There ain’t nothing sadder than a Christmas Fool” says the song, and I agree.

Sarah Smith A Christmas Wish
32

Sarah Smith: ‘A Christmas Wish’

TITLE: It’s a title track. I mean, what else can I possibly say at this point? You know how I feel about this.  I am starting to take this personally, like they are doing this to me, on purpose.

COVER ART: Looks like the cover to a children’s book.  She is blowing a dandelion into a night sky filled with stars and snowflakes, which I am unfamiliar with as a method of making Christmas wishes.  Are there dandelions in winter?  If there are, fine, but I am also fine if there aren’t.  I do not care, I don’t know why I even asked the question.

LISTENING: This feels a little bit country & a little bit rock & roll.  Mostly covers of familiar songs, done with a kind of Lucinda Williams-meets-Bob-Dylan’s-current-backing-band sort of feel.  The title track is an original, and it’s a nice one.  I like it.

VERDICT: Not essential but also not unpleasant.  But I’m at the point where it takes a lot more to impress me, I have to start making difficult choices, and this one falls just short of making the cut for me.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir A Merry Little Christmas
33

Mormon Tabernacle Choir: ‘A Merry Little Christmas’

TITLE: It’s a partial. They chopped off the “Have Yourself A—“ but you can still feel it there, like a phantom limb, an itch begging to be scratched.

COVER ART: You can see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the background, almost ghostly. The cover is two pics of special guests Sutton Foster (smiling) and Hugh Bonneville (wincing).  I’m familiar with Bonneville from watching Downton Abbey and I know I’ve seen Sutton Foster on The Good Wife or something.

LISTENING: This is a concert album, and it seems fun! There are some unusual choices here, like “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka.  Hugh Bonneville shows up to do some acting and when he mentions his “house” I picture Downton Abbey.  He sounds nice & British which means Dickens which means XMAS, and remember how that one Downton Abbey Christmas special ended with a marriage proposal and then the next one ended up with that guy dying in a car wreck because that actor wanted off the show?  Christmas is complicated, some parts are happy and some parts are sad.

VERDICT: I mean, this seems like a bustling good time of a show. It has certainly got more of lively energy than a lot the more basic studio albums on offer.  Stream it!

Joel Paterson Hi Fi Christmas Guitar
34

Joel Paterson: ‘Hi Fi Christmas Guitar’

TITLE: Perfection. Tells you everything you need to know, and there is no song called “Hi Fi Christmas Guitar.”

COVER ART:  All class. This guy reminds me of Paul Feig a little.

LISTENING: Why am I even including this one? It’s from last year!  There’s not even a 2018 “deluxe” edition to use as an excuse.  I guess because this is where I admit I have a problem and I am addicted to Christmas records even if maybe they are not good for me. I can’t stop myself.  Did you know I keep my tree up in my apartment until February?  Partly out of laziness — it took me so much effort to put up, what do I care if my January is a notch too festive?  Mind your own business!

VERDICT: Go ahead and order the autographed LP version for an extra 10 bucks. This record is fantastic.  It’s just instrumental guitar versions of Christmas songs, but they sound great.

Elvis Costello The Imposters Look Now
35

Elvis Costello & The Imposters: ‘Look Now’

TITLE: Wait, I know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t you just say that Elvis Costello has never made a Christmas album?” Yes, it’s true, this is not a Christmas album, in any way, shape or form. But bear with me, I think there is a good reason to include this one anyway. Oh, and it’s not a title track. (Though there is a song called “Don’t Look Now” which is a clever variant, almost a negated title track.)

COVER ART: Painted by Costello, under his painting pseudonym, “Eamonn Singer” which I think is a pun derived from his debut album’s title (“Aimin’ Singer”).  And guess what, the two main colors are green and red, so this non-holiday album just got a little more Christmas-y.  It certainly beats sitting in a white room on a sofa or in a blue room on a chair.

LISTENING: This is one of the best albums of Costello’s long career, a stunning collection of what he describes as “uptown pop.”  But the reason I am including it on this list is that it has a song which I think could become a stealthy Christmas classic.  The closing track, co-written with Burt Bacharach, is called “He’s Given Me Things.”  It is about a woman who settles for a life with a man she doesn’t love because of his wealth.  However, if you pretend that the “he” of the title is referring to Santa Claus, it comes THIS close to being one of the most remarkable Christmas songs you’ve ever heard.

VERDICT: Elvis Costello should make a XMAS album, and you should buy his new one on vinyl anyway, whether you like XMAS music or not!

Mike Love Reason for the Season
36

Mike Love: ‘Reason for the Season’

TITLE: Alas, a title track, and it’s the phrase that annoyingly tries to shame those of us who don’t celebrate “Religious Christmas.”  (FYI, there is no “War On Christmas” but if there was, Secular XMAS has the numbers on its side.)

COVER ART: This looks like it was made using the images that come pre-loaded on any desktop computer.

LISTENING: This feels exactly like what I thought it would.  It’s Mike Love’s Beach Boys in 2018, which if you like classic Beach Boys means not as good as that but not the worst thing in the world, either.  The sounds are familiar and a little bombastic, nothing is surprising and it’s Christmas with one version of what is left of The Beach Boys half a century after Pet Sounds.  I was already annoyed by the title track “Reason For The Season” before I had even heard it, and then it turned out to be set to the music of “Shortnin’ Bread” and this was more than I could handle.

VERDICT: Stream it if the original 1960s Beach Boys Christmas songs aren’t enough for you.  You’ll know in your heart if you want/need more of this.

Sia Everyday Is Christmas (Deluxe 2018 Edition)
37

Sia: ‘Everyday Is Christmas (Deluxe 2018 Edition)’

TITLE: Title track, title track, title all the way.  Oh what fun it is to name your record in this way.  HEY!

COVER ART: Maddie Ziegler with a green and red crazy wig with her eyes crossed making a weird pucker face? A-plus.

LISTENING: This was one of 2017’s most enjoyable Christmas records, and if you go to Target you can buy a 2018 deluxe edition with three additional tracks.  This is a fun crop of Christmas originals, which range from genuinely beautiful to simple, dumb fun.  So many of these records kind of feel like hard work, but Sia makes it seem easy.  I love it.

VERDICT: Buy the vinyl but then go to Target and buy the CD just to get those extra tracks.  Wait, no, the extra tracks are on Spotify, and they’re fine.  The trip to Target is totally up to you, but you can sample them on Spotify first and see what you think.  Going to Target is fun, but maybe you don’t like it.  I don’t know you!

Deutsche Grammophon 100 Christmas Masterworks
38

Deutsche Grammophon: ‘100 Christmas Masterworks’

TITLE: Not a title track, simply a strict accounting.  And it sounds impressive.  No need to get creative when you have the numbers on your side.

COVER ART:  It looks generic, but then there’s that Deutsche Grammophon logo in the upper right hand corner, telling you, “I AM CLASSY AF.”

LISTENING:  Opening track is “In dulci jubilo” performed by Michael Praetorius and it is all fancy and highbrow.  I have no idea what they are singing about but as I skip from Handel to Mozart and on and on, I simply have to trust that whoever curated this isn’t lying to me that these are XMAS-related.  I trust them.  They don’t need to lie to me.  I keep scanning because I know that I am never gonna be able to give my full attention to 100 pieces of classical XMAS music no matter how much I try.  My attention is gonna wander and even if I have this on repeat for a month, a lot of this is gonna become my fancy-pants musical wallpaper that I tune in and out of at will.  I scan ahead and am disappointed to see no Prokofiev amongst the 100 tracks, but I see some Nutcracker and some other familiar holiday hits, and I am satisfied.

VERDICT: I’m not sure I’m the type to shell out for a physical edition of this particular set, but it’s an easy add for a Spotify playlist.  Then again, I need to find out if there are liner notes, maybe I will end up buying it after all.  Dammit!

The Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas
39

The Vince Guaraldi Trio: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ OST

TITLE: Not a title track!  (Unless you count using the title of the TV special, in which case: Good Grief! It’s a title track, Charlie Brown!)  I don’t though, so Happiness Is An Album Where None Of The Songs Is A Title Track.

COVER: Someone figured out long ago that if you put out this LP on different-colored vinyl or as a picture disc, holiday fools like me will keep buying it every year like an insane person.  2018’s picture disc isn’t even as fun as last year’s but I will buy it anyway.

LISTENING: It still sounds great. Zero criticisms. This sounds like Xmas to me.

VERDICT: Buy it every year. It is the perfect Xmas record.  If I could only rescue one and the rest were to be destroyed forever, I would not hesitate.

Connor Ratliff Mikey Erg The Spirit of Ratliff
40

Connor Ratliff & Mikey Erg: ‘The Spirit of Ratliff’

TITLE: OK, yes, this is my Christmas record, a collaboration with singer/songwriter Mikey Erg. And obviously it is completely unethical and inappropriate for me to include it here. However, in my defense, it doesn’t have a title track. And what, I’m supposed to lose my mind listening to 39 holiday records but not mention my own? We live in an era where foreign diplomats stay at the president’s hotel and his corrupt children work in the White House. The bar has been lowered, perhaps, forever. I’m gonna plug my own album.

COVER ART: Drawn by me. Very basic. I tried to hire a very successful and talented cartoonist friend to do it, but they didn’t have time.

LISTENING: Side One is all-new songs of secular Xmas, including songs about pizza, being agnostic, late-20th Century/early 21st Century American History, and how we shouldn’t take down all the decorations in January, just the ones that are specifically linked to holidays, because it makes people depressed. Side Two is “anti-Summer anthems” one of which is called “Summer Is Not Xmas.” I truly think that if Gwen Stefani or Sia listened to this album, one of them would record “No One Wants A Pizza on XMAS Day” and it would become a classic.

VERDICT: I’m biased, of course, and you cannot trust me, but I think people with turntables should buy this record and play it, and people without should buy it and hang it on the wall as an art object while streaming it digitally. Happy Holidays, everybody.

[Goes into hibernation until next November, when another batch of 40 new Christmas albums will be released.]

UPDATE (12/23/18): Bonus Tracks: “I Listen To The Holiday Radio/Merry XMAS, mister president” by Connor Ratliff & Mikey Erg
 
Writing this article directly led to the creation of a new holiday single, “I Listen To The Holiday Radio” a song from the point-of-view of a person who has gone mad from listening to too many versions of the same 11 songs and a plea for holiday radio stations to seek out some new stuff (including this very song!) The b-side, “Merry XMAS, mister president,” is a holiday message to the current president (as of this writing, 12/19/2018 –– maybe there will be a Christmas miracle?) who is a criminal and a coward. Merry Christmas, everybody!
41

Chely Wright: ‘Santa Will Find You’

TITLE: It’s a title track.  But of an original song with a good title, so I’m once again giving amnesty for that particular set of circumstances.  I’m not happy about it, but I have to make the distinction at this point.  Retroactively, the title tracks that refer to new, original Christmas songs get a pass from me, goddammit.

COVER: Family pic from “Christmas ’73” — totally charming!  Honestly, I wish that we could swap out “everyone has a title track” with “just using their childhood family holiday photos as the cover art” as the thing that everyone does for their Christmas album.

LISTENING: Opening track, “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” feels like Bacharach, so I am surprised to realize that Wright is a country artist, something that becomes more apparent on the 2nd track, “Can’t Believe It’s Christmas” which is also very appealing.  Forgive my ignorance!  I never claimed to be an expert, or to know anything at all, about anything!  Oh, she’s the one who did “Shut Up And Drive”?  Okay, I think I know that song.  “Santa Will Find You,” the title track, is a good song, simple and elegant.  “Christmas Isn’t Christmas Time” is presented in two versions on this EP, the second one labeled the “Spector Version” but I can hear his influence in both versions.  Phil Spector may be a convicted murderer, but when his name is invoked talking about the way a record sounds, it still has a positive connotation.

VERDICT: I like it a lot.  An easy decision to add it to the ever-growing Spotify playlist.

42

Whitehorse: ‘A Whitehorse Winter Classic’

TITLE: YES!  NOT a title track!  I am unfamiliar with Whitehorse but I like them before I hear a note of it.  I like how they use the name of their group in the title.  

COVER: They are a husband-and-wife duo, I learn, but I would’ve guessed it just by looking at the cover.  The photo of them has you immediately rooting for them to be a couple, if they weren’t already.

LISTENING: This is good.  The chorus of the opening track has them singing “Merry Christmas” and fully pronouncing it as “X-MAS.”  They have come up with seven originals and two covers, one of which is the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles.”  

VERDICT: I have to admit, anyone writing multiple new Christmas songs is unlikely to write more than a few which really stick, even if they are nice on first listen.  Time will tell, but I think Whitehorse have written and recorded a few fine contenders.  I am gonna stream it this year, and see how I feel upon returning to it in November 2019…

43

Aloe Blacc: ‘Christmas Funk’

TITLE: Perfecto.  There is a song called “Funky Ass Christmas” but as you know, pulling your title from words in one of the song titles doesn’t make it a title track.  If anything, it overtly demonstrates the desire to explicitly avoid one.  And this is a solid title.

COVER: Striking cover image.  A Santa with a huge afro has his back to the camera.  The back of his Santa suit says it all: “FUNKY.”  And it’s snowy out.  

LISTENING: I’ve often recommended avoiding adding certain new Christmas records to the holiday office party playlist, but 5 seconds into this one, I feel the opposite: this one goes STRAIGHT to that playlist, confidently.  “Tell Your Mama” is Christmas party fun, and “I Got Your Christmas Right Here” is even better.  His cover of “All I Want For Christmas” might be my favorite version of that song.  “The Mrs. Saved Christmas” is one of the most fun Christmas songs I have ever heard.

VERDICT: Sweet Christmas, this one snuck up on me and knocked me out.  What a goddamn great new Christmas record!

44

Delicate Steve: ‘The Christmas Album’

TITLE: I have to admit, as is often the case with those rare and precious Christmas albums that do not succumb to title track fever: the ones that don’t have title tracks are the ones that make me wish they did.  “The Christmas Album” is a great song title.  (I may write that song myself for next year.)

COVER: It’s like The White Album, but it’s red with white letters in script rather than type.  It is the kind of album cover art you could convey over the phone to the person tasked with designing it and it would turn out alright.

LISTENING: Instrumentals, but not boring ones!  Sometimes moody, sometimes feisty, sometimes exotic-sounding, it rewards a casual listen as much as a close one. Eight of its nine tracks are perfectly reasonable modern interpretations of classic traditional songs –– wild but not too wild.  Then track nine ups the ante with a 14-minute version of “Frosty The Snowman” that clearly has a lot more to say than any previous version of the song has ever attempted.

VERDICT: I liked the whole record a lot, although part of me wishes that they had played “Frosty” for a full hour and nothing else.  Either way, I would put this record on at a party and I would also listen to it happily by myself, either while driving or walking or sitting alone in a crowded or empty room.  The long-form “Frosty” would also be great on an ambitious single-take Steadicam shot on a prestige TV drama where a hitman is carrying out a job on Christmas Eve.  Think The Americans, but a show that is still being made, and make it happen for next year, showrunners.  I’m telling you, it will be impressive.

45

The X-Misses: ‘Christmas Reminiscences’

TITLE: That’s A-Bingo!  This newly-formed holiday supergroup not only avoids having a title track, they have an excellent band name.

COVER: A painting of what appears to be a dead bird, in a style that immediately screams “Fuck nostalgia!  It’s Christmas!”  (Which would also be a good album title for an alt-Christmas LP, in case anyone wants to use it for next year).  This art serves the title well.

LISTENING: Opening with the chipper and occasionally filthy “My Chocolate Santa,” this record is immediately among the cream of the 2018 crop.  Seriously, that track alone earns them enough clout that the rest could’ve coasted but this record is full-steam-ahead terrific.  It’s mostly originals, and great ones.  “She Gave Me Hell For Christmas” belongs on every radio station RIGHT NOW, disc jockeys.  If you work for a radio station, add it to the playlist permanently, returning every December along with the Bing and the Mannheim and the Guaraldi.  Same goes for “At The Christmas Disco” –– throw a Jingle Bell Rock at this album and you will hit a potential new holiday classic.  “There’s No Christmas In Hell (And That’s Why I’m So Sad)” has one of the greatest Christmas song titles of all time and it delivers fully on that potential, opening with the lines “I was livin’ in sin/now I’m livin’ in hell/yeah, you gotta give it up to the Christians/They were right all along/and I was wrong/when I said that their religion was a fiction” and it just gets funnier from there.

VERDICT: Records like this are what make holiday music fun!  Part of the fun is the familiar classics, and new fresh and/or impressively skillful versions of those songs, but the biggest thrills tend to come from artists who have something new to say about Christmas.

46

Memphis Ukulele Band: ‘Holidays Ain’t The Same’

TITLE: Title track, but dropping a parenthetical from the song title.  Partial credit.

COVER: Kinda old-fashioned.  If anything, I wish it looked a little more old-fashioned, but that’s me being picky.  What do I know, anyway?  It is probably the perfect amount of “old-fashioned” and I am just being critical to make myself feel like I have something important to say.  It’s fine.  Don’t you wish more reviews were this wishy-washy and plagued with self-doubt?

LISTENING: This is a modest, gentle EP, a mix of covers and originals. Perhaps I have been defeated by the sheer number of Christmas albums and EPs I have listened to in quick succession, but at this point, something has to be either bad or numbingly overfamiliar for me to put up a fight. 

VERDICT: Go ahead, add it to the playlist.  I could imagine having this on repeat and not minding at all.

47

Otis Gibbs: ‘Once I Dreamed Of Christmas’

TITLE: This was recommended to me as a “new” 2018 release but it turns out it is from 2003, although it is newly released in digital form, minus two tracks, and the original CD seems to be deeply out-of-print.  In any case, no edition features a title track and that’s a blessing.  Plus, it’s an evocative title that captures that a certain kind of lost hope that appeals to me.  Christmas is a joyful holiday that is also drenched in sadness, because life is hard and soon it will be over, so Merry Christmas, right?

COVER: The font is beyond basic, but the artwork is lovely.

LISTENING: I would say this album might fall into a very respectable category one could call “alt-Christmas.”  The songs aren’t looking to be familiar or comfortable, so they might not be the right mood for all festive occasions but they probably make for a more satisfying close listen than many of the more traditional holiday records.  Songs about a reindeer who can’t fly or a couple so cheap they break up every Thanksgiving to avoid buying each other Christmas presents are legit funny, and frankly all these songs have something to say that isn’t covered elsewhere in the Christmas canon.

VERDICT: This escaped my attention in 2003 and almost did it again in 2018, but it’s a good record already held in high esteem by many.  I am late to the party, but this is another worthy left-of-center collection of non-traditional holiday originals.  It ends with the true story of a Christmas Eve tragedy known as the Italian Hall Disaster, where striking miners and their families were crushed to death when someone yelled “fire” at a crowded Christmas party, and it is suspected that it was an anti-Union “prank.”  It’s a harrowing and lovely ballad, worth listening to, but keep it far from your holiday office party playlist unless you work for the Trump Administration or any of his private/crooked business interests.

48

Walk Off The Earth: ‘Subscribe To The Holidays’

TITLE: Oh, I like this title.  This Canadian band does well on YouTube, so it’s a nice early 21st century reference but I also like imagining how it will age into something that future listeners decades from now will have to figure out the meaning of, assuming digital music survives in the post-2040 environmental hellscape.

COVER: Fun. The art is specific to the title.  I like illustrated cover art, and I peer at this one for a while, trying to figure out if it was drawn by cartoonist Joe Matt.  He hasn’t put out new comics in years, he lived in Canada for a long time, so maybe he still has professional contacts there and this was a commissioned work?  Probably not, but I stare at it for a while, wondering.  (This is the kind of pure uninformed speculation that has no place in a real article.  It was probably some other professional Canadian illustrator, but in any case, I mean all of this as a compliment.  The artwork is nice.)

LISTENING: I’m not a huge fan of the song “Santa Baby” but this one leans so goofy that I don’t mind it.  It occurs to me that I am bored by the normal “sexy” versions of it and am only interested in it being sexless and silly or going the other direction and making it almost disturbingly erotic, like Madonna’s “Justify My Love.”  (Someone do this for 2019, please.)  Their reggae-tinged “Happy Hanukkah” is fun, but does make me wonder for a moment if there are cultural reasons I shouldn’t be enjoying it.  The moment passes; the song is fun.  Two of the band members let their five-year-old kid sing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and it is adorable and not annoying, I promise.  They cover Mariah Carey and it is nice, cut a fun/fast “Deck The Halls” and end with Vince Guaraldi.  

VERDICT: They seem almost relentlessly positive, to the point where maybe those who hate positivity should be warned to steer clear.  But I was charmed by every track on this.  The vibe is Muppet-y, if that makes sense.

49

Useful Rooster: ‘A Very Useful Christmas’

TITLE: Let me tell you, at this point any Christmas album or EP that bothers to come up with a title instead of resorting to a title track gets an automatic five to 20-point bump, depending on the quality of the title.  I like this one. Fiftee-point bump.  (And no, I have not been using a point system up to now, nor will I explain how this one works.)

COVER: Lo-fi.  Drawing of a Christmas present.  Smaller drawing of a rooster wearing a Santa hat.

LISTENING: It’s a three-song EP, two originals with a melancholy cover of “Jingle Bells” in the middle.  “Bankrupt For Christmas” is a sad/funny song while “Hungover” is catchy/funny and not sad but both songs are comedic/relatable observations about holiday problems.  Their cover of “Jingle Bells” is actually the 10th version I’ve heard in my 2018 listening binge, and two of those were by fucking Shatner. Their version is unlike any of the others and I place it in the upper half –– with the good ones.

VERDICT: They sound nice and are funny; two out of these three songs I would classify as Comedy Songs but the middle one proves they don’t have to be funny if they don’t wanna be.  I don’t see any other releases by them online so perhaps this is a recording debut?  The vibe I get from this is that they would be fun to see in concert.

50

Shinyribs: ‘The Kringle Tingle’

TITLE: One of the best titles for any holiday album released this year.  NOT a title track, and it is fun and funky.

COVER: Artwork matches the vibe of the title: cool, fun, weird.

LISTENING: I look them up and see the words “country soul” and “swamp funk.”  A strong start with covers of “Linus & Lucy” and “Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and I love the sound of the horns.  It really kicks in with the original “Christmas Time In Bossier City” which feels like a song every radio DJ should be adding to their holiday broadcasts, it’s like the ghosts of vintage Springsteen and Van Morrison conspired to create a melancholy new holiday classic with some meat on the bone.  “Don’t Go Chasing Santa Claus” is a straight-up TLC spoof, believe it or not, and is the more festive option for that holiday party playlist.  “Santa Comes To Atlanta” is another original that is goddamn lovely.  Fuck it, I start skipping ahead a little, not because I am bored but because I am confident this is a solid record.  Good covers throughout, nothing too obvious, and even better originals.

VERDICT: Shinyribs have made a fun Christmas album, what more can I say?  It’s got pretty much everything I would ask for, in terms of contributing something new to the canon, being smart with song selection and just sounding good.  I bet they put on one hell of a good holiday show.

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