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.

 

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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