New Christmas Albums of 2019, Reviewed - Rolling Stone
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89 New Christmas Albums of 2019, Reviewed

Christmas Albums

Rolling Stone

Here’s the truth: I tried to get to “all of the Xmas records” released this year, but I am only one person, and I’m certain that I have failed. Is the soundtrack to Frozen II a Xmas record? Jury’s out (but not in my book). I know there are titles that I missed, but I did my best and it wasn’t good enough. So, if you made a Xmas album this year and I didn’t include it in this list, you have my sincerest yuletide apologies. But the truth is that we live in a world where we are lucky to be able to have such an embarrassment of riches, for those who enjoy holiday music.

And if you hate holiday music? The good news is: Look at all the records you probably won’t have to listen to! Most of them! Happy holidays to those of you who enjoy this time of year, and condolences to those of you who don’t. From new tracks from prog rockers to classics from seasoned crooners to just about everything in between, here’s an unranked list of 89 albums that definitely tap into the season’s good tidings and joy. But if there’s one thing I learned tackling this task, there is such a thing as listening to way too much “Silent Night”…

Dave Stryker, 'Eight Track Christmas'
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Dave Stryker, ‘Eight Track Christmas’

TITLE: Let’s get this out of the way, right up front: most Xmas albums have title tracks or boring, interchangeable titles that could be used for literally anyone’s holiday album, and I don’t like that. It’s boring. Come up with a fresh new title for your Xmas record! Semi-forgivable: If the title track is a brand new original song, because it means someone at least had to come up with a title for that, and they are putting a spotlight on it. Anyway, ”Eight Track Christmas” is a pretty good title.

COVER ART: Photo of Dave, unsmiling. Some cool stuff around him. Deadpan, but the core signal is that he is into this.

LISTENING: Organs, vibes, solid instrumental grooving funky holiday music. I have no objections to any of it.

VERDICT: I will put a handful of tracks from this onto my personal playlist, and they will sit nicely next to any Guaraldi in the mix. Retail stores should put this into heavy rotation, it is lively and non-annoying. As my first Xmas listen of 2019, this is a solid start, but I have to pace myself. We have a long way to go.

Ne-Yo, 'Another Kind Of Christmas'
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Ne-Yo, ‘Another Kind Of Christmas’

TITLE: I’m intrigued, since I’m not quite sure what kinds of Christmases already exist, so I don’t know what to expect from “another kind.” This is like one of those J.J. Abrams “puzzle box”-type deals, isn’t it? I’m hooked; I want to know what kind of Xmas this is!

COVER ART: It’s a really good photo. If had a single photograph of myself that looks this cool, I would show it to everyone I ever met.

LISTENING: The pull of the “traditional” throwback sound is strong on this list, but this record fits right in with the current Top 40: Songs like “Just Ain’t Christmas” sneak up on you; they don’t sound like holiday songs at first until all of a sudden they 100% are. Even the familiar titles, when they appear, feel fresh here.

VERDICT: “Christmas on a beach / Baby, take my hand / Everything they do with snow/ We can do with the sand” is a lyric that the Beach Boys should have written 50 years ago. And the song “It’s for Everybody” is a secular Xmas battle cry, claiming the holiday’s no longer tied to any religion but belongs to anyone and everyone. Co-sign!

Los Lobos, 'Llego Navidad'
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Los Lobos, ‘Llego Navidad’

TITLE: In English, the title means “Christmas Is Here.” It’s a title track, but of a new original and also this is Los Lobos, so I do not care what they call their album because this is the album I was most excited about when I decided to do this again this year and I looked at the list of all the new holiday albums that were coming out.

COVER ART: A Xmas tree in the middle of a not-busy street at night. I love it, it’s fun.

LISTENING: It is always exciting to me when an artist I already like decides to give in and make a holiday record. I know that it is often viewed as a sell-out move, but I like to think of it as a fun challenge to step up and make something fun and new in a genre that is often the same 12 songs being done the same way and driving a lot of people crazy. Los Lobos put in the research here, reportedly considering 150 songs before narrowing it down to these 11. The only one I was familiar with is the album closer, “Feliz Navidad” and their version is great, and different.

VERDICT: Bought it on vinyl after listening on Spotify and loving it. Highly recommended! I need to find out what they are singing about in some of these songs.

Rob Halford, 'Celestial'
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Rob Halford, ‘Celestial’

TITLE: Title track! And it’s the opening track. But it’s an original, so it’s not so bad.

COVER ART: It looks like a poster for a regional production of The Big Lebowski, mostly because the background looks like it could be the rug that really tied the room together, man.

LISTENING: It opens with a fairly intense instrumental that is not identifiably Xmas music, before switching to loud rawk music. “Donner and Blitzen TEAR THROUGH THE SKY!” Honestly, maybe it was just the effect of two religious family Christmas records in a row, but this was what I needed. I don’t know how often I would be in the mood for this, but for right now, this is working for me. Even the religious songs here have such a sinister vibe that they feel completely transformed.

VERDICT: Rob Halford from Judas Priest made a Xmas album — and I think I like it.

Keb' Mo', 'Moonlight, Mistletoe & You'
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Keb’ Mo’, ‘Moonlight, Mistletoe & You’

TITLE: Title track! But for an original song, and on those terms it is a pretty swell title. A little bit of alliteration, some audience interaction via the inclusive nature of that last pronoun. Good stuff. But honestly, shouldn’t mistletoe be canceled by now? A shrub above you that nullifies kissing consent?

COVER ART: Very simple art, designed more for the era of the thumbnail image than for the 12-inch sleeve. And there’s that mistletoe up above. But no moonlight, nor a little mirror for the listener to see themselves.

LISTENING: Very low key, relaxed party album with a fun anti-Xmas song (“Christmas Is Annoying”) thrown into the mix.

VERDICT: What do you want from me? You want me to tell you this is bad? It’s not! It’s good! These are all professional musicians who know what they’re doing. I probably will not revisit this one, but that’s just because there are too many other records and I am already running out of Christmastime to enjoy all my favorites, let alone anything that just came out!

Clean Pete, 'Gloria'
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Clean Pete, ‘Gloria’

TITLE: “Gloria” is a Van Morrison song and also a John Cassavetes movie that was later remade with Sharon Stone in the titular role originated by Gena Rowlands. It is also the title of this album by Dutch pop duo Clean Pete, but it took me a second to figure that out because I wasn’t sure which part was the name of the record and which part was the name of the group. It is also — you guessed it — a title track!

COVER ART: One of them is on the couch and the other one is on the floor with their head resting on the arm of the couch.

LISTENING: I like the vibe of this immediately: “O Holy Night” is “Donkere Nacht” and, for some reason, the shift in language makes it easier for me to take yet another rendition of this song. Let me put it this way: Without hesitation, it makes it into my Top Ten versions of “O Holy Night” on this list, and possibly even Top Five.

VERDICT: There are also plenty of unfamiliar songs on this, and I have no idea what they are singing about. There is narration in a couple of the tracks that is intriguing. It held my attention.

Elizabeth Chan, 'If the Fates Allow'
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Elizabeth Chan, ‘If the Fates Allow’

TITLE: I love it when the title quotes a song that makes you complete the lyric in your head. We know so many of these songs so well, why not have fun with that shared knowledge? If you called an album For Goodness’ Sake or Oh What Fun! or You Would Even Say It Glows, it immediately tickles the part of your brain where all these songs’ lyrics reside. Having said all that, this is a title track, but for an original song, so…

COVER ART: I am not sure I would ever guess that this is a Xmas album based on the cover, even with the title subtly referencing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

LISTENING: Opening track “I Heard the Bells” would make for good workout music, with a brief cool-down built in during the bridge. Same with second “Better Together.” I’m ashamed to admit that I’m only just now learning about Chan’s work as I listen to this album — she specializes in writing new Xmas songs, and this is her seventh Xmas album. Even when a familiar song like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” pops up, she changes it up so much that it’s basically a whole new song, unlike any version anyone has ever done.

VERDICT: It looks like I have six other XMAS albums to catch up on at some point. This is a very high-energy collection of contemporary Xmas pop ballads with a kind of dramatic intensity that some might find off-putting but which connected with me immediately despite the fact that my brain is now actively resisting processing any more holiday music.

Andrew Bird, 'Hark!'
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Andrew Bird, ‘Hark!’

TITLE: Exclamation points are overused in emails (especially written by me), yet they’re underused in Xmas album titles. This is a dynamite title for a Xmas record, especially because it alludes to a song that isn’t even on the record. Honestly, you could put an exclamation point at the end of almost every title on this list, and it would add five points to their overall score. (NOTE: I am not keeping score.)

COVER ART: Big letters and small letters, and I dig the fonts.

LISTENING: This is a six-song EP, but also one of my favorite records of this whole experience. Opening track “Alabaster” is a knockout, and he follows it with not one but two Guaraldi covers?

VERDICT: Excellent. I love it! EPs also win me over more easily at this point because they show up, make their point and then they are over instead of playing 10 more songs I’ve already heard.

wade bowen, xmas album
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Wade Bowen, ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

TITLE: I really like this title a lot, even though it could technically be used for anyone’s Xmas album and, yet, one else had claimed it.

COVER ART: I am a sucker for LP art that patterns itself after vintage album cover designs, and the “(((STEREO)))” designation centered at the top is all different colors like Xmas lights? All of this works for me. Someone really put in the effort here.

LISTENING: This is an album of countrified Xmas covers, veering from rockin’ to mellow — mostly familiar but a few songs that are new to me. And here’s the thing: I have heard some of these songs too many times, but I am not yet so damaged that I can’t appreciate them done well.

VERDICT: This is a pretty straightforward record — he’s not taking apart these songs and putting them back together in some weird way — but it got through to me, somehow. I still don’t need more versions of “Silent Night,” even though he does a really good one.

Hanukkah+
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Various Artists, ‘Hanukkah+’

TITLE: At first, the title for this looks like it is a new streaming service a la Disney+ or AppleTV+.

COVER ART: Nicely desaturated photo of a kosher delicatessen.

LISTENING: This collection starts out firing on all cylinders, with Jack Black and then Adam Green (singing “I’m not a rich man / but I’ve got some gelt / I’m feeling handsome / like Judah felt”) and before long we have Haim covering Leonard Cohen. It never takes a wrong turn.

VERDICT: This is not a Xmas album — and I’m not one of those people who lumps in Hanukkah as some kind of Xmas-adjacent bonus celebration — but I’ve seen enough 2019 holiday music lists include this collection that I didn’t want to exclude it, because it is a really terrific record. Is that offensive? Or is it more offensive to exclude it from this seemingly endless list of new holiday releases? I am going to err on the side of inclusion, preemptively apologize with this long disclaimer and make my main point, which is that I really liked this record!

Tara Thompson, 'Hillbilly Christmas'
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Tara Thompson, ‘Hillbilly Christmas’

TITLE: It never fails that when someone goes and does what I want — no title track — I then look at that title and sort of wish they had written a song by that name. “Hillbilly Christmas” sounds like it would be a fun song.

COVER ART: A photo of Tara looking right into the camera. Red border, red-and-white letters. There’s a hint of snow but, honestly, I’m not sure I would be able to tell this was a Xmas album if you covered up the title.

LISTENING: This is a country album with lots of jokes, although I have to be honest that the few more serious songs are more to my liking — “Christmas Eve” is a standout track — but in all instances, her biggest advantage here is that this is an album of mostly original songs, and Thompson writes her songs with such a specific POV that sets it apart from the dozens of albums where the tone is striving for a generic kind of “traditional Christmas” vibe.

VERDICT:Karaoke in a Bar” is a song that deserves airplay on country radio stations every December from now on.

The McCrary Sisters, 'A Very McCrary Christmas'
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The McCrary Sisters, ‘A Very McCrary Christmas’

TITLE: Oh hell yeah! If you can use your name as part of a Xmas pun in the title and it’s also not a title track, you’ve truly hit the Xmas record title jackpot.

COVER ART: Group photo, two fonts. All four sisters looking right at you.

LISTENING: There’s a jolt of energy right out of the gate, with a version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” that packs a wallop. They are the kind of gospel quartet that makes me wish I was a believer instead of a devout agnostic just because I like the sound they make.

VERDICT: The bar is really high for me to enjoy a Religious Christmas record, but they cleared it.

Martina DaSilva & Dan Chmielinski, A Very ChimyTina Christmas
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Martina DaSilva & Dan Chmielinski, ‘A Very ChimyTina Christmas’

TITLE: Yes! A mash-up title that would only work for these two artists — or two artists with similar sounds in their names.

COVER ART: A classic Xmas-y design, and a pic of Martina and Dan looking like they’re having fun. It’s cute.

LISTENING: Jazzy and classy and sparse but warm. This record does pretty much all of the things I’d ask of a 2019 Xmas album: It gets a little bit adventurous with the song selection, and with the arrangements when they absolutely feel compelled to record a more familiar yuletide classic. By the time they get around to a cover of “My Favorite Things” — that sounds a little bit like they are covering it for a James Bond movie — I am hitting click to toss the whole record onto my playlist for the year.

VERDICT: It’s a low-key record, but the good news is that, by this point, an album like this might be a little too relaxing, but that is easier to take than a more high-energy affair. It’s a good “after hours” Xmas album for a time when the holiday gathering is starting to wind down a bit and maybe the lights are starting to dim.

Ana Gastayer, 'sugar & booze'
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Ana Gasteyer, ‘sugar & booze’

TITLE: A title track! But an original one, and it’s all lower case with an ampersand, so some thought went into this. In fairness, I’m not sure there is a better title for this album. It’s a good title and conveys what the album is, perfectly. And it wouldn’t make sense for most other Xmas albums.

COVER ART: I am a sucker for album covers that recreate the look of mid-20th century holiday photographs.

LISTENING: This was another one I was looking forward to. I always liked Gasteyer on SNL, and this album is a lot of fun. New originals, inspired choices and even the few familiar titles are done in ways that justify their existence.

VERDICT: It’s good! Gasteyer’s enthusiasm is infectious — you can hear how much fun she is having and it’s giving me the strength to keep going.

The London Symphony Orchestra, 'Bing at Christmas'
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Bing Crosby & The London Symphony Orchestra, ‘Bing at Christmas’

TITLE: A perfect Xmas album title, and it would also work good for a seasonal ad campaign for Microsoft’s much-derided search alternative to Google.

COVER ART: It’s a picture of Bing Crosby, of course. And he’s smiling, ’cause it’s Xmas. What else was it ever going to be?

LISTENING: Old Bing vocals and shiny new everything else. Some guest appearances.

VERDICT: Everything old is new again! Some people take issue with this kind of thing as a ghoulish type of artistic grave robbery, but this sounds fine to me. However, this album by its very nature cannot help but be the same batch of songs I keep hearing, so you will pardon me if I’m a little bit on edge by now. Oh, but wait, Bowie’s classic duet with Bing is on here and this automatically makes everything better.

Robbie Williams, 'The Christmas Present (Deluxe)'
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Robbie Williams, ‘The Christmas Present (Deluxe)’

TITLE: Not a title track! And this is a 2-disc album where disc one is “Christmas Past” and disc two is “Christmas Future” while the name for the full experience is “The Christmas Present” which has a nice double meaning. Some actual thought went into naming this.

COVER ART: Williams in full Dickensian garb and setting, holding a copy of this album on vinyl, and on into infinity.

LISTENING: I don’t know why this album starts out with so many of the usual suspects — the first four songs make it seem like this is going to be another perfectly listenable album of songs we’ve heard a hundred times before. It’s a trick, because this is a double album made up primarily of new originals: 28 titles if you count the bonus tracks. The first disc lands in mostly traditional Xmas territory, while the second disc veers more into the realm of contemporary pop ballads.

VERDICT: Ambitious! Sixty albums deep and the last thing I wanted to have to delve into was a record with nearly 30 songs to get through, but this was a fun listen overall. Every time I think I am exhausted by new Xmas music, an artist’s clear enthusiasm pulls me back in.

mariah-merry-christmas
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Mariah Carey, ‘Merry Christmas (Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition)’

TITLE: Mariah has maybe earned this title, as one of the few modern artists to write a song that has unquestionably entered the forever canon of Xmas songs. I would’ve taken issue with it 25 years ago, and I would’ve been wrong. She can call her album Merry Christmas and it is 100% fine.

COVER ART: They did some photoshopping to update the cover art for the deluxe 25th anniversary edition. I don’t think it’s better than the original!

LISTENING: Would you believe this is the first time I have listened to this album in full? I’ve heard some of it, of course, over the years, but when this came out in 1994, I would not have sought this out on compact disc. (I’m pretty sure I was still listening to Elvis Costello’s Brutal Youth on repeat non-stop at the end of that year). By now, this is a bonafide Xmas classic, and as I read MC’s annotations on Spotify while listening to it, I’m impressed by the way she describes her approach to recording the various songs.

VERDICT: This wouldn’t have been my kind of Xmas album back when it originally came out, but it’s influenced so many holiday albums in the decades since its release, that it’s weird to be analyzing it now in an edition that includes a full second disc of bonus material. Are you expecting me to say something Grinch-y about this? Look elsewhere.

Kacey Musgraves, 'The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show'
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Kacey Musgraves, ‘The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show’

TITLE: Another example of how the personal touch makes for a good Xmas album title. It probably helps that this is the soundtrack to an Amazon Prime Video special, and people seem to put more effort into the titles of TV shows than they do Xmas albums, maybe? No one just calls their TV special “Christmas,” do they?

COVER ART: Some lens flares, Kacey holds a microphone and looks off to the side. Wait, is she watching the show?

LISTENING: This is nice, but it feels very much like a soundtrack to the special. I’m clearly doing this in the wrong order. On one of the interstitial tracks, the underscore transitions into a Vince Guaraldi Peanuts track that was not part of A Charlie Brown Christmas. This impresses me. You know what? This is fun, albeit a bit ramshackle. Lots of special guests. And there are parts where I feel like I’m missing out, like when Fred Armisen shows up to do “Silent Night” (oh no!), and I really feel like one needs to see what’s happening to fully appreciate what happens with it.

VERDICT: My advice is to check out the special first, if you can. I now plan to see it, since I already enjoyed its soundtrack.

Various Artists, 'A Taste of Christmas Pudding 2019'
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Various Artists, ‘A Taste of Christmas Pudding 2019’

TITLE: Vivid title — maybe even a little bit disgusting — but not a title track, so points for that.

COVER ART: A smiling gingerbread cookie with the letter “P” on his chest in frosting. This cover art alerts me to the fact that Alice Cooper runs a yearly talent competition, and this collection features the winners.

LISTENING: Opens with a fantastic cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” performed by a group called Undecided Youth and stays strong. There’s a cover of “Blue Christmas” that sounds like Coldplay’s “Yellow.” There’s no one uniform sound to this collection.

VERDICT: Another solid compilation! Honestly, every Various Artists collection on this list has been impressive to one degree or another. This one is made up of contest winners, and it’s a mix of familiar and unfamiliar titles but everybody brings something new to the table.

Various Artists, 'A Very Rad-Pop. Christmas'
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Various Artists, ‘A Very Rad-Pop. Christmas’

TITLE: I felt very stupid that I had no idea what “rad-pop” was. It’s the name of the record label, Rad-Pop Records! Either way, it’s a perfectly fine title for this compilation.

COVER ART: Fun drawing of the title, exploding out toward us, with Xmas lights and motion lines and part of a guitar and a foot and a hand. I think this is going to be alt-rock, maybe?

LISTENING: Loud & rocking, this is an alternative to all the traditional classic arrangements. Oh, and it’s an EP so just as I was pleasantly surprised by a cover of Counting Crows’ “A Long December” I realized it was over!

VERDICT: Fun! Short! Loud! And a Counting Crows cover! I like it! NEXT!

Timi Dakolo, 'Merry Christmas, Darling'
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Timi Dakolo, ‘Merry Christmas, Darling’

TITLE: Xmas albums have title tracks. This is the default setting for Xmas albums, I’ve ascertained. If you make a Xmas album, you have to click the box to opt-out or else you automatically just have a title track.

COVER ART: Timi is on a chair, but you can barely see the chair, and he’s sitting on it as if he is on a sled. Seriously, he looks like he’s having fun sitting on a chair that does not even look like a fun chair to sit on. It’s a nice effort, but give no credit to that chair: Timi is doing all the heavy lifting here.

LISTENING: One of my favorite classic Xmas lyrics is “Everybody knows… a turkey and some mistletoe,” and then there is a long pause before you realize that the sentence isn’t over. The implication, even once the thought is complete, is that this is a confession that they A) kissed a turkey that they know and B) they think everyone has done this, and that it is normal. The reason I’m telling you this is because most of these songs are the same songs and I am losing my mind.

VERDICT: Timi has a smooth and great big powerful singing voice but the overall sound of this record just isn’t my thing. I am a big believer that almost every sincere Xmas record has its own ideal listener and I am not the one for this. If this had been among the first 20 or 30 albums I was listening to, the few unexpected song choices might’ve caught my ear a little more easily. What can I say? It’s a buyer’s market, there are only so many hours in November/December and it’s getting to the point where there are more holiday albums than their are human ears to listen. I have to keep moving, on to the next title…

The Twang-O-Matics, 'Hark Now!'
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The Twang-O-Matics, ‘Hark Now!’

TITLE: Hey! A fun title! And not a title track! And it has an exclamation mark, which you know I am in favor of, because Xmas is worth getting excited about, or else what’s the point.

COVER ART: A grotesque alt-comics Santa flies out of a chimney with his ass on fire.

LISTENING: Four quick-and-furious instrumentals from Norwegian surf rock combo, including an intro from a crazed-sounding Santa instructing listeners to stuff their stockings and trim their trees.

VERDICT: The second Santa quotes The Beatles’ Xmas greeting of choice (“Happy Krimble”) I was sold. A welcome blast of energy.

Letters to Cleo, 'OK Christmas'
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Letters to Cleo, ‘OK Christmas’

TITLE: This is an EP and it has no title track. OK Christmas is a very good title.

COVER ART: Really great 1950s-style cartoon illustration.

LISTENING: Fun Kinks cover, followed by a really terrific new original song, “Miss You This Christmas.”

VERDICT: The only thing wrong with this release is that it is so good I wish it was a full album instead of a 4-song EP.

Make Like Monkeys, 'Hand Claps for Christmas!'
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Make Like Monkeys, ‘Hand Claps for Christmas!’

TITLE: Could it be…? A fun album title that isn’t a title track??? It is! I almost can’t believe it.

COVER ART: A fun drawing of a monkey with a white beard and a Santa hat.

LISTENING: I am late to the holiday party with Make Like Monkeys, a one-man power pop machine of Xmas music.

VERDICT: Seek out every Xmas song Make Like Monkeys have ever made and add them all to your collection ASAP! Each track is more fun than the previous one.

The Krayolas, 'Christmas With My Dad'
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The Krayolas, ‘Christmas With My Dad’

TITLE: Title track. But I get it. It’s a good title, and it’s what it should be called.

COVER ART: Not very Xmas-y, except for the word “Christmas” in the title.

LISTENING: The first song is a gut-punch, because the title track is a tribute to this family band’s late father, who passed away in 2017. It’s not a dirge but an upbeat pop song, which in its own way makes it even sadder. It’s a celebration, though, and unlike any other Xmas song I’ve heard this year, or maybe ever.

VERDICT: Another really good EP, and celebratory rather than depressing, but it still might need a warning label for some people, given the subject matter of the title track. Be careful about just putting it on your holiday party playlist without listening to it first!

The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, 'Underneath the Mistletoe'
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The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, ‘Underneath the Mistletoe’

TITLE: Title track! One other suggestion is that, in most cases, if you don’t want to think of a title out of thin air, the title track often has lyrics within it that would make for a fantastic title.

COVER ART: Old-fashioned illustration of a top-hatted man (Kritzer, I assume) underneath the mistletoe with a woman on each side of him puckering for a kiss. One wears a red dress, the other a green one. He has a strange, unreadable expression on his face.

LISTENING: This sounds like it could’ve been recorded 75 years ago, which I think is the point. The song selections are not too overfamiliar, which I appreciate.

VERDICT: Solid, and delightful. They even manage to do a version of “Silent Night” that was different enough that it didn’t cause me to skip ahead.

The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
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Josh Rouse, ‘The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse’

TITLE: This title is cool without trying too hard. And it is Josh Rouse-specific. This title would make no sense if you swapped it with any other record on this list.

COVER ART: Abstract imagery that looks like an LP from the Fifties or Sixties. I really like it.

LISTENING: Instantly, this sounds like no other Xmas album this year, nor does it sound like any Xmas album I own. I love it. “New York Holiday” and the similarly city-centric “Heartbreak Holiday” make this album feel more deserving of being called Christmas in the City than either of the collections that claimed that title this year. The line “hanging out with the in-laws/they’re really not so bad” is a holiday lyric that needed to be written, and Josh Rouse has finally done it.

VERDICT: Yes, yes, yes. I love this record. It is a very relaxed and low pressure album, but also very cool and fun.

Magne Furuholmen, 'White Xmas Lies'
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Magne Furuholmen, ‘White Xmas Lies’

TITLE: Title track! But for an original new song. And any Xmas album that uses “Xmas” in the title starts off on the right foot with me.

COVER ART: It’s crazy white lettering sort of cut out with a red backdrop, maybe? It is just the title but the red and white feels violent to me for some reason. Is this a ransom note?

LISTENING: A-ha’s Magne Furuholmen has deliberately set out to write a Xmas album that isn’t just a collection of familiar songs. It’s also not especially cheer-y. One could easily listen to a lot of this and not realize it was a Xmas record, in a good way. At least one song (“This Is Now America”) seems to have nothing at all to do with Xmas or even winter, as it was released as a single last August.

VERDICT: This is a melancholy pop album that doesn’t always feel like a holiday album, and that is perhaps its greatest strength. I am realizing that I maybe need to make multiple separate holiday playlists for different moods, the same way I did for Sinatra (to keep the “swingin’” and “sad” songs apart and avoid a shuffle mode train wreck). I’m not sure that you want songs like “Dark Days, Dark Nights” to play in the background at your Xmas party unless you are going for a really specific vibe to sabotage the party mood.

Good Lovelies, 'Evergreen'
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Good Lovelies, ‘Evergreen’

TITLE: It’s fine. There are other albums also called Evergreen, but I don’t know if any of them are Xmas albums, so it’s probably fine.

COVER ART: A real classic look, like the artwork on a vintage postcard. There is a cardinal and some leaves and pine cones and all that kind of stuff. Two fonts. All of this looks good to me.

LISTENING: There is something inherently unfair about me listening to these albums en masse, and that is that there are advantages and disadvantages to the running order, and the further along I get, the more my mind is turning to mush. All I know is that this record sounds good-natured and pleasant and sort of vaudevillian?

VERDICT: Three new songs and a few less familiar ones make me make a note to return to this and add a few cuts to my playlist. But honestly, it’s getting harder and harder to make an impression on me with perfectly nice renditions of songs that I’ve already heard multiple brand new versions of in this year’s crop.

Silent Winters, 'Christmas Morning'
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Silent Winters, ‘Christmas Morning’

TITLE: Title track! For the one original track on the album, so it’s fine. It’s even more permissible when I end up liking that track.

COVER ART: We see part of a tree creeping into the frame, and a silver Xmas ornament floating in isolation. This feels serious. Or maybe sad. It is definitely more somber than cheery.

LISTENING: This feels cold and crisp and pretty. Nice harmonies.

VERDICT: Modest but nice. Unimposing. Quick research tells me that this is a Canadian folk-duo, which explains everything. This is very nice.

Various Artists, 'You Wish: A Merge Records Holiday Album'
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Various Artists, ‘You Wish: A Merge Records Holiday Album’

TITLE: You Wish is a great, nerve-y title for a holiday compilation.

COVER ART: A lush red dominates the cover. A shadow of an arm holds a vivid green ornament. This feels like it could almost be the cover of a Twin Peaks Xmas album. Speaking of which, I really want David Lynch to make a Twin Peaks Xmas special. Bear with me: the pressure to make a follow-up to Season 3 must be intense, and daunting. How do you follow up 18 hours of madness, and with so many unanswered questions? Easy: do a 60-minute Twin Peaks Xmas special, a chance to revisit Twin Peaks with zero pressure to answer any of the unanswerable questions that are left hanging. Just Agent Cooper and the gang are in Twin Peaks again, and it’s Xmas, and it doesn’t matter what year it is.

LISTENING: Compilations are tricky Xmas listening because you can’t immediately tell a good one from a bad one — this one makes a good first impression. New and unfamiliar songs, all newly recorded by Merge Records artists to celebrate the label’s 30th anniversary, a record like this is full of discoveries.

VERDICT: I love this. I don’t yet know which of these songs are going to stand the test of time, but I have a feeling I will be re-visiting this collection its own again and again.

Various Artists, 'Christmas in Color (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol IX)'
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Various Artists, ‘Christmas in Color (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol IX)’

TITLE: This is the ninth volume of a series of Xmas compilations put out by Fowler VW, a car dealership in Norman, Oklahoma, which is determined to make Oklahoma the indie Xmas music capital of the world. They could easily just not come up with a title and call it by its subtitle, but these folks get it. They put in the effort.

COVER ART: Crazy-fun lettering, and a design that feels more tropical than Xmas-y. I like it.

LISTENING: Another great compilation fighting the tide of the familiar and the purely nostalgic. Collections like this are what keep this genre of music from calcifying.

VERDICT: This is a great compilation, and the previous 8 volumes are all available on their bandcamp page. Go there now and knock yourself out with an avalanche of new Xmas music.

Kate Rusby, 'Holly Head'
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Kate Rusby, ‘Holly Head’

TITLE: I think this is a great title. Amazingly, not a title track!

COVER ART: We see a woman’s head with holly on it. I think she is sleeping.

LISTENING: I was unfamiliar with Rusby, an English folk singer who has previously released four other Xmas albums and does a U.K. holiday tour every December. Which means I am going to have to add four more albums to my listening pile once this endeavor is complete, because this record is really good.

VERDICT: A certain mix of sincerity and enthusiasm is essential for me to enjoy an album like this, which leans a little more in the direction of Religious Christmas but still has time for a dash of Secular Xmas. Rusby’s sound is a pleasing blend of traditional and contemporary, and I would not have guessed that this was her fifth holiday album. It’s not even the kind of record that I would normally gravitate towards — there are plenty of things that are not quite my cup of tea — but something about it draws me in.

Rick Wakeman, 'Christmas Portraits'
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Rick Wakeman, ‘Christmas Portraits’

TITLE: Not a title track and not too generic. I approve.

COVER ART: A Xmas tree. A piano. A forest! The moon! A shooting star! There is a lot going on here. It looks too cold for anyone to play that piano outside. It was a dumb place to put that piano.

LISTENING: A very dignified listen. Piano playing.

VERDICT: What can I say about another album of Xmas piano playing? They don’t let you make one of these if you are a bad piano player. Bad piano players have people to prevent them, “don’t do this” before anyone hits the record button. Or they self-release and no one ever hears the result, because to listen to an album of bad piano playing would be madness. But also, there are a lot of people who would never even spend time listening to an album of good piano playing. And those people should not listen to this record, because it features nothing but good piano playing.

Sam Phillips, 'Cold Dark Nights'
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Sam Phillips, ‘Cold Dark Nights’

TITLE: It’s not quite a title track! There is a song called “Cold Dark Night,” an original, and that was the title of an earlier EP. Now Sam Phillips has expanded it to a full 10-song album and made the last word a plural. And it’s a great title.

COVER ART: Pretty basic. It is a cloudy night sky, and looks pretty cold and dark.

LISTENING: Nothing beats a holiday album from an artist whose albums are already a “must-buy” and for me, Sam Phillips falls into that category without question. I loved the original EP so the sudden announcement of this expanded version is a holiday miracle.

VERDICT: Sad and beautiful and perfect, like all Sam Phillips records. This was a last minute digital release, so hopefully Xmas 2020 will bring with it a vinyl edition along with a new administration in the White House and a stocking full of fresh indictments from the Southern District of New York.

Beau Jennings, 'The Christmas Light'
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Beau Jennings, ‘The Christmas Light’

TITLE: A title track! Maybe I am making too much of this. I think I am the only person who cares, and who prefers separate titles except in very specific circumstances. Ignore me.

COVER ART: The cover art is an old family photo, made to look like an old 7-inch sleeve with a familiar circular outline of wear from the record inside.

LISTENING: The title track follows an instrumental opener and it feels intensely personal and I can’t help but think it ties in directly to the cover art. Ohhhhh, this is a very pretty record but also a very sad one. There is a longing to this record that is deeply felt. If the holidays get you down, this is not the record for you, unless you like leaning into it.

VERDICT: If you think you can handle it, and are in the mood for a soft-sounding album with emotions that cut like a knife, then go to Soundcloud and give this album a try. It’s really good, and a million miles from the kind of Xmas music that you might hear when you’re out doing your shopping in a crowded store.

L’Resorts, 'Trying to Christmas'
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L’Resorts, ‘Trying to Christmas’

TITLE: Title track! But for an original song, and it’s a great title, and a closing track, which makes it feel even more worthy.

COVER ART: Beautiful cover art. It’s a painting of some flowers and the lettering is lovely. It doesn’t look like a Xmas album, but that feels appropriate given the title.

LISTENING: L’Resorts are a tropical pop band from Milwaukee and this is a feel-good, fun album designed to lift your spirits. I almost feel like holiday albums should be labeled with happy or sad faces so people can gravitate towards the mood they want and no one gets sucker punched by a mood that they aren’t ready to handle.

VERDICT: A vibrant and happy Xmas album! Check out the track “Ready to Eat” and ask yourself why there aren’t more songs about being ready to eat on Xmas.

'This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 3'
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Various Artists, ‘This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 3’

TITLE: Part of a series, but it’s a great title for a series, so why change it? Even the subtitle is great.

COVER ART: A drawing of a tropical Xmas sweater. Nice.

LISTENING: This is Jack Johnson’s label and this collection is Jack Johnson & Friends. It is a mellow Americana-type holiday album. I dislike no tracks, and there are several tracks I like quite a bit.

VERDICT: Zach Rogue’s “Mrs. Santa Claus” is a must-add — fun and sad and catchy and pretty in the perfect proportion.

Puss N Boots, 'Dear Santa…'
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Puss N Boots, ‘Dear Santa…’

TITLE: Not a title track! And on an EP which contains one of the most memorable song titles on any holiday release this year. (More on that in a second).

COVER ART: Festive, holiday postal theme. Peppermints and a postmark. All good.

LISTENING: Four songs, and a nice combo of grit and sweetness in every track. “Christmas Butt” feels like it has the makings of a novelty holiday hit, if enough people hear it.

VERDICT: I like it, and they even get away with using up one of their 4 tracks with a version of “Silent Night” that takes enough musical risks to justify yet another version of it.

Chantal Kreviazuk, 'Christmas Is a Way of Life, My Dear'
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Chantal Kreviazuk, ‘Christmas Is a Way of Life, My Dear’

TITLE: Title track! From a new original. This seems to be the most common trend this year, and honestly, the big risk of this is that that song has to deliver or else it diminishes the whole record. In this instance, the title track is about being obsessed with Xmas so I find it deeply relatable.

COVER ART: Old childhood photo is great! Font is a little hard to read.

LISTENING: It’s good, but I have hit a wall. A melancholy take on McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” isn’t a bad idea, but I’m not sure I have the energy to get into it. And I definitely don’t need another pretty version of “Silent Night”! I am only currently accepting batshit crazy, off-the-wall interpretations of that song, or versions so nakedly emotional that they cut me in half.

VERDICT: This record has a lot of high spots. I encourage you to seek it out, peruse it carefully and pick out your favorite tracks.

Meg & Dia, 'December, Darling'
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Meg & Dia, ‘December, Darling’

TITLE: If I told you this is another record with a title track, would you be shocked?

COVER ART: Photo of Meg & Dia looking in different directions, and the graphic design element includes snow, so I think we’re meant to think they are looking at snow. But they probably were not looking at snow, just pretending to.

LISTENING: They sound good. The title track is a sad pop ballad, and even the familiar titles here have a nice energy.

VERDICT: I am starting to become increasingly useless as a guide through this morass of brand new holiday recordings, because so many of them are good but ultimately interchangeable except for a few standout tracks here and there. In many cases, your best bet is to scan the tracklist and go directly to the one or two titles you do not recognize and work backward from there. In most cases, those are the tracks that meant the most to the artists who recorded them, and those songs will give you a clearer sense of whether you are in the mood to hear more of their sound or their vibe.

Randy Rainbow, 'Hey Gurl, It’s Christmas!'
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Randy Rainbow, ‘Hey Gurl, It’s Christmas!’

TITLE: A title track! But it is a good title, for the opening track which is a new original.

COVER ART: Fun and funny.

LISTENING: An album of Comedy & Music from someone I have previously seen in the occasional viral video — so many Xmas albums are shooting for timelessness but this is an album that is aimed squarely at the here and now, unafraid to make a Trump jokes that hopefully will feel like ancient history a decade from now.

VERDICT: This isn’t an album for putting on in the background, as the jokes in a lot of the songs have nearly equal real estate to the music, and jokes require full attention in a way that Xmas music often doesn’t.

Francine Honey, 'Take Me to the North Pole'
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Francine Honey, ‘Take Me to the North Pole’

TITLE: I like that this title is in the form of a command, even though it’s a title track.

COVER ART: Francine standing next to a sign pointing to the North Pole. She’s looking at us and also pointing toward the North Pole. Does she think we cannot see the sign? I think she’s just excited. (I do not like the choice of fonts.)

LISTENING: The title track is a new original, and I’m into it. With three new originals and five familiar songs, the ratio is not the worst. But even though the performances are all good, it’s just hard for me to hear another version of “Silent Night” that doesn’t twist it into a different shape.

VERDICT: Check out the three originals! It’s becoming a general rule of thumb for me at this point that if I like the original tracks, it will soften me up for hearing the same performer do the too-familiar ones, because I have been won over by the charm of their musical personality.

Idina Menzel, 'Christmas: A Season of Love'
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Idina Menzel, ‘Christmas: A Season of Love’

TITLE: OK, this is a complicated one: Another album called “Christmas” but with an all-important addition after the colon, which stems from a title but is in fact a title track variant. The song on the record is called “Seasons of Love,” and the title is the singular. In short, this title contains aspects of two things I don’t like but it works through them and wins my approval.

COVER ART: A wintry photo of Idina Menzel. I don’t know how to describe this kind of photo but you will know what I mean when you see it. It looks like a photo you would put in a nice catalog to sell fancy winter sweaters. The vibe is “snowy” without there being any actual snow in the picture and without her actually being snowed upon.

LISTENING: Menzel has pipes, and here she’s with a big band and backup singers and special guests.

VERDICT: I have reached the point where the familiar songs are almost impossible to hear, like when you can’t concentrate and keep re-reading the same passage in a book. My ears perk up at fun new tunes like “A Hand for Mrs. Claus” and the other unfamiliar songs on the track listing. Worst-case scenario, if you put this whole album on your holiday playlist, everything that pops up in shuffle mode is going to sound good. But as I close in on my 60th album, I am no longer a good judge of whether this is better or worse than what has come before it.

John Barrowman, 'A Fabulous Christmas'
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John Barrowman, ‘A Fabulous Christmas’

TITLE: Hooray! Not a title track! What could be more fabulous than that?

COVER ART: A photo of John standing in front of a Christmas tree and some presents. He’s kind of blocking them. Does he know they are there?

LISTENING: Very traditional, very belt-y, very Broadway/West End. The guy has pipes. I have nothing bad to say about this record except that my ability to process new versions of these songs performed in this style is waning. When “Save the Last Dance” suddenly pops up out of nowhere, with jingle bells to make it sound Xmas-y, I’m so disoriented I feel like I’m losing my mind. I am now a sucker for songs that are 100-percent not intended to be XMAS songs being transformed into holiday tunes, mainly because it spares me having to hear “Silent Night” for the 24th time. (Oh, and then he does “Silent Night” and I do have to hear it for the 24th time).

VERDICT: He can sing and the music sounds good but it is too much of what I already have. I will add his version of “Save The Last Dance” to my playlist for the sheer novelty of it.

Gerald Krampl, 'Advent & Christmas'
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Gerald Krampl, ‘Advent & Christmas’

TITLE: I guess [BLANK] & Christmas is better than just calling your album “Christmas.”

COVER ART: Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at. It’s gold & white and some kind of decorative pattern. It could be anything. Or maybe this is like that picture of the dress and you will think it looks blue and yellow.

LISTENING: OK, the title now makes sense. This is apparently an album from last year that has been replaced by an “expanded double album version” which contains one album of pure Advent songs and a second album of pure Christmas songs. The first 10 songs anticipate the birth of the messiah, and the final nine celebrate his birth. But you know what? If I didn’t read that on his website, I would just think this was a very modest and elegant album of piano songs, a handful of which are recognizably Xmas songs.

VERDICT: Nothing too flashy, perhaps even a little bit too sleepy for me. But it is nice.

Joe Stilgoe, 'Joe Stilgoe's Christmas Album'
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Joe Stilgoe, ‘Joe Stilgoe’s Christmas Album’

TITLE: This title is artist-specific and factually accurate. This is Joe Stilgoe’s Christmas Album. For the record, I would also approve if anyone who isn’t Joe Stilgoe used this title for their Xmas record, since that would be a highly provocative act of Xmas mischief.

COVER ART: OK, so this is what I mean — it doesn’t take much. This is another promo photo, but Joe wore a red jacket and hung a tiny Santa hat on the microphone, and they made sure to use red and green for the letters. I appreciate the effort.

LISTENING: U.K. jazz singer Stillgoe brings two new originals to the mix, both good. And his approach to the covers is creative, so even familiar titles feel a little bit tilted to the side, even though his style is a very familiar big band sound common to a lot of holiday titles.

VERDICT: Truly, the big problem I am having this year is that it feels like more people should have realized that they have to bring something new to the table, which means it is harder for me to dismiss a title and move on to the next one. Which means it is taking me longer to listen to this many records, because I can’t just quick-click through a bunch of same-sounding records and say something snarky. I enjoyed this one as it was playing, especially the originals, but it is all starting to blur together except for the few most distinctive titles…

Leah, 'Ancient Winter'
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Leah, ‘Ancient Winter’

TITLE: OK, Ancient Winter is not a by-the-numbers title. Good job!

COVER ART: Northern lights! A weird font! Animals, and a village in the distance, framed by two large columns. It reminds me of a Xmas version of the final 30 minutes of Return of the King where they had all those scenes of characters saying goodbye to each other.

LISTENING: This feels New Age-y. One of the songs is called “Upon Your Destiny.” Quick research reveals that Leah is “Celtic and Fantasy-Infused Metal” so I think they have hit their target.

VERDICT: I’m not sure that this fits in with anything else on my personal holiday playlist, but at least it is different, and for that I am grateful.

Molly Burch, 'The Molly Burch Christmas Album'
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Molly Burch, ‘The Molly Burch Christmas Album’

TITLE: There is a world in which every artist’s Xmas album is just called “The [NAME OF ARTIST] Christmas Album” and I am 100% fine with it.

COVER ART: Splendid. Every Xmas album should strive to have cover art as nice as this.

LISTENING: This album starts out with such a downbeat opening track that by the time the second song began I was genuinely worried that this was going to be too depressing to bear. But things kick into a different gear with a cover of The Mamas & Papas’ “Snowqueen of Texas” and I end up liking the whole album a lot. A lot of the songs throughout it feel sad, but being sad is an important part of a well-balanced Xmas. It keeps things from getting too cloyingly chipper.

VERDICT: I go to the website to order it on gold vinyl and it says “3 copies left.” I am a sucker for that kind of scarcity and I buy it without hesitation.

Various Artists, 'A Prog Rock Christmas'
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Various Artists, ‘A Prog Rock Christmas’

TITLE: There are some easy templates for holiday album titles that I honestly don’t mind, and “A [insert specific thing here] Christmas” is one of them. Even if it is just the name of the artist, I like that more than a title that could be used for anyone’s Xmas record.

COVER ART: It looks exactly like it should. If you told 10 graphic designers to design a prog rock holiday album cover, my guess is that more than half of them would come close to this, and the rest wouldn’t be tremendously far-off.

LISTENING: I am not well-versed enough in the specifics of prog rock to fully appreciate the significance of Yes singer Jon Davidson covering Chris Squire’s “Run With the Fox” as this song is completely new to me, but it is a welcome addition to my holiday listening.

VERDICT: Most of the titles here are familiar, but the whole point of this collection is the vibe, and even the umpteenth cover of “Silent Night” have heard today manages to somehow justify its existence here by being almost unrecognizable until 5 minutes in.

In This Article: Christmas, Mariah Carey

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