As the sun sets on another unpredictable year, we’re gearing up for another Christmas by queuing up some of the instantly-classic holiday albums that, like the holiday itself, arrives at the same period of the year whether we’re ready for it or not. Of course, as per last year’s Christmas Album Round-up, we’re not that concerned with the “instant classic” thing; in the absence of such endeavors, we’ll gladly accept decent. And also terrible.
After all, it’s such a mixed bag; with all the songwriters in the world, a great song is perhaps written daily, but modern holiday classics are hard to come by. (When was the last time a new Christmas song became a true holiday staple? “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, maybe?) Therefore, today’s holiday records depend largely on old chestnuts, and live and die by how ably they’re interpreted. The six collections that follow do this to varying degrees of success; today, Popblerd bites the bullet, and again listens to the year’s Christmas albums so you don’t have to.
Various Artists, Holidays Rule
This year, even the indie kids are getting in on the fun. Last year’s She & Him platter brought Yuletide cheer to the coffeehouse set, and Holidays Rule aims to satisfy neo-folksters and Pitchfork obsessives everywhere with a compilation of twee re-imaginings. It’s often a languid set, but never a morose one, surprisingly; Holidays Rule is refreshingly irony-free and lovingly rendered from top to bottom. Dusty chestnuts like “We Need A Little Christmas” and “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With the Bag” are given delightful indie makeovers by AgesandAges and Black Prairie, respectively; comparatively little-covered numbers like these share space easily with stalwarts “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (given an immaculate, simmering reading by Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten) and “The Christmas Song”, here performed with elegant, touching restraint by Paul McCartney. Not a note rings false on Holidays Rule – McCartney’s own oft-reviled “Wonderful Christmastime” is made over by The Shins, and they read it as straight as a Wincing the Night Away b-side. Holidays Rule just may be the coolest record of the season; and with artists like Fun. on board, the kids’ll dig it. Grade: A
Cee-Lo Green, Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment
Given the veteran singer/rapper’s high profile and predilection for pomp, newly-minted superstar Cee-Lo was bound to get around to a Christmas record sooner or later. The setlist is predictable in the sense that you know every song Magic Moment has to offer (save, of course, for the obligatory new tune), but Cee-Lo’s massive tenor and infectious enthusiasm ensure that soul music’s big chocolate teddy bear has a giddy romp in store. (Bonus: There’s no unraveling mania or psychosexual overtones to be found here, so it’s a Cee-Lo for the whole family.) ‘Lo tackling Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” and Donny Hathaway’s immortal “This Christmas” sounds mostly like what you anticipated; a gleeful “Run Rudolph Run” and a stomping, Gnarls Barkley-esque take on Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (still holiday pop’s greatest-ever achievement) are standouts; and Cee-Lo even connects emotionally to a pair of more solemn numbers near the end, namely a reverent “Mary, Did You Know?” and a surprise take on Joni Mitchell’s tale of seasonal woe, “River”. Things get dicey when Christina Aguilera drops by to severely over-sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, and a Straight No Chaser-curated swing through “Mr. Grinch” doesn’t quite live up to the potential, but new tune “All I Need Is Love” features The Muppets, so… so, it’s Cee-Lo with The Muppets. I mean, come on. He’s practically a Muppet himself. Grade: B
Lady Antebellum, On A Winter’s Night
As we all know, Lady Antebellum is the country-pop trio responsible for “Need You Now” – based on that information, you’ve probably got an idea of what their Christmas record sounds like, and it’s probably pretty accurate. Doesn’t mean it’s worthless, though – like Michael Buble’s record last year, On A Winter’s Night is a safe, predictable jaunt through the season’s most-played tunes. It’s Christmas for the soccer-mom set, essentially, and they deserve their moment in the sun too; honeyed three-part harmonies remain Lady A’s calling card, and they sound as nice on a reflective rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as on a relatively-rollicking “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. It’s a little bland, but that’s to be expected: it sounds fine in the background, and that may be all that matters for a record like this. Grade: C+
Christina Perri, A Very Merry Perri Christmas
In theory, a chance for a young singer-songwriter to endear herself to a new set of fans with a platter of holiday goods, but in practice a chance for a young singer-songwriter to capitalize on the fact that her God-given last name rhymes with some festive stuff, “Jar of Hearts” hitmaker Christina Perri delivers a Christmas EP that… that… okay, this is really boring. I mean, Christina Perri gave us “Jar of Hearts” and the equally-terrible “A Thousand Years”. The odds that her Christmas record was going to bring the festive were always slim, but Very Merry Perri is a four-hanky snoozer. I appreciate the reading of “Merry Christmas Darling” – it comes close to approximating Karen Carpenter’s wistful original – but Perri is a peddler of morose ballads, and often comes across as Taylor Swift’s goth-y childhood BFF that retreated into her Smiths records when Swifty made the cheerleading squad. I mean, really, they were only friends because they grew up across the street from each other; it was only a matter of time before high-school’s dog-eat-dog caste system separated the glowering brunette from the perky blonde forever. When their parents got together for cocktail parties, they were often forced to interact with each other, even though they no longer had much in common… you know, I’ve lost the plot on this one. This album’s boring. Next! Grade: D+
John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, This Christmas
Grant this to Travolta & Newton-John – the beloved stars of Grease, endeared to millions by their performances as lovelorn 30-year-old high-schoolers in that musical - This Christmas is no cheap cash-in. Proceeds benefit the performers’ respective charity foundations, and I’m all about that. And it’s kind of a rag-tag release – John, an untrained singer, can’t help but sound hollow and uncertain next to Olivia, who sounds as good here as she ever has – but it’s not entirely charmless. The shared chemistry between the two is endearing, even if the banter sounds clunky at times, and against all odds, “I Think You Might Like It”, billed as the sequel to the pair’s beloved “You’re the One That I Want”, is actually a pretty lively little romp. I dunno, I thought this sucked at first, but on repeat listens, there’s a lot to like here – John’s charismatic “The Christmas Waltz” is a highlight, and yet another rendition of “Silent Night” achieves a sort of unexpected, fractured beauty. It’s the perfect pairing for John’s rough-edged, quavery voice and Olivia’s crisp, smooth soprano; there’s nothing else quite like it on This Christmas, so I’ll refrain rating in the interest of holiday cheer and charitable giving. Grade: Eggnog
Sufjan Stevens, Silver & Gold: Songs For Christmas, Vol. 6-10
There’s a certain level of tolerance you have to have for this sort of thing to actively enjoy Sufjan Stevens’ second multi-disk boxed set of meticulously compiled holiday cheer; each disc functions, appropriately as a mini-Christmas album unto itself, but listening to the whole set can be a chore. (This set’s 2006 predecessor rarely flagged that way; it’s a marvelous, tuneful display of folksy beauty, and perhaps the last truly classic Christmas record.) Individual discs work, particularly the first, Gloria. It’s the innately purty, vaguely woodsy, intimate-yet-lavish sound of Illinois-era Stevens, before he went all wacky and somehow-more-indulgent on us; by contrast, once we hit the final disc, Christmas Unicorn, we’re treated to a slinky trip-hop take on “Up On the Housetop”, and things are significantly different. Still, Stevens is a restlessly creative genius, so there’s a lot here to love; gorgeous takes on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Coventry Carol” are the stuff of holiday mixtapes for years to come, and hey, the man covers Prince. (Not Prince’s Christmas tune – that’d make too much sense. Instead, enjoy “Alphabet St.”) If you’re adventurous, and willing to weed out some of Sufjan’s wilder flights of fancy, Silver & Gold is a worthwhile go of it. And hey, you can play the 69 Love Songs game with it, where you rip all the songs to iTunes and try to make the most perfect single-disc album you can. Which is fun. Grade: B+
Christmas Cliff’s Notes:
Best Album: There are more winners this year than 2011 brought, but I’m going to award top prize to sterling collection Holidays Rule.
Most-covered Song: It appears to be a tie between “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, which appear four times each across six records.
Strangest Version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: Inarguably John and Olivia’s, which reverses the genders and makes Olivia the sexual aggressor; “say, what’s in this drink?”, croaks John, and Olivia purrs “nothing, Danny”. To which John replies, “huh?” and Olivia acts innocent. At least, that’s how it sounded in my mind.
Best Original Christmas Song: Well, it samples The Muppets’ immortal “Meh Nah Meh Nah,” so it’s not completely original, but Cee-Lo’s “All I Need Is Love” is a hoot and a half.
Weirdest Misheard Lyric: AgesandAges’ delightful “We Need A Little Christmas” features the line “I’ve grown a little leaner”, which sounds to the naked ear like “I’ve grown a little wiener”. Which lends a compelling undercurrent of subtext to the whole enterprise, until you listen a bit closer.
Only Voice Star Without A Christmas Album Now: Adam Levine. Look for Maroon 5′s A Very Merry & Uncomfortably Sexual Christmas, coming to stores December 2013!
Yes, We Know You’re a Terrific Singer. Now Shut Up.: Cee-Lo nails “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; duet partner Christina Aguilera wails like a cat in heat throughout. Sounds like she’s the one spiking the ‘nog to me.
Hey, Wanna See Some More Muppets?: