With Halloween in the rearview mirror, it’s time to steel ourselves for the deluge of holiday nonsense that is going to dominate our eyes and ears for the next two months. Along with the twinkling lights and egregious advertising for Christmas sales comes a new batch of music meant to make our respective Yuletides (or Chanukahs) gay. And as it goes every year, it can be hard to separate the candy canes from the lumps of coal. That’s where we come in. We took some time to sample the latest batch of holiday music and separated out the ones that you’ll want to add to your Christmas party playlist and which you’ll want to leave on the shelf.
1. Astrocolor, Lit Up: Music For Christmas
The intention by this British Columbian band is at least a decent one—taking well-known holiday tunes and giving them an ambient spin, thereby emphasizing the haunting and lovely qualities buried within these familiar melodies. The result, however, feels like the Easy Listening you’re going to hear piped into your local shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving. A tune as evergreen as “O Christmas Tree” becomes almost silly by sending the lead guitar through a watery-sounding wah-wah effect, letting a bit of soprano sax doing a drive-by trilling, and tying it all up with a bouncy, reggae-like beat, and an original tune “Sugar Plums” feels like a lost instrumental from Seal’s first album capped off by a throaty female voice talks about those titular visions that arrive when you’re snug in bed. Let’s leave the sexy time out of Christmastime, okay?
2. Train, Christmas In Tahoe
As hit and miss as any holiday release of the last decade, Train’s entry into the 2015 fray is a heavy pour, with 15 tracks that culls mostly from the pop music of the past 50 years with some surprising additions (would never have guessed that they would tastefully tackle Tracey Thorn’s beautiful “Tinsel & Lights” nor the Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka”). Mostly, the adult alternative mainstays stick to the middle of the road with covers of John Lennon, The Pretenders, Joni Mitchell, and a touch of Motown fare. Spirited as their performances are, Pat Monahan doesn’t have the gravitas or soul in his voice to carry many of these songs.
3. MercyMe, MercyMe It’s Christmas!
Props right up front for the title of this album, which makes fun use of this Christian pop band’s otherwise heavy-handed moniker. That, unfortunately, is the most joyous thing about this album, which pairs treacly ballads with horn-inflected bops through upbeat numbers like “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The group also turns the usually peppy “Sleigh Ride” into a midtempo crawl that evokes some Thomas Kinkade-like landscape rather than the bracing thrill of cold air freezing your nose hairs as you bound along in a horse-drawn sled. This is a great stocking stuffer for the faith-driven family members in your life, but ask them to wait to play it until you’re out of earshot.
4. Jann Arden, A Jann Arden Christmas
Arden’s voice is a great one, but her choice of both arrangements and songs on this, his first-ever holiday release, upends what could have been a nice entry into this mix. She sounds like she’s struggling to keep up the pace on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas” tree, turns up the tempo on “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” thereby killing the power of the lyrics, and tears through five Christmas standards in a muddled, jazzy medley. Throw in production that has waxed these tunes to a blinding synthetic gleam, and this album winds up lukewarm and mealy sounding.
5. Danny Gokey, Christmas Is Here
One guarantee of the modern holiday season is the appearance of an American Idol alumnus with a new album of traditional and not-so-traditional tunes to celebrate the reason for the season. And by and large, those tend to be tepid and borderline silly affairs. Season eight finalist Danny Gokey is no exception as he warbles his way through this lite pop set that was produced to make it sound like a live recording captured at a worship service at his Wisconsin church. And like those Sunday morning throwdowns, he aims for the cheap seats, over-singing and over-emoting on both the faith-based tunes and the secular fare (did everyone finally discover Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” at the same time?).
1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, It’s A Holiday Soul Party
Not sure why it’s taken someone so long to try and make a modern version of James Brown’s 1968 album A Soulful Christmas. I guess the world was just holding out for a firecracker of a band like the Dap-Kings and their firebrand of a singer, Sharon Jones. Granted, not everything works as well as it could have (opening the album with the wobbly “8 Days (Of Hanukkah)” certainly wasn’t a great place to start), but when everything clicks, as on their funky, funky take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a heartbreaking version of “Silent Night,” this album feels fresh and bright.
2. The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Rockin’ Rudolph
There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is that when former Stray Cat Brian Setzer and his orchestra put their formidable talents to bear on an album of holiday tunes, it’s going to be a good time. Outside of an unnecessary Trans-Siberian Orchestra-like version of “Carol Of The Bells,” this is a swingin’ affair with a little big band pizzazz thrown at “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Rudolph” turned into a rockabilly rave up, and a fun little throwaway like “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide” that rewrites the Flintstones theme into a jaunty ode to Santa. Like all the albums here, you’ll likely only listen to this about two months out of the year, but it’s the perfect soundtrack for a cracking holiday party.
3. Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, Big Band Holidays
There’s not a better big jazz group than the one led by Wynton Marsalis that performs regularly at New York’s Lincoln Center, encapsulating the vast history of this American-born genre night after night. That same enthusiasm permeates this collection of holiday tunes. Augmented beautifully by vocal performances by Cecile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter, you can hear the swell of Coltrane-like bop on “We Three Kings,” a Basie-esque swing to “Jingle Bells,” and some blisteringly hot blues a la Ray Charles when the band kicks into “Merry Christmas Baby.” The collection is perfect for both background music and deep listening on a cold winter’s night.
4. The Braxtons, Braxton Family Christmas
A holiday album that works in spite of the fact that its source material is a silly reality TV show. Obnoxious as Toni, Tamar, Traci, and the rest of the gang can be on the small screen, there’s no denying they’ve got some impressive pipes and they use them well on this short collection of R&B-flavored holiday fare. Especially bracing is their a cappella version of “Oh Holy Night,” a smoothed-out take on Wham’s ubiquitous “Last Christmas,” and capped off by Toni tearing it up on a trumpet-driven cover of the Donny Hathaway classic “This Christmas.”
5. RuPaul, Slay Belles
Well, this was a surprise. RuPaul’s first holiday album in about a decade turns out to be a whole heck of a lot of fun to listen to. Well, as long as you can ignore the short interludes tucked in between each track here. If you can, then you’ll be sashaying until New Year’s to the sounds of the disco pop, blowzy blues, and a marvelous bit of Dirty South hip-hop called “Jingle Dem Bells” featuring the irrepressible presence of Big Freedia. It’s not an album that’s built for longevity, but you can enjoy it while it’s still fashionable to do so.