Christmas albums used to be standard fare—traditional trappings offered by artists like Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Glen Campbell Carol King and other middle aged crooners who repurpose their seasonal selections as a kind of cap to their careers. It was good middle-of-the-road fare, offerings that appealed to an easy listening audience for whom holiday standards and pop standards created a fine divide.
Yet, ever since Elvis and the Beatles, holiday musical fare has become as essential to the season as Black Friday madness and Salvation Army Santas. These releases generally fall into one of two categories—exclusive records that fit oddly within the artist’s usual fare (think Dylan’s remarkably weird Christmas in the Heart) or efforts taken so seriously they actually further the artist’s creative vision. This year there are a number of new releases that fall into the latter category, and while they’re obviously specific to the season, the performances make them more than a novelty.
Although many notable holiday albums like the A Very Special Christmas compilation, Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present (Something Old, Something New) by the late Okie from Muskogee, and Capitol Records’ classy A Capitol Christmas saw reissues this year, here are the 11 best new holiday records of the season.
11. David Bazan, Dark, Sacred Night
David Bazan’s stature as an intrepid journeyman is further affirmed here, but the low-lit arrangements belie any sense of festive celebration. The mood is somber throughout, making one wonder if Bazan had to be nudged into offering up this seasonal sampling. Even “Jingle Bells” comes across as a dirge, suggesting that instead of a sleigh ride across open fields of snow, it might be better to lock ourselves up in the house for a week and wait it out until the mirth and merriment pass by completely.
10. The Laurence Juber Trio, Holidays & Hollynights
Instrumental music is a usual offering around the holidays; after all, who wants to be distracted while opening gifts and ingesting the nog? Guitarist Laurence Juber’s main claim to fame may be his brief tenure in Wings, but he’s also skilled in art of supple jazz and new age. Here, he and his trio offer up an unobtrusive blend of holiday standards of both secular and spiritual persuasion. Be sure to turn up the volume or otherwise it will simply fade into the celestial setting.
9. Tommy Emanuel Group, Christmas Memories
Guitarist Tommy Emanuel takes a more laid back approach in his jaunty recasting of merry melodies. Vocalist Annie Sellick lends a casual fireside glow to the proceedings, and when Emmanuel joins in on vocals, it sounds like the Rat Pack knocking back a few rum spiked eggnogs in the midst of some good-natured gab. His original tune “Christmas Memories” morphed with “Waltzing Matilda” is particularly ingenious, elevating this album into the realms of both the sensual and the spectacular.
8. SHEL, Winter Fairyland
Presented with their usual serene, low-cast gaze, this six song EP evokes the wistful wonderment of the season without depending on standards to set the tone. A lovely version of “Sleigh Ride” sets the standard, but the original offerings find a snug fit as well. A rapid follow-up to Just Crazy Enough, the folksy band’s recently released sophomore effort, it this EP provides sisters Eva, Hannah, Sarah and Liza Holbrook another chance to shine with their heavenly harmonies while making another endearing impression.
7. Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Wintersong
Fellow folkies Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem forsake all the typical touch points and focusing instead on the down home trappings and spare but celebratory arrangements that suggest seasonal change in frosty New England. To be sure, there are a pair of contemporary classics included in this eclectic batch—The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” and Ron Sexsmith’s “Maybe This Christmas” chief among them—but mostly, this is a heartfelt paean to the trappings of tradition, one that would sound perfectly pleasant any time of year. Rarely has any record sounded so quaint and so cool all at the same time.
6. Katie Melua, In Winter
Although she’s a newcomer relative to his group of sturdy veterans, Katie Melua doesn’t let that prevent her from offering up her own take on a celestial sound. Aided by the Gori Women’s Choir, she offers up hushed renditions of seasonally suggestive songs—both originals and traditional tunes—but she deftly imbues a sensual sensibility into them, as well. The inevitable “River” is here, as well, but Melua’s version makes the typical takes seem robust in comparison. No matter, her version of “O Holy Night” soars on its serenity, suggesting a soundtrack well suited for wistful reflection.
5. Helen Welch, Home for Christmas
A twilight chanteuse, Helen Welch offers her own sweet, yet serene take on wintertime songs (six out of 10 of which contain the word “Christmas” in their titles). No surprise there, but her silken singing voice even manages to make a Beatles classic like “In My Life” seem season appropriate. Returning with a lush, lovely display of sheer yet unassuming virtuosity, Welch sets new standards for standards.
4. Sarah McLachlan, Wonderland
Sarah McLachlan’s no stranger to the sounds of the season. But 10 years after her first Christmas effort—the aptly entitled Wintersong first appeared, the new Wonderland marks a welcome return. McLachlan could sing the phonebook and it would sound inspired, so it’s little wonder that when the song selection includes such gems as “Angels We Have Hear on High,” “White Christmas,” “Away in a Manger” and “Silver Bells,” it leads to a lump in the throat and a dampening of the eyes. This Canadian chanteuse possesses one of the loveliest voices in popular music, making every note soar with supple finesse. Again, consider this suitable for a year-round listen.
3. She & Him, Christmas Party
Count on that playful pair She & Him to add some irreverence to the general reverence of the Christmas season. This is the duo’s second album of holiday happenstance (their first was 2011’s modestly entitled, A Very She & Him Christmas), but like their efforts in general, it provides a carefree listen year round. A handful of standards are included in the set list, but it’s the wistful, winsome selection of lesser know chestnuts like “A Marshmallow World,” “The Man with the Bag” and “Christmas Don’t Be Late” that add the sparkle and shine to the album’s overall luster. Even producer M. Ward, a man generally known for his downturned disposition, seems to have gotten in the spirit, making for a festive occasion indeed.
2. Jimmy Buffett, ‘Tis the SeaSon
What would the holidays be without Jimmy Buffet bedecked as Santa in shorts, shoeless, wearing a goofy grin, and paddling a wading board? No need to guess as Jimmy’s second seasonal offering—a follow-up to his 1996 holiday album Christmas Island—makes this time of year as wacky as it is wonderful. The set list says it all, with songs like “All I Want for Christmas in My Two Front Teeth (originally popularized by The Three Stooges),“Santa Stole Thanksgiving,” “What I Didn’t Get for Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and a surprisingly straightforward take on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” Jimmy adds ample tropical references, of course, even bringing in ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro for a Hawaiian romp through “Mele Kalikimaka.” Buffett and his band mostly play it straight, but evidence of a wink and a nod is never far from the surface of the sea.
1. Loretta Lynn, White Christmas Blue
The so-called Queen of Country plays it straight on this collection of folksy Christmas carols that includes the usual suspects as well as a handful of Loretta’s own originals. Both rollicking and reverent, it underscores her recent revival and makes for a credible country collection.