By Robert Ham
The Season — you know, the one that ‘Tis — has officially begun, and with it comes the overwhelming flood of holiday music, old and new, upon our tender, frostbitten ears. If that weren’t enough, the rush to capture the attention of potential customers is faster than ever with many Noël-themed releases arriving on the physical and virtual shelves of retailers as early as October. Although it’s easier than ever to sort through the deluge to find the gems amid the lumps of coal, if you still have questions about what album to use to soundtrack your holiday festivities, allow us to provide some answers with five must-have collections (on the Nice List) and five to send back to Santa (on the Naughty List). You know, like the song.
Like her time on American Idol, Kelly Clarkson’s first holiday-themed album forces the singer to wrap her pipes around a variety of musical styles: a little ’60s girl group pop here, a moody jazz ballad there, with a little country swing thrown in for good measure. She’s capable of handling anything producer Greg Kurstin throws at her, including a Vince Guaraldi-like version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that finds her trading lines with country star Ronnie Dunn, a swirling take on Imogen Heap‘s “Just For Now,” and some sharp original material that surrounds Clarkson with a near-overwhelming production style akin to Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound.
Has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded this sultry before? Have the words “schnitzel with noodles” been sung with more gospel authority? Not until A Mary Christmas has come along. Working with pop maestro David Foster, Blige melts her distinctive vocals all over these holiday standards and holds her own against no less than Barbra Streisand on a version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The best tracks lock into a glistening ’70s soul groove, giving Blige plenty of room to soar and show off her gospel roots. That said, don’t overlook the chance to hear this 42-year-old chanteuse scat and swing through a jazzed up “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Once you’ve wiped the cognitive dissonance out of your eyes upon seeing that a band named Bad Religion is giving their SoCal pop-punk attack over to a collection of Christmas covers, you’ll hopefully be ready to give this nine-song album a fair shake. Not only because the group is donating a portion of their profits to The SNAP Network, the Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, but also simply because it’s a blast to hear “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Little Drummer Boy” spun out with such fury and fire. True to form, the band gets the last word in, tacking a version of their well-known original “American Jesus” on to the end.
One of the more unexpected treats found stuffed into the 2013 musical stocking is this Christmas gift from this deep-rooted UK synthpop duo. This collection features some of the pair’s sharp edges as they take the holiday spirit to its extremes on lovelorn originals like “Loving Man” and “Blood on the Snow.” And there’s a lot of fanciful fun in imagining hitting the dance floor to a pumped-up version of “Gaudete,” a Latin hymn from the 15th century. But the true heart of the record comes from the recent loss of singer Andy Bell’s longtime partner, which puts an added emotional spin to his moving performance on “Silent Night.”
Few are the artists that would be willing to turn “Silent Night” into a horn-flecked ska swinger or write an ode to the stranded holiday traveler (“Christmas At The Airport”), but then again there aren’t many songsmiths in the world like this 64-year-old pub rock icon. Elsewhere on this crackling and warm album, Lowe dabbles in a little lighthearted psychedelia, shuffling rockabilly, and lounge-y jazz, maintaining a wry grin and a sparkling wit through it all. His voice may have lost a bit of the bite that he carried with him on classics like “Cruel To Be Kind,” but the delight he evidences here more than makes up for it.