Reviews of new Christmas releases, and more free Christmas mixes and streams.

George Jones Tammy Wynette Christmas album cover art

Last week, Stuart Varney wrongly declared the Christmas album commercially dead. It’s easy to make mediocre, formulaic Christmas albums, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

Nick Lowe 
Quality Street
(Yep Roc)

The problem with Christmas albums is that they’re often generic. The sentiments of the season serve as an end to invention instead of the start of it. The conventions of the genre fence out personality instead of giving it context. Nick Lowe’s Quality Street succeeds by using the sentimentality and staples of Christmas music as a starting place, one that allows him to make Christmas songs his.

The album’s a mix of covers and original songs, but his covers reflect his love of the Everly Brothers and country music. When he performs the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” he does so with Johnny Cash’s train rhythm. He also sings Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Train,” a song that threatens to be dark and melancholy, but as the song goes on, it becomes clear it’s simply a wistful, lovely lullaby. He does his version of a Christmas standard, but Lowe chooses a British one - Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.”

His own songs are similarly distinctive. He hasn’t been a joker since The Jesus of Cool/Pure Pop for Now People and Labour of Lust, so nothing here is laughably funny, but much of Quality Street comes from a wry place, “Christmas at the Airport” being the best example. He neither laughs at Christmas nor celebrates it with empty, facile good cheer. The loneliness and joy live side by side on his Quality Street, which makes it the best Christmas album of the season.

Gladys Knight and The Pips
The Classic Christmas Album
(Sony/Legacy)

George Jones and Tammy Wynette
The Classic Christmas Album
(Sony/Legacy)

“Classic Christmas Album” promises some great album from the days of yore, but that’s not the case. In fact, this Legacy series pulls together Christmas music from a few sources by artists who have made Christmas albums including Alabama, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Martina McBride, Barbra Streisand, and Andy Williams this season. The Classic Christmas Album from Gladys Knight and The Pips is enjoyable, but the fun isn’t entirely as they intended it. The songs here come from 1975’s The Christmas Album and 1982’s That Special Time of Year

This album followed the hit “Midnight Train to Georgia” by two years, so it has the strings and mid-‘70s warmth of the group at its finest. At the same time, it’s like a moment when they step out of their career, put behind the sort of songs and persona that they’re known for, and celebrate the season. The lead vocals for “The Christmas Song” are largely turned over to The Pips, for example. The material from that album leans heavily on traditional favorites such as “The Night Before Christmas” and a lovingly sung “Silent Night,” and while I don’t consider “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” a Christmas song, it too gets a beautiful, gently grooving treatment. By 1982 and That Special Time of Year, though, they heyday had passed and the album feels like a desperate attempt at another payday. The winner from that set is an excellent arrangement of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” with a disco “Jingle Bells” as a close second. The disco drum pattern sounds dated and desperate, but it’s also such an odd turn out of any holiday spirit that it’s completely engaging. The big, Streisand-y ballad “It’s the Happiest Time of the Year” is powerfully performed schlock, and Knight’s duet with Johnny Mathis on “When a Child is Born” has similarly crossed over to the Branson stage before Branson became an alternative musical reality.

The George Jones and Tammy Wynette Christmas album is a bit of a misnomer since it only includes two actual duets between the two. I’m fonder of the good-natured, homespun fun “Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus” than the ode to parenthood, “The Greatest Christmas Gift,” by my patience for the latter varies from listen to listen. Otherwise, the album pulls together tracks Jones cut from 1957 to 1974, some as singles, some for country Christmas compilation albums. The Wynette tracks all come from the excellent Christmas with Tammy, recorded in 1970. All of these feature the two in fine voice before they became caricatures of themselves, so you hear them as you want to hear them, with their sound applied to Christmas music. The rocking “New Baby for Christmas” from 1957 is exactly the sort of thing you hope to find on the album, and “Lonely Christmas Call” from 1962 is classic Jones, singing to his estranged wife who left the family last Christmas. 

Wynette is at her tremulous, edge of heartbreak finest here, particularly on the two original songs, “One Happy Christmas” and “(Merry Christmas) We Must Be Having One.” She goes to the door thinking she hears Santa and finds her man has returned in the uptempo “One Happy Christmas,” while she sounds so accustomed to misery on “(Merry Christmas) We Must Be Having One” that even as she ticks off the sounds and sights for celebration, she sings them as if it could also go wrong any minute. “If this is what you call a Merry Christmas,” she provisionally sings, “Then darlin’, we must be having one.”

In other Christmas music news:

Daptone Records has an unerring ear for retro-sounding R&B bands, and they continue with The Sha La Das, who have great new vocal group Christmas single, “Sha La Da La La (Christmas Time)” backed with “I Wish Christmas Time Was Over.” It’s available as a vinyl 45 here.

Last week, I posted a Christmas mix from The Breton Sound. Since then, they cut a quick, heavy, alternative rock version of Paul McCartney’s oft-maligned “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Musician Paul Cebar regularly visits New Orleans, and it appears that we have similar collections of Christmas music, though he has more world holiday music than I do. Here’s a Spotify playlist of songs from his recent Christmas music radio show on Milwaukee’s WMSE.

Musician Chandler Travis and his Philharmonic don’t make it south as often, but he too as an interesting, downloadable Christmas mix that I’m glad to have because I want to hear Colonel Sanders’ Christmas wishes and Harry Nilsson’s version of “Silent Night.” You can download it here.

Finally, here’s the My Spilt Milk’s  Christmas mix, which you can also download if you like ...

... and our Spotify Christmas Soundtrack 2013.