Christmas albums occupy an odd space in an artist's career, and new Christmas recordings by Andra Day, Jon Batiste, Kacey Musgraves, Leslie Odom Jr., and Jordan Smith illustrate.
Historically, Christmas records served as a vacation from the artist’s career. Singers stopped building their images and presented themselves as people like you who love Christmas too. Married singers who portrayed themselves as ready for love suddenly sang the joys of domesticity, complete with kids. Rock ’n’ roll complicated that Christmas vacation because pop vocalists in the 1940s and '50s were hitmakers who reached a broad demographic. Family-friendly songs still spoke to a segment of their audience, but first generation rock ’n’ roll bands, R&B artists, and British Invasion bands spoke first to teenagers. They had to be more careful when they approached Christmas music if they fooled with it at all. How can you be mad, bad, and dangerous to know while singing about Rudolph's reindeer games? How do you credibly extoll the joys of Christmas morn when the party goes all night in your songs?
Some bands dealt with it by treating the song as if it’s not canon after cutting it. John Doe of X dismissed the band’s punk rock version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” explaining, “After playing those songs for a few years, not one audience member or friend commented on them to any of us. So we figured it really didn't make much difference whether or not we played them.”
This year’s crop of Christmas albums includes a few by artists whose audiences are likely forgiving of such gestures. Country music has become suburban music, so it’s no surprise that its tolerance for Christmas music is high. Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire released Christmas albums, McEntire selling hers through Cracker Barrel. Rascal Flatts and Chris Young released Christmas albums as well, but the most interesting is A Very Kacey Christmas by Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves is the country artist loved by people who don’t love country, so it’s no surprise that she steps outside country orthodoxy for her Christmas album. Rather than sounding like Sheryl Crow—the mainstream country model—Musgraves reaches back for gently glamorous western swing-lite versions of Christmas classics.
Musgraves is the winsome girl next door for much of A Very Kacey Christmas, perhaps too much so on the kids-only “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and the slightly more mature “A Willie Nice Christmas”—“Willie” being Nelson, who guest stars on the track, and the tree she sings about with the broadest winks possible doesn’t have a star on top.
Otherwise, the album’s charming fun. Each classic has a nice touch in it somewhere, including the use of accordion and nylon-stringed guitar on “Felix Navidad”—a hard song to wrestle away from José Feliciano. The three original songs reflect her lack of genre piety as “Present Without a Bow” and “Ribbons and Bows” both borrow as much from R&B as country, and all succeed by focusing more on love during the season than the season itself.
Soul singer Andra Day released Merry Christmas from Andra Day, an EP that capitalizes on the way she embraces classic soul values. Day’s in her early 30s but can seem retro or old school, depending on the song and the wardrobe. I’ve seen her at the House of Blues play to a room of twentysomethings who heard someone following Amy Winehouse’s vibe, but Day’s set was in the sweet spot for Essence Festival’s more mature audience who hear in her everyone Winehouse emulated.
Only the opening “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” plays to the retro audience. The showy shifts in the groove are cool moves that someone with no allegiance to an era or sound would make, and they give the song a restless movement that Day rides with obvious pleasure. For the rest of the EP, the arranger lays out and lets Day do the heavy lifting. She does all she can as jazz singer to bring “The Carol of the Bells” to life, but “Winter Wonderland” and “The First Noel” are too off the shelf to make an impression. Day can carry the load in each case, but you have to be in love with her voice to want to hear her do it more than once.
Leslie Odom Jr. has been an actor on film, television and the musical stage since 2003, but his role in Hamilton introduced him to a good chunk of America. His Christmas album, Simply Christmas, serves a different function in that it keeps him in the mind of Hamilton fans. “Simply” in the title is appropriate because Odom keeps it basic—a piano accompanying his voice and that’s it. He’s up to the challenge and can carry these songs with simple, tasteful elegance. As such, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a Christmas party at a house where the lights on the tree are all one color.
New Orleanian Jon Batiste’s Christmas with Jon Batiste establishes him to viewers who met him through The Late Show with Steven Colbert as a tasteful guy too, but sometimes he goes too far. “Silent Night” is reverent and stays too true to hundreds of other versions, so it becomes wallpaper as it hits the ears. Thankfully, for every elegant, wise, well-crafted track, there are two or three pieces that reveal his New Orleanian sense of play. Batiste finds his inner Booker for the rowdy “Christmas in Barcelona,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” features Judith Hill in the role of the ecstatic gospel belter in an arrangement that’s equal parts church and Storyville. “Joy to the World” stages a duet between street parade percussion and an acoustic bass that plucks out the melody. If I don’t pay at least half-attention, Christmas with Jon Batiste drifts to the background more easily than I’d like, but it’s a reminder that he’s exactly the sort of guy who ought to have a network television platform to put interesting, rooted musical ideas in contexts that introduce them to people who’d never thought about them before.
Jordan Smith won season nine of The Voice, and since singing competitions all present the competitors as nice, unthreatening people, a Christmas album is a perfect stop-gap until he can make music that reflects a more defined persona. His Tis the Season is, like Christmas recordings by singing competition artists past, impeccably made and entirely redundant. The shows ask them to make songs their own, but that self-expression takes place in a very constrained, often precious sphere. On Tis the Season, Smith gently, lovingly massages every word in the lyrics, but in the ways that matters, Smith made an album that hundreds of people made before him. I suppose I’ll turn to his version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” when I’m choreographing a holiday burlesque show, but the familiarity that makes people hits on The Voice makes them superfluous once the show’s over.
Next week: Reviews of Christmas albums by She & Him, David Bazan, R. Kelly, Kissing Party, Christmas on the Lam, and Neil Diamond