While major releases hustle into the market before Halloween, indie artists release some of the season's best in a more respectful time frame.
[Updated] The Christmas music season starts in October. That’s when major labels and artists who hope for a seasonal hit get their music to market, and history bears out that logic. People may complain about Christmas coming too soon, but there have in the past been enough fans of Christmas music to help Pentatonix, Michael Bublé, Andrea Bocelli and more go gold in two and a half months in the 2000s. But many acts that walk a more indie path gave Halloween and Thanksgiving their due this year and didn’t come out with seasonal releases until after Black Friday, and in many cases, they released more modest projects—EPs, singles, even single tracks. Some of my favorite songs to come out of this holiday season arrived in the last few weeks.
Peter Holsapple of dB’s and Continental Drifters fame released a 45 with his take on The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Today” on the A side, and it does something I think is a challenge. For me, rock rarely sounds like Christmas, and his trio, the Peter Holsapple Combo, is definitely a rock band. He trades the folk wisdom and homespun piety of The Band’s version for rock ’n’ roll urgency that mirrors the excitement of the season. In effect, he trades Christmas Eve for Christmas morning, but I’ll go with that, in part because of the giddiness Holsapple clearly feels when playing with this band. His guitar’s fuzzed out riffing is exactly what 15-year-old would do—or like to do—if he discovered an electric guitar and Fender amp under the tree, down to the “Satisfaction” riff that Holsapple folds in. The B-side, “Felt Like Summer (But it Looked Like Christmas),” credibly articulates the challenge of someone used to wintry Christmases trying to find the feeling on the West Coast. It’s jangle pop that is right in Holsapple’s wheel house, and he lets bells do the holiday work.
Perhaps it’s the history of Christmas music with strings and the way we associate them with beauty and sophistication that there continues to be a market for Christmas songs with strings, even in a pop world. Lindsey Stirling filled that niche in 2017 and before that, Trans-Siberian Orchestra occupied that space (maybe I should have put “sophistication” in quotation marks). This season, we get A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet by the Dallas String Quartet. The upside is that they play well enough to deliver a contemporary version of the holiday wallpaper that Mantovani, Living Strings and 101 Strings delivered decades ago; the downside is that I’m not sure what the DSQ’s value proposition is. Their “Dance of the Sugar Plum Dairy” dips a toe in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s waters, seeing how hard rock feels while folding in a number of other songs ranging from the probable (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) to the puzzling (the James Bond theme). They’re at their best when they opt for the classical/jazz fusion they manage on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Still, it’s hard to imagine who’s genuinely made happy by A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet, which sounds like talented players in search of a governing idea.
Salt Lake City’s I Don’t Know How but They Found Me released their Christmas Drag EP this year, but the duo came together in part over Christmas music. Ryan Seaman played drums for a recording of Christmas songs by one of bassist Dallon Weekes’ early bands before Weekes became bassist for Panic! At the Disco until 2017. Like a lot of rock Christmas songs, those on Christmas Drag are more rock than Christmas. I like the way that all three songs nod gently to glam, but the only one that really feeds the holiday spirit is the cover of Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody.” On it, IDKHow veers toward maximalists like Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree with keyboards and strings (again) replacing the stomp and crunch of Slade’s guitars, then horns and stacked vocals create the sing-along chorus’ celebratory energy. Weekes’ lead vocal teases the flamboyance of T. Rex’s Marc Bolan without going over the top, and he never loses the clear understanding of the holiday that Noddy Holder possesses in the original. If IDKHow had more presence in the marketplace, this version could become a seasonal standard.
Americana act Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors also released a three-song EP, theirs titled Let It Snow, and its easygoing charm suits the holiday well, sounding a few unhurried notes that are right on time during such an emotionally harried time. Holcomb’s “It’s Christmas” is a grinchly catalogue of everything wrong with the season, and it gets credit for never capitulating. Usually in songs about how bad Christmas is, the singer comes around in the final verse and realizes that he or she really does like it, but not Holcomb. He stays cranky until the end, though the vocal says the holiday’s not as bad as he’s making it sound.
His wife Ellie sings lead on the other two songs, and they give the EP its best moments. Their version of “Let It Snow” swings gently and sweetly, while their original track, “Christmas Style,” is the song I return to. The backing vocals evoke the classic R&B vocal groups as the Holcombs sing about doing Christmas their way. It’s charming, playful, and a little sexy. It also fits easily into your life during the holidays, which isn’t a trait to underestimate. When you’re trying to inventory what’s left to do with a week or two to go until Christmas, music that doesn’t make hard demands on your time and attention win.
I’m ambivalent about “Santa Baby.” It’s ostensibly a novelty song with a woman trying to seduce her a sugar daddy into showering her with expensive gifts for Christmas. I love the singer owning her avarice, and in Eartha Kitt’s original in 1953, you can’t discount the reality that there were few avenues by which African-American women could acquire the kind of wealth she sings about in the song. At the same time, I have little patience for women infantilizing themselves, and many of those who have covered the song have translated Kitt’s sex kitten into girlish baby talk.
Jazz vocalist Rebecca Angel takes on the song this season and largely avoids the issues connected to that posturing. Her only nod to the sex kitten stance is a little breathiness in her performance, and she makes a number of smart choices including the breezy, wordless melody she sings before the lyric begins. Still, her version would be stronger if I had a clearer sense of how she saw the song. In the final verse, she asks for a ring. Is it a wedding ring? Is “Santa Baby” an elaborate dance before she asks her guy to marry her for Christmas? Angel walks adeptly and enjoyably in steps that others have walked before her, but it would be stronger if she imprinted her perspective more clearly on the song.
According to his website, Todd Mosby “has created a new musical syntax integrating North Indian Classical music and American Western music, encompassing elements from classical, folk, bluegrass and jazz.” Frequently when I read lines like that, my Yeah, right kicks in, but Mosby’s version of “O Tannenbaum” lives up to that promise. His new age, acoustic guitar-driven version isn’t exactly ambient, but his emphasis on sonic textures means the performance shapes the atmosphere as much if not more than it delivers the song. His arrangement is impeccable and smart, but the atmospheric nature of Mosby’s take means the song lives comfortably at arm’s length.
Saw Black and The Toys’ Christmas in the Background is a rarity in that I like it better an an album than for any individual track. Really, I think of Christmas as a singles medium, or at least an individual track medium. I’m not sure I have 20 great Christmas albums, and I know that once I hear a nostalgic moment, I want the next one to be more contemporary, and once I hear a familiar favorite, I want to hear someone spin their own riff on a Christmas theme. When I listen to Christmas music, I want to hear all the bases covered, which is why I think the form is well-suited to playlists.
But Black’s Christmas in the Background is a complete, stand-alone vision. The Richmond, Virginia Americana artist has cut a lo-fi album that does a good job of exploring the in-between space he occupies with respect to the holidays. He’s in favor of them but he’s exhausted by them. The title cut talks about the way Christmas becomes an atmosphere as well as a holiday, and how it shapes the world inside it. His lo-fi recordings join the world of holiday songs, but the ratty sound reveals his ambivalence about being there. He and his band sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” but they do so a cappella and knock them out in 30 seconds or less, as if they know they’re supposed to sing these songs but because they aren’t sure why, they get the job done and move one. In short, Christmas in the Background is that rare Christmas album that gives us an artist thinking through his or her relationship to the holiday and doing so in an honest way.
I’ve included Ernie Haase and Signature Sound’s A Jazzy Little Christmas in this round-up despite being released in late October, largely because the project shares the idiosyncrasy of the other releases. It represents a departure for the Christian vocal group as their sessions with former Tony Bennett arranger Billy Stritch bring out the Four Freshmen more than the southern gospel in their sound. Their voices framed by a classic jazz trio sound give the songs a clear context in a way that their other recordings don’t. The sanitized backing tracks on previous albums sound like they’re trying to signal to listeners that their music is just like the stuff in the mainstream, but theirs flosses and gets a good night’s sleep.
A Jazzy Little Christmas lays out a more inviting vision and one that isn’t automatically Christian, based on the song list. Only four songs are carols; the rest are seasonal songs including “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Mister Santa”—1954’s “Mister Sandman,” rewritten by its writer Pat Ballard in 1955 to try to catch a holiday hit—and the original “Christmas in Manhattan.” On their previous Christmas albums—2009’s Every Light That Shines at Christmas and 2013’s Christmas Live—they play to the whole family including the kids with “Heat Miser,” a lesser, cartoonish song from Rankin-Bass’ 1974 animated special, A Year without Santa Claus. Haase and Signature Sound remain family-friendly on A Jazzy Little Christmas, but the holiday experience they sing about is more narrowly defined and the album is better for it.
Finally, I admit that I'm biased about Museumgoer's X, its Christmas EP because I'm on it. Alex Cook's semi-ambient/library music project works for me conceptually and musically as he writes and releases fragments of music through Bandcamp when they're ready. The project has given him a place to play with instruments and musical ideas that don't find homes in his other projects. These brief tracks may not bring to mind visions of candy canes and gift-wrapped boxes, but they're pretty smart responses to the season. "Krampus Advances!" splits the difference between holiday classics and soul cinema soundtracks, while "It Snowed for a Minute" simultaneously sounds nostalgic at its most faux and its most genuine.
I'm compromised on this project because I'm on it, reading Stan Kenton's spoken word vocal from his "What is a Santa Claus?" Cook gives the vocal an entirely different backing with his guitar's tremolo, organ and theramin making a sideways rewrite of "Silent Night" shimmer with mystery and possibility.
For our reviews of Christmas releases from Katy Perry, Rob Halford, John Legend, Ne-Yo, Keb' Mo', and Diana Ross, see last week's story. For more Christmas music, check out our "12 Songs Christmas 2019" Spotify playlist. For conversations about Christmas music, check out our 12 Songs of Christmas podcast.
Updated December 18, 12:20 p.m.
The post has been updated with a more current photo of Drew Holcomb and to correct the title of his EP from Let it Go to Let it Snow.