Don't sleep on Spotify's Holiday Singles, Black Santa's Mixtape, Kaskade's late night Christmas, Bloodshot's irreverent holiday favorites-to-be, and new Christmas releases from Lindsey Stirling, Tav Falco and Sultans of String.
Warmer in the Winter
Violinist and electronic pop singer Lindsey Stirling introduced herself to the country on America’s Got Talent. On Warmer in the Winter, the songs are sleek as a car hood in pursuit of a popular middle ground. She pops the Classics Lite and takes some of the cartoon out of the comic songs. For the swinging title track, she brings in Trombone Shorty to sub for a big band. There and elsewhere, the songs are all sweet, accomplished, and leave me longing for the Leonard Cohen-like gravity of Pentatonix.
Bloodshot Records’ 13 Days of Christmas
Bloodshot began as an “insurgent country” indie label out of Chicago, and while its identity isn’t as strong as it once was, its artists (and friendly stylistic comrades) can be counted on for an irreverent point of view. On Bloodshot Records' 13 Days of Christmas, punk bluegrass band Devil in a Woodpile argue “The Pagans Had it Right” with a kazoo to help make the point, and Zach Schmidt sings, “I’m Drunk Again This Christmas.”
The best of the album finds more personal angles into the season, whether it’s Barrence Whitfield dutifully remaking Paul “Fat Daddy” Johnson’s “Fat Daddy,” Kelly Hogan’s torchy “Blue Snowfall,” or Jon Langford and His Men of Gwent’s “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray.” In the latter, Langford doesn’t reject or dodge the holiday; instead, he tries the harder task of negotiating his way through it. He’s a dad and a husband and can’t simply drink it away. He honors the sweetness at the heart of of the holiday while fending of the bullshit. Moods and modes shift from line to line as he finds an honest place in Christmas.
Most of the artists on Bloodshot’s Christmas album made their music fresh by writing it themselves. A more time-honored approach is to sing the classics and make them expressions of the artist’s persona. Spotify has recorded and posted a series of holiday singles by Kelly Clarkson, Wyclef, Wolf Alice, Wynton Marsalis, Fifth Harmony and more. Together, those tracks make up a classic Christmas album with the best-loved Christmas songs performed by popular artists. DMX seriously toughens up “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer,” and Xavier Omar and Sango chills out Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” but almost everybody else lets their voices do the work. Lalah Hathaway scales down her father Donny’s “Last Christmas,” accompanied only by an electric piano that grooves hard despite the absence of drums, and Sam Smith invests Joni Mitchell’s “River” with his fragile soul.
The Black Santa Winter Wonderland Mixtape
Former New Orleans Hornet Baron Davis presents The Black Santa Winter Wonderland Mixtape, holiday music for African-American families by such performers as Chilly the Polar Bear, The Three Snowmen, and Professor Penguin. Despite the names, neither the songs nor the performances are cartoonish. Autumn’s “All I Want” takes “The 12 Days of Christmas” as a starting place for an expression of love, and “Mrs. C” by Celilia Lee Nicholson makes the multi-tasking, entrepreneurial wife of Black Santa sexy as hell.
Christmas music has always been an arranger’s challenge, and Kaskade responds to it in a very specific way. When your Christmas party is still going at 3 a.m. and all the sugar, liquor and good cheer has everybody overamped, Kaskade Christmas exists to chill it out. “God Rest Ye” mashes up the hymn the title came from with Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile” for a spiritual afterhours slow jam. Skylar Grey similarly sings “O Come Emmanuel” as if she’s alone with memories that haunt her. On “Santa Baby,” Kaskade replaces the song’s bump and grind with a lopsided groove and swaps its saucy nature for a more nostalgic mood as Jane XO’s voice sounds as if he found it on a transistor radio.
A Tav Falco Christmas
One side of Tav Falco is the art damage guy, asking art’s most basic premises to defend themselves. He also has a classicist side, one that embraces older, often discarded or misunderstood modes of expression because they speak to him. He became fascinated with the tango, and that same desire to be a part of something venerable led to A Tav Falco Christmas. His doesn’t excavate lost Christmas songs the way Panther Burns dug up folk, country and rockabilly rarities. Instead, he goes for favorites by Elvis, James Brown, Dean Martin and more, and the tension that makes the project tick is the way Falco tries to walk in the shoes of these icons hoping a hint of their cool might rub off.
Sultans of String
Canadian prog string band Sultans of String brings crazy chops to holiday favorites on Christmas Caravan. Its best moments come when the Sultans get a little exotic, whether it’s a spry “Felix Navidad,” a gypsy jazz “Django Christmas,” “Turkish Greensleeves, or the sitar-inflected “Himalayan Sleigh Ride.” Elsewhere, the musicianship remains impeccable but the arrangements cry out for some bottom end and a more forgiving treatment of the guest vocalists. They end up too clean, clear and crisp to get across the human warmth at the heart of so many of these songs.