A round-up of this year's holiday releases.
Life's too short to listen for long to music I don't enjoy, so this overview of this season's Christmas releases skips some high profile releases. Trombone Shorty and Cee Lo Green appears on the title cut of Rod Stewart's Merry Christmas, Baby, but Shorty's presence is watered down, and Green does Stewart a solid by not overpowering him despite the obvious wear on Rod's voice. Green's own Cee Lo's Magic Moment doesn't do enough with the classics to hold my attention, though there's no denying his voice. It's thoroughly competent, and I understand every Goodie Mob fan who feels validated to have Cee Lo make it so big that people want his Christmas album, but I have to work too hard to think of something to say to make listening to it pay off. Ditto Lady Antebellum's On This Winter's Night. I have another hundred or so Christmas albums by artists who similarly shy away from the central question that Christmas music poses: What do you have to offer to give your track a reason to exist? If all you have is your celebrity, I'll move along. I found things to like in almost all of these, but even the ones that didn't make it held my attention for one reason or another.
The A Very Special Christmas series is fondly remembered for contemporary versions of Christmas classics, and this year Holidays Rule steps ably into the void left by its decline (this year's 25th anniversary release lumbers with star-studded predictability). Holidays Rules skews toward indie stars, presenting The Shins, Calexico, The Civil Wars, Eleanor Friedberger and Andrew Bird among others, though Paul McCartney is on hand for "The Christmas Song." The versions they come up with are varied, vibrant and witty, and collectively they present a healthy range of takes on the holiday, from casually irreverent ("Senor Santa," Y La Bamba's Latin rewrite of "Mr. Sandman") to the heartfelt ("O Come O Come Emmanuel" by the Punch Brothers) to the clever (fun.'s electropop revision of "Sleigh Ride"). The versions never position the singer as too cool for Christmas, but the artists never put their artistic personalities on hold either. It's what you hope a collection like this would sound like.
Tinsel and Lights
Recently, Tinsel and Lights was described as a harrowing and depressing, none of which I hear. It's not a frivolous album, and she moves into Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" like it was written for her, but most of the album presents her with a clear-eyed, mature perspective on Christmas. She sings Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas" and much of the album as a realist, someone who loves the hope the holiday celebrates but has seen people fail to be their better selves. She makes uncommon musical choices including songs by Low, The White Stripes and Joni Mitchell, whose "River" is this year's "it" cover. In each case, her hushed, husky delivery suits the sentiment as she treats the melodies exquisitely.
Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas
It may be hard to appreciate how progressive A Charlie Brown Christmas was in 1965 - children voicing children, the impressionistic backgrounds, the muted story, and a jazz soundtrack. Today, much of it seems dated, but the soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio holds up beautifully. "Skating" is a light, seemingly effortless expression of freedom, while "Christmas Time is Here" has a strong melancholy edge that kids picked up on before they knew what "melancholy" meant. “It was almost too weird," Alex McMurray told me in 2009. "It was really affecting, even though it was only on for a few seconds. It’s got funny chords and it’s very advanced harmonically. I’m a Vince Guaraldi man.”
The album belongs in every Christmas collection, but if you already have one, you don't need this version. It only adds "Greensleeves" (fine), "The Great Pumpkin Waltz" and "Thanksgiving Theme," the last two from other Charlie Brown specials.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
The Montreal-based label yearly releases a smart jazz Christmas compilation that usually gets the balance more or less right between artists who use these classic songs as starting places for their own art, and those who treat the songs with their due respect. Jazz compilations tend toward a seriousness that always seems a little out of the spirit of the season, but I'd prefer tracks that err on that side to those that reduce Christmas songs to banal expressions of celebrity. The highlights: the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir's "Christmas Calypso Medley," which brings some much-needed physicality to the proceedings; Taurey Butler's piano-centric version of "Little Drummer Boy" that takes a majestic detour midway through; and the accordion and fiddle-led, gypsy jazz-like "Minuit Chrétien/O Holy Night" by Quartango.
John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John
There's no separating the commercial component from Christmas music, but some releases are crasser than others. I hope that Travolta and Newton-John enjoyed revisiting their Grease-era chemistry, but it's hard to hear This Christmas as anything other than an attempt to shake a few final bucks out of the Danny and Sandy tree. The band is faceless, Travolta's voice has only become lighter and thinner with age, and everybody who has complained about his creepy smile on the cover is right. He looks like a Gerry Anderson supermarionette creation, and the attempt to revisit Grease with "I Think You Might Like It" sounds forced and looks even more so on video. "This Christmas" is an unfortunate choice for a title cut as it presents Travolta and Newton-John at their oldest, whitest and squarest.
The Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band
A Fiddler's Holiday
A Fiddler's Holiday is seasonal bluegrass at its most tasteful, and I do mean "season." Only one song mentions Christmas by name, and only "Silent Night" taps into Christian spirituality. It's balanced by "Lights of Chanukah" and numerous songs about snow, winter and the solstice. The performance is live, and it's a lovely moment when what sounds like a heavy echo on "Silent Night" is clearly audible as the audience singing along. The band is augmented by the University of Mary Washington's Philharmonic Orchestra, which adds a layer of depth to the sound, but I wish I heard more high spirits and frivolity like the horns in the closing "Silent Night Two Step."
Halie Loren & Matt Treder
Many Times, Many Ways
There seems to be a tradition among theater and cabaret performers to pose for promotional photos looking wacky with extreme faces, apparently to make sure nobody misses their fundamental theatricality. After listening to Many Times, Many Ways, I wondered if there is a similar convention among female jazz vocalists when approaching the Christmas canon. Loren is clearly a capable singer and interpreter of songs, but she brings a familiar breathy precision to most of her performances as if to make it unmistakably clear that this is artful music. Perhaps because of this common affectation, the most distinctive vocal on the album is "Home for the Holidays," where her more natural performance lets her warm voice and the song's vision carry the day. The other winners are Pianist Matt Treder's two instrumentals, both of which are written in the voice of the Christmas canon. They are charming and sound familiar, but with enough difference that they offer pleasant surprises.
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Christmas in London
(XS Music Group)
Classical music doesn't fit into my Christmas, more because of my associations than for anything intrinsic in it. It all sounds grander than my life, and I'd prefer not to feel inconsequential next to the music I'm hearing. That said, the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Christmas in London is beautiful, and "A Christmas Spell" seems balanced and pitched at a scale that makes sense to me. On the other hand, the epic swells of "White Christmas" dwarf me, Bing, and almost anybody who's ever touched the song.
My Spilt Milk is giving away a gift package of holiday music including Olga's North Mississippi Christmas, The Eastern Sea's First Christmas, The Polyphonic Spree's Holidaydream, Holidays Rule, Tracey Thorn's Tinsel and Lights, A Charlie Brown Christmas and more. To enter to win, subscribe on the home page to "Condensed Milk," My Spilt Milk's weekly email newsletter. If you're already a subscriber, you're already entered. Contest closes December 20 at 7 p.m. CST.