Sia wins this year's Christmas music derby, while Gwen Stefani is slowed by Blake Shelton. Plus new Christmas music from Hanson, Paul McCartney, Grace Potter and more.
You Make it Feel Like Christmas
I had high hopes for an artist who often embraces her plasticity, but on You Make it Feel Like Christmas, Gwen Stefani celebrates her domestic side. She doesn’t just wake up in Blake Shelton’s shirts; she wakes up in his accent on some songs. God has never been thanked more on a Stefani project, but those moments aren’t spiritual as much as nods to His casual place in their Whitman Samplered home. All of the album’s original songs reflect that world and would fit on the same country stations that would play Shelton if not for the retro pop fantasia production. “Under the Christmas Lights” is the best of the bunch with its echoes of girl groups—echoes that mark her version of “Last Christmas” as inspired. Of course, the song was always a Shirelles song; a couple of British lads just found it first.
Everyday is Christmas
Sia had no plans for a Christmas album, but Christmas songs came unbidden, and that ecstatic writing experience carries over into the actual Everyday is Christmas. She buys into the season at every level, singing as if the reality of Santa, elves, and living snowmen is beyond question. Instead of curbing the genre’s tendency toward musical buoyancy, she leans into it, so songs bubble, fizz and chime with good natured, sincere affection for Christmas as an experience and mythology. A title like “Santa’s Coming for Us” could be read as a threat, but it’s a promise on Everyday is Christmas—a promise set to an electronic calypso beat. The ballad “Snowman” looks on the lyric sheet like veer in a Tim Burton-esque direction as it deals with the physical limitations of a snowman’s relationship to “Mrs. Snow,” but Sia makes it the testimony of a woman who’ll stand by her man.
The Christmas rock canon would fit comfortably on one album, and maybe on one side of a vinyl record. Cheap Trick gets to most of it on Christmas Christmas as the band throws bells of all kinds on covers of songs by Slade, Roy Wood, The Ramones, The Kinks, Chuck Berry, and Harry Nilsson. The latter’s “Remember (Christmas)” only gets under the holiday bar by virtue of its melancholy nostalgia, tied to the season only by “Christmas” in the title, and hearing Robin Zander sing it made me flash on “I’m Going Home” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s not a stain on the album though, nor is the metal boogie take on “Run Run Rudolf” (as Cheap Trick spell it).
Still, the band is in its sweet spot when it muscles up post-Beatles British pop, so the anthemic “Merry Christmas Everybody” and “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”—songs as ubiquitous in England during the holiday season as “All I Want for Christmas is You” has become in the States—suit the band beautifully. Still, the song I’ll return to is Cheap Trick’s own “Merry Christmas Darlings,” where that plural “darlings” and the way Zander sings it strikes a polyamorous note that’s as quintessentially rock ’n’ roll as any Marshall on 10.
Finally It’s Christmas
Hanson has spent most of its career as the answer to a Generation X-friendly barroom trivia question. The Hanson brothers have grown up to have a musical life after “MMMBop,” and on Finally It’s Christmas, they make classic power pop—a sound nobody’s been clamoring for since “MMMBop” charted in 1997. Today their pop is less puppy-like in its plays for your attention—they’re 20 years older; it should be—and Finally It’s Christmas is most celebratory on the songs the brothers wrote. The title track even invokes Hanson’s hometown of Tulsa in a sincere embrace of the holiday moment, which is important in a form that almost demands sincerity. My favorite track is “Happy Christmas,” which is a sweet fragment of a tune with its sing-along melody accompanied by a plinking upright piano. A hip-hop producer with a feel for the holiday music will sample that in a year or two.
As pop guys, Hanson knows what to do with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” but Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” lose a little in translation.
Holidays Rule 2
In 2012, Holidays Rule picked up where the A Very Special Christmas series left off as it presented broadly reverent Christmas music from contemporary artists. Producer/Decemberist Chris Funk selected artists who would craft respectable versions of seasonal classics including Irma Thomas with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The series returns this year with Holidays Rule 2, which works along similar lines. The news on the album is Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots doing an a cappella version of “Wonderful Christmastime.” It started as a video on The Tonight Show with guest spots from Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane and Tori Kelly included as the spot promoted the movie Sing! Here it’s the same song and arrangement but without the actors.
In addition to McCartney and Norah Jones, the album features Americana artists whose unquestionable musicality shines through in traditional ways. Grace Potter’s “Christmas Moon” steps back in time beautifully, and the song would have sounded at home on a Christmas album by Dinah Shore or Lena Horne 50 or more years ago.
More to come.