Our holiday music podcast is back, and we have our first batch of reviews of this year's holiday releases.
On the first Wednesday after Labor Day, we launched season two of 12 Songs of Christmas, our Christmas music podcast. This season, host Alex Rawls has talked to Los Lobos, Americana artists JD McPherson and Chuck Mead, Magic 101.9 program director Steve Suter (on the all-Christmas radio format), Matthew Nelson of ‘90s rock band Nelson, and this week Isaac Hanson of Hanson. The show has addressed people who are hostile to Christmas music with Erin McKeown and “Wonderful Christmastime” with Jake-One of Tuxedo and Jonathan Pretus of The Breton Sound. He talked about the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas with The Ornaments, a Nashville-based band that has come together each year for the past 14 years to perform the soundtrack live, and he discussed what makes a Christmas song cool or uncool with Tulane professor and former WWOZ DJ Joel Dinerstein.
You can subscribe to the show through the Apple Store, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify to hear those episodes, season one, and the shows upcoming between now and Christmas Eve, during which time we’ll post two shows a week.
As part of our coverage of Christmas music, here’s a batch of reviews of major label releases. I didn’t review Los Lobos’ excellent Llego Navidad since I talked to Steve Berlin about it, nor have I reviewed Josh Rouse’s fine The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse since I have an interview with him coming up. Next week, I’ll look at the healthy slate of indie holiday releases, many of which respectfully waited until Thanksgiving had had its say before making their presence known.
The biggest release so far is Katy Perry’s “Cozy Little Christmas” single, and it explains part of why I’m into Christmas music. You can often hear an artist’s approach to Christmas music as his or her default setting, and when in doubt, Perry returns to a PG version of sexiness that’s cheerfully detached from any reality. In a love song to Santa, that works. The verse leaves me a little flat, but I’m there for the chorus, and particularly its first line, “I don’t need diamonds or sparkly things.” As a thought, it and the song are the (north) polar opposite of “Santa Baby,” but as a musical event, the slow walk in the pre-chorus combined with that Motown-esque line are so engaging that I’m still having fun when she stretches the word “feeling” awkwardly over three syllables a line later.
It’s hard to hear “Cozy Little Christmas” as a Christmas classic in the making, but it falls in line with the pre-British Invasion approach to Christmas music, when artists would step outside of their careers and image-building to speak straight to their fans and say, in effect, I’m just like you. I love Christmas too. In the accompanying video—viewed more than five millions times so far since it dropped on Monday—she winks and shoots looks at the camera to send the clear message that the song’s story and the song itself are just good natured fun. And she’s right, so much so that I want to hear a Katy Perry Christmas album more than whatever she chooses to do next. The artifice built into her image leaves her well-suited to songs that don’t require authenticity or credibility to live.
So far, I’ve avoided talking about Rob Halford’s Celestial because I don’t hear heavy metal in the way that I need to to make it work as Christmas music. When I first interviewed Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli about how he reconciled the bigness of arena rock with the intimacy that I associate with Christmas, he pointed to the stories in the songs, which were human-scaled. It was clear that heavy metal’s massiveness was so the musical language that he spoke that he didn’t see the disjunction that I did. Celestial poses the same challenge for me. I find Halford sing/shouting about tidings of comfort and joy over pounding drums and charging guitars funny, and I can’t get next to his version of “Away in a Manger” because its prog leanings chase me away. I can’t process heavy metal without questioning its conventions and underlying fascination with power since they seem at odds with Christmas music, but I give Halford credit. He clearly takes the project seriously. He’s not goofing on Christmas songs, nor does Celestial sound like a cheap cash-in on the holidays. His band is hard and he’s committed to the songs. It’s not for me, but if I spoke metal without an accent, I can imagine being very happy with the album.
Ne-Yo’s new Another Kind of Christmas crosses R&B generations with trap drums and classic soul touches in musical settings that steer toward the bedroom. The latter impulse drives “Open Mine Tonight,” while the first two are most effectively displayed on his cover of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.”
For me, the winner on the album is “Talk About It,” which has the strongest melody of the songs Ne-Yo wrote for the album. It’s immediately catchy with lyrics that smartly remind us that we don’t all celebrate Christmas the same way but in the important ways, we do. It’s also got a great final verse with his mother reminding young Ne-Yo that she worked doubles to pay for his Christmas presents. “Mama said, ‘Don’t be giving no fat white dude credit for my shit / ’Cause if you got shit, I’m the reason you got shit,’” he sings. I wish that kind of lyrical detail and insight was there in other songs he wrote, and his versions of standards fade for me by comparison. Still, I enjoy Another Kind of Christmas whenever I hear it.
On blues man Keb’ Mo’s new Moonlight, Mistletoe and You, he puts on the dog a bit, dressing up his songs with horns, snappy arrangements, and even strings on the title track. He relies less on acoustic instruments and the authenticity that they invoke, perhaps because he recognizes the perforative nature of Christmas songs—the ones he wrote and the ones he covered. Still, the album feels absolutely authentic as Keb’ Mo’ sounds musically and intellectually involved in the process of establishing his place in Christmas’ musical tradition.
Like Rob Halford’s Celestial, you need to be able to hear your life and feelings in blues lyrics to really connect to this, but it’s no surprise that Keb’ Mo’s takes on Christmas blues standards like “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Santa Claus Santa Claus” exist in a healthy dialogue with the versions before them, and the title track is a credible and charming version of a Christmas rarity—an adult Christmas song.
Last year, John Legend released A Legendary Christmas, which I found a little too respectful to the R&B artists who put their marks on Christmas canon before him. This year, he reissued the album in a “Deluxe Edition” with four new tracks, the strongest being his version of “This Christmas.” On it, Legend starts with the same issue, clinging a little too closely to Donny Hathaway’s version to care about it, but he asserts himself on the song more and more as it goes on. That movement and the comfort he comes to feel in the song makes it not only a good Christmas track but good music.
The news on the album is his rewrite of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which Legend sings as a duet with Kelly Clarkson. The song has become problematic in the #nomeansno era, and his new lyrics work to get around the Ghost of Christmas Date Rape that haunts the song. It’s a testament to Legend the singer that he makes most of the new lyrics work in performance better than they do on the screen, though I’m not sure who can sing “it’s your body and your choice” and not have the line sound like it was pulled from a pamphlet given to freshmen entering college.
His version reverses the song’s dynamic as he’s trying to watch out for the woman and help her go, and she’s the one who keeps lingering. It’s a curious switch, and the crosstalk between the two seems as confusing and hard to read in its own way as the original lyrics, Legend and Clarkson’s performances say that both parties are interested in the evening continuing in the direction its going, just as most performances of the original lyrics do. The version is interesting, but more than anything else, it makes me think that we need to continue to process the original lyrics and previous versions. I like this take, but it’s hard to imagine it becoming the new definitive one.
In 2017, Diana Ross released Wonderful Christmastime, which was recently reissued on two vinyl discs. Like Ross herself, there are ways that the album seems detached from gravity and time. Some arrangements make songs seem genuinely weightless, frequently with arrangements that recall the hi-fi stereo heyday more than the pre-rock ’n’ roll pop era that I suspect she was going for. Since those arrangements have their own charms, I’m not complaining, but I wonder if I should think some tracks here are classier than they are.
It’s really curious to hear her sing Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” one of the great Christmas songs to come out of Motown. The version here on Wonderful Christmastime is great in its way as she sings amidst strings that curl around her like wispy clouds, giving me the visual of her hovering over not only Motown and its legacy but the world and all its struggles below. Ross sings beautifully, but she lingers over syllables and loves them all equally, no matter what they say. She sings the secular and spiritual songs with similar passion and commitment, as if the subject matter of all the songs is the same, and it might as well be. Diana has always been the subtext of Diana Ross songs, and these performances sound like that hasn’t changed. She seems most committed to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” singing over the children’s chorus instead of joining it as John and Yoko did. Because of that, Wonderful Christmastime is kind of great and all wrong at the same time, but there is a proud tradition of Christmas albums that fit that description.