Magazine Feature

The 2016 Christmas Music Showdown: Pentatonix, Kacey Musgraves & Many More

Kacey Musgraves
Kelly Christine Sutton

Kacey Musgraves

The 12 Ways of Christmas: How artists from Garth to Neil Diamond to She & Him carve out a seasonal sub-career.

“We’re running out of Christmas songs fast,” joked Pentatonix’s Mitch Grassi this time in 2015, promoting what was then the group’s fourth holiday release. It’s no wonder the a cappella stars have put out so much holiday product: 2014’s That’s Christmas to Me was one of only four albums to sell 1 million copies in that calendar year. Now Pentatonix is back with its fifth holiday release in five years (including EPs and deluxe reissues), A Pentatonix Christmas, predictably sitting atop Billboard’s Holiday Albums chart after debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

Pentatonix’s streak of holiday hits “is a great study in ‘strike while the iron is hot,’” says a fan by the name of Amy Grant, who had her own run of hit Christmas albums in the ’80s and ’90s and returns after a 17-year break from yuletide tuneage with Tennessee Christmas. They’re among the most reliable sellers in a genre that has accounted for about 3 percent of all album sales in each of the last three years.

How can you, too, optimize December if you’re a musician? As a handy tool, here is a guide to the 12 Ways of Christmas for recording artists to choose from.

1. Return to the eggnog well as often as possible.

As noted, Pentatonix have had five holiday releases these last five years, which surely sets a record for nonstop successive attempts by a major artist to utterly own Christmas. But they’re hardly alone on the Christmas rerun front. Grant is on her fourth album of holiday material (or fifth or sixth, if you count repackagings). This year, Neil Diamond, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Straight No Chaser join Grant and Pentatonix on the four-or-more list. Garth Brooks is now on his third, although it’s his first Christmas release with a duet partner: spouse Trisha Yearwood, who’s on her second. Reba McEntire is also on holiday album number 3. Among those returning for a second trip around the caroling block are Sarah McLachlan and Jimmy Buffett. Perhaps the act that's most surprising to see already coming back for seconds is the indie duo She & Him, who now have holiday albums accounting for 40 percent of their total output.

2. Find some nice red-and-green bookends for your career.

Some performers take longer than others to get back to holiday business. Loretta Lynn has threatened to record another Christmas album literally for decades. She finally got around to it with this year’s White Christmas Blue, which arrives on the 50th anniversary of her previous holiday set, 1966’s Country Christmas. But as gaps in a holiday music career go, she’s actually beat by Frankie Valli, with his new ‘Tis the Seasons (get it?), produced by Bob Gaudio, a fellow former Four Season. As group members, Valli and Gaudio last traveled this way with an album called The 4 Seasons Greetings in 1962.

3. Find a niche genre that somehow seems like the Christmas genre. Hello, Pentatonix.

Says the a cappella group’s bass singer, Avi Kaplan, stating why what is arguably a novelty act is not a novelty this time of year: “I feel like people have been so used to listening to choirs during Christmas, so they love voices when it comes to Christmas, and” — news alert! — “that is exactly what we are.”

4. Why settle for red or green when you can work blue for the holidays? Merry Christmas, R. Kelly.

This year’s most novel newbie might be R. Kelly, whose 12 Nights of Christmas might be the most NSFW holiday album since Rudy Ray Moore’s filthy classic. The collection that he promised would involve “a lot of lovemaking” for the holidays includes lines like “I promise that we'll deck all the halls with shadows of you and me on the walls" and a lot of less-than-subtle promises about stocking-filling.

5. If you’re country, you almost have no choice but to go totally Christmas.

In addition to the aforementioned return efforts from veterans Loretta, Reba, and Garth & Trisha, the season is bringing out a lot of younger country stars making their first holiday albums, like Kacey Musgraves, Brett Eldredge, Chris Young, and Rascal Flatts. The not-so-fresh-faced Oak Ridge Boys are sneaking in there, too. Jennifer Nettles is on her first, if you’re counting her as a solo artist, or second, if you include the holiday album she had out with Sugarland seven years ago. Nettles swears this overflow of genre releases is an aberration, saying 2016 is “just the year a lot of country artists decided to put out Christmas records. Last year there were hardly any at all. It’s cyclical. I don’t think there’s any method to that madness.” But Musgraves’ manager, Jason Owen, points out that “listeners and fans love to hear our artists sing holiday songs. And the country format really switches into (all) Christmas after Thanksgiving.” Owen is not sure whether Musgraves will try to carve out a Christmas sub-career in years to come, like some others have: “We’re treating it very much as a one-off., and we’ll wait and see how it does. But this Christmas tour she’s doing has sold incredibly well and sold out in a few venues, and we’re anxious for Kacey to experience that and see how it feels. She’s a huge fan of Christmas music and is one of a rare breed of artists that can create something special for a holiday tour,” he says, citing her combination of Western-throwback style and her handful of original new holiday songs.

5. Vie to become the all-out Queen of Christmas. Diva track A: Jennifer Nettles’ North Pole-via-Nashville route.

“If you don’t like me, don’t turn your television on during the holidays,” laughs Nettles. “There’s a lot of me doing a lot of Christmas.” The country star just taped her seventh annual gig hosting the CMA Country Christmas special, set to air on ABC Nov. 28. Two days later, on NBC, she’ll be seen starring in the TV movie sequel Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors, reprising her role from a previous telefilm as young Dolly’s mom. And, of course, she’ll be on various talk and morning shows promoting To Celebrate Christmas, her first holiday release as a solo artist, after charting one seven years ago as a member of Sugarland. “It is wonderfully fortuitous that everything is happening around the same time,” says Nettles, “somewhat out of design, really mostly out of coincidence.” Coincidence? Don’t kid a holiday kidder: We know an all-out Christmas land grab when we see one.

6. Vie to become the all-out Queen of Christmas. Diva track B: Amy Grant’s in-and-out-of-CCM path.

“The big question is, why another Christmas record?” asks Grant, cutting to the chase. It’s because “having so much fun touring at Christmastime again in my mid-50s put gas in my tank to add to my Christmas repertoire. I toured extensively at Christmas time earlier in my career. The ‘80s and ‘90s were the arena years for me, but I have not seen those in quite some time. Two years ago, Michael W. Smith said ‘Hey, let’s go do a couple shows,’ and we had such great response that last year we had several promoters say ‘Let us put together a [true co-billed] show.’ And suddenly the energy of touring with Michael, and then the ever-lengthening string of shows at the Ryman [an annual Christmas residency she does with husband Vince Gill], made me feel like it would just be fun to interpret Christmas on record again from this vantage point.” Unlike her last, far brassier stab at a Christmas album, the mostly acoustic Tennessee Christmas is meant to be “a record that feels like your favorite pair of house shoes. There’s nothing sparkly and stiletto about this record at all.” Controversially, the Lifeway Christian retail chain didn’t think it had enough Christian content to carry in its stores, possibly objecting to the less inspirational “Melancholy Christmas” or racy “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” But Grant calls her album “a lovely blend of family and real-life experience, with all the happiness and sadness that comes from this time of year when people are really nostalgic, and all the good and bad kind of bubbles up.” Listen, Lifeway, it could have been worse: Grant laughingly points out that she nixed her producer’s suggestion that she cover the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

8. Land a slot on the CMA Country Christmas special… even if you’re not country.

ABC’s CMA Country Christmas “has a big audience, and being seen on it really helps” launch a Christmas album, says Owen, Musgraves’ manager. Indeed, with an annual rating in the 6-8 million viewers range, the special may have had a big impact on why there are so many country holiday releases in play. Besides host Nettles and guest Musgraves, others appearing on this year’s seventh annual show include a good helping of non-country acts who have new or reissued holiday albums to promote, including Andra Day, McLachlan, Grant, Kelly Clarkson, Idina Menzel, and Jordan Smith. “Whoever has a Christmas album coming out that year is welcome to come and join this most inclusive of seasons,” says Nettles. Adds executive producer Robert Deaton, “In past years we’ve had John Legend, Mary J. Blige, and Pentatonix. We want it to be a broad show. It’s not just people within the format. We really do open that up to all genres.”

9. Christian music to Christmas hymnody: It’s not such a huge crossover stretch.

Not counting Amy Grant — whose more secular new Christmas album has not been welcome in every Christian retail chain — the top seller from the Christian music world this year has been Lauren Daigle’s Behold: A Christmas Collection. It’s her first holiday album and only her second overall, but it’s not surprising this one is doing well: Her debut last year made enough of an impression that it won her Artist of the Year at the Dove Awards. Matt Redman and Matthew West are also CCM artists with new Christmas product. Meanwhile, there may be a very special sub-audience for indie rocker David Bazan, who was a favorite of the Christian rock world as a member of Pedro the Lion before announcing his agnosticism. That religious ambivalence hasn’t stopped Bazan from releasing a reflective new Christmas album (Dark Sacred Night) and doing a Christmas Miracle Tour, which he’s promised will “bring up a lot of hard things in terms of religion, family, and commercialism gone mad.”

10.  TV singing competition alumni find holiday albums irresistible.

Let’s face it: If you’ve been on American Idol or The Voice, people probably want to hear you sing covers more than your originals, unless you’re at an elevated Carrie or Kelly level. This year, it’s Voice season 9 winner Jordan Smith leading that pack with a David Foster-produced set. He’s also third-billed on the Amy Grant/Michael W. Smith symphonic tour.

11. There’s always room for first-timers at the holiday crafts fair.

This year, the newbie standouts include classy Andra Day (albeit with a mere EP), horny R. Kelly, and Musgraves, whose fairly original-sounding take on Christmas uses steel guitar to invoke both classic country and island sounds. Others getting in their first licks include Hamilton star and Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., celebrated jazz singer Kurt Elling, Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, John Oates, and Glee’s Jane Lynch. One of the more unusual releases has British star Katie Melua joined by a polyphonic Georgian choir… not to be mistaken with the new My Little Pony holiday album.

And, finally, the 12th way of Christmas:

12. Everyone’s sense of smell perks up at Christmas, so if you really want your reissue to stand out…

A 12-inch LP release of the old South Park spinoff album Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics is coming out in conjunction with Record Store Day, “pressed on poo brown vinyl” and also, a press release ominously adds, “specially scented” for the holidays. It’s beginning to stink a lot like Christmas.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Billboard.