Is the eggnog spiked, or have an exorbitant glut of Christmas albums come out in the last few weeks?
Well, all the better given the doozy of a year 2018 has been. We surely could use all the glad tidings and yuletide cheer the music industry wants to shine down upon our Twitter-torn and Facebook-frayed nerves this holiday season. While we may be losing the historically awful “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the Christmas playlist rotation, perhaps the next seasonal fave of the new generation will turn up in the latest crop of jovial blessings celebrating the birth of Sweet Baby Jesus from across the sonic spectrum.
So far, it’s a holiday music season toasty enough to bring old Dean Martin back to the Billboard Hot 100 after nearly 50 years with his eternally jolly take on “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” which hits No. 41 this week. He had last appeared on the Hot 100 dated Aug. 30, 1969, with “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” which peaked at No. 75. Talk about a Christmas miracle!
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia)
Only a cat like Tyler the Creator could take the theme song to Christmas’ most vile villain and transform it into a jingle bell banger on par with Run-D.M.C.’s most festive rhymes. Speaking of which, both “Christmas Is” and the unstoppable “Christmas In Hollis” appear on the soundtrack to Illumination’s illuminating reboot of the Dr. Seuss’ Seussified retelling of A Christmas Carol along with holiday essentials from The Supremes, Brian Setzer, Nat King Cole, Pentatonix, Jackie Wilson and Buster Poindexter’s money take on Louis Armstrong’s “Zat You Santa Claus?” just in time for the 30th anniversary of Scrooged.
The Monkees, Christmas Party (Rhino)
The trio version of The Monkees continues to establish a remarkable third act for themselves with this joyous follow-up to 2016’s Good Times!, which finds Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork working once again with some heavyweight Monkees fanboys in Rivers Cuomo, Peter Buck and Andy Partridge of XTC joining the great Adam Schlesinger in putting this perfect power pop gift together. But the best aspect of this party is a visit from the late, great Davy Jones via two vocal tracks recorded in 1991, namely a version of “Silver Bells” that will make you believe he is with us again for real.
Krampus OST (Waxwork Records)
Forget about Muriel’s Wedding or Little Miss Sunshine or The United States of Tara; if you want to see Toni Collette at her arguable best, look no further than Michael Dougherty’s holiday horror campfest Krampus from 2015. This season, Waxwork Records is paying homage to this sendup of the folk tale about the demon goat enforcer of Santa’s naughty list with a deluxe repackaging of the film’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Augmenting Douglas Pipes’ Elfman-esque score is artwork by Justin Erickson of Phantom City Creative, gingerbread scented jackets, 180 gram “Dark Elves” Picture Discs, and a 12”x12” booklet featuring liner notes from Dougherty and Pipes.
Rodney Crowell, Christmas Everywhere (New West) / Old 97’s, Love the Holidays (ATO) / JD McPherson, Socks (New West) / The Mavericks, Hey! Merry Christmas! (Mondo Mundo/Thirty Tigers)
One of the toughest challenges for any songwriter is coming up with an original Christmas song that’s not a retread of an already established favorite. What we have here are not only great new compositions but entire albums full of them by four talented American music acts. For his follow-up to last year’s Close Ties, Rodney Crowell issues musings on the modern trappings of the holiday season with Christmas Everywhere in a bluesy country rock shuffle so timeless it’s a wonder what took him so long to get this cheer out into the world. And perhaps due to the fact that Rhett Miller currently resides in an area of Upstate New York where the last couple of Rockefeller Center Christmas trees came from, he and the rest of the Old 97‘s slide down the chimney packed with a sack full of imaginative and thoroughly original yuletide material with Love the Holidays, also arguably the band’s best set of new songs in years. Meanwhile, JD McPherson utilizes everyone’s least favorite Xmas gift — socks — as a launchpad for his jubilant 10-song collection that finds the roots rocker from Broken Arrow, OK, achieving a middle ground between the Christmases of Elvis and Ella with this homespun stocking of swingin’ cheer. Then you have The Mavericks, who conjure up the sound of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You on Hey! Merry Christmas!, a collection of cool yule that includes eight originals and covers of Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holiday” and Darlene Love’s “Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” done up with their signature Tex-Mex seasonings.
Mars Williams, An Ayler Xmas Vol. 2 (ESP-Disk)
Even if you haven’t heard the name Mars Williams before, if you’ve rocked out to the Waitresses’ new wave holiday fave “Christmas Wrapping” you undoubtedly know the sound of his saxophone. This year, the brass man for The Psychedelic Furs rings in the season with the second volume to his An Ayler Xmas series — an exploratory extension of his acclaimed tribute outfit Witches & Devils honoring the late New York City free jazz icon Albert Ayler. And Vol. 2 brings the dual worlds in which Williams lives closer together than ever before in the form of a wild mash-up of “Christmas Wrapping” and Ayler’s signature composition “Love Cry” that will melt the brain of any fan with their love for pop and skronk cross-wired.
Engelbert Humperdinck, Warmest Christmas Wishes (OK! Good Records)
For everyone out there right now spending the holidays with someone living with Alzheimer’s Disease, classic pop icon Engelbert Humperdink knows what you are going through. The English crooner has been caring for his ailing wife, the great British actress Patricia Healey, for several years. However, the 82 year old was able to spend enough time in the studio to craft a new holiday album, Warmest Christmas Wishes, a lovely blend of classic and contemporary material, much of which centers around themes of being close by on Christmas, including Chris Rea’s “Driving Home For Christmas” and two brand new songs — “Christmas For the Family” and “Around the Christmas Tree.” There’s also a version of “Please Come Home For Christmas” that certainly holds extra weight when you consider the context of Humperdinck’s own circumstances, which makes his golden throated delivery all the more poignant and beautiful.
A Motown Christmas (UMe)
There isn’t a cuter or truer animated series on Netflix right now than Motown Magic, which brings the classic sounds of Hitsville U.S.A. to a new generation through the adventures of young Ben and his magic paintbrush. So it’s only appropriate to pair this sweet and colorful new show with the long overdue proper reissue of the original A Motown Christmas LP, which returns to vinyl beautifully remastered with its psychedelic artwork intact and the original 24 holiday hits from such label heavyweights as the Jackson 5, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.
Jake Ehrenreich, A Treasury of Jewish Christmas Songs: A Cool Jazz Tribute to the Jewish Songwriters (self-released)
In a year that saw an incredibly disturbing spike in anti-Semitism across the U.S., it’s important to remember that some of the most cherished tunes in the Christmas music canon were penned by Jewish songwriters. With ample backing from the Roger Kellaway Trio, singer Jake Ehrenreich — the New York-born son of Holocaust survivors — expands upon the yuletide themes of his hit Broadway show A Jew Grows in Brooklyn with this jazzy, welcoming collection honoring these holiday heroes who brought so much light to people outside their own denomination, including Johnny Marks (“Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), Sammy Cahn (“Let It Snow!”), Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) and Mel Torme (“The Christmas Song”).
Eric Clapton, Happy Xmas (Brushbranch/Surfdog)
Despite living with a crippling tinnitus and nerve damage to his hands, Eric Clapton at 72 endures in 2018 with Happy Xmas, the guitarist’s debut foray into the holiday music market. And despite a puzzling Euro trash dance version of “Jingle Bells” done in memory of Avicii, Slowhand does a great service to such chestnuts as “White Christmas,” “Home for the Holidays” and the Charles Brown blues classic “Merry Christmas Baby.”
Delicate Steve, The Christmas Album (Anti-)
Vastly underrated not only as a guitarist but an accomplished composer and arranger to boot, NJ’s Delicate Steve follows up last year’s This Is Steve with this all-instrumental set of Duane Eddy-esque reworkings of such festive hymns as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The First Noel” and “Little Drummer Boy.” But it’s the 14-minute Crazy Horse-style electric deconstruction of “Frosty the Snowman” that truly makes Steve’s a must-hear for those who like a little chaos in their caroling.
John Legend, A Legendary Christmas (Columbia)
For his initial foray into the holiday music market, John Legend aims for that sweet spot between Burl Ives and James Brown on this soulful collection. There are sweet-natured originals, colorful re-tinselings of such evergreen standards as “Silver Bells,” an Esperanza Spalding-assisted version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and a couple of cool dips into the Motown Christmas catalog with great takes on Marvin Gaye‘s “Purple Snowflakes” and Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me” with a cameo from the man himself. And when you factor in the production of Raphael Saadiq, you have yourself a truly legendary holiday recording.
Pentatonix, Christmas Is Here! (RCA)
Christmas Is Here! marks the third full-length Christmas set from the a cappella juggernaut since forming in 2011. And with new member Matt Sallee, Pentatonix continues to establish their foothold as the most consistent bringers of modern holiday pop while pushing things forward in the parameters of their own artistry via renditions Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker and an imaginative take on Danny Elfman’s “Making Christmas” just in time for the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated classic The Nightmare Before Christmas.
William Shatner, Shatner Claus – The Christmas Album (Cleopatra)
Let’s face it, much of this cameo-drenched Christmas fare by the man who played James Tiberius Kirk in some form or another for the better part of a half-century is pure candied yams. But there are moments on Shatner Claus well worth cherry picking for your 2018 holiday playlist. The Cars’ Elliot Easton offering a scorching guitar solo on the actor’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” for starters. And the very act of putting Todd Rundgren and former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle together on a truly weird “Winter Wonderland” deserves a standing O. Meanwhile, the spoken word format fits swimmingly in Shatner’s endearing reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” backed by the soulful sax of King Crimson’s Mel Collins and a surprisingly tender take on “Silent Night” with Iggy Pop. Shatner Claus may not replace A Charlie Brown Christmas as your go-to holiday soundtrack, but it would make a fun gift for the Trekkie in your life.
Les McCann, A Time Les Christmas (The Abrahams Company)
For as distinguished as he’s been these last 60 years as a pioneer of the soul jazz movement through his mastery on the keyboard, more mention should be made about the merits of Les McCann as one of the best vocalists to live between the microphone and the bandstand. Thankfully, on the 83-year-old’s first Christmas LP, his warm, welcoming pipes are front and center via tasteful takes on such standards as “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Away in a Manger” and “The Christmas Song” along with his own original composition “My Christmas Heart.”
Pete the Cat (Universal)
This musical companion to the excellent new animated series on Amazon Prime is largely comprised of nondenominational ditties about the adventures of the coolest cat in modern kids literature, including a theme song conspired by Elvis Costello (who, along with wife Diana Krall, play Pete’s mom and dad in the series). But the CD edition of Pete’s debut expands the album by nine songs, six of which are quirky original Christmas tunes featuring guest appearances from such famous feline friends as Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz, adding a new layer of joy to the series and its themes of curiosity and individualism though music.
Lorne Greene & the Cast of Bonanza, The Complete Christmas On The Ponderosa (Real Gone)
If you had a grandpa who grew up in the WWII or Korean War era, chances are they were avid watchers of the blockbuster Western-themed TV series Bonanza, which remarkably ran for 431 episodes between 1959 and 1973 with an average viewership of 400 million households in 87 countries. The show was also a marketing powerhouse as well, with action figures, comic books, lunchboxes, model sets, dinnerware, and even a chain of steakhouses (the sorely missed Ponderosa) and a Lake Tahoe theme park throughout the Cartwright family’s initial run on television. The whole cast sang, and RCA Victor jumped at the chance to bring them into the recording studio resulting in the 1963 album Christmas on The Ponderosa—featuring Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright), Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright), Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright), and Michael Landon (Little Joe Cartwright) reprising their television roles on acetate. Real Gone Music, in collaboration with Second Disc Records, happily brings this sweet corn classic back into the world with The Complete Christmas on The Ponderosa, which amends the original LP with Greene’s 1965 seasonal album Have a Happy Holiday, along with both sides of Greene’s rare 1966 single “Must Be Santa” b/w “One Solitary Life.”