My 7 Favorite Holiday Albums of 2015
Barring any accidents while I’m out shopping, I don’t listen to any holiday music until the day after Thanksgiving, and then I listen to just about nothing else, straight on through Christmas. So I’ve spent a lot of time this last month trying out the new holiday albums, and I’ve found a few to add to my permanent rotation.
Joyful Jazz, Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra: “Joyful” is exactly the right word here. There’s an almost Latin-jazz tinge to their version of “Carol of the Bells,” rooted in piano and then driven forward by a fantastic horn section, and even a traditionally melancholy number like “Do You Hear What I Hear?” gets a welcome burst of upbeat momentum right from the opening bars. There’s also an original composition, “Merry Christmas, John Coltrane,” that’s really fun. As a (largely) instrumental album, this makes for great background listening while you’re reading or cooking.
Rockin’ Rudolph, The Brian Setzer Orchestra: I’ll admit, I had my doubts about rewriting the lyrics to the Flintstones theme as a Christmas carol called “Yabba Dabba Yuletime,” and even now that I’ve heard it a few times it’s still rather silly. But the horns come up with a darn near perfect recreation of the original arrangement, and it’s actually kind of fun. The overall tone is mostly big band, though Setzer does go a bit prog rock on “Carol of the Bells,” and there’s a nifty callback to his Stray Cat roots in the rockabilly version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
It’s a Holiday Soul Party, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: This gets off to a great start with the funky “Eight Days of Hannukah,” and almost never lets up. I’m a huge fan of James Brown’s holiday records from the 1960s, and Jones and the Dap-Kings recreate that tone wonderfully and then give it a little tweak. I love the original compositions, like “Just Another Christmas Song” and the jaunty “Big Bulbs,” but the groove on “Silent Night” and “Funky Little Drummer Boy” is equally excellent, and the interpolation of “Hall of the Mountain King” into the opening bars of “God Rest Ye Merry Gents” was a delightful touch.
Kylie Christmas, Kylie Minogue: This is probably the holiday album I was most looking forward to this year, because Kylie Minogue, and for the most part it doesn’t disappoint. There’s an entertaining duet with a recording of Frank Sinatra on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and a lovely duet with James Corden on the old Yaz song “Only You,” which is so good I don’t even care that it’s not a Christmas song. Iggy Pop’s contribution to the cover of the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is underwhelming, but Minogue is enjoying herself so much you hardly notice. And, at the risk of alienating Mariah fans, I think her new contribution to the holiday canon, “White December,” might just have the potential to rival “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in popularity if we give it enough time.
Magnolias and Mistletoe, Marc Broussard: So far, I’ve been highlighting louder, more raucous holiday albums, but Broussard takes a quieter, more contemplative approach to the season, backing his soulful vocals with simple piano arrangements. It’s almost entirely religious carols until the end, where he crafts more expansive arrangements of two original songs, “When Christmas Comes Along” and “Almost Christmas,” either of which I would be glad to hear on the radio in winters to come.
The Frost Is All Over, Kate Rusby: From the moment the horns sounded off on the opening track, “Bradfield,” I was enthralled by this album by Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby. The production has this wonderfully light quality to it, and it gives many of the songs a joyful feeling. Even the more somber material, like a version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” here called “Little Bilberry,” have a crisp, clean sound. “Cold Winter” is a particularly beautiful song that works outside the immediate holiday context; if you like Mumford and Sons’ “Winter Winds,” I think you’ll fall in love with this song as well.
Red and Green, Elizabeth Chan: I took a while making up my mind about this one. I’d heard some of Chan’s holiday music last year and it didn’t much work for me, and to be honest there’s still a part of me that pushes back against this album, but that’s on me, not her. Basically, Chan decided to walk away from a career in magazine publishing so she could dedicate herself to writing and recording original Christmas songs, and there’s a deliberate earnestness that verges on hokiness here (typical lyrics: “I love Christmas / nothing like Christmas for me / and all the presents / I like them under the tree”). That said, these songs are so damn catchy, and the production deftly captures a particular set of ’70s and ’80s pop sounds that makes songs like “Fa La La” or “Something About the Holidays” catnip to me. And, then, too, Chan walked away from her career to dedicate herself to Christmas music, which you rather have to admire, and the evidence suggests it’s working out well for her so far.