Fueled by eggnog, we slogged through a host of new holiday albums dripping in seasonal cheer. We present the festive findings, along with gifting recommendations.
Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family
Perfect For: Your dad, or anyone who enjoys dad-rock.
Lowe is little-known on these shores beyond his new wave hit “Cruel To Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a hit for Elvis Costello & The Attractions that he wrote. But the pub-rock veteran has released a slew of great albums over the last three decades, cramming them with clever lyrics and master songcraft.
On Quality Street, the aging crooner swings for variety with a winning mix of country, pop, rockabilly and torch song styles. There are humorous originals (“Christmas At the Airport”), wonderful covers (a rollicking take on Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” and a jazzy version of Ron Sexsmith’s “Hooves on the Roof”) and wildly inventive treatments of traditional holiday tunes (“Silent Night” becomes a rock ‘n roll raveup).
File Quality Street as a rarity this season: a holiday album that’s actually great.
Buon Natale: The Christmas Album
Perfect For: Your mom, or any of her caked-in-Josh-Groban-lust friends.
Anyone else having trouble keeping their Il Volo straight from their Il Divo? Us, too. A primer: Il Divo is a hunky classical-pop quartet; Il Volo is a hunky classical-pop trio. Got it? Great. Also, Il Volo is the one with a holiday album.
You might think by the album’s title that among the Christmas selections the three young Italian tenors will be tackling are Nat King Cole’s “Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas to You).” And if you thought that, you would be wrong. Instead, Piero Barone, 20, and Gianluca Ginoble and Ignazio Boschetto, both 18, run through classy-sounding versions of “O Holy Night,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
This is pedestrian, milquetoast stuff. Il Volo’s stale “White Christmas” makes Bing Crosby’s version seem absolutely funky by comparison. “Ave Maria,” “Panis Angelicus” and “Stille Nacht” fare better just by virtue of being sung in Italian, as some of the cheese gets lost in translation. Or at least it’s turned into sexy mascarpone.
Perfect For: Anyone who knew Erasure is still a band.
No one knew exactly how ahead of their time Andy Bell and Vince Clarke were when they formed Erasure in 1985. Nearly 30 years later, the synth-based electro-pop pioneered by the duo dominates the charts. But Snow Globe isn’t a hackneyed cash in by veterans past their prime; the group is still clearly interested in seeking out new electronic frontiers.
We get a version of “The Christmas Song” with a video-game backdrop, an otherworldly (and at times creepy) “White Christmas” with a ghostly processed vocal from Bell and a wildly melodramatic “Silent Night.”
But the standouts here are the four thoroughly modern holiday originals. On the best, “Bells of Love (Isabelle’s of Love),” Bell sings, “I don’t believe in your religion/I only know what I can see.”
This should tide over any ‘80s fanatics eagerly awaiting Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet or Heaven 17 to deliver a Christmas record.
Straight No Chaser
Under The Influence: Holiday Edition
Perfect For: The Gleek in your life.
There are guest stars galore on this eight-song EP from one of a capella music’s leading ensembles. The group backs Colbie Caillat singing lead on her original “Every Day is Christmas,” CeeLo Green on “White Christmas,” the late Otis Redding on “Merry Christmas Baby” and Paul McCartney on his ‘80s staple “Wonderful Christmastime.”
On the other half, the ensemble go it alone (can one ever truly be alone when you’re in a vocal dectet?), taking on “Amazing Grace” and three less traditional holiday pop tunes.
This is a fine respite from eggnog-laden repeat viewings of Pitch Perfect.
The Best Man Holiday: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Perfect For: Anyone who’s had enough therapy to embrace and experience joy.
This is a surprisingly superb collection of mostly upbeat pop/R&B takes on Christmas classics. There’s a great reading of “This Christmas” from Mary J. Blige, a serviceable “Winter Wonderland” from up-and-comer Emeli Sande, an energetic “Christmas Time to Me” by Jordin Sparks and some slow-jam stew in Ne-Yo’s “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.”
Also making appearances are a bevy of R&B stalwarts making up for in Christmas cheer what they lack in surnames, including Mario, Monica and Fantasia.
And then, of course, there’s one R. Kelly. Can this man do any wrong? Sure he can, according to Chicago prosecutors, though it’s been a decade since Kelly beat that underage sex tape rap. But musically speaking, the man rises above his R&B contemporaries as usual here and turns in the highlight of this soundtrack in “Christmas I’ll Be Steppin’.” Sure, “Steppin’” is really just Kelly’s 2004 hit “Happy People” dressed up in Christmas lyrics like “Jingle to the left/jingle to the right,” yet it’s glorious.
Perfect For: The aging punk in your life.
What is the point of this? Irony? Cash? A righteous punk rock institution that’s been questioning religion since the early ‘80s records an album called Christmas Songs. Surely, this is a sick joke; Greg Graffin and company will be questioning faceless corporations profiting off holiday cheer, right?
Wrong. These are faithful, fist-pumping renditions of Christmas classics like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Pointless fun and a major question mark in the formidable discography of a punk institution.
Duck The Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas
Perfect For: Your cousin arrested at Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
The family behind “Duck Dynasty” has fooled America into believing they’re redneck caricatures when they’re actually savvy backwoods businessmen, spinning hirsute hijinks into reality TV gold. Their faces foul not only t-shirts, but everything from garden gnomes to chia pets. Is there anything this family will not do for a buck?
Apparently not, as this excruciatingly painful holiday record makes clear. Patriarch Phil, Uncle Si, Willie and the rest of the “Duck Dynasty” bumble their way through this novelty collection, tweaking traditional holiday songs (“Duck the Halls” replaces the fa-la-la-la-las with duck calls), and cranking out a few pathetic originals (“Camouflage and Christmas Lights,” anyone?).
For a family that’s championed for conservative values, there seems to be a cynicism at work here, especially in the lyrics of the original material, like the throwaway “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas.” “I throw a little change in his cup,” Willie sings of a holiday bell ringer, “so I won’t go to hell.”
Ahh… the Christmas spirit.
Perfect For: The friend who says, “I’m a DJ; barista is just what I do for money.”
A favorite of the CityLife staff, this 17-track album collects garage, space-rock and psychedelic bands playing echo- and fuzz-laden Christmas classics and originals.
Canadians Elephant Stone kick things off with a chiming “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” The Beatles 1967 fan-club Christmas record. The Movements and Dark Horses, both hailing from the hotbed of modern psych that is Sweden, make excellent contributions, and Vermont’s The Vacant Lots turn in a pulsing cover of the Suicide obscurity “No More Christmas Blues.” The inimitable Iggy Pop closes the festivities by slurring and slugging his way through “White Christmas” over some fine guitar heroics.
This is 56 minutes of Christmas music for the hipster in your life, with nary a bum moment of dreck. CL