Who's the best caroler of 2012—Rod, Cee Lo, Colbie, Scotty, Sufjan, Blake, or SpongeBob? Which traditionalist really embodies the Christmas spirit—grinnin' John Travolta or grunge-in' Mark Lanegan? Do we really need a third Glee holiday album or a 25th anniversary Very Special collection as much as we just need a little Christmas?
We listen to every Christmas record that comes out so you don't have to… although, in the cases of Sufjan Stevens, Tracey Thorn, and a few others, we'd very much recommend the musical sleigh ride. Here's our take on some of the season's top or best new releases:
Merry Christmas, Baby
Maybe you got your hopes up, imagining this would be the great rock Christmas album everyone knows the former Faces frontman probably has in him, instead of the lazy installment in his Great American Songbook standards series we all feared. Sucker. Although this cash grab is easily the most popular new holiday recording this year, the traditionally orchestrated arrangements are rote and unredeemed—except for a moderately soul-based duet with CeeLo Green on the title song that you'd be better off buying the big guy's own Christmas record for. By the way, what's up with male singers doing duets on romantic holiday numbers? When Rod and Michael Buble sing about how they'd like to have Parson Brown marry them, you have to assume they're Maine Episcopalians.
CEE LO GREEN
Cee Lo's Magic Christmas
A Cee Lo holiday set had so much potential that it's initially disappointing to hear him tread through so many familiar arrangements here—which is to say, if you've heard Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me" or Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," you've kind of already heard Green's. Then again, you could do a lot worse than hearing Cee Lo do soul karaoke. But no one secular could do "Mary, Did You Know?" any prettier. And the album's real kick comes via a hookup with the Muppets on the original "All I Need is Love," thanks to a wacky interpolation of "Mahna Mahna," a novelty song associated with the puppet critters in the late '60s and '70s.
It's a SpongeBob Christmas! Album
If you're a fan of either the Beach Boys' classic '60s holiday set or superior comedic Broadway scores, SpongeBob is here to help you follow your bliss this Christmas. The voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny, collaborated on the songs with Andy Paley, who's known for his work with Brian Wilson. Six years ago, these two put together a great, underrated SpongeBob album, The Best Day Ever, that held up well against just about any recent cast album for a Broadway cast album. This seasonal follow-up is just about as grand, as it places SpongeBob in a variety of Spectorian settings, albeit with brilliantly juvenile lyrics the Crystals never could have imagined. Things get really stylistically diverse when supporting characters enter in: Sandy the squirrel revives Bob Wills-style Texas swing in "Ho, Ho Hoedown" while Patrick goes for vintage garage rock with his scarily primal appreciation for "Pretty Ribbons and Bows." Dig the backing lineup, which includes everyone from James Burton to Jonathan Richman to several Pet Sounds instrumentalists.
JOHN TRAVOLTA & OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN
The reunited Grease stars have come up with the only new Christmas album that can make Rod Stewart's seem imaginative and edgy by comparison. It's for a good cause of Newton-John's, so you can only get so churlish, yet its elevator-music nostalgia seems to exist only for inviting mass shock, awe, and derision. As filled in as Travolta's hairline is on the cringe-worthy cover, his vocals could use some of the same Hamburger Helper assistance, as he clearly hasn't been keeping up his chops since the days when he had a few solo hits in the '70s. The one newly written tune, "I Think You Might Like It," has turned into one of the most mocked music videos in recent history, but that's one of the better tracks here, since it at least attempts to revive the spirit of long-gone "Summer Nights" instead of inducing post-sugar-shock hibernation.
Silver & Gold
A sprawling, unwieldy Christmas masterpiece, Stevens' second boxed set of Christmas material is a must-have for anyone with a fondness for either hymnody or deeply weird pop. (If you happen to like both, this may really be your best Christmas ever.) He writes originals that are either hauntingly gorgeous or utterly ridiculous, rearranges and rewrites some of the best and worst holiday compositions from throughout the decades and centuries, and manages to capture Christmas as its most mundane and magnificent. Although the digital version comes a lot cheaper, it's worth shelling out for the physical package, not just for the elaborate stickers and posters, but a series of liner-notes essays that capture everything from why Stevens is entering these songs into the public domain to the pagan/religious history and psychosexual implications of the tannenbaum. Buy this wildly ambitious set and you really don't need any other holiday album (or reading material).
Cheers, It's Christmas
Inevitably, Shelton's first holiday collection just isn't half as lively as his personality. Not that we need an album as irreverent as his Twitter feed, but a little more sass and vinegar somewhere could have helped this from seeming quite so gingerbread cookie-cutter. But if you hardly need to hear his snoozy "White Christmas," Cheers still has its standout moments: a cover of "Blue Christmas" that has the Pistol Annies standing in for Elvis' Jordanaires; a duet with Reba on the newly written "Oklahoma Christmas"; and another spirited original, "Santa's Got a Choo Choo Train," a much-needed new entry in the canon of Xmas train tunes.
Tinsel and Lights
The Everything But the Girl singer is everything but the "White Christmas" girl here. In other words, she studiously avoids anything that might be counted as a seasonal standard—unless you count Joni Mitchell's "River," which is just about as ubiquitous as "Let It Snow!" these days. Things get pretty melancholy, with Randy Newman's bummeriffic "Snow" pleasingly par for the downbeat course. "Hard Candy Christmas" is so sad and British, you're hard pressed to remember Dolly Parton popularized it in Best Little Whorehouse. Other choices include wintery selections penned by untraditional carolers like Jack White, Stephin Merritt, Low, and Ron Sexsmith. Highly recommended for the Burl Ives-jaded soul.
Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012
If Scott Weiland's jokey album last year made you think you'd exhausted you need to hear seasonal music from your favorite grunge stars of yesteryear, don't be so hasty. This six-song EP from the Screaming Trees' mastermind is an earnest and solid entry, with most of it entries being acoustic, archaic-sounding treatments of the most elderly carols. Who would've guessed he could hit the high notes on "O Holy Night"? The collection finally really lives up to its "dark" title at the close when it gets to an electrified cover of Roky Erickson's "Burn the Flame," the most hellish-sounding chestnut this side of Spinal Tap's "Christmas with the Devil." (Sample lyric: "A little Christmas spirit/Ghostly haunting deadly spirit/Every creature is stirring/Even the mouse.") Don't bother looking this one up on Amazon, since it's only being sold at Lanegan's tour stops, but that isn't stopping many fans from using other means to track it down.
JONATHAN COULTON AND JOHN RODERICK
One Christmas at a Time
You can count the number of great, all-original Christmas rock albums on one reindeer hoof. But the duo of Coulton and Roderick have served one up on wry bread for the 2012 holidays. If you liked the EP that They Might Be Giants did for Christmas (and Hanukkah) many years back, this power pop will be right up your alley. The spirit of Christmas past is invoked in "2600," a straight-faced demand for a certain vintage Atari videogame console. "Christmas With You is the Best" pays homage to Christmas present as something best spent in bed with a non-observant girlfriend ("We'll have no turkey or guests/But before we get dressed/I want to give you a present"). Even if you're not easily amused by slightly cynical wiseacre musings, the power-pop hooks should power up your December.
Christmas With Scotty McCreery
Young master McCreery lets some of his Nashville renderings of familiar songs swing just a little. He nearly turns "A Holly Jolly Christmas" into fiddle-driven rockabilly, and he has more pelvis in him than you'd expect when he covers Elvis' "Santa Claus is Back in Town." But if you have any melancholiacs in your household, steer clear of the maudlin new song "Christmas in Heaven." It's no relation to the James Brown song of the same name, instead spending its length wondering what the holidays are like up for dearly departed loved ones up in the great beyond.
On This Winter's Night
Unlike Shelton and McCreery, who at least make stabs at country sounds amid their Christmas pop traditionalism, Lady A are only about the '60s-style easy-listening here. Hillary Scott's opening reading of "A Holly Jolly Christmas" sets the ultra-nostalgic tone and evidences no interest whatsoever in Scotty's brand of mild rocking out. You'd never guess producer Paul Worley had a hand in establishing today's redneck-rock sound with his Big & Rich work, since his main influence here seems to be Mantovani. But syrupy or not, there's a comfort-food quality here that might be attractive if, for you, Christmas means not just visiting the folks but going back into the hearth-and-home womb.
Holidaydream—Sounds of the Holidays Vol. One
It's a wonder Polyphonic Spree didn't get to a Christmas record any sooner since—for Pete's sake—they are technically a choir. A faithful cover of John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" couldn't be more up their alley. But the delicately wistful or mystical tone and abundance of harp and flutes on some of the traditional tracks begins to seem a bit twee after a while.
Christmas in the Sand
If you want a strictly secular Christmas, this is the place to come, since fun- and sun-loving Caillat doesn't have the slightest interest in including any religious material. The beach-set cover art sets the tone for the bouncy title track, which is the closest thing to a new holiday hit anyone has come up with this year. You'll love "Christmas in the Sand" or hate it, but with lines like "I saw Santa in his bathing suit… You look naughty but I'm sure you're nice," it's a hell of an earwig. Her duet with Brad Paisley on "Merry Christmas Baby" has a nice crunch to it that's absent on other tracks, like her negligible collaboration with Gavin DeGraw on the tired "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
Compilations of all-new rock or Americana holiday recordings rarely come up with more than a keeper or two. But this Hear/Concord sampler delivers a surprisingly solid bag of goods. You can skip a couple of marginal marquee-talent tracks—Paul McCartney's "Chestnuts Roasting" and Fun.'s "Sleigh Ride." Better is a Rufus Wainwright/Sharon Van Etten "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that sounds as cabaret-woozy as it should. The Civil Wars, Black Prairie, and Eleanor Friedberger also turn in solid interpretations of the oldies. But the best reason to pick up a copy is Irma Thomas joining up with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a track that makes you sad they didn't record an entire album together while they were at it.
'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights
How did no one think of this before: an album of Hanukkah material banded together as a two-fer with a disc of Jews doing Christmas songs? The latter includes members of the tribe ranging from Eddie Fischer and Benny Goodman to Bob Dylan and the Ramones, while the Hanukkah half naturally gravitates more lesser known names, since Johnny and Joey never got around to a dreidel number. Greil Marcus did the liner notes, ensuring you get a master class in comparative religion and comparative pop.
The Edie Adams Christmas Album
You loved her in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and you loved her as Ernie Kovacs' foil and wife; now you can love her as a Christmas serenader. These tracks weren't even intended to be released as a record, but rather derive from recordings of a TV show she did with Kovacs in 1952. In spite of the scratchy mono sound, though (or maybe even because of it), this sounds like a swell lost relic from the golden era of Christmas albums. And though the tone is generally jolly (and you can frequently hear hubby egging her on), Adams' rendition of the sad version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" can stand with any crying crooner's from that era.
A Very Special Christmas, 25 Years
As with the Travolta/Newton-John album, one does hate to grouse when something is for as good a cause as this one's. But is this really how far the Very Special Christmas franchise has fallen… from Springsteen, Petty, and Lennox to Train, Jewel, Jason Mraz, Rascal Flatts, and One Republic? Several of the tracks here have even been previously released, so the one marginal reason to pick it up is Cheap Trick's remake of "I Want You to Want Me" as "I Want You for Christmas," though that joke gets old before the track is up.
GLEE: THE MUSIC
The Christmas Album Volume 3
At least the Glee Christmas album franchise didn't have far to fall. Blaine and Kurt cop the Drifters' doo-wop arrangement of "White Christmas," as cover artists are prone to do these days—and that's about as contemporary as this wan collection of pre-rock perennials gets, with the exception of a Finn-led "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Snoring through this one, your dreams might be not of whiteness but How the Lynch Stole Christmas.
If these don't satisfy, you can also be on the lookout for new holiday albums from Brooke White, Kem, Christina Perri, Pentatonix, Phil Vassar, Gary U.S. Bonds, Fiction Family, Celtic Woman, Kenny Vance, Rita Coolidge, Mandisa, Laurie Berkner, Sugar & the Hi-Los, Redtenbacher's Funkestra, and the Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band… plus a second Very Special Christmas album devoted just to Christian pop artists, and the cast album for Broadway's A Christmas Story, among so, so many others.