I have always had a love/hate relationship with new Christmas music. I typically appreciate the effort but usually find myself cringing at how awful it turns out. I tell you that because I had a massive sense of avoidance when my editor asked me to review a new Christmas release by a prominent Americana artist. Yet somehow, I found myself saying yes and then asking if I could do a larger article with a multi-holiday album focus. Not sure what I was thinking, but here we are. In no particular order I present to you not only some reviews and recommendations for brand spanking new 2018 Christmas albums but some friendly reminder for songs and albums you may have overlooked.
Let me start out with an old song (1987) that I recently discovered – The Pogues “Fairytale of New York” with Kristy MacColl is as perfect a song as you will ever hear. In typical Pogues fashion it is raw, uplifting and a little depressing at the same time. I just heard it a few days ago and I feel ashamed that I have not had this in my life for the last 31 years. Do yourself a favor and check this one out now. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/fairytale-of-new-york-single-feat-kirsty-maccoll/579375251
The first album I listened to was JD McPherson’s Socks recently released on New West. I read that when McPherson told people he was recording a new album that they were visibly disappointed when he told them it was going to be a Christmas album. I understand where they are coming from and I have to say I was initially irritated that I would have to make due with a holiday record instead of a new release full of retro style rockers courtesy of Mr. McPherson. Boy was I wrong! Socks is an instant classic. It has all the rave up high energy you would expect but it has numerous nods to the past that instantly endear it to the listener. “Hey Skinny Santa” with its group lead sets the tone and the band hits full stride in a jump jive and wail fashion. The title track is a spot-on tale of a kid trying to find out what he got for Christmas only to realize he is getting socks, the worst present any kid could ever receive. It is funny, engaging and makes a strong case for its inclusion in any holiday collection or playlist. “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” with its tongue and cheek approach to the subject matter is a total throwback tale, albeit one of Christmas lust. “Santa’s Got A Mean Machine” brings the rockabilly full circle as a tale about how Santa trades in his old sled for something a little sleeker. McPherson continues his winning streak with this album and my only regret is, due to my rule that holiday music can only be played from December 1-December 25th, I can only listen to it for twenty more days. Find it here: https://store.newwestrecords.com/collections/jd-mcpherson
Another song that really drives home the spirit of Christmas is the “Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)” duet between David Bowie & Bing Crosby initially filmed/recorded for Bing Crosby’ Merrie Olde Christmas special that aired in 1977 after Crosby had passed away. I like the entire experience with the back and forth between the two stars before they start singing. It seems genuine and playful as two very different people come together and lend their voices beautifully to these two blended Christmas songs. Available as a single in 95 You can find it on the following Bing Crosby Christmas Classic album: Bing Crosby Christmas Classic
Next up is The Old 97’s Love the Holidays on New West Records. Founded in 1993 in Dallas, Texas these Alt-county/Americana pioneers have always brought their A-game over the course of a twenty-five year career. 2018 sees the release of their first holiday album and it was worth the wait. “Love the Holidays” with its upbeat western back beat and horn section kicks the collection off on a good foot. Full of energy and jubilation it is definitely not your grandma’s Christmas song. “Gotta Love Being a Kid” with its look back at a kid experiencing Christmas is one my three favorite songs on the album. It rocks and the jangly guitars made me think of what a Hoodoo Gurus Christmas song might sound like. Playing to their alt-country roots “Christmas is Coming” and a tale of not having money for a gift but the ability to write a song in the place of gifts or geese. The accordion throughout gives it a festive touch and it is easy to get in the holiday mood while it plays. Second among my favorite tracks is the slowly paced “Wintertime in the City”. The violin work is compelling and compliments the vocals effortlessly. This is a truly beautiful song. My third favorite is “Rudolph Was Blue” a snappy, guitar driven (even though the horns show up to excellent effect) number about Rudolph searching for another red nosed reindeer. A fantastic original that should join the holiday canon. The Old 97’s outdid themselves with ten original tracks and four Christmas classics that are tacked on at the end. While “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” get the full Old 97’s treatment the remaining songs stay safely on the path. The record is solid from start to finish and I liked the original songs better than the covers but that aside, I was beyond thrilled with Love the Holidays. Purchase Old 97’s Love the Holidays here
Another “must have” classic album is Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper. While it has been forty years since it was release it still holds up as a must have for any true music fan. Produced by Booker T. Jones (who had produced the award-winning Stardust album for Willie the previous year) 1979’s Pretty Paper sets the standard for how great a Christmas album can be. The Nelson penned “Pretty Paper” is the lead off track and the playing of that song has always signaled the start of the Christmas season for me. Willie Nelson is my dad’s favorite singer and if all he gave me in life is an appreciation for the red-headed stranger I would count myself as fortunate. As he did on Stardust, he breezes through the classics like he had written them himself. “blue Christmas:” and Little Town of Bethlehem” are handled with a casual ease that is instantly comforting. “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” are equally as impressive and showcase why Nelson’s versions of these songs come across as timeless. He is a master at his craft and these songs stand as a testament to his talent. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/pretty-paper/192483844
East Nashville by way of Indiana troubadour Otis Gibbs offers up Once I Dreamed of Christmas for our listening pleasure. To be clear form the beginning this is not your traditional Christmas album as it raw, funny and a somewhat darkly skewed view of the pending holiday. “Lloyd the Reindeer” about a reindeer who wonders why Rudolph gets all the fame, leaves the north pole, joins the marines and becomes a bouncer. If that isn’t a plot line for the next Claymation special, I don’t know what is. “Lonely Mistletoe Night” has this moody fiddle throughout and the lyrical content is depressing as hell but still fits with the theme of the season for many people (myself included from time to time). “Carl & Mavis” the most unlikely of holiday songs as it details the dysfunctional relationship of the two cheapest people you have ever heard of. So wrapped up in their miserly, bitter ways they always break up before Christmas so they do not have to buy presents for each other. “A Man Named Jesus” comes straight out of Appalachia and is a scathing indictment of the crass commercialism and subsequent warping of the meaning of Christmas. Oh yeah, it has some pretty nice fiddle too. This record is not the feel good, gather round the fireplace kinda deal. But that is okay as everyone has a way to deal with the holidays and Gibbs has put it down on wax that “Jingle Bells” is not the way he approaches December 25th. Check this one out for what amounts to a refreshingly candid view of Christmas. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/once-i-dreamed-of-christmas/1440326474
Country music stalwart and former son-in-law of Cash, Rodney Crowell has joined the party with Christmas Everywhere. While not as dark as Gibbs offering Crowell delivers an interestingly unique take on the traditional Christmas Album. The title track has that hot jazz feel and it will leave you smiling well before the last note. “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney” is awesome! Bluesy with a kinda funkiness and some obligatory sax whaling away it is one of the standout tracks across all of these holiday albums. “Merry Christmas from an Empty Bed” is as heartbreakingly beautiful as you would expect from one of music’s premier song writers. This song should come with a warning label and perhaps some tissues. “Let’s Skip Christmas this Year” sounds like John Hiatt with that roadside rock up feeling. A strong seasonal offering I guarantee you do not have anything like this in your collection. Well written and expertly performed Christmas Everywhere has something for everyone this Christmas season.
Last on my list is another oldie but goodie. Originally released as a seven song EP in 1986 it has been expanded and reissued twice with the most recent coming in 2006 courtesy of Collector’s Choice Music is The dB’s and Friends Christmas Time Again. Originally conceived as a project by the Chris Stamey Group it is chock full of jangle pop all-stars, influencers, and alt country royalty or just Whiskeytown if you want the truth. The dB’s, Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Marshall Crenshaw, Alex Chilton, Don Dixon among others all contribute with the results alternating from the traditional to the more jubilant and irreverent. I like the jazziness of Don Dixon’s “I saw Three Ships” and the heartfelt approach Alex Chilton takes with “The Christmas Song”. If you liked the alterna-pop of the early to mid 80’s this record is for you. If you didn’t care for it or were too young to have caught it the first go round, check this collection out. It is a snapshot of a unique moment in American music and even after all these years still sounds fresh and vibrant, much like the artists who are prominently featured within. https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Time-Again-dBs-Friends/dp/B014MKIHSK
I hope you will enjoy listening to these albums as much as I did and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!