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Some of you out there have been listening to Christmas music since September. You know who you are. Kind of reinforces the dictum of “How can we miss you if you never go away?”
Things are different now, though. We’re in the holiday home stretch with only two weeks left to make spirits bright. So let’s get to it with some serious holiday tunes.
We’re not talking the usual rehashed readings of done-to-death carols, but a critic’s pick list of five brand new holiday collections along with another quintet of vintage works that freshen up the most familiar seasonal fare.
What’s intriguing about the 2021 picks is that four of these five selections are by women artists. Each is distinct, inventive and immensely recommended.
So trim that tree and stock that stuffing. Here are some fun and engaging variations of holiday music to enjoy before setting the cookies out for Santa.
New for 2021
Norah Jones: “I Dream of Christmas”
The hushed, woozy vocal sway of Norah Jones sets up one of the year’s more delightful seasonal surprises. A mix of playful originals and standards, “I Dream of Christmas” creates a tasty mix of traditional and modern Yuletide fun. Producer Leon Michaels’ mix of jazz combo settings and tasteful tech-savvy backdrops further fortifies this artfully chilled holiday diversion.
Amanda Shires: “For Christmas”
Had a little too much egg nog at the office holiday soiree and told everyone how you really felt? Americana songstress Amanda Shires can relate on this fun, rootsy and plain-speaking album highlighted by a gospel-esque gem called “Gone for Christmas.” It embraces what she doesn’t want more than what she wants under the tree: “I want you gone for Christmas.”
Pistol Annies: “Hell of a Holiday”
Christmas albums are career requisites for country artists. Too bad most drown such projects in treacly sentimentalism. Not so with the all-star trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Martin County native Angaleena Presley. “Hell of a Holiday” offers a quiet come-on to ol’ Saint Nick in “Come on Christmas Time” along with solace for those facing holiday cheer when it’s still Halloween on its title tune.
Lucinda Williams: “Have Yourself a Rockin’ Little Christmas”
The fifth installment in her “Lu’s Jukebox” album series of cover material, Lucinda Williams strips the varnish off holiday standards, tosses in The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight”) and hotwires the blues classic “Little Red Rooster” into a barnstorming seasonal treat. What results is the Molotov cocktail of Christmas albums.
Billy F. Gibbons: “Jingle Bell Blues” (single)
The only thing disappointing about Billy F. Gibbons’ new Christmas record is that it is only a single. Still, it’s a bluesy beaut. The ZZ Top guitarist and frontman takes “Jingle Bells,” slows it to an earthy, swampy crawl, adjusts a few of the lyrics (“Bells on hot rods ring”) and adds layers of fuzzy guitar. A little rootsy, a little trippy, “Jingle Bell Blues” is the season’s top musical stocking stuffer.
Ye Olde Holiday Music
The Staple Singers: “The 25th Day of December” (1962)
Re-issued last month in a limited vinyl edition for Record Store Day, this Staples Singers delicacy is a lean, staunchly traditional gospel record of carols and spirituals. But as soon as Pops Staples’ lean guitar reverb introduces a tune, the group’s signature sound blooms. Mavis Staples was 23 when this record was cut, but her regal testifying on “Go Tell It on the Mountain” reflects an already worldly vocal spirit.
Bruce Cockburn: “Christmas” (1993)
For those yearning for holiday music with a more unspoiled, old world flavor, head back to 1993 when Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn offered a loose, but solemn cast to carols familiar and ancient along with a lone original (“Shepherds”). The result is an album that refines the term “traditional” with a largely acoustic spiritual cast that makes these tunes sound like anything but museum pieces.
The Chieftains: “The Bells of Dublin” (1991)
With the October passing of chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney, it seems only fitting to revisit this glorious 1991 seasonal session that pared the traditional Irish band with Nanci Griffith (who died in August), Elvis Costello and others. But it’s when the Chieftains’ timeless music meshes with the narration of Burgess Meredith and the choral singing of the Renaissance Singers that its antique holiday charm fully glows.
Various Artists: “Merry Christmas Baby” (1956)
The subtitle tag of “Intimate Christmas Music for Young Lovers” makes “Merry Christmas Baby” sound risqué. In reality, this is the first CD edition of a 1956 sampler of world class holiday soul and R&B led by the classic title tune popularized by Charles Brown. There are also seasonal juke joint gems by Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Witherspoon and Mabel Scott dating back to the 1940s.
Various Artists: “God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen” (1981)
This is one that begs to re-issued, a Columbia Records holiday platter from 1981 – a time when artists new (Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera), edgy (McCoy Tyner, Arthur Blythe) and revered (Dexter Gordon, The Heath Brothers) were signed to the label. The result is a stocking stuffed with fresh, stylistically varied jazz takes on familiar carols. Tough to find (it’s currently out of print) but worth the search.