Holiday music 2017: music to make spirits bright

Our annual roundup of the great, the not so great, and the so-so in the latest crop of Christmas LPs

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      What do a onetime ska-punk princess, a gaggle of southern hillbillies, and a pushing-40 boy band have in common? Well, about as much as the disparate cast of characters on this year’s vault-raiding A Capitol Christmas, but that didn’t stop Gwen Stefani, Alabama, and Hanson from all entering the 2017 holiday-record sweepstakes.

      Right about now you’re probably thinking about setting up that $89 Scots pine Christmas tree, complete with vintage baubles that have been in your family since your great-great-grandparents first arrived in Vancouver back in 1887. The last thing you want to do is ruin the mood by jumping in this year’s Christmas-album pool and coming up with something worse than William Hung’s Hung for the Holidays.

      Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Below you’ll find a healthy cross-section of some of 2017’s best and worst Yuletide-themed releases, with the best getting a present, the so-so a functional pair of tighty-whiteys, and the worst a sad little Charlie Brown Xmas tree.

      No one wants to hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” for the 900th time, so start building that Spotify playlist using the following reviews as a guide. And while no one’s demanding you make sure the artists are in the same wheelhouse, remember that no one wants to hear Gwen Stefani’s fantastically peppy reading of “Jingle Bells” back to back with Alabama’s shitkicking “Christmas in Dixie”.


      Christmas: a time of tinsel, presents, and a horrifying half-human, half-goat demon looking to punish badly behaved kids. Krampusnacht takes its inspiration from the titular Krampus, foil to jolly old St. Nick, and transposes well-known festive songs like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Jingle Bells” into creepy variations. Devoid of vocals and filled with instruments of horrifying timbres—the entire album sounds like it’s been composed using preset sounds from a 1990s keyboard—the record perfectly embodies the feel of a terrifying spirit creeping into the rooms of young children in the dead of night. None of that is a criticism, though—the album is strangely compelling, and perfect for scaring off difficult relatives.
      > Kate Wilson


      Gwen Stefani
      You Make It Feel Like Christmas

      Gwen Stefani hasn’t made many missteps in a career that’s seen her transition from ska-punk darling to dance-pop solo star to fashion titan to network-TV celebrity. As one might expect, given the way everything the American icon touches turns to gold (except her marriage to Gavin Ross­dale), You Make It Feel Like Christmas is pretty much perfectly executed, from a big-band reading of “Jingle Bells” to soul-power originals like “Under the Christmas Lights”. Classy as she is, Stefani isn’t above flipping the Christmas bird to the ex who famously took up with the nanny; on “Never Kissed Anyone With Blue Eyes Before”, she sends a love letter to new squeeze Blake Shelton with “This year I’ve got so much to celebrate.” Rather than hating her for being so perfect, try to accept that, for some of us, it truly is a wonderful life.
      > Mike Usinger


      Elvis Presley
      Christmas With Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

      We’re still a little baffled about how Elvis is still releasing new music—largely because he’s been in a coffin for 40 years—but hey, Elvis isn’t dead, right? Fans of the King might be apprehensive about the appropriation of his performances from 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album and 1971’s Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, but this record is far from just a cash grab. Like 2015’s Royal Philharmonic–scored If I Can Dream—an album that sold nearly twice as many copies as Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated Damn—this album blends Elvis’s vocals with artful new arrangements. More than a crooning, classical collection, Christmas With Elvis is often bouncy and energetic, showcasing the King’s flair.
      > Kate Wilson


      Lindsey Stirling
      Warmer in the Winter

      This is less a Christmas record than it is a playlist, and while YouTube sensation Lindsey Stirling is a very talented violinist, Warmer in the Winter is too eclectic for its own good. Ever since Mariah Carey struck gold with “All I Want for Christmas”, everyone making a holiday album seems obligated to take a crack at writing their own Phil Spector–style number. “Christmas C’mon” (featuring the chirpy Becky G on vocals) is a little too obvious to really hit that mark. Moreover, it’s in odd company alongside a straightforward classical reading of “What Child Is This”, a version of “I Saw Three Ships” played as a Celtic reel, and a take on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” with a hip-hop snap beat. If you liked what Stirling did with Evanescence’s monumentally mopey “My Immortal” a few years back, you’ll love what she does with “Angels We Have Heard on High”—which is suck all the joy out of it like a kid with a candy cane—but you might hate the 1940s big-band-swing treatment she gives “Jingle Bell Rock”. Or vice versa.
      > John Lucas


      Kaskade Christmas

      Beyond the glut of Christmas remixes dumped on SoundCloud by minimally talented bedroom producers, there’s very little in the way of festive electronic music. Stadium stalwart Kaskade’s decision to release a full-length holiday album, then, is broaching virgin territory. This year has been a period of do-overs for the star, seeing him cast aside his big-room, bro-fist-pumping progressive house for much deeper sounds on the Redux 002 EP. Kaskade Christmas is much the same. Female vocalists are in charge of singing classic holiday tunes, while Kaskade layers relaxed, smooth beats underneath. There are no hyped drops or gimmicky sounds here—only breathy, atmospheric samples, dreamy synths, and genuinely original takes on everything from carols to Christmas pop.
      > Kate Wilson


      Finally, It’s Christmas

      Billed as the long-awaited, 20-year follow-up to Snowed In—an album made when the trio of brothers were still young, cute, and marketable—Finally, It’s Christmas proves that older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser. Still peddling twee bubblegum rock despite the fact that its members are now pushing 40, Hanson misses the opportunity to show that its music has, you know, grown up a bit since 1997. To the band’s credit, it’s avoided repeating tracks from the first collection, but unfortunately we’d much rather take Snowed In’s adorable “Run Rudolph Run” over Finally, It’s Christmas’s tired “All I Want for Christmas”. Gospel-choir backing vocals can’t save “Winter Wonderland” or “Peace on Earth” from sounding like they’d be better-placed on children’s TV soundtracks than a major-label album—but if you insist on wasting your time on this record, “A Wonderful Christmas Time” is just about passable.
      > Kate Wilson


      Various Artists
      A Capitol Christmas Volume Two

      As cash grabs go, it’s a completely blatant one, with A Capitol Christmas Volume Two raiding the vaults for a mixed-nuts collection that includes Wayne Newton, Dinah Shore, Lena Horne, and Glen Campbell. In fairness, they could have upped the bizarro quotient by inviting William Hung, Stryper, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Yanni to the Xmas party. Get past the fact that a Capitol recording contract is all that connects many of the artists, though, and you’ll discover genuine treasures like Les Paul and Mary Ford’s retro-riffic “White Christmas” and Al Martino’s lounge-tastic “Silver Bells”. On the downside, a 1991 remix of “Christmas Day” serves as a grim reminder that the Beach Boys should have been buried at sea right around the time Brian Wilson officially went off the deep end.

      > Mike Usinger


      The Coasters
      Christmas With the Coasters

      For those who need a reminder, the Coasters lit up the 1950s and ’60s with their brand of bluesy rock ’n’ roll vocal numbers. For a number of reasons, the band currently boasts a grand total of zero original members. Leon Hughes is the only surviving artist from its first iteration, and now runs a different group. Saxophonist King Curtis met an unfortunate end after being knifed by two junkies in the ’70s. Cornelius Gunter ended up in the morgue in the ’90s after he was shot in a parking garage. Nate Wilson, a member of the re-formed Coasters, was also shot—and then dismembered—in 1980: a crime for which the band’s manager was convicted. None of that grisly history seems to have dampened the spirits of the group’s current lineup, though. Putting a doo-wop spin on festive classics like “Someday at Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland”, the four new members add an old-timey feel that’s infinitely more engaging than the saccharine takes on Christmas staples currently pumping out of Tim Hortons.
      > Kate Wilson


      Everyday Is Christmas

      Considering Sia never leaves the house without an oversize wig, hat, or Victorian lampshade obscuring her face, one might have expected her first holiday-themed release to be Everyday Is Halloween. On Everyday Is Christmas, one of pop music’s true originals instead takes a refreshing approach to the most wonderful time of the year. Rather than rolling out the five-millionth rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, the Aussie superstar has penned 10 originals, going to funkytown for “Santa’s Coming for Us” and curling up in front of a glowing fire for the orchestral “Underneath the Christmas Lights”. The album isn’t without its dogs, including the too-cutesy Motown-inspired jam “Puppies in the Window”, but give Sia props for not playing things safe—not to mention dying her hair a fabulously freakish candy-cane red and green for the cover art.
      > Mike Usinger


      Davis & Miller
      Call Him Immanuel

      Sultry, jazzy, and full of some very impressive keyboard solos, Call Him Immanuel is a reminder that Vancouver’s local music can stand on a par with any major-label products. Opener “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and closer “Holly Jolly Christmas” are the only nonoriginal tracks—though these virtuosic variations are far from banal—with the two middle songs on this online-only EP representing Davis & Miller’s offering to the festive canon. “Call Him Immanuel” begins with distinct “Space Oddity” vibes before melting into hymnlike melodies and references to the biblical story: the real point, we suppose, of Christmas. “Now It’s Christmas Time” takes the record in a new direction, offering a “Christmas in Dixie” feel mixed with well-timed strikes on tubular bells and a sing-along chorus. Most important of all, the holidays are the season of giving—and Davis & Miller are donating all their sales revenue to Woven, a charity that provides education for girls rescued from human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Merry Christmas.
      > Kate Wilson


      American Christmas

      What precisely is an American Christmas in 2017? Cheeto Mussolini in a Grinch suit firing lumps of coal over the U.S.–Mexico border with a Russian-made grenade launcher while Harvey Weinstein jacks off into a poinsettia? A crucified Santa Claus draped in the Confederate stars and bars, set alight with a tiki torch, and put on display on the South Lawn of the White House? That sounds about right, but the guys in Alabama might have different ideas. If you like your country music maudlin and depressing, “First Christmas Without Daddy” and “Sure Could Use Some Christmas Around Here” are Alabama’s gifts to you. And if you don’t, there’s always “Ain’t Santa Cool” or “(I Wanna) Rock N Roll Guitar”, which are as convincing as you’d expect them to be.
      > John Lucas


      Christmas After Midnight

      Just gonna get this out of the way right off the top: three years ago CeeLo Green was charged with slipping ecstasy into a woman’s drink, news of which was followed by a since-redacted tweetstorm in which the singer essentially said it’s not rape if one party is unconscious. This makes it extremely discomfiting to hear Green sing the male part in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—a duet in which the female half jestingly accuses the man of putting something illicit in her cocktail in order to coerce her into staying. Um, gross! Let’s give former American Idol contestant Fantasia Taylor points for having a jaw-dropping voice, however, and for delivering a suitably greasy take on James Brown’s funktastic chestnut “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”.
      > John Lucas


      Celtic Woman
      The Best of Christmas

      Oh, Celtic Woman. Less a band than a licence to print Shamrock Bucks, or whatever currency they use in Ireland. With an ever-changing lineup, currently featuring exactly zero original members, Celtic Woman has something like 18 albums out (each featuring truly dreadful graphic design), and about half of them seem to be some sort of Christmas thing. All cynicism aside, the music is more than decent as far as these things go. If you’re looking for a seasonal soundtrack that straddles the line between pop-classical and new age and boasts pretty harmonies and the odd flourish of fiddle and uilleann pipes, The Best of Christmas lives up to its billing.
      > John Lucas


      O’Hooley & Tidow
      WinterFolk, Volume 1

      Here’s something that takes a supersized set of balls: trying to do justice to the Pogues’ inarguably flawless “Fairytale of New York”. The highly decorated English duo O’Hooley & Tidow manages the almost impossible on WinterFolk, reimagining a modern Christmas classic as a downbeat meditation, the orchestral brashness of the original replaced by black-hearted cello and violin. Billed as a collection that focuses on “the darker hued aspects of yuletide”, the rest of this 12-song outing is indeed best enjoyed by candlelight at 2 a.m. with a bottle of Ardbeg Kildalton. So get set for some serious reflection on songs like the piano-adorned “The Last Polar Bear” and the powerful ballad “One More Xmas” (including devastating lines like “I just want to be little and spend Christmas with my mum”).
      > Mike Usinger


      From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas)

      To determine if you’re in the target audience for this pop-operatic exercise by Tarja Turunen—known best as one of the founders of the unintentionally hilarious symphonic-metal outfit Nightwish—ask yourself the following question: do I want my festive fare to evoke images of orcs bidding their heads a gory farewell? The pounding martial drums of “O Tannenbaum” turn the celebration of the simple pleasure of the Christmas tree into something that sounds as if it should be underscoring an epic battle scene in a Lord of the Rings movie, and the rest of the album is just as melodramatically dreary. Or, depending on how many 20-sided dice you own, you might find it breathtakingly awesome.
      > John Lucas


      Cheap Trick
      Christmas Christmas

      For a band that’s done almost nothing of value since 1979’s Dream Police, Cheap Trick isn’t exactly set up for an epic fail with the unimaginatively titled Christmas Christmas. How unexpected, then, that the kickoff original, “Merry Christmas Darlings”, delivers tinsel-draped glam at its most potent, and the closing title track suggests the Beatles headlining a holiday matinee at CBGB. Those of the opinion that the last thing Jesus H. Christ wants to hear around his birthday is distorted guitars and galloping drums will enjoy Cheap Trick’s first holiday album about as much as Cheap Trick fans cared about Woke Up With a Monster. And let’s be honest: the only thing the world needs less than another version of “Run Rudolph Run” is a rendition that throws overdriven Blues­hammer harmonica into the mix. Still, for no other reason than no one saw it coming, this late-career triumph somehow makes a four-decade-old act seem shiny and new.
      > Mike Usinger


      Various Artists
      Small Talk With Scarecrow

      Apparently, Christmas is a big deal in South Korea, but this compilation from the Masan-based label Heosuabi Record is still inexplicable. Why does a shotgun-brandishing Santa Claus appear to be terrorizing Elvis Presley, Jesus, and Macauley Culkin on the cover? Unless you understand Korean, you’ll likely find yourself wondering exactly what a song like Kim Tae Chun’s “Night of the Living Scarecrow”—all jaunty ragtime piano and musical saw—has to do with Christmas. Ditto Yamagata Tweakster’s bedroom-techno number “Suck You Asshole”, which at least has the benefit of bearing an awesomely translated title.
      > John Lucas