With the Christmas season officially upon us, it's time to separate the sonic gold from the tinsel-quality trash

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      We’ve got a pretty good idea what you’re thinking: November hasn’t even rolled up its rain-soaked carpet yet, which means it’s too early for Christmas.

      Wrong. As Canadian Tire shoppers know, the fake Scots pine and Douglas fir trees are typically rolled out before the Halloween decorations have been removed from the shelves. And explaining why half the Straight’s staff currently looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with bad beer bloat, Avalon Dairy eggnog has been on the shelves of finer local grocery stores since early October.

      So, sorry—as sure as The Grinch is now playing at the local multiplex—it’s now the most wonderful time of year. To get you through the glorious weeks ahead, we’ve rounded up a selection of this year’s Christmas albums and then assigned each of them one of three handy-dandy ratings. The crap gets a sad Charlie Brown tree, the middling offerings get functional but not terribly exciting tighty-whitey underwear, and the gold-standard triumphs are granted a shiny present.

      Happy holidays. And our deepest condolences for the fact that you’ve had to listen to Taylor Swift’s “Last Christmas” in drugstores and supermarkets since the middle of August.

      Diana Ross
      Wonderful Christmas Time
      (Universal)

      Full of lush orchestral arrangements and choral backing vocals, this is as thoroughly old-fashioned a Christmas album as you’re likely to hear this year. And that’s hardly surprising; the record is almost a quarter-century old. So how come you’ve never heard of it? Maybe because it was initially released, with a different track sequence and under another title, to the international market. This isn’t an old-school Motown record—if you want girl-group vibes, go to the Supremes’ 1965 LP Merry Christmas—but an oddly ethereal one. An exception is Ross’s cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, which gains a measure of melodramatic solemnity from a martial beat and children’s choir. > John Lucas

      Ingrid Michaelson
      Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs for the Season
      (Independent)

      Clearly someone who thinks ahead, Ingrid Michaelson is careful to avoid disappointing folks here by stating that her 12-song entry into the Christmas-album sweepstakes consists of her songs for the season. If you’re looking for new renditions of personal faves like “Here Comes Fatty Claus” or “Fuck Christmas”, go elsewhere. Those who appreciate immaculately retro renditions of chestnuts like “Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, meanwhile, will find lots to love on this instant classic. Michaelson has a thing for CinemaScope strings and brash classic-jazz horns, and she sings like an emissary from a time when three-martini lunches were a thing and every home had an art deco ashtray. Invest in a USB–modified vintage radio, whip up a pitcher of old fashioneds, and you’ve got the makings of a throwback Christmas that would impress Frank Capra. > Mike Usinger

      Eric Clapton
      Happy Xmas
      (EPC Enterprises)

      If the thought of an Eric Clapton Christmas album jingles your bells, with all the slick blues-rock guitar and easy-listening arrangements it inevitably entails, you’re probably somebody’s grandpa. And that’s okay, because so is Clapton. Old white guys represent a seriously underserved segment of the holiday-music market, so thank the suckling infant Christ we have Happy Xmas to set things right. It sounds exactly how you would expect it to. Does it feature Clapton pals like Jim Keltner and Doyle Bramhall II? Yes. Yes, it does. Does it include pentatonic-scale solos that will make your dad climb up on the Christmas dinner table and shred away at an invisible Stratocaster? Uh-huh. Does it feature Clapton’s take on “Merry Christmas Baby”? Oh, you bet your sweet Dockers-wearing ass it does. > John Lucas

      JD McPherson
      Socks (New West)

      Rather than take a bunch of already overroasted chestnuts and slather them in six coats of circa-now production, JD McPherson has done the opposite. On the endlessly delightful Socks, the Oklahoma-based singer-guitarist and bandleader has crafted 10 brand-new songs that sound like lost B-sides from another era—specifically, the late 1940s to mid-1950s. “What’s That Sound?” is toe-tapping rockabilly, “Hey Skinny Santa!” is a jump-blues joint that swings hard enough to wake up the Ghost of Christmas Past (or possibly Louis Jordan), and “Santa’s Got a Mean Machine” is what folks used to call rock ’n’ roll when the likes of Fats Domino still walked the earth. Slip a few of these songs onto your retro-Xmas playlist alongside cuts by the Moonglows and Mabel Scott and you might even be able to sneak them past that cousin who is convinced that music died the day Buddy Holly stepped aboard an ill-fated Beechcraft Bonanza. > John Lucas

      The Mavericks
      Hey! Merry Christmas!
      (Mono Mundo)

      For a band that started out in the Florida punk scene—sometimes playing bills with a young Marilyn Manson—the Mavericks as mainstream America knows them don’t have a lot of bite. Blame a move to Nashville, a city where you either play by the slick and safe rules of modern country or end up squatting in a coal-heated shack three trailers down from Hank Williams III. The first half of Hey! Merry Christmas! weirdly sounds like the Mavericks are taking their musical cues from legendary barbershop-quartet revisionists 5 Neat Guys—the downside being there’s nothing as fun as “Patsy Has the Largest Breasts in Town”. Things at least pick up on the back end, with the bluesy title track rollicking enough to crack open that jug of moonshine you’ve squirrelled away since 2001, and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” the kind of love letter Phil Spector might have concocted if he was spending his days in ’60s Motown instead of a circa-now California state prison. > Mike Usinger

      Thor
      Christmas in Valhalla
      (Deadline Music)

      Notwithstanding its title—to say nothing of the heroic cover art by Welsh comic-book artist Simon Williams—Christmas in Valhalla has next to nothing to do with Norse mythology. Well, okay, it does make a sort of sense for the local rocker who named himself after the god of thunder and lightning to sing an ode to “Donner and Blitzen”. Oh, and “Our Last Christmas” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” may or may not be about Ragnarök (a.k.a. the Viking apocalypse). Probably not. In any case, it’s kind of fun to imagine Santa Claus as an Odin-esque figure, white beard flowing in the night sky as he flies his mighty eight-legged steed Sleipnir (who needs reindeer?) to the rooftops of children everywhere, leaving salted fish and dried lingonberries in the stockings of all the good kids while Christmas in Valhalla blasts away in the background. > John Lucas

      Various Artists
      Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Soundtrack
      (Columbia)

      Traditionalists will be predisposed to hate The Grinch, primarily because there’s only one version of the Dr. Seuss classic that matters. (Correct, if you guessed the 2000 one starring Jim Carrey, who masterfully showed why the Onion once crowned him America’s favourite rubber-faced fartsmith.) In the trailer and on the movie posters, the most famous fuzzy green misanthrope this side of Oscar the Grouch looks just a little too cute. As for the soundtrack, you’ve already heard half of it, from Run-DMC’s essential “Christmas in Hollis” to Jackie Wilson’s timeless “Deck the Halls”. The smattering of new material includes Tyler, the Creator’s reimagining of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” as something dreamed down between bong hits, and a Danny Elfman phone-in—“A Wonderful Awful Idea”—that sums up this whole endeavour more concisely than mere words could ever hope to. > Mike Usinger

      Mike Love
      Reason for the Season
      (Meleco)

      It’s easy to throw shade on Mike Love. Too easy, probably. After all, he’s the Beach Boys singer-songwriter who isn’t Brian Wilson. Wilson, of course, is generally viewed as a pop-music savant, while Love is the guy who shook hands with Ronald Reagan, played with John Stamos, and sang “Kokomo”. Maybe the man is unjustly maligned, but the mediocre Reason for the Season isn’t going to change that. The only good song on the album is “Little St. Nick” (which Love cowrote with Wilson, it should be noted), and the Beach Boys already released the definitive version of that one in 1963. > John Lucas

      Mark Vincent
      The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
      (Independent)

      As hinted at by its title, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year won’t win any awards for the most groundbreaking Christmas record of 2018—or any other year, for that matter. Despite the white tux he wears on the album’s cover, Australian tenor Mark Vincent looks like someone who grew up cracking spines on the rugby pitch. In the studio, though, he’s completely old-school—like someone fired up a Parliament, poured a double Scotch on the rocks, and then set about creating a perfect distillation of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Which is all fine, except the last time Santa Claus, Burl Ives, and Buddy the Elf checked, all three of those legendary crooners had dozens of perfectly serviceable Christmas collections. Still, if you need a 200th rendition of “O Holy Night”, “Silent Night”, or “White Christmas”, you’ve come to the right place, mate. > Mike Usinger

      RuPaul
      Christmas Party
      (RuCo)

      I’m guessing this one only really works if you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, because I’ve never watched the show and I don’t quite get it. It’s a fun enough listen, though. “Christmas Queen” is a pretty good Missy Elliott pastiche, and the sassy “Hey Sis, It’s Christmas” wrings maximum mileage out of seasonal double-entendres like “gay apparel” and “hot roasted nuts”, along with an exhortation to “Ride that candy cane good and long.” In other words, this ain’t the one to put on when the kids are unwrapping their Scruff-A-Luvs or Poopsie Slime Surprise Unicorn or whatever other mass-produced plastic crap will end up joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade’s time. > John Lucas

      The Monkees
      A Christmas Party
      (Rhino)

      The Monkees were once described by drummer Mickey Dolenz as an imaginary band “that wanted to be the Beatles that was never successful”. Rounded out by original members Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith (Davy Jones died in 2012), the onetime TV sensations are still plugging away in 2018, unleashing their first-ever Christmas record. Some of alt-rock’s heaviest hitters adore the group, with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo gifting the refreshingly snotty “What Would Santa Do” and XTC’s Andy Partridge contributing an appropriately paisley-patterned “Unwrap You at Christmas”. Add Jones returning from the grave for a hard-to-mess-up “Mele Kalikimaka” and Nesmith giving loping country the Irving Berlin treatment on “Snowfall”, and you’ve got a record that—considering the origins and age of the Monkees—is more enjoyable than it has any right to be. > Mike Usinger

      Serena Ryder
      Christmas Kisses
      (Universal)

      If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll admit that Christmas isn’t really about what you need. It’s about what you want. Oh, sure, it’s also about love of family and the joy of giving and all that Hallmark stuff. But it’s also about celebrating things that are truly, deeply unnecessary. Do you really need to eat that entire plate of rum balls when you’ve already washed a box of shortbread cookies down with a litre of eggnog? Of course not, but you want to and it’s the holidays, so what the hell, right? Serena Ryder gets it. She’s certainly well aware that the world doesn’t actually need another album’s worth of loungetastic, jazz-inflected renditions of “White Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. Diana Krall already made that album in 2005, after all. But Ryder steps out of her indie-folk comfort zone and proves herself more than capable of holding her own in the overcrowded holiday-crooner field. Much like snowman-shaped sugar cookies, another one won’t hurt. > John Lucas

      Walk Off The Earth
      Subscribe to the Holidays
      (Independent)

      As album titles go, Subscribe to the Holidays is about as festive as Only 23 More Business Days Until December 25. That’s entirely forgivable, though, considering that this six-song EP is bright-eyed enough to put a smile on the faces of Ebenezer Scrooge, Scut Farkus, and that miserable asshole in the apartment below you who’s always banging on the ceiling with a broom. A reggaefied “Happy Hanukkah” finds the famously positive Burlington, Ontario, five-piece lighting up the menorah on the beaches of Jamaica, and a crazy angelic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” turns the spotlight on young guest vocalist Giorgio Michael, the child of band founders Sarah Blackwood and Gianni “Luminati” Nicassio. Walk Off the Earth finishes things up with a Calypso-tinted “Linus and Lucy”, by which time you’ll be ready not only to subscribe to the holidays, but also to think maybe you’ll one day make your own Christmas record, if only because you’ve already thought of a title: Your Amazon Order Has Been Processed. > Mike Usinger

      William Shatner
      Shatner Claus (Cleopatra)

      There are only two possible conceptual problems with a William Shatner Christmas album. First of all, the man known to millions as James Tiberius Kirk is Jewish. That never stopped Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Shore, or Barry Manilow from putting out Christmas songs (or Irving Berlin or Johnny Marks from writing them), so why should it stop the Shat? A slightly bigger problem is that the Canadian-born performer couldn’t carry a tune if the fate of all the Whos down in Whoville depended on it. He doesn’t even bother to try on Shatner Claus, which is probably for the best, leaving the actual melodic work to singers like Brad Paisley and, uh, Iggy Pop, along with guitarists including Elliot Easton (the Cars) and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top). Mostly, though, listening to this record is akin to hanging out on Christmas Eve with a drunk uncle who, after a few too many Very Merry Ornamentinis, refuses to shut up and leave the crooning to Bing. > John Lucas

      Mormon Tabernacle Choir
      A Merry Little Christmas
      (Intellectual Reserve)

      The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has put out a lot of Christmas albums over the decades—over 30 of them, but who’s counting? The latest, A Merry Little Christmas, suggests that the operation is running out of both good gimmicks and, well, Christmas songs. There are no Muppets or American Idol also-rans on this one, just Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville and Sutton Foster, who is a Broadway star (thanks, Wikipedia!) with an unbearably hammy way of selling a melody. Foster gamely grins her way through John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Pure Imagination”, which may trigger nostalgia for anyone with memories of Gene Wilder singing it as Willy Wonka. In that case, it was merely setting the stage for a series of scenes of gluttonous children getting their just desserts. And while there’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere for the consumer frenzy that takes place every year about this time, it’s still a weird choice for a Christmas album. > John Lucas

      The Hound + The Fox
      Songs of Winter
      (Independent)

      Some band names are so interesting that they get you thinking. Consider, for example, the Hound + the Fox, which sounds like the name of a pub you’d find somewhere on West Broadway in Kits. Take the issue of who is the “hound” and who is the “fox” in the Oregon husband-and-wife team of Reilly and McKenzie Zamber, one possible answer being that someone has come up with the most disrespectful name this side of Anus Presley. Then there’s the question of whether or not the band’s name is meant as a sly tribute to the 1981 Disney film The Fox and the Hound, once famous as the most expensive animated film ever made. Unfortunately, Songs of Winter is nowhere near as interesting as such big questions. The standards on the duo’s ethereal, 12-song baroque-pop release are well-meaning and expertly recorded, but ultimately forgettable. Yes, it’s lovely stuff—especially if you love Sarah McLachlan and Michael Bublé—but the problem is that it’s been done before just as well, if not better. > Mike Usinger

      Old 97’s
      Love the Holidays
      (ATO)

      In some ways, it was a savvy move for Old 97’s to record an album made up (almost) entirely of original songs. After all, no one really needs another recording of “Silver Bells” or “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. In that regard, Love the Holidays is basically just a new Old 97’s record, one that just happens to feature a bunch of songs about Christmas. The only possible downside is that there are plenty of folks who don’t give a fiddler’s fart about Old 97’s and would rather hear “Silver Bells” or “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” than shitkicking new tunes like “Rudolph Was Blue” and “Hobo Christmas Song”. (For them, the band has cannily included a bunch of bonus tracks, including familiar numbers such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Blue Christmas”.) > John Lucas

      John Legend
      A Legendary Christmas
      (Columbia)

      Like it or not, we’ve all experienced a legendary Christmas. The kind where it snows harder than the opening of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, leading to a six-car pileup on the Alex Fraser Bridge. Or where Sailor Jerry ruins yet another December 25 by turning Uncle Frank into the second coming of Barfly’s Henry Chinaski—right down to the carpet-cleaner comment at the dinner table. Even if it’s meant as a clever play on his name, John Legend has a big pair of sugarplums for naming his first foray into holiday-season music A Legendary Christmas. At least he’s not far off the mark. The new-school R&B singer is smart enough to pack standards like “Silver Bells” with bold Stax-style horns and cinematic strings, and then round things out with classy obscurities (Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes”) and silky originals (“Wrap Me Up in Your Love”). > Mike Usinger

      Pentatonix
      Christmas Is Here!
      (Sony)

      There’s a damn good reason for that exclamation point in the title. If you were a member of Pentatonix, you’d be pretty stoked at the thought of the holiday season coming around. At the risk of sounding cynical, let’s just say the a cappella group knows full well which side its bread is buttered on—in its four-year recording career, Pentatonix has already put out three Christmas albums. The latest one includes some dubious choices (the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” isn’t even remotely a Christmas song, and Danny Elfman’s “Making Christmas” sounds better with monsters singing it), but it’s hard to find fault with great singing, on ample display here. Bonus points for roping in Kelly Clarkson to belt the shit out of “Grown Up Christmas List”. > John Lucas

      Predator Dub Assassins
      A Very Dubby Christmas
      (Dublife Muzik)

      Yah, mon. It’s gonna be a green Christmas, if you know what I mean. Irie! Big up yourself. Et cetera. The cover of A Very Dubby Christmas will probably tell you all you need to know about the album before you even hear a note: it pays homage to Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas LP, but where Der Bingle had a bow tie made of holly, the dread-headed P-Dub sports one crafted from cannabis leaves. If spliffed-out reggae versions of “Last Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Rock” sound like your bowl of sensimilla, fire up a fat one, pour yourself a rum-and-eggnog heavy on the Smith & Cross, and drift away to Ocho Rios. In your mind, I mean. If you’re paying Vancouver rent, there’s no way you’re getting out of this rain-soaked hell for the holidays. > John Lucas

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