Holiday discs sound a lot like Christmas

This year’s batch of holiday LPs includes brassy soul, Gallic chestnuts, and sublime choral compositions.

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      There’s been a lot of nattering of late that retail outlets and radio stations have begun playing holiday music too early in the year. Blasphemy! As any right-thinking person knows, the appropriate time to start listening to Christmas music is October 1, which also happens to be the traditional date of the year’s first viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Mind you, it helps if you consider “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” and “Jack’s Obsession” to be perfectly acceptable Christmas songs, and Thanksgiving and Halloween mere way stations on the road to the main event.

      You know, Jack Skellington may have been a mentally imbalanced ghoul who abducted Kris Kringle and nearly ruined a beloved holiday for millions of children, but if he’d had a heart, it would have been in the right place. He saw the joy of Christmas and wanted a bit of it for himself. Who can blame the guy? In the end, he got a lesson that we could all stand to learn: don’t try to control Christmas; just let it unfold as it will. Your cousin Mark is always going to be a creepy douchenozzle who deserves to have his chestnuts roasted on an open fire, you’ll never find the keys to a cherry-red 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback in your stocking, and you’re always going to run out of eggnog far too soon. Also, someone is virtually guaranteed to humiliate you by bringing out all your awkward-years school photos. (And by “someone”, we mean your mom.) Like that Adele Dazeem song says, just let it go.

      What you can control is the soundtrack to your festivities, at least in the sanctity of your own home. Don’t want to suffer through yet another Auto-Tuned version of that goddamn awful Wham! song? You don’t have to. There are many, many other choices out there, and some of them won’t even make you want to heave the stereo into the fireplace and watch it go up like a Yule log. Sorting out the tinsel from the trash can be a daunting task, which is why every year we give this gift to you: we’ve listened to all the new Christmas albums released this year and sorted them into three categories. Here’s how our rating system works: the good stuff gets a wrapped gift, the so-so stuff gets a pair of tighty-whiteys, and anything slugged with a Charlie Brown tree is only fit for Oogie Boogie to hear.


      Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

      It’s a Holiday Soul Party

      Breathing new life into something as overplayed as “White Christmas” isn’t easy, but as sure as James Brown died on Baby Jesus’s birthday, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are up to the job on It’s a Holiday Soul Party. Backed by her fabulously retro Dap-Kings, the queen of modern throwback soul arrives ready to sweat on her first Xmas-flavoured outing. Those who demand something shiny and new for Christmas will be thrilled to punch up their Merry Xmas iPod playlist with the brass-bombed “8 Days of Hannukah” and impressively swinging “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects”. As for purists, sorry, but “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is reborn here as a Chicago-style bump-n-grind, while “Silent Night” bleeds gin-joint swagger. As for “White Christmas”, well, considering Sharon Jones is hosting, expect something that’s anything but white-bread.

      > Mike Usinger


      Leann Rimes

      Today Is Christmas

      Last year LeAnn Rimes gave us the bizarrely titled EP One Christmas: Chapter 1, which featured the most delightfully, deliriously unhinged rendition of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” imaginable. That subtitle was evidently a red herring, seeing as how instead of One Christmas: Chapter 2 we now have the perfectly pleasant Today Is Christmas. Apart from a few seconds of yodelling on a somewhat manic brass-addled version of “Must Be Santa”, there isn’t much here that will have you questioning Rimes’s sanity. That’s kind of a shame, because she does crazy so well.

      > John Lucas


      Jann Arden

      A Jann Arden Christmas

      Ms. Arden has teamed up with producer Bob Rock for a decidedly mainstream collection that adds John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)” to the usual blah-blah-blah. Some arrangements might pique interest, like a Coldplay-esque “Silver Bells”, but it’s all very “tasteful” in that soul-crushing, CBC-anointed way. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich guests on a smoky “Blue Christmas” (not really).

      > Adrian Mack


      Various artists

      The Number 1 Jazz Christmas Album

      There are plenty of good Christmas jazz compilations out there—the jitterbugging Yule B’ Swingin’ and Verve’s mellow Christmas for Lovers spring immediately to mind—but this one is allegedly the greatest of them all. And it’s not bad (it’s hard to go wrong with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong), even if it does contain Antônio Carlos Jobim’s starkly depressing “Looks Like December” and the Puppini Sisters’ lounged-up and thoroughly unnecessary café-jazz take on that goddamn awful Wham! song.

      > John Lucas


      Kylie Minogue

      Kylie Christmas

      For all of her platinum records, Kylie Minogue has occasionally played things edgy, recording with Nick Cave and unleashing her inner stalker on the dance-floor detonator “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”. Despite a guitar-crunched duet with bad boy Iggy Pop titled “Christmas Wrapping”, most of Kylie Christmas takes the safe road, with “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow” scrubbed and buffed and Auto-Tuned until they gleam, and not in a good way. A plastic-sounding Min­ogue still trumps Christmas with Mariah Carey, but it’s hard not to wish the Aussie pop princess had gone slumming with Cave instead of resurrecting the corpse of Frank Sinatra for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”.

      > Mike Usinger


      KC and the Sunshine Band

      A Sunshine Christmas

      Strange feelings of affection for Harry Casey and his Miami-based disco hit machine are both normal and healthy—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—but what do Floridians know from Christmas? Here, catchy if lazy originals (“The After Christmas Song”) are mingled with the standards (assuming that goddamn awful Wham! song is a standard), but the production? Ugh. I haven’t felt this digitally penetrated since my last prostate exam. Much love to the Sunshine Band, always, but I’m afraid this is not the way (I like it).

      > Adrian Mack


      Mint Condition

      Healing Season

      Look, I enjoy wallowing in seasonal despondency as much as the next guy, but (with the exception of “Blue Christmas”) I draw the line at Christmas-themed breakup songs. That’s a mope too far, so Mint Condition’s slick R&B weepers “Not What I Wanted” and “Lonely Christmas” leave me colder than the Winter Warlock’s frozen heart. The group earns back a few points for turning in fine versions of James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”.

      > John Lucas


      Band of Merrymakers

      Welcome to Our Christmas Party

      Here’s a novel idea: a supergroup aiming for something more original than rerecording “We Are the World” with a hologram of Michael Jackson. Band of Merrymakers features plenty of grizzled industry vets—Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum—but they sound anything but jaded on this collection of seven originals and four covers. “Snow Snow Snow” is infectious enough to make the normally pants-shittingly terrifying idea of driving the Coquihalla in December seem delightful, while “Gather Round” will thaw the heart of the most miserable of grinches. Christ, even “Jingle Bells” sounds fresher than fresh Whistler powder. Move over, Sufjan Stevens—you’ve got competition on the new-Christmas-classics front.

      > Mike Usinger



      That’s Christmas to Me

      Oh, Christmas. So many questions. How does Santa Claus deliver toys to millions of kids all over the world without travelling at speeds fast enough to melt his face off and reduce his sleigh to cinders? How does Jack Frost continue to get away with nipping at people’s noses and not get cold-cocked? And how is it possible for a record that features only the human voice to sound as grossly overproduced as the tooth-rotting That’s Christmas to Me does?

      > John Lucas


      The dBs & Friends

      Christmas Time Again!

      Very possibly the greatest Christmas album you don’t own. Even if you do, this third reissue since 1986 contains yet more new material, all of it great. Smart originals by ’80s college-rock heroes the dBs or friends like Wes Lachot (his Brian Wilson–esque “Christmas Is the Only Time” is a highlight) sit beside well-chosen covers like Alex Chilton’s sincere, moonlit version of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song”, added in ’93. A Mike (R.E.M.) Mills–led take on “Jesus Christ” gives this decade’s model an even starrier Big Star feel, although the best addition to an already eccentric collection might come from Robyn Hitchcock, who debates the relative merits (or not) of “The Day Before Boxing Day” with the hilariously gloomy voices in his head.

      > Adrian Mack


      Chris Tomlin

      Adore: Christmas Songs of Worship

      In case you couldn’t tell from the title, Chris Tomlin is one of those religious types—you know, the ones who are convinced that the rest of us are engaged in some sort of War on Christmas. I’ll forgive him for that, because ’tis the season, and because Adore is a live album that sounds as crisp and polished as a studio recording. Sweet suckling infant Jesus, can Tomlin ever sing, and his band performs miraculously well.

      > John Lucas


      Mario Frangoulis

      Tales of Christmas

      How does one make seasonal standards no one needs to hear sung for the five-millionth time sound new? Well, if you’re Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis, you rip through “Jingle Bells” at a clip that suggests Greece has many problems, but finding cheap speed and coke isn’t one of them. That’s hardly a big selling point, though. The classical crossover artist’s “White Christmas” is torpedoed by borderline-comical smooth-jazz sax, and the only thing interesting about a triple-sugared “Ave Maria” is that it’s sung in the language of souvlaki and ekmek. If you’ve got a γιαγιά with eyebrows that would impress Yanni, Tales of Christmas is a no-brainer stocking stuffer. As for the rest of us, no matter how much you love that goddamn awful Wham! song, this is one tale that no one not named Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou needs to sit through.

      > Mike Usinger



      Lit Up

      A remarkably silly project from Victoria, Lit Up appears to be aimed at millennials labouring under the impression that Sade somehow denotes “class”, but it ends up sounding more like panpiping ’90s new-age dummies Enigma. Ever-so-serious jazz-lite, trippity-hop, and midnight-sax-infused elevator Muzak are all employed to attack the likes of “We Three Kings” (featuring Abi Rose), “Silent Night” (featuring Rykka), and an astoundingly ill-advised foreplay-killer called “Sugar Plums” (featuring some uncredited vocalist aiming too hard for sultry, and by that I mean your mom). Cheesy tat disguised as quality, sort of like an IKEA shelving unit.

      > Adrian Mack


      Quadriga Consort

      Winter’s Delights: Early Christmas Music and Carols From the British Isles

      This Austrian early-music outfit sounds convincingly British, what with all the harpsichords and recorders. As far as classical Christmas records go, this one leans considerably in the new-age direction in its arrangements, and it’ll be perfect for anyone whose holiday celebrations wouldn’t be complete without the sounds of Loreena McKennitt and Celtic Woman (and by that I mean your mom).

      > John Lucas


      Kenny Rogers

      Once Again It’s Christmas

      Things start off bizarrely, with the title track proving a worse-than-tequila-and-eggnog shitmix of CinemaScope strings, ultra-lounge vocal stylings, and high-plains-drifter harmonica. And sadly, little improves from there on Once Again It’s Christmas, where “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Little Drummer Boy” practically bleed corn syrup. It doesn’t help that Rogers—who is apparently about as religious as Richard Dawkins—grunts out lines like “The baby Jesus born this night” like he’s just chased a carton of Marlboros with a Texas mickey of Jim Beam. Never mind knowing when to hold ’em and fold ’em, sometimes you really gotta know when to run for the Bing Crosby.

      > Mike Usinger


      Deborah Allen

      Rockin’ Little Christmas

      When people say they love all kinds of music except for country, this is the sort of thing they’re thinking of. I’m sure Deborah Allen is a nice lady, but you’re never going to get in my good books by starting off an album with “Please Come Home for Christmas”, a song forever tainted by association with those twin pillars of crap, the Eagles and Bon Jovi. It also doesn’t help that the throaty Allen’s perfunctory attempts at rockin’ are about as convincing as the beard on the Kingsgate Mall Santa.

      > John Lucas


      Mireille Mathieu


      Buttoned-up ’70s hottie Mireille Mathieu keeps slugging away in the time-honoured fashion, a Piaf knockoff for folks with only a passing interest in music and no use for tragedy. That slightly flat stentorian warble is put to typically good use on her third Christmas album, stocked with pretty much the same material as the last two (“Noël Blanc”, “Mon Beau Sapin”, et cetera). The big news is Gallic chestnut “Petit Papa Noël”, presented here in a duet with beloved Nazi collaborator Tino Rossi. He’s been dead for over 30 years, so this must be a Christmas miracle.

      > Adrian Mack


      Brian Setzer Orchestra

      Rockin’ Rudolph

      Following in the tradition of the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s previous Christmas-themed extravaganzas, Rockin’ Rudolph is big and brassy, sometimes to the point of being totally obnoxious. But if full-throttle big-band rockabilly gets you off, the former Stray Cat and his Gretsch remain the next-best thing to an industrial-sized tub of Brylcreem, a white tux with black leather piping, and dinner for two at the Cotton Club with the ghost of Gene Vincent.

      > Mike Usinger


      Daniel Taylor/The Trinity choir

      Four Thousand Winter

      Bathed in the natural reverb of St. Albans the Martyr Church in London, England, the voices of the Trinity Choir (a new group led by Canadian countertenor and conductor Daniel Taylor) sound positively luminous performing choral masterworks by John Tavener, Thomas Tallis, and others. I don’t get to use the word magnificent nearly enough when reviewing albums, but this one certainly warrants it.

      > John Lucas