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As we dust off those holiday sweaters and raid the attic for our well-loved decorations, it’s also time to break out our favorite holiday season albums (assuming you haven’t been playing them all year like I have). Christmas music lovers will have many of the heavy-hitters (see our piece here), those beloved favorites that have been around for generations. But what about modern Christmas albums? Are there any albums from the last 30 years that will stand the test of time and become as much a part of the holiday season as A Charlie Brown Christmas?
As any connoisseur will tell you, great holiday music continues to be made – artists love Christmas music just as much as we do (anyone else excited about this year’s contribution from Sia?). They continue to put their own stamp on pop standards, traditionals, and yes, original songs so good they belong in the holiday canon. So string up the popcorn, get the tinsel on the tree, and check out these 10 modern Christmas classics.
Mariah Carey’s first holiday album Merry Christmas (1994) is a classic and anyone who says otherwise will get coal in their stockings. She was already a bonafide star at this point and a star churning out a Christmas album is usually just checking off a list, but Carey took the album seriously. In addition to making sure the standard holiday favorites were covered, Carey also wanted some original songs on her album; she co-wrote all three of them. She belts out classics like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and she lovingly challenges herself with “O Holy Night.” Gospel influences are apparent on “Silent Night” and original song “Jesus Born On This Day” and Carey fearlessly turns “Joy To The World” into a dance party. In addition to recording one of the bestselling Christmas albums of all time, Carey also co-wrote what is now a beloved holiday standard: “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” A joyful love song in the vein of ‘60s girl-groups, no holiday season is complete without singing along to this song at the top of your lungs.
There are a lot of big names on the holiday compilation, A Very Special Christmas (1987). The first of several volumes released to benefit the Special Olympics, participating artists include the Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders, Sting, Madonna, and Stevie Nicks with many of our holiday favorites represented. Whitney Houston’s polished take on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” swoons, U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” soars, and Alison Moyet commands on “The Coventry Carol.” Some raucous rockers from John Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, and Bon Jovi mean this album can serve those looking for traditional staples like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night” while also living it up with the suggestive “Back Door Santa.” But let’s not forget one of the best reasons to get this album – Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” The only original track included, “Christmas in Hollis” made its first compilation appearance here on A Very Special Christmas.
In 1999, Minnesota indie rock band Low released what few indie rock bands at the time were interested in, a Christmas album. The original opener on Christmas (“Just Like Christmas”) is probably the most upbeat of the bunch, about getting lost and feeling so young that it felt like Christmas, with singer Mimi Parker accompanied by sleigh bells and some thunderous drumming. Things slow down with original “Long Way Around The Sea” on which Alan Sparhawk and Parker sing about the wise men. And as if to underscore the gloomy weight placed on listeners by this point, the noisy drone of “Little Drummer Boy” begins. The side ends with the bleak “If You Were Born Today,” another original which speculates on the fate of a Jesus born in modern times. Listeners are soothed on the flip side with familiar fare like “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night” but the pace is so slow, the aching melancholy of Parker’s singing on “Blue Christmas” especially, it makes you want to sink into oblivion. This is for you if minimal arrangements, two-part harmonies, glacial tempos, and sitting alone in front of a fire are your holiday jam.
What do pedal steel and lap steel guitars, autoharp, fiddles, and sleigh bells have in common? Kacey Musgraves’ A Very Kacey Christmas (2016) which hits straight for the heart with its earnest nostalgia and throwback arrangements. Many artists miss when they reach for nostalgia and end up drowning in egg-noggy schmaltz. Not Musgraves. At once familiar and fresh, Musgraves croons on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” swings in the mariachi-inspired “Feliz Navidad,” and even takes novelty tracks seriously with the effortless “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and one of my childhood favorites “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.” But what’s a Christmas album without some memorable originals and Musgraves is all in with the tongue-in-cheek “A Willie Nice Christmas,” which features Willie Nelson, the upbeat “Ribbons and Bows,” and the heartstring-tugger “Christmas Makes Me Cry.” Musgraves winks and woos, taking listeners on a trip through vintage pop and country swing, exotica, and Christmases long gone. If your family prefers traditional classics for your holiday get-togethers, go ahead and slip A Very Kacey Christmas into the stack. It belongs there.
On 2002’s ‘Tis The Season For Los Straitjackets!, the mask-wearing instrumental rock band Los Straitjackets take their love of surf and garage rock and release a holiday record on par with 1965’s classic The Ventures’ Christmas Album. Los Straitjackets evoke a warm and sunny holiday spirit on the album, and occasionally use the same Ventures shtick of taking guitar riffs from other rock hits and mashing them up with holiday favorites. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” starts off with the Champs’ “Tequila,” Richie Valens’ guitar riff from “La Bamba” is mixed with “Feliz Navidad,” and they channel the Chantays’ “Pipeline” on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And paying homage to one of their musical heroes, they straight up cover the Ventures’ version of “Sleigh Ride.” There are also two fun original tracks, “Christmas in Las Vegas” and “Christmas Weekend.” The entire vibe of the album is cool cocktail party. Mix up your playlist this holiday season with these rocking instrumentals.
Rumors have been floating around about a vinyl box set for Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas for the last couple of years but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop hoping. Maybe 2018? Stevens released Songs for Christmas in 2006, a set of five EPs which collected songs he’d recorded between 2001 and 2006. A mix of songs, carols, and hymns, there’s no mistaking Stevens’ intention to mark the holiday season with a religious theme. Even some of his original songs like “Put The Lights On The Tree” and “Only At Christmas Time” get in on the action. But rather than turn off those who don’t share his faith, Stevens has a knack for winning our attention on the simple beauty of the words and melodies, some of which are hundreds of years old. The folk arrangements for the traditional carols and hymns like “Lo! How A Rose E’er Blooming” or “Once In Royal David’s City” are absolutely stunning. Banjos, quirky original songs, precious instrumental interludes, this set is perfect listening for tree trimming and wrapping presents.
With the opening words, “Frosted windowpanes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree,” delicately sung by She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel, and accompanied only by guitar and piano, a quiet mood is set on A Very She & Him Christmas (2011). She & Him’s Deschanel and M. Ward create a Christmas record perfect for an intimate dinner date at home or cuddling with a loved one on a warm couch while it’s snowing outside. Full of scaled-back versions of holiday standards like “The Christmas Waltz,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and “Silver Bells,” and even covers of the Beach Boys and NRBQ (“Christmas Day,” “Little Saint Nick,” and “Christmas Wish”), the familiar songs are wrapped in wistful nostalgia and just enough melancholia to encourage tender embraces. She & Him don’t break any new ground on their first Christmas album but keeping things simple works in their favor.
If R&B and G-funk is more your thing then check out Death Row Records’ holiday compilation Christmas on Death Row (1996). Yes, Death Row released a holiday compilation featuring artists like Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Michel’le, and Danny Boy. Facing prison time for a probation violation, label boss Suge Knight somehow decided to end 1996 on a yuletide note. The resulting 2xLP is a mix of traditional and not-so-traditional Christmas fare. Highlights include Snoop’s “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto,” Nate Dogg & Butch Cassidy’s “Be Thankful,” and the soulful tracks by Death Row journeyman Danny Boy (see “Christmas Song” and “This Christmas”). The compilation is heavy on the R&B and soul from Danny Boy, 6 Feet Deep, and Guess but songs like Snoop’s track, O.F.T.B.’s “Christmas in the Ghetto,” and J. Flexx’s “Party 4 Da Homies” round out this fun blast from the ‘90s.
It took country music legend Loretta Lynn fifty years to get around to releasing her second Christmas album but White Christmas Blue (2016) was worth the wait. With Lynn’s characteristic twinkle, it’s an instant classic and will age even better as the years go by. Recorded during the same sessions that produced her other 2016 album Full Circle (did I mention she was in her 80s?), this album has many of the same players and is in the same intimate down-to-earth style. On the title track, co-written by Lynn, she hits a lovelorn note saying the special someone she’s waiting for is turning her white Christmas blue. Lynn covers herself on two tracks taken from her 1966 holiday record (“Country Christmas” and “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus”); she is heartfelt on traditional carols like “Away In A Manger” and “Silent Night,” and charms on pop standards like “Winter Wonderland” and “Blue Christmas.” And in a brilliant reading, Lynn closes the album with the poem “’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” lulling listeners to sleep with her warmth. It just doesn’t get more Christmas than this.
2015’s It’s A Holiday Soul Party from Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings is straight-up fire. It belongs in heavy rotation in your vinyl stacks this season, made for parties with friends or when you’re alone needing to be lifted up by some funky old-school soul. More than just cool renditions of holiday standards (“Funky Little Drummer Boy,” “White Christmas,” and “Silver Bells” are highlights) there are also a good number of original tracks. Jones and company get the party started with the groovy “8 Days (of Hanukkah),” the harmonies on “Big Bulbs” give off a souped-up ‘40s vibe, and “Just Another Christmas Song” is pure sunshine as Jones sings it may be the same old song but this time she’ll sing along. But things truly get transcendent when Jones gives us bluesy numbers like her soulful versions of “Silent Night” and “Please Come Home For Christmas.” No doubt the tears still fill the eyes when thinking of the passing of singer Sharon Jones but dammit, we still have her music, right?
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.