You wouldn’t know it from listening to the same old hits on Christmas radio, but every year a flood of new Christmas music hits the market, as canny megastars and the cornier indie bands strive to prove their devotion to sentiment. Many famous pop artists have recorded Christmas albums that few fans know about; they get tucked away in shady discographical corners. This holiday season, I’m wondering why Christmas stations don’t play and create new hits with regularity — the enterprise’s defining conservatism needn’t preclude a bouncier array of novelty songs. I’d also like to know why, of the artists reviewed below, nobody knows how to sing “O Holy Night.”
Idina Menzel: Christmas: A Season of Love (School Boy/Decca)
Like most Broadway divas, Idina Menzel has a solemn and a playful side, and where her last Christmas album, Holiday Wishes (2014), exudes a golden, pious glow, this one gets rowdy. She’s chosen the album’s repertoire for light cheer and melodic exuberance, with full, clattery big-band arrangements whose blaring horns have a comic thrust and whose warm, acoustic bass thumps with jollity. As usual, she uses the genre exercise as an excuse to let loose and sing. There’s a rough, brassy grain in her voice projecting a swooping, magnanimous delight that Christmas is finally here and it’s time to paint the town red and green. The obligatory mashup of “O Holy Night” and “Ave Maria” halts the album’s momentum only a smidgen.
Frozen 2 (Walt Disney)
Replete with Broadway-style over-singing, songs that hinge on triumphant moments of self-discovery, and odes to snow and reindeer, the soundtrack albums to Disney’s Frozen animated musicals are Christmas albums in all but name. This album includes eight songs from Frozen 2 in their original versions, performed by the singers who voice characters in the film, plus three of those songs in alternate versions by established pop artists. Disconnected and slight, the album doesn’t quite cohere, but the original songs are cute and wholesome (especially “Reindeer are Better Than People”), and hearing how the guest artists approach the material amuses. Kacey Musgraves, who has already released an excellent Christmas album (A Very Kacey Christmas), covers “All Is Found” with characteristically quiet, contemplative fragility; Panic! at the Disco, the standard-bearers for theater kids torn between rock crossover and glee club, cover “Into the Unknown” with equally predictable bombast. As for Weezer’s “Lost in the Woods,” it acknowledges what’s perhaps an inevitable direction in Weezer’s career. This is a band whose entire previous decade has been devoted to half-hearted jokes, designed to infuriate their original fans, from their beach party albums to their cover of Toto’s “Africa.” Should Rivers Cuomo decide to convert Weezer into an all-Christmas cover band, I can only say, let it snow.
Ne-Yo: Another Kind of Christmas (Motown)
Ne-Yo has always loved retro signifiers of class: airbrushed surfaces, crisply mixed martinis, men wearing cleanly pressed suits and glancing at pocket-watches. He’s sufficiently comfortable with schlock (of which Christmas music is but one variant) to incorporate it neatly into his larger seductive project, which is to refine the conventions of pop-R&B into a light, gossamer, buttery-smooth delicacy. Behold then another luxury sex album, as voluptuous as his usual music, albeit on a more specific thematic level (I don’t know of another R&B album, or Christmas album, that so regularly invokes the act of unwrapping presents as an erotic metaphor). My favorite of these many corny, ardent baubles is “Just Ain’t Christmas,” in which Ne-Yo mopes on Christmas alone, missing his beloved, as a shiny electronic beat whooshes through his ears. The supple bassline and steamy, echoey, percussive panting noises remind him of the Christmas sex he’ll never have again.
Ana Gasteyer: Sugar and Booze (Henry’s Girl)
Christmas is a good subject for musical comedy because it comes with a sackful of mythic tropes that are usually at least silly when they’re not drawn directly from childhood: elves, grinches, babies in Bethlehem. It’s a particularly fitting topic for Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer’s brand of musical comedy; she loves to spout puns, warped rhymes, plural entendres, and other tokens of irrepressible verbal invention. She plays the lounge singer at a holiday cocktail party, twisting syllables around in a languorous drawl while taking drags from a cigarette and winking. On “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again,” she giggles while watching Santa try to wriggle himself out of the chimney (“Jumpin’ jiminy!”); on “Nothing Rhymes With Christmas,” after much exertion, she does come up with an apparent rhyme (“isthmus,” what else?). She fiddles with established chestnuts too, as when she adds a festive bridge to “Let It Snow,” inviting all her friends over for a lively Christmas party before kicking them out so she and her co-host can snuggle by the fire. The light, intricate jazz-retro arrangements roll and swing, with flutes and sleigh bells inserted where appropriate. When you love language, every genre is a playground.
Lea Michele: Christmas in the City (Sony)
Like Idina Menzel, fellow Glee and musical theater star Lea Michele uses the Christmas album as a venue for showing off her voice, but ostentation comes in many forms. Although her sharp, prim, precise voice glides smoothly, years of singing on TV have molded her; her high notes, dynamic shifts in register, and her habit of underlining each emotion with one specially over-enunciated word constitute a painstakingly literal vocal style designed to accompany scenes on film, montages in particular. This approach best suits the Broadway-style material: Frozen‘s “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, written for an actual musical, and her original “Christmas in New York,” which compiles a list of glamorous New York images into an ad worthy of the city’s tourism department (the Rockettes, department store windows on Fifth Avenue, the utterance “Taxi! Take me straight to Central Park”). But many of her chosen Christmas party songs are simple enough to make her sound fussy, like she can’t quite relax and get in the swing of things — and on carols like “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” the stylistic mismatch grates.
Rick Wakeman: Christmas Portraits (Sony)
Few rock survivors are as prolific as Wakeman — this is the Yes keyboardist’s third consecutive classical piano album, his second (at least?) Christmas album, and one of nearly a hundred solo albums he’s released since the ’70s, some on ambient synthesizer, others, like these rearranged instrumental Christmas carols, on solo piano. This album won’t settle into the background, as Wakeman embellishes and obscures familiar melodies with trills, squiggles, filigrees, and improvised flights of fancy. Yet because the underlying chords remain the same old comforting ones we hear every winter, these pieces are also rather hard to concentrate on; you want them to recede in the mind’s ear, but they just keep pattering away. Would a mall play such difficult holiday music?
Now! That’s What I Call Country Christmas (Sony/Universal)
This commercial roundup collects covers of the usual classic Christmas songs, performed by a gaggle of country hitmakers in the polished, arena-ready adult contemporary ballad style, with a few country proper Christmas songs thrown in for good measure (George Strait’s “Christmas Cookies,” Kenny Chesney’s “All I Want for Christmas Is a Real Good Tan”). Solemn and straightforward, it amuses most when men with oleaginous voices soaked in corn syrup are invited to sing carols, as on Josh Turner’s “The First Noel” and Luke Bryan’s exquisitely nasal “O Holy Night.”
Letters to Cleo: OK Christmas (Dot Rat)
This Boston jangle-grunge band broke up at the end of the ’90s, reunited in 2008 for a tour, broke up again, and then reunited again in 2016 to release an EP, Back to Nebraska, their first new music in almost twenty years. Three years later, they’re back with this fuzzy, spiky, rocking four-song Christmas EP. a happy eruption of electric noise. The best way to celebrate the holiday season is with a joyful shout. Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more!