Christmas. It’s that time again. And where your ears are concerned, that’s not necessarily glad tidings. In a musical galaxy far, far away, holiday albums used to be considered a privilege of sorts—an artistic diversion granted to established artists by record labels as a sort of present to fans (and to their labels, if cash registers clinked). But in an entertainment scene now ruled by a tyrant called “Reality TV”, it nowadays sounds like everyone has been granted a license to add to the canon of Yuletide releases. Come-lately carolers are a disparate company, with musical elves ranging from Lady Gaga to Lady Antebellum, from Justin Beiber to Tamar Braxton, from Rita Coolidge to Rod Stewart, and from the guys of Duck Dynasty to the crew from Glee. The unfortunate result is a glut of uneven and often uninspired Christmas discs that as often as not call to mind overstuffed holiday hams.
But grinching aside, there is more than a few exceptions. If you can manage to conduct some industrious browsing you’ll discover plenty of admirable sounds amidst the histrionics. Here are a pointers to a couple of the more musically – and, at points, spiritually – satisfying soundtracks to the season.
Nick Lowe’s only splash on U.S. pop charts was his late-seventies hit “Cruel to Be Kind.” But the rocker’s still managed to maintain ceaseless notoriety, whether marrying country’s Carlene Carter (back in her days as a Music City expatriate), producing Elvis Costello, or trying his hand at roots music. Since he named his first lp as a young turk, The Jesus of Cool, maybe it’s fitting that things tilt full circle and the grown-up artist finally drops a holiday album paying tribute to the Man from Nazareth. At least sort of.
The good news is that for a holiday album, Quality Street (Yep Roc) is an awful title but an apt descriptor. Aside from a saucy Mexicali-flavored “Silent Night,” Lowe defies the genre’s standard-issue conventions and performs a set of tunes that are all either original or at least unfamiliar. And the singer offsets his mostly melancholic pallet with an actual appreciation for the reason for the season. Incontestably the most arresting moment is “I Was Born in Bethlehem,” where Lowe imagines meeting Jesus Christ over a cocktails and – believe it or not – still produces a credible gospel presentation (seeker-sensitive churches take that). Other nativity-tinged notes are hit on “Rise Up Shepherd” and the opener, “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Effective in a different vein is “Christmas at the Airport,” Lowe’s atmospheric (and decidedly uncomic) variation on a Planes, Trains and Automobiles vibe. Liner notes indict Ron Sexsmith and Ry Cooder as co-conspirators, which helps explain why the over-arching stylishly swinging restraint suggests nothing so much as a rockabilly-meets-lounge jam fest fueled by the ghosts of Nat King Cole, Dave Edmunds, and Roger Miller. The one misfire here is a lifeless cover of Miller’s “Little Toy Trains” (the definitive take on which still rests securely in the possession of Nashville’ s Forester Sisters). Lowe describes his disc as a “sleigh bell free zone,” but don’t let that fool you. Quality Street has both guitar licks and holiday spirit to spare.
There’s not much restraint to be found on American Idol alum Kelly Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red (RCA), but it’s doubtful her fans would want it any other way. With vigorous vocals and a thick sheen of holiday production, thirteen of these tracks make for a musical baker’s dozen of Christmas cupcakes. Clarkson’s appeal has always depended as much on her Every Girl persona as her impressive pipes, and that’s the ingredient here that makes numbers like “4 Carats” more peppy than pretentious. The title track and “Underneath the Tree” are romps that happily recall Phil Spector’s glory days, and the singer injects just enough emotional punch into “Blue Christmas” and “Please Come for Home” (a Top 20 hit for The Eagles in 1978) to transform her choice of standards into justified filler. The final and fourteenth track, “Silent Night”, is the sole nod to the sacred, but the presence of Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood unfortunately transforms the song into a match of dueling divas, one that comes off as more vanity project than any sort of tuneful piety. But as secular soundtrack to any number of holiday mall excursions, Clarkson’s workout will be hard to beat.
It’s holly berries more than holiness that also abound on what has got to qualify as the this year’s most unexpected and bona fide multi-cultural offering, The Starship Christmas Album 2013 (Universal). Kiwi artists you’ve never heard of – Bic and Boh Runga, Anika Moa, Ruby Frost, and Tiki Taane – stir things up with frothy, feel good routines from Down Under like “NZ Wonderland” and “2000 miles.” It may not be the Christmas you know, but it’s still a lot of fun. And also, apparently, for a good cause, with proceeds going to New Zealand’s Children’s Hospital.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are three overlooked sacred albums from a couple of years back. For starters check out Daniel Renstrom’s On the Incarnation (Catapult). It would be hard to find a more theologically-minded Christmas album, or one more likely to prompt a few moments of mediation amidst the seasonal madness. Its title takes its cue from St. Athanasius, and when the tunes aren’t original (“His Company,” “Rise and Fall”), they’re hymnodic (“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”). Renstrom reminds you of a smoother-voiced Michael Gungor, and pairs his folk singer’s manner with rock-friendly stylings for what resembles a sonic version of “Theology on Tap.” It’s doctrine that’s good for you and goes down easy as well.
Then there is City On a Hill – It’s Christmas (Essential), a multi-artist project showcasing all that is best about CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). An Event-sort of project, it features the vocal talents of Sixpence’s Leigh Nash, Bebo Norman, Third Day’s Mac Powell, DC Talk’s Michael Tait, Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, and others. There are two notable highlights, one of them a cover of Julie Miller’s reverential “Manger Throne.” But the unquestionable standout is Sara Grove’s soul-stirring “Child of Love.” It’s a lyrical lullaby suggestive of the oft-controversial Catholic doctrine of Mary as co-redemptrix. Voicing Mary, Grove sings to the infant Jesus, “You were made for all mankind / But You will always be mine.” Not very controversial that. And not much chance you will find better pop theologizing than that.
A last not new but wrongly overlooked disc is Chris Rice’s The Living Room Sessions – Christmas (Sony). It’s one hundred percent instrumental: the only sound here is keyboards. And with that, Rice’s accomplishment is to offer tastefully resounding evidence that more is not always better. (Not to mention scoring for what’s easily the best cover art of this batch.) His spare renditions of hymns prove the ultimate Rx for whatever holiday anxieties ail you. Of all the Christmas albums I have given as presents, none have generated as much praise or appreciation as this unassuming one. If it’s a new find for you, consider it this season’s can’t-go-wrong gift.