Everybody jokes about the overkill of holiday music–and yet everybody still buys the albums. And every year, musicians try their hand at classic covers and quirky re-arrangments of Christmas and Hanukkah favorites.
In general, these new seasonal offerings suck the spirit out of the season. But while nothing may beat Bing Crosby, you’ll never know until you give the newbies a listen. Here’s our comparison of Christmas albums past and Christmas albums present. You may be a little surprised at what we found in this year’s stocking.
Voices from the grave
There’s something creepy about singing along with a dead guy. But if you’re into the ghosts of Christmas past, the new Elvis Presley Christmas Duets album is up your alley. Here you’ve got previously recorded Elvis tracks (duh) with pop country singers like Carrie Underwood and Gretchen “Redneck Woman” Wilson singing along. Last year’s The Treasury of Christmas: The Greatest Holiday Duets includes some knock-out vocals from Nat King Cole, Natalie King Cole, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. But it also features Barenaked Ladies and Eddie Money. ’Nuff said.
Albums like 2007’s Monster Ballads X-mas and this year’s We Wish You a Metal Christmas and a Headbanging New Year are just plain silly. Monster Ballads, for instance, kicks off with a snotty but limp Skid Row version of “Jingle Bells” and ends on Billy Idol’s ballad “Christmas Love,” with little bearable substance in between.
Metal Christmas, on the other hand, is at least smart enough to be more than a gimmick. In “Run Rudolph Run,” Mötorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister takes the vocal reigns while ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons backs him up. Alice Cooper joins with John 5 of Marilyn Manson and Vinny Appice of Black Sabbath to sing “Santa Claws is Coming to Town”—a version that amplifies the already creepy vocals with an emphasis on the “claws.”
You can expect certain artists to have no shame about being on a Christmas album, but some refreshing appearances include Anthrax’s Scott Ian and The Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl.
You could stick either Brian Setzer or Tony Bennett in the microwave for hours and never melt all that cheese. Then again, Christmas albums are meant for that sort of thing.
Both of these artists have their strengths and weaknesses, but we’d recommend that if you’ve been playing Tony Bennett every holiday you should switch things up with a little Brian Setzer—and vice versa.
Setzer’s new “Best of” double-disc collection, which includes Christmas Rocks and The Ultimate Christmas Collection, deals out revved up songs like “Santa Drives a Hot Rod” and more jazzy pieces like “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.” Bennett’s newly released Swingin’ Christmas is more crooner snappy with smooth piano solos. Bennett is almost a caricature of himself by now, but it works for him. Both Setzer and Bennett emit a Vegas-y Christmas tone, and really there’s no better music to sip your candycane cocktail to.
A curse upon Christmas comedy albums! One of the worst ideas yet is Christmas parodies. But if you indulge in wacky Christmas songs, you probably love radio personality Bob Rivers. A word of advice: It’s time to update your taste.
Enter Stephen Colbert. The new album from “The Colbert Report” host, A Colbert Christmas, features Toby Keith, Feist and Willie Nelson. It mostly falls flat: Keith sings an angry patriot song that’s less parody and more like songs he actually does sing, and Willie sings about weed. How predictable. But if you need comic relief, Colbert proves more clever and self-deprecating than Rivers, whose 2003 album, White Trash Christmas, includes cliché lines like, “There’ll be cousins kissin’ and front teeth missin;” and painful songs like “Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Rivers performs some versatile impressions but he lacks Colbert’s nuance.
Cheer for my horses
It’s time, once again, to make fun of Toby Keith.
Last year Keith played it straight with A Classic Christmas, but if you’re a true Keith fan you probably have his 1995 Christmas to Christmas, in which he combines suburban pop country with holiday themes. Terrible. And songs like “Santa’s Gonna Take it All Back” and “Jesus Gets Jealous of Santa Claus” don’t help.
If you prefer to spare yourself Keith’s crazy perspective on the holidays and need some real country, check out this year’s A Country Christmas. Willie Nelson, The Mavericks, George Strait and Loretta Lynn all contribute, and even if they did include the very non-country Shania Twain, this album at least has a spit of authenticity.
Hanukkah is having a rough season album-wise. As it turns out, the brother of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t much like his brother. It’s not that we expect or desire that Erran Baron Cohen make goofy Hanukkah albums, but his experimental dance album, Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, turns out to be entirely off-key. This is one instance where we may have to recommend you stick with Craig Taubman’s far more innovative album, 2005’s The Hanukkah Lounge. That said, we hear Amy Winehouse is coming out with a Hanukkah album next year if she can get her dreidels all in a row.
Single bells, single bells
Some of the most interesting holiday songs this year are singles. For instance, The Hives and Cyndi Lauper put out a cynical duet called “A Christmas Duel,” in which Pelle Almqvist sings, “I bought no gift this year and I slept with your sister…,” and Lauper replies, “I bought no tree and I slept with your brother…” And then there’s the duet between The Killers and Elton John, “Joseph, Better You Than Me,” a lighter-raising theatrical rock ode that’s actually kind of cool. That said, there’s no duet single more amazing than Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “The Little Drummer Boy” (watch the music video) and no better punk Christmas ballad than The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl singing “Fairytale of New York.” With this category, you’ll find palatable holiday cheer with both old and new.