I’m a sucker for Christmas, but I never remember it. Every year December finds me cynical and depressed, and then every year something comes along and snaps me out of my funk. This year it’s Hotel Café‘s lovely compilation album Winter Songs, which assembles fifteen of the best female singer-songwriters out there and puts their talents to good use. There are plenty of traditional carols here, but where the album really shines is in the originals. The album opener, “Winter Song”, is a lovely duet between Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. Meiko’s “Maybe Next Year (X-Mas Song)” is sexier than any Christmas song has a right to be (“I don’t think Santa’s coming this year,” she croons over a brushed snare, “because I’ve been a bad, bad girl”). And Colbie Caillat brings the piano-driven power-pop on “Mistletoe”.
The traditional songs are strong, too, and most are interpreted creatively enough that they aren’t boring. Priscilla Ahn’s acapella “Silent Night” is the disc’s one foray into the religious world. Alice Smith showcases her tremendous pipes on “Silver Bells”. Indie heavyweights Fiona Apple and KT Tunstall turn in fun performances, too. But what makes the disc so appealing is it’s emotional complexity; this is not as unyieldingly upbeat as most holiday offerings. To be sure, there have always been sad Christmas carols, and a few of them (“Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)”) are covered here. But it’s especially evident in the originals. (“Is love alive?” Bareilles and Michaelson ask in the refrain of “Winter Song”, and the question doesn’t sound rhetorical.)
The standout of the disc is Brandi Carlile’s “The Heartache Can Wait”, which is at once an impassioned plea and, corny as it might sound, a testament to the power of Christmas. “You’re talking about leaving / it’s right about Christmas time / Thinking about moving on / think I might die,” Carlile sings, before asking her lover to stay on for just one more Christmas—because what is Christmas but a beacon in the cold, bleak landscape of winter? “This is where we shine,” Carlile sings, “silver bells and open fire / and songs we used to sing.” This is where we shine, indeed.
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