10 Christmas Albums You Won't Hear at the Mall
Although most shopping has moved online this year, those of us still going to stores find the retail soundtrack particularly menacing in the time of COVID-19. These 10 albums (plus a little extra stocking stuffer) from unexpected artists offer some respite for at-home listening.
In the waning days of the Grinch-y year of 2020, we're all hunkering down and barely holding up. Holiday rituals that once brought comfort and joy have become inadvisable, if not unthinkable. The trite Christmas music blaring from stores as early as October was once annoying – too soon! – but now it just sounds menacing, a reminder that things are still far from normal. For those who nevertheless seek glad tidings, but can't handle the saccharine cheer of standard Christmas fare, the following albums offer a respite. May you find solace in these introspective, wistful, and melancholy songs, none of which will accost you in a department store.
Calexico, 'Seasonal Shift' (2020, Anti-)
Tucson duo Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico have made a Christmas album during and for the COVID-19 pandemic. Its opening track, "Hear the Bells", is full of nostalgia for the time when we could drink mezcal down at the Tap Room and watch the monsoons roll in from the south.
Much of the album embodies the end-of-the-year feeling of a year with no end in sight. "It's been a heavy year darlin' / it'll all be over soon" Burns croons on the title track, but you just can't bring yourself to believe him. Still, there are glimmers of hope. "Mi Burrito Sabanero" tells the exuberant story of a boy traveling to Bethlehem with his trusty donkey to see Jesus, and the cover of "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" brings a fresh, Latin-infused take to the John Lennon classic. Seasonal Shift captures the cautious optimism we all seem to be feeling at the end of this annus horribilis.
Chilly Gonzales, 'A Very Chilly Christmas' (2020, Gentle Threat)
The pianist's elegiac, minor-key interpretations feel tailor-made for 2020. As Gonzales says on his website, "Christmas is a time of very mixed intense emotion for me, and the existing canon often sounds like a forced smile. Christmas is a typical time for superficial happiness, but also a time for reflection and mourning the sad events throughout the year. The songs of A Very Chilly Christmas make room for a more authentic interpretation of this very peculiar 2020 holiday season." Highlights are "The Bannister Bough," an original composition featuring Feist on vocals, and "We Three Kings," in which Gonzales' keyboard stylings dance around a soulful cello and wordless choir.
Sufjan Stevens, 'Songs of Christmas' (2006, Rough Trade) - and - 'Silver and Gold' (2012, Asthmatic Kitty)
Endearingly earnest and wonderfully weird, Sufjan Stevens' Christmas oeuvre comprises 100 songs spread over 10 EPs. Songs for Christmas covers volumes 1-5, while Silver and Gold contains volumes 6-10. Both vinyl box sets, now selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay, also include all manner of ephemera, such as songbooks, posters, temporary tattoos, stickers, a coloring book, tree topper, short stories, essays, comics, crayon drawings, and doodles. Like the doodads inside the box, the songs are all over the place. A mixture of traditional carols and quirky originals, they feature Stevens' off-kilter banjo and precious vulnerability, all wrapped up in wide-eyed religiosity.
Tracey Thorn, 'Tinsel and Lights' (2012, Merge)
Get out your handkerchiefs, because Tracey Thorn peered into the looking glass and saw the soul of Christmas 2020: "You loved it as a kid/But now you need it more than you ever did...We'll gather up our fears/And face down all the coming years/And all that they destroy/And in their face we throw our joy...." Thorn's aching vocal makes the song more forlorn than resolute, and the same mournfulness infuses the rest of Tinsel and Lights.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is the only standard on the LP; the rest is a collection of emotionally complex songs by the likes of Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Stephin Merritt, and Sufjan Stevens, plus two very fine originals.
Over the Rhine, 'Snow Angels' (2006, Great Speckled Dog)
Cincinnati duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine deliver a moody, jazzy collection of originals along with a couple of reinterpretations of traditional songs. In 2007 PopMatters' reviewer John Bergstrom wrote "… Bergquist sound(s) like a modern-day Nancy Wilson or Billie Holiday. The … standards are given fresh, earthy takes, while 'Goodbye Charles' is a fitting Schulz/Guaraldi tribute.
Snow Angels exudes the peace and quiet that everyone longs for at Christmastime, and does so with class." Highlights: "All I Ever Get For Christmas is Blue," a smoky, woozy lament, and "Goodbye Charles" (on the bonus song version), an instrumental homage to Charles M. Schulz and Vince Guaraldi.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 'The McGarrigle Christmas Hour' (2005, Nonesuch)
Listening to The McGarrigle Christmas Hour is like gathering 'round the fire with the extended McGarrigle-Wainwright clan, singing along to the family's old favorites. Honorary kin Emmylou Harris shines on "O Little Town of Bethlehem", Rufus Wainwright delivers a torchy rendition of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve", and Kate and Anna harmonize with daughters Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken on the traditional French carol "Il est né / Ça bergers". Pour yourself a cup of hot chocolate and pull up a chair.
Jethro Tull, 'The Jethro Tull Christmas Album' (2003, RandM)
This is the outlier on the list, but hear me out: it's actually pretty good. And The Jethro Tull Christmas Album makes sense if your vision of the holiday, like mine, was formed by Elizabethan canticles and repeated viewings of A Christmas Carol -- the 1951 version.
Musically, the LP recalls the band's 1970s prime, with Ian Anderson's flute at the forefront, complemented by acoustic guitar, mandolin, and accordion. The rollicking original "Birthday Card at Christmas", is a standout, along with the wistful "First Snow on Brooklyn", and "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow", all tunes that would be right at home on any mid-career Tull record.
Jane Siberry, 'Child: Music for the Christmas Season' (1997, Sheeba) - and - 'Shushan the Palace: Hymns of Earth' (2003, Sheeba)
Recorded with a 12-piece ensemble at the Bottom Line in New York City, Child is both a sacred and irreverent live album that blends Siberry originals with more obscure traditional songs. Anyone who's had the good fortune to see Siberry perform live will recognize the sensation of wiping tears from their eyes at the beauty of her singing, and again at the hilarity of her between-song banter. Some of those stories are preserved here, and they never get old. The double album features an eclectic mix of songs and spoken word, with arrangements that recall the jazzy sensibility of Siberry's 1995 album Maria.
Shushan the Palace is a collection of nine classical and liturgical songs that transcend the holiday season. Restrained orchestral arrangements complement Siberry's voice, which she often overdubs, creating the effect of a heavenly choir. "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a standout, with Siberry's ethereal vocal mixed with a baroque arrangement of strings and reed instruments.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Siberry made her back catalog free to download. Or you can choose to pay what you want at her website.
The Roches, 'We Three Kings' (1990, MCA; Reissued 1994 Rykodisc)
Sisters Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy got their start singing Christmas carols on the streets of New York, so it's only fitting they should release an album of seasonal favorites. The sisters' close harmonies are the star in We Three Kings, especially on the a cappella tracks. Even though most of the songs are tried and true classics, the trio's sense of humor – and New Jersey accents – bring a delightful twist to old faves. The classical tracks are the true gems – you can almost see the sisters huddling on a Greenwich Village sidewalk, their three voices rising like a full choir.
OK, that was 11 albums. I told you 2020 wasn't normal. Here are a few more songs to round out the list. Most aren't technically Christmas songs, but they nevertheless embody the spirit of this particularly trying season.
Honorable Mentions - Songs
Beautiful and enigmatic 2014 single by the elusive cult hero. "And what I could give you, you already have/What I could tell you you already know"
The first track of Bush's 2011 album 50 Words for Snow features her son Bertie singing the part of a snowflake as it falls toward the warmth of his mother's voice. The song is a meditation on the desire for and transience of human connection.
"I thought it was important to address the profound disappointment I feel when extremist religious views are used as a tactic," says Bond of this powerful dirge-like song, "either politically or moralistically, to diminish the profound spirit of the season."
From her 1991 album Love, the 4AD singer's velvety vocals interplay with a sinuous fretless bass in an expansive, hymn-like song that sounds like an incantation.
This haunting song from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell appears on Lennox's Christmas Cornucopia (10th Anniversary Edition).