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Five for Friday: Favorite New Christmas-Themed Albums

It's been a long time since a new song turn into a proper Christmas standard. Perhaps John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" from 1971? Or maybe José Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" from 1970? Either way, becoming a go-to Christmas anthem isn't easy. The holiday season, after all, is primarily about memories and reminiscing rather than the hot new thing. But that doesn't mean each year doesn't bring new Christmas music worth hearing, be it from underground rockers such as Dude York or pop stars like Sia. Here are five of our favorite Christmas-themed works released in 2017.

Cheap Trick, Christmas Christmas
If you were to make a list of bands taken for granted, at or near the top would be veteran Midwestern rockers Cheap Trick, who have quietly released three not-so-quiet albums in the last two years. Each shows the band not lacking for inspiration. Vocalist Robin Zander comes on as impassioned as any singer you find and Rick Nielsen's penchant for loud, proud, and inventive guitar riffs remains fully intact. There's plenty of fun here. Check out the fiery blast "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)," a cover of the Ramones original in which Zander goes all Johnny Rotten-demented. Or the glammed-up albeit bluesy take on Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run." The group also toys with "Please Come Home for Christmas," giving it a loose, bar-band feel that amplifies its lascivious nature. But don't overlook the three originals – namely, the bombastic title track that aims to turn your holiday gathering into a mosh pit.

Various Artists, Cool Blue Christmas
If you're looking for an instant Christmas collection, hunt down these eight albums – available individually from Contrast. Taken together, the Cool Blue Christmas series serves as a fascinating collection of vintage blues, R&B, and country songs, Many of them are sure to surprise. But you can't really do wrong zeroing in on any particular collection. The two-disc Christmas in Jail set gives us Blind Lemon Jefferson's wailing, finger-picked "Christmas Eve Blues" as well as the more spirited "Jingle Bells" from the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Each disc is a time-traveler's delight. Start with Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, a 26-track disc of 1940s-era R&B. Here, you'll find Leo Watson's left-of-center take on "Jingle Bells" – a trombone and scat-singing mash-up that feels trippy yet buoyant – as well as Amos Milburn's seductive and frisky "Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby," full of drunken sexual innuendos and a suggestive, flirty piano. Play it after the kids have gone to bed.

Sia, Everyday Is Christmas
Over her seven prior albums, Australian singer Sia positioned herself as a pop outliers, often flirting with mainstream success but adding just enough performance-artist pizazz to keep things weird. Live, she's known to obscure herself with wigs and video screens, even as electro-pop hits such as "Chandelier" deal with an existential crisis. But Sia isn't opaque on Everyday Is Christmas. She loves Christmas. Like, really loves Christmas. In fact, the album's abundance of cheer and digital trinkets may be too much sugar for some. "Santa's Coming for Us" emerges as a dance-floor-ready plea for her to be rescued by ol' Saint Nick. "Candy Cane Lane" channels the cheer of Phil Spector's Christmas work. Then there's "Puppies Are Forever" – devilishly cute. But you'll likely forgive Sia. This 60s-influenced romp is a swooning love letter to giving the gift of puppies. And who doesn't like puppies?

Various Artists, Bloodshot Records' 13 Days of Christmas
The venerable Chicago-based roots label gives us a 13-song Christmas collection laced with nostalgia. Ranging from spirited originals to covers of long-forgotten tunes, the album is tied together with a wistful tone. While recorded this year, the collection comes off as if it was buried away in the dusty vinyl bins of an old record store. The approach works swimmingly well for a holiday album, as every Christmas gathering seems built on thoughts of the past. Rusty Boots' "I Slept Through Christmas" is all melancholia, dreaming of better bygone holidays and hoping for sweeter ones to come. More lonesome is Zach Schmidt's "I'm Drunk Again This Christmas," but the twisting and turning slide guitar indicates the tune aims more at reflection than sorrow. Kelly Hogan's woozy ballad "Blue Snowfall" will have you wishing she sings every Christmas song ever, and Jake Elkington's take on the little-known "Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand" is bluesy folk built for intimate conversations.

Dude York, Halftime for the Holidays
While there's no shortage of sad songs written about the holidays, capturing the emotional extremes of the season proves a more arduous task. There's joy in seeing family and old friends, yes, but also stress. This 22-minute blast of infectious pop-punk from the Seattle trio does an admirable job of marrying the excitement and the blues. The opening "Break Up Holiday," for instance, is drenched in jubilation and venom. Bassist/singer Claire England prepares herself for encountering an old flame when she returns to her hometown. She sings of being dressed as a "glittery mess" while spiky guitars seek to boost her confidence. Elsewhere, "Takin' Care of Christmas" hilariously riffs on Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business," turning the holiday season into a time that should be approached with sleeves-up determination. Call it Christmas, de-romanticized.

Photo credit: David McClister

December 8, 2017

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