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Five for Friday: Recent Holiday/Christmas Albums

Christmas is all about tradition. For some, that may mean the resurrection of a secret family cookie recipe, or the continued use of a fuzzy Frosty the Snowman ornament once chewed by the family puppy. Holidays aren't necessarily about change. They're about our childhoods, families, and fond memories. These remembrances often come with a soundtrack. Christmas songs, though only in season a few weeks per year, remain ingrained in many of us. We remember the elegance of a Bing Crosby or a Frank Sinatra, the warmth of an Elvis Presley and the goofiness of the Chipmunks. Yet every year, without fail, artists try to upend tradition – or become a part of it. If you feel your Christmas music collection needs a refresh, these five recent holiday albums could become yearly staples.

Kacey Musgraves A Very Kacey Christmas
On her first two albums, young country upstart Kacey Musgraves has shown a propensity for Southern classicism while also bringing a modern, topical spirit to her works. She handles holiday songs with similar aplomb, crafting a record that has a playful, toy-like charm while also delivering a dash of twang and some orchestral grandiosity. There's a bit of global feel – see "Feliz Navidad" and "Mele Kalikimaka" – but also some downright silliness via her rendition of "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." But in a rarity for a new Christmas album, the originals serve as the standouts, be it the slinky, girl group-inspired "Ribbons and Bows," charming, Tiki-bar feel of the Willie Nelson-assisted "A Willie Nice Christmas," or melancholic "Christmas Makes Me Cry," an all-too-rare look at the season's more lonesome qualities.

She & Him Christmas Party
This retro-obsessed pairing of actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward excels at holiday tunes. Why? The group feels lifted straight from the world's most fashionable vintage store: You'll swear you've heard this before, but you haven't. Consider Christmas Party a tasteful addition to any seasonal music library, the album least likely to raise eyebrows for owning any only-in-2106 flourishes. Instead, She & Him surprises in more subtle manners. Vide, the bluesy horn and celebratory harmonies of "All I Want for Christmas is You," the dreamy, island waltz brought to "Winter Wonderland," and the fairy tale-like makeover given to "Run Run Rudolph." More surprising: Resurrecting Alan Bergman's "Christmas Memories" as a jazzy, contemplative account of aging through the prism of the holidays.

Maxwell, Miranda, Parsley Catskill Christmas
A team of independent-minded musicians – Chris Maxwell, Holly Miranda, and Ambrosia Parsley – brings some levity to the holiday season with the collection of originals topping off at just more than 30 minutes. "Naughty Elf," for instance, doesn't leave much to the imagination. But its rolling, swinging piano channels a more innocent vibe. "Christmas Mice," meanwhile, makes the case that a mouse indeed was stirring – and on the prowl for crumbs. "Christmas Aisle" takes a look at the tacky, discounted holiday merch and turns it into a country lament. The craftsmanship elevates it all above novelty status, as the trio aims for a rootsy, folk-rock elegance. And just when you think it's all a joke – see the acoustic strut and doo-wop backing vocals of "Too Many Santas" – the group shows it is not above nostalgia and tosses out a fiery call-and-response number such as "Going to Get the Tree."

Band of Merrymakers Welcome to Our Christmas Party
Rock/pop songwriters Sam Hollander and Kevin Griffin, the later of alt-rock fame via Better than Ezra, spearhead this rotating cast of Los Angeles musicians centered on holiday music at its most joyous. Seriously joyous. Album opener "A Very Merry Medley," for instance, features a Broadway-like excitement factor that seems designed for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade – or a cheerleading routine. The album is a little hokey in the way it touches on one famous Christmas song after another, but like garland around a tree, the holidays aren't all meant to be graceful and stylish. The clap-along "Holiday in L.A." has fun with a city where the only snow is fake while "Snow Snow Snow" rotates around a high-energy chant for cold weather. "Wishlist" is odder still, boasting a slight R&B groove. Even more traditional works, such as "Joy to the World," arrive pep-rally ready.

Wonderlux Wonderlux Presents Christmas Eve
While Santa is traversing chimneys, the more unsavory parts of town are also trying to get into the holiday spirit. Enter Wonderlux, a Christmas album for the black-and-white holiday-themed film noir that was never made. Over the course of seven tracks and about 40 minutes, the group assembled by producer Brad Benedict and multi-instrumentalist Michael Fontana create a work fit for dive bars the world over. The guitars possess a surf-rock edge – they're a little bluesy, a little rocking, and definitely loud. Some songs, such as "A Nightmare On Elf Street/O Holy Night," are borderline creepy, with patient, stalking xylophone chimes and a strut worthy of a James Bond film. Others, such as "Swell Noel/Good King Wenceslas," seem more uplifting – that is, if thunderous rolling rhythms and turned-up-to-11 guitars translate into optimism.

December 2, 2016

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