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New Holiday Albums to Jingle Your Bells

Was a time when you could reliably count on 99% of holiday-themed new releases being awful. Lifeless rehashes of “Jingle Bells,” oversentimental and instantly forgettable originals, and pop-ified “reimaginings” of classics that were just made for background noise to forced mingling at office parties. 

But man, doesn’t it seem like musicians – at least in our corner of the music world – have really upped their game? The past few years have seen some real-deal quality holiday releases, and 2017 raises the bar even higher. We can’t possibly review all the holiday albums Santa will be cranking loud in his sleigh this year, but we’ve created a roundup of some of the best, reviewed by ND Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler, staff reviewers Maeri Ferguson and Henry Carrigan, and some of our contributors. Feel free to add what’s been making your ears merry in the comments! 

Various Artists – Bloodshot Records’ 13 Days of Xmas

It seems like a no-brainer for the small Chicago label Bloodshot Records to have put out a Christmas compilation sometime over its nearly 25-year run, but this year marks their very first one. And it’s just about everything you’d hope for in a Bloodshot Christmas record — offbeat, eclectic, and rock-and-roll. Bloodshot Records’ 13 Days of Xmas, of course, features a slew of artists that call the label home (Jon Langford, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, and Ruby Boots) as well as some friends of the label, and it includes a spirited mix of classics and originals. Standouts include the jubilant Ha Ha Tonka tune “The List” (complete with their signature whistling), The Yawpers’ shred-heavy “Christmas in Oblivion,” Kelly Hogan’s dreamy, swooning “Blue Snowfall,” and Ron Gallo’s intriguing oddball “White Christmas.” There’s nothing traditional or self-serious about this entry into the holiday music canon, which is what makes it so worth our while. Instead of whacking us over the head with Christmas cheer, it invites us into a warm party, full of surprises around every corner. — Maeri Ferguson

 Balsam Range – It’s Christmas Time

I kind of love a holiday EP, as opposed to a full album. They tend to be more focused, with no padding, and this six-song sampling is just right. It’s at its best when Balsam Range is being themselves – making traditional bluegrass sounds that fit into the modern era. Some songs here suffer from overwrought string arrangements and even a saxophone (maybe a requirement on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but still). But the ones that put the IBMA-award winning band and its members front and center are best, including lovely and well-placed vocal harmonies on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and the banjo-led Ralph Stanley tune “I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas,” which strikes just the right note of sentimentality. — Stacy Chandler

 

Barefoot Movement – The Barefoot Movement Christmas Album

You can just hear the fun Barefoot Movement had recording this album. While most of the songs are pretty straight-ahead covers of old favorites, some truly stand out, most notably a shimmering, harmony-rich “Christmas Time is Here” and a rendition of “Baby Please Come Home” that perfectly pulls off the song’s soul vibe and sadness amid the toe-tapping. — SC

The Minus Five – Dear December

If you're looking for the soothing familiarity of all your favorite Christmas tunes, this ain't the place. Even Santa and Jesus play only supporting roles, at best. These songs, which need to be played loud, are about real life, which means they aren’t always uplifting, but they also steer clear of cynicism. Hope is a theme through many of the songs, notably in lead-off track “New Christmas Hymn,” a call for unity in “our country ’tis of thee” and beyond. “When Christmas Hurts You This Way” reminds us that not everyone’s holiday will be holly jolly, and “Your Christmas Whiskey” and “Yule Tide Me Over” are odes to just getting the hell through it. For this project, Scott McCaughey enlisted some mighty fine friends, including M. Ward, Benjamin Gibbard, Mike Mills, Colin Meloy, Chuck Prophet, The Posies, Kelly Hogan, and Nora O’Connor, to make for a holiday party no one will regret attending. — SC

Lowland Hum – Songs for Christmas Time

The magic in this record is the way in which Daniel and Lauren Goans see and hear the holidays. The song selection is excellent, and the arrangements fresh and new, acknowledging that, for adults, the holidays can be challenging emotionally. And, as you might expect, the performance is gorgeous and understated, holding true to their mantra “Support Quiet Music.” — ND community contributor JMCSPADDEN3 (full review here)

Nu-Blu – Shine

There’s a quiet beauty that underlies Nu-Blu’s EP, which opens with the hauntingly beautiful title track, told from the perspective of the star of Bethlehem that guides wise men and others to that little manger. Somber and joyous, “Shine” reflects the gorgeous harmonies of the group. The album closes with the quiet and reflective “Mary Did You Know,” a perfect bookend to the opening track. In between, Nu-Blu runs off a rousing, jumping version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” and a romping instrumental version of “Jingle Bells.” — Henry Carrigan

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors – The Neighborliest Christmas

Drew Holcomb continues his tradition of putting out music for the season (Another Neighborly Christmas, 2012), and this album invites the listener to find a cozy place, light some candles, snuggle up next to somebody you love, and celebrate the season. This collection of old and new Christmas songs features Ellie Holcomb, whose languorous, smoky voice turns tunes such as “Blue Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into lounge music for the season. Drew and Ellie Holcomb’s languid take on the opening verse of the classic “Silver Bells” captures the smooth nostalgia of the song before rocketing off like a fast sleigh ride through the hectic nature of the season. The bluesy soul of “Merry Christmas Baby” funks up the holiday and should be required playing in every department store this time of year. Hark the Holcombs sing, spreading jazzy good cheer to all of us. — HC 

Loose CattleSeasonal Affective Disorder

Not everybody is happy when the stores put up their displays of Christmas candy and stocking stuffers or when the neighbors wrap their shrubbery in twinkling lights. For many folks, Christmas is a dark time of year, and they see no light in these midwinter celebrations. Loose Cattle sings Christmas songs for the rest of the world not jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in malls, or gathered around a food-laden table with family. This is for the truckers spending Christmas at Pilot (“A Truck Stop Christmas”), prostitutes in jail (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”), homeless veterans (“Pretty Paper”), the hopeless (“If We Make It through December”), and children with parents missing in action (“Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)”). This might be the best album of the season since it reveals that most of us miss the real reason for the season, loving others hidden behind the glitter who feel helpless and hopeless.  — HC

Various ArtistsA Capitol Christmas, Vol. 2

As part of its celebration of its 75th anniversary, Capitol Records reached deep into its vaults for versions of Christmas classics by some of its most well-loved artists. Lena Horne delivers a joyous wish for us on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as well as a sultry reflection on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. Wayne Newton’s rousing “Jingle Bell Rock” kicks off the 24-song collection, and Dinah Shore’s twinkling “Jingle Bells” swings merrily along — an unknown number of vinyl copies of this song were distributed as Christmas cards in Chevrolet dealerships across the country (Shore sang the now-famous Chevrolet jingle, “See the USA Today…in a Chevrolet”). The album also features the Beach Boys’ sunny, funny take on “Frosty the Snowman,” the Louvin Brothers’ raw and soulful version of “Away in a Manger,” and Glen Campbell’s lush “Blue Christmas.” If you like your Christmas music traditional, this is the album for you. — HC

Various ArtistsFrom Muscle Shoals to Mistletoe

This album appeared a little too late to put under the tree or in stockings last year, arriving in late January. The great Muscle Shoals rhythm section swings into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” driven by the crisp guitars of Kelvin Holly and Will McFarlane and the trumpet of Ken Watters. It’s the opening song, but by the end of it we feel wonder how much higher the music can take us. Pretty high, as it turns out; Gary Nichols delivers a funky soul take on “Angels We Have Heard on High,” while Melinda Doolittle ponders “What Child is This” over a punchy layer of horn-drenched, swampy soul. Christine Ohlman brings “Joy to the World” in a jumping version; you wouldn’t hear this kind of joyous music in most churches around this time of year. The album closes with John Paul White and Donnie Fritts’ raw and heartbreakingly joyous bid to the fellowship of old friends in “Auld Lang Syne.” This is Christmas music for the soul. — HC

Boo Ray & Elizabeth CookAll Strung Out Like Christmas Lights

Guitarist Boo Ray gets together with Elizabeth Cook for a swinging rockabilly shuffle that captures the slow-burning desire of two folks celebrating the season: “We got two more bottles of wine/we got two more bottles and the sun ain’t about to shine/you got me all strung out like Christmas lights/on a low country hot summer night/my heart skips a beat when you squeeze me tight.” Spin this tune while you’re stringing the lights on the tree with someone you want to be with and see what happens. — HC

Aside from all these (and many more) albums and EPs, lots of folks have released singles this year, which is a fine way to add a small dose of holiday spirit. We can’t possibly list them all, but we couldn’t resist this one from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. As you can imagine, a song called “The Strangest Christmas Yet” is an entertaining listen:

 

 

Oldie but goodie Holiday album (on sale for $5!) as are many other excellent albums at Red Beet Records (Eric Brace, Peter Cooper, and others).

Yuletide from the Other Side (More music from East Nashville)

 

We bought the Minus 5 CD, but I'm having a hard time listening to it so far. It reminds me of how great a guy Scott McCaughey is, but it makes me sad because of the serious stroke he recently suffered. He is in rehab, and I understand that he's improving.

There's a Go Fund Me page for Scott here:  https://www.gofundme.com/c3npfr-scott-mccaughey-medical-fund