- Tim Gough
Forget boy bands and Barry Manilow; Christmas music is the ultimate guilty pleasure. It's inherently corny, unrepentantly joyful, and the tiniest bit reverent — qualities largely reviled by rock and roll purists. And while you would be forgiven for never wanting to hear "Jingle Bells" again, Christmas songs have proved a versatile format for artists in almost every genre as well as a rite of passage for a certain stripe of singer. The following CDs represent highlights of this year's Christmas crop; there are some new faces, a few old favorites, and plenty of reasons to embrace the sound of the season — if only for a few songs.
The Isley Brothers
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Set the yule log to dim, poor that eggnog into champagne flutes, and get ready for some baby-making 'neath the mistletoe: It's a slow-jam Christmas with Ron and Ernie Isley. As is customary at this stage of their career, the Brothers showcase Ron's elastic, silken voice — tailor-made for smooth seduction, no matter the season. There are a few missteps here — "I'm in Love" barely qualifies as a holiday song, and Ron pulls out his pimpalicious alter ego Mr. Biggs for "What Can I Buy You?" — but mostly the program sticks to holiday classics. "Winter Wonderland" starts off the disc with a jazzy bounce, and the "Isley Christmas Medley" is a trio of hushed, reverent carols.
It's Christmas, of Course
Darlene Love came to fame through her recording of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, the definitive rock and roll holiday comp. It makes sense then that she cherry-picks some of the best modern Christmas songs from the rock genre. And while she can no longer hit those high notes, her voice has matured nicely. Love doesn't revive her Spector-ized hit, but she gives a rock-and-soul reading to songs written by Tom Petty (a jangly "Christmas All Over Again") and Robbie Robertson (a gospel-flecked "Christmas Must Be Tonight"), among others. Love even nets a few hipster points for turning XTC's oft-forgotten "Thanks for Christmas" into a sultry R&B number.
Let It Snow Baby . . . Let it Reindeer
Like fellow Christmas caroler Sufjan Stevens (who gave us last year's five-disc Songs for Christmas), Canton's Relient K poses a tricky question: When avowed Christians make rock music, is it necessarily Christian rock? This cheekily titled disc doesn't give a straight answer. Singer and pianist Matthew Thiessen leads the band through a mix of secular and religious tunes, six of which he penned himself. The original "I Celebrate the Day" sounds like a standard piano-based emo ballad — until it becomes clear that Thiessen is singing to the little baby Jesus. Elsewhere, the band plays up its pop-punk roots, tearing through "I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas" with the fervor of a slicked-up rockabilly combo and turning "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" into a rough-edged thrasher.
The KT Tunstall Holiday Collection
The Scottish singer-songwriter turns out a pretty little mix of rock-centric holiday tunes on this set. Tunstall blends a little bit of self-awareness with a heaping helping of seasonal nonchalance. She nails the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" and brings a smoky quiver to "Lonely This Christmas." She proves herself an estimable musician and arranger as well, playing everything but the drums on these six songs — moving from guitar to harmonium to penny whistle with aplomb. This collection is worth picking up, if only for Tunstall's duet with Ed Harcourt on the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," which retains much of its grandiose folk flourishes. (This EP is available only at Target stores.)
Classic Soft Rock Christmas
Sadly, the AM Gold-spoofing web sensation Yacht Rock never got around to filming a Christmas webisode. Consider this a worthy stand-in. The disc compiles songs from genre-defining light-rockers Kenny Loggins (singing a buzz-killing "The Bells of Christmas") and Hall & Oates, who offer their faithful reading of "Jingle Bell Rock." Air Supply goes for broke on a massive and orchestral "The First Noel," while Jim Croce gets wistful with "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way." The fellows in America earn their wings for turning their evergreen "Tin Man" into "White Christmas" — though we bet that if you tried, you could repurpose "Horse With No Name" into "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Peace on Earth: A Charity Holiday Album
Some of the sleepiest, shaggiest bands in indie rock get into the holiday spirit with this collection of 18 mostly original tracks from acts such as Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Rather than rehash Christmas carols, many of these bands take inspiration from the varying moods of the holiday season — from hope and peace to longing and loneliness. The Long Winters even sing of the plight of the working man in "Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas (Sometimes)," while the Great Lake Swimmers sound uncharacteristically upbeat in "Gonna Make It Through This Year." (This comp is curated by the music blog Hard to Find a Friend and is available by download only, with all the proceeds going to the Toys for Tots program.)
Stockings by the Fire
Because Starbucks is more a lifestyle brand than a coffee purveyor these days, your favorite baristas have again compiled a mix of seasonal tunes that alternates between jazzy swing and seasonal affective disorder. For real — does every comp aimed at hipsters and NPR listeners have to include a version of Joni Mitchell's beautifully depressing "River"? (Apparently so: Herbie Hancock and Corinne Bailey Rae turn in a rather rote version here.) Hem's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will likewise have you contemplating jumping from the Bedford Falls Bridge. But other contemporary artists — like a Fine Frenzy and the Bird & the Bee — liven things up. Ella, Frank, and Nat pop up for a bit of classic cheer, and the similarly minded Diana Krall keeps the mood buoyant and suave with "Winter Wonderland."