The holidays are fast approaching, and most stores and even a few radio stations have been playing festive jams since late October or so. If you drive a lot or work in retail, you have probably already heard so much Christmas music that you fall asleep to the phantom sound of sleigh bells. But some people are really, really into Christmas music, and there comes a special time in every musical artist’s career where a holiday compilation album is made because of reasons / money / Christmas cheer? There are a host of new ones that have dropped this year. But, if you must have seasonal music, which is right for your holiday gathering?
Cee-Lo Green – Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment
When more people know you as a judge on a popular reality singing competition than for being half of Goodie Mob, it’s about that time in your career to release a Christmas album. And as far as Christmas albums go, you could do worse than Cee-Lo’s—a catchy original here, a faithful and exuberant cover of Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me” there. There are no real surprises but some nice gems, as well as some not-so-nice ones. A cover of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with college a cappella group Straight, No Chaser is well-intentioned and probably seemed like a cute idea in planning stages, but ultimately feels out of place.
This is one of the more versatile options, appropriate for both the family-friendly affair and the loud, boozy party involving ugly holiday sweaters you purchased ironically knowing full well someone’s grandma probably lovingly made them and spent hours on them and is a little bit hurt by your mockery. Plus one of the album’s few original Christmas songs—“All I Need Is Love”—has a video involving the Muppets and The Office’s Craig Robinson, and it’s quite enjoyable.
Sufjan Stevens – Silver & Gold
No one does holiday-music overkill quite like Sufjan Stevens, who has released five more seasonal EPs that will likely be the staple of every sorta-trendy holiday party, independent coffee shop throughout the month of December or religious service led by @HipsterPastor.
The arrangements are lovely, there’s a psyched-out song about a unicorn, a bizarre, synthy take on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and at last, Chanukah is thrown a bone with a simple, lovely cover of “Rock of Ages.” It’s a lot of music to get through, but more of it seems fit for lulling you further into a food-and-mulled-wine coma than for a more social affair.
Various Artists – Holidays Rule
Sometime around the mid-‘00s, a whole slew of “A Very Indie Christmas”-type holiday albums began popping up all over the place. We blame this phenomenon on The O.C., and the convergence of Seth Cohen’s indie-middlebrow musical tastes and love of “Chrismukkah” spawning a holiday album that’s probably still in your old bedroom somewhere. This tradition continues with Holidays Rule, a compilation featuring Fruit Bats, AgesandAges, Punch Brothers and The Shins, who do a pretty-okay “Wonderful Christmastime,” but its faults are not really their fault, it’s just that “Wonderful Christmastime” is one of the worst Christmas songs ever. Eleanor Friedberger’s “Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” and Calexico’s “Green Grows the Holly” are among the highlights. And it’s hard to love the unsettling, creepy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but when Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten assume the roles, we’ll allow it.
It’s an easily digestible and pretty likable set, so it will work in most situations, but seems most fitting for an office party (at a "cool" office), an intimate Secret Santa exchange or a smaller gathering of Your Friends From Home, especially if the host has been playing the O.C. Chrismukkah album for the past eight years and needs a change of sound.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John – This Christmas
This is Christmas at Your Parents’ House in musical form. Basically, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John got together, made an album of accessible, pretty holiday standards and invited all the people your parents like to join them—Tony Bennett, Babs, Kenny G, James Taylor—the latter with a rendition of “Deck the Halls” that leaves something to be desired and contains a bit too much jolly Renaissance-faire flute. New original “I Think You Might Like It” is bouncy and enthusiastic—it sounds like Travolta and Newton-John are genuinely enjoying singing together again, which is always nice. The holidays are about bringing old friends together, after all. If you need a last-minute contribution to the family holiday party, or something relatively inoffensive for an office party (at an "uncool" office) this should suffice.
Richard Marx – Christmas Spirit
You remember Richard Marx, right? The man probably responsible for the song to which you had your first slow-dance, or perhaps even your first awkward, clumsy hook-up. Well, he’s still doing the thing and has made a Christmas album. There’s just something that sort of makes you cringe when people try to croon earnestly through the “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” part of “The Little Drummer Boy” and make it sound oh so smooth. It just doesn’t work. Own the “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” folks.
Only play this at your holiday party under very specific circumstances. Or whoever made the playlist has food poisoning and can’t make it and the Internet is down so you can’t get to the holiday Pandora station. Or you really, really enjoy reliving repressed memories from Christmas in the ‘80s.