Merry and Bright
The Annual Christmas Album Roundup

It happened earlier than usual this year.

A couple weeks ago, my long-suffering and delightful girlfriend and I were headed to a party. We were driving down decorated streets and listening to Bing Crosby and out of nowhere, it hit me. Christmas. I can be counted on to get into the spirit at some point before December 25 each year, but this was the earliest those warm and magical feelings snuck up on me.

I just love Christmas. I love the lights, the trees, the spirit of giving, the sense of the unpredictable in the air. I even love going to church on Christmas, a tradition my friend Mike and I have upheld for more than 20 years. But most of all, I love Christmas music. I generally like to confine my enjoyment of it to about 30 days – the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas day. This year I couldn’t wait.

Christmas music just fills me with an insane joy. I even love that Mariah Carey tune all my cool friends seem to hate. It’s fun! I love jolly Christmas songs and pensive Christmas ballads and reverent Christmas hymns. It’s a canon of songs I just cannot get enough of, to the point where I buy loads of new Christmas music every year and revel in it, alongside my old favorites. (I’ve already made my way through all of Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas this year.)

So this is my annual roundup of Christmas records from this year. I bought seven new holiday platters, and surprisingly, none of them were J.D. McPherson’s Socks, so I might have to rectify that. It was an interestingly diverse bounty this year, and I’ve been enjoying it. Here’s what has been rockin’ around my Christmas tree this season.

We’ll start with the one that has received the fewest plays, for obvious reasons: William Shatner’s Shatner Claus, the Christmas Album. I blame Ben Folds for convincing me all those years ago that Shatner’s recording career wasn’t just a colossal joke. Has Been remains the best use anyone has made of Shatner’s speak-sing-intone thing, and the joke wears fairly thin over 14 tracks here.

The guest list is astonishing, though, from Henry Rollins (crashing his way through “Jingle Bells”) to Todd Rundgren to Rick Wakeman to Iggy Pop to the one and only Judy Collins. They’re all in on the joke, and listening to them tap dance around Shatner is fascinating. I don’t know why Shatner Claus exists, but on some level – some absurd, insane level – I’m glad it does.

Each year at least one or two artists decide to try their hand at original Christmas tunes. Last year it was Sia with her nutty Everyday is Christmas. This year we have a couple mostly original albums, and they’re great. The Mavericks are a country band unlike any other country band, combining Western swing and Mariachi flavors into their mix, to be topped off by the Roy Orbison-esque vocals of Raul Malo. Their Hey! Merry Christmas! is swell, basically a regular Mavericks album with holiday-themed lyrics and sweet covers of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “Happy Holiday.”

The Old 97’s save their covers of traditional songs until the end of Love the Holidays, filling the bulk of the running time with their ramshackle country-rock. I like all of their original tunes, though, especially the rollicking “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas).” The record really comes to life for me when they hit their joyous covers of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Up on the Housetop,” though. The cover photo is worth the cost of admission too.

For the second year in a row, Ronnie Martin has made an appearance, returning from his self-imposed exile from Joy Electric. He calls himself Said Fantasy now, and Chorus Noel is his second EP of Christmas songs. Martin still uses nothing but vintage synthesizers, and he keeps things instrumental except for the title track, the first new song he’s written since Said Fantasy’s debut album last year. It’s so great to hear Ronnie singing one of his own songs again, and the rest of the EP is fun as well. It’s only 13 minutes long, but I enjoyed all 13 of those minutes.

Martin also ably demonstrates that the key to a lovely and timeless Christmas record is to mix up your originals with your takes on the established canon. The Monkees prove him right with their great new album Christmas Party, continuing their unlikely modern renaissance. The band sticks to the same formula that made 2016’s Good Times such a success: they enlisted Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne to produce, and wrangled new Christmas songs from the likes of Andy Partridge, Rivers Cuomo, and Peter Buck with Scott McCaughey.

The result is marvelous. You can always tell an Andy Partridge song, and “Unwrap You at Christmas” is no exception. It’s a power pop master class, of course, but it’s generous enough to sit alongside Cuomo’s “What Would Santa Do” and Schlesinger’s “House of Broken Gingerbread” nicely. Along the way the Monkees give us their takes on “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells,” McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and, most fascinatingly, Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” It’s compact and fun and just great.

One of my very favorite bands, Austin’s Quiet Company, took a darker tack on their deliciously titled new EP Baby It’s Cold War Outside. Thankfully, it’s no less delightful, especially the song that has become a new standard around my house, “Merry Christmas, the President is Terrible.” (It’s a lot more serious-minded than its title would suggest.) Taylor Muse and (ahem) company balance off their original takes with covers of “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Little Drummer Boy” and end things with a fantastic mash-up of “Carol of the Bells” and “Setting the Trap” from Home Alone. Check that out here.

QuietCo was very nearly my favorite this year, but if I have to pick one, I’m going in a much more traditional direction. I just can’t stop listening to John Legend’s A Legendary Christmas. Legend has one of those voices that just does it for me. Chills up the spine, shivers and hair standing on end. He’s just that good. A Legendary Christmas homages Bing Crosby on its cover and it sets Legend’s voice loose over rich orchestration.

So much of this is so good, but I’m particularly fond of Legend’s duet with Esperanza Spalding on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and his gorgeous take on “The Christmas Song.” This is really a perfect Christmas record, one that makes me think of snowfalls and presents when I was a child, one that evokes the nostalgic and beautiful magic of this season. I’m probably going to play it again once I’m done writing this, in fact.

I hope I’ve given you enough ideas to stock your own Christmas larder with tunes. While I will be back to writing about non-Christmas music next week (with the honorable mentions for my top 10 list), you can bet that I’ll be listening to some combination of the above while writing it. Thanks for reading. May your days be merry and bright.

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