It's back. From now till New Year's Day, an onslaught of merriment will fill every restaurant, retail space, and rest stop in the land. Every year, the flare-up of the festive season brings a mind-boggling rush of "new" holiday releases from once-popular acts, performers nobody's heard from since the Clinton years. (Honestly, was anyone really clamoring for a Rod Stewart Christmas album?)
While much of the new fa-la-la is bound to be more blah-blah-blah, this year also welcomes several enjoyable nominees vying for the holiday canon. And not all ghosts of Christmas past are unwelcome guests. As every gay man knows, a perfect holiday party playlist should be a curator's blend of chestnuts and witty updates. The list that follows includes not only the standouts of the freshman class, but also a handful of albums that any proud household wouldn't be embarrassed to play.
That's the real joy of holiday music: The good stuff never goes out of style.
New Tracey Thorn Tinsel and Lights (Merge, 2012) This moody gem from the Everything But the Girl warbler qualifies as one of the season's brightest lights, even if its atmosphere is often everything but the merry. Thorn's tender jaunt down Joni Mitchell's "River" will chill you to the bone, while Stephen Merritt fans may melt for her brief and gentle cover of "Like a Snowman."
New Sufjan Stevens Silver & Gold (Asthmatic Kitty) Of the 52--yes, 52--new tracks on this self-conscious menagerie of lo-fi holiday ditties, at least a few are keepers. Stevens, known for his occasionally irritating experimental indie-folk concoctions, is clearly enjoying himself on originals such as the down-home "Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past." His winking versions of several standards also hit the spot. Silver & Gold may not be as coherent as his 2006 collection, Songs for Christmas, but it's an easy option for spicing up the eggnog.
New Various Artists Holidays Rule (Hear) The pitch: 17 new recordings from acts ranging from Fun. to, um, Paul McCartney. Sounds like another Now That's What I Call Music! monstrosity, but Holidays Rule actually rules. Sort of. Standout tracks from The Shins ("Wonderful Christmastime"), Rufus Wainwright ("Baby It's Cold Outside") and Andrew Bird ("Auld Lang Syne") elevate the anthology a notch or two above similar collections. Classics? Not quite, but Fun. is, well, fun.
New Various Artists Broadway's Carols for a Cure 2012: Volume 14 (Broadway Cares) Musical theater nerds already know just how creative and charming this series can be. As in years past, the annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS features singers from current Broadway and Off-Broadway productions tackling reverent and, more often, not-so-reverent yuletide classics. Case in point: "Good Queen Wenceslas" by the cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, or the adrenaline-fueled Bring It On cover of "Angels We Have Heard on High."
New John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John This Christmas (Constellation/ONJ) We could tell you that Travolta's vocals sound like a knife fight in a Tijuana Laundromat, but that wouldn't dissuade certain hopelessly devoted Grease monkeys from buying and loving this charity album. It's SANDY and DANNY, fans will say: They go together like rama-lama-lama-you-know-the-rest. The good news? The album works, for the most part; it's a quaint little collection of standards guest starring Tony Bennett, James Taylor and Barbra Streisand (!).
Recent Annie Lennox A Christmas Cornucopia (Island) Annie, are you OK? It's been two years since you signed with Island Records, filling us with hope for a cornucopia of new recordings, yet all we have to show for it is a holiday album. But what an album it is, a manicured collection of lush, not quite obscure hymns ("Angels from the Realm of Glory") and cold ballads ("In the Bleak Midwinter"). The overall product is nothing shy of effervescent. Now, stop being a diva and get back to the studio.
Recent Various Artists Verve Remixed Christmas (Verve) Let's rejoice: Santa, or somebody, has apparently put a stop to the international nightmare of badly remixed Christmas music, and just in time. Nobody needs another four-on-the-floor "Rudolph." While the retro-remix trend seems to have run its course (sorry, Moby), Verve's peppy compilation of electrified classics remains a welcome exception to the rule. Grin-worthy tracks by Nina Simone, Dinah Washington and Shirley Horne will make you want to shop at Pottery Barn. In a good way.
Recent She & Him A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge) Collaborators Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have never much seemed like they belonged in our modern era. Their cheery 2011 holiday album reverberates with rich, velvety textures tailor-made for roadhouse jukeboxes, circa 1962. These deceptively simple rock 'n' roll covers ("Blue Christmas," "Little Saint Nick") feel somehow intimate and cavernous at once, with nostalgia encouraged but not required.
Classic Mariah Carey Merry Christmas (Sony) Merry Christmas II You (Island) Love her or loathe her, you must admit Mariah hit the lottery with her ubiquitous "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which has been called the only significant Christmas song written since 1984 and comes from the best-selling holiday album of all-time. Mariah's Merry Christmas has long been a seasonal staple for countless gay households. Some fans cringed when her 2010 follow-up, Merry Christmas II You, featured an "All I Want" remake with, of all people, Justin Bieber. (The Biebs was nine months old when the first album hit.) A casual listener should opt for the newer effort, which feels less stuffy and more full of life-- Justin and all.
Classic The Carpenters Christmas Portrait (A&M) After three decades of near continuous play in every mall in America, this 1978 masterpiece from Karen and Richard Carpenter somehow never wears out its welcome. If the signature track, "Merry Christmas Darling," now feels a trifle dated, the ridiculously packed compilation still shines via its playful standards and penchant for rambling medleys. Your gay uncle definitely owns the vinyl LP. Give him the expanded two-disc remastered set and watch the waterworks flow.
Classic Various Artists A Very Special Christmas (A&M) Last month saw the release of A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years, the eighth entry in the series benefitting the Special Olympics. It's a timely nudge to go dig out the album that started it all, 1987's avant-garde anthology with the iconic Keith Haring cover art. Blow off the dust and rediscover all the old favorites: Chrissie Hynde crooning "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Whitney Houston's striking "Do You Hear What I Hear," and finally Madonna bringing only a hint of slutty glee to "Santa Baby." It truly was a more innocent time.