What’s notable in this year’s crop of holiday music?
Behold this year’s latest crop of sonic yuletide to get you through the season. Happy Holidays, everybody!
Sugar & Booze (Henry’s Girl)
VIDEO: Ana Gasteyer performs “Sugar & Booze” on NBC Today With Hoda and Jenna
This year’s most unexpectedly delightful holiday album comes from former Saturday Night Live stalwart Gasteyer, who takes a jazzy, supper club approach to her first seasonal record. Of the 14 songs, eight are originals, most of them cleverly written, cheeky but not too over-the-top. Surprisingly, the one flub is a collaboration with Maya Rudolph (another former SNL-er who knows her way around a song), the overly-rhyming, pun-loaded “Secret Santa” (Havana, banana, I’m not continuing). Apart from that misstep, however, the likes of “Nothing Rhymes with Christmas” (so clever — and Gasteyer reveals the one near-rhyme in the song, which I’ll bet you can’t guess) and a smartly rearranged “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (complete with some additional lyrics) will put a twist of lime into your holiday party.
Rob Halford (with Family & Friends)
Celestial (Legacy Recordings)
VIDEO: Rob Halford “Donner and Blitzen”
Halford’s second (I kid you not) holiday album is a little all over the place, but it’s mostly a good time. The Judas Priest frontman rocks as hard as ever on originals like “Donner and Blitzen” and covers of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Deck the Halls” (the latter is nearly speed metal) while turning “Away in a Manger” into a dark, gothic (as opposed to goth) ballad. “The First Noel” is sung totally straight, with accompaniment from church organ and a male choir. The majority of the album is a mix of secular and religious Christmas standards, so if you like your traditional Christmas rocked up, this is the way to go.
Llegó Navidad (Rhino)
VIDEO: Los Lobos “Christmas And You”
The most famous band from East L.A. (at least, I think so) takes on an array of mostly Spanish-language Christmas songs from across the Americas on their first such album, including Freddy Fender’s “Christmas Time in Texas,” Jose Feliciano’s classic “Feliz Nvaidad,” and their own original “Christmas and You,” in styles from salsa to Mexican folk to tejano to rock. As a non-Spanish speaker, I can’t (ahem) speak to the lyrics, but the whole thing sounds great, really warm and cozy.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Big Band Holidays II (Blue Engine)
AUDIO: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Big Band Holidays II (Blue Engine)
Taken from holiday concerts recorded from 2015-2018, this mix of instrumental (5) and vocal (6) cuts absolutely kills. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is such a well-oiled machine that, first and foremost, this is just a great pure jazz album. (You know Wynton doesn’t mess around.) On top of that, the song selection here — everything from Christmas classics like “We Three Kings,” sung superbly by Denzal Sinclaire, to Percy Faith’s “Brazilian Sleigh Bells” — is spot-on, guaranteeing that you’ll never get bored. The real “money shot” of this record is a 2015 recording of Aretha Franklin singing “O Tannenbaum” solo, accompanying herself on piano; she sounds phenomenal. She even sings part of it in German! If you enjoy jazz at all, this one’s a holiday season must-have.
The Christmas Present (Sony UK)
AUDIO: Robbie Williams The Christmas Present (full album)
I’m not sure how one pulls off sounding smug while singing, but Williams has it down to a science — a shame, because some of the arrangements here are nice, but his vocals are incredibly off-putting. This is a double album (because hubris, I guess), half traditional songs and half originals. The originals are pretty uniformly bad, as is the array of guests on the album: Rod Stewart (speaking of smug), Bryan Adams, a German singer named Helene Fischer whose vocals on “Santa Baby” are truly excruciating, and Williams’s own father, whom I never need to hear again. The Christmas Present is well and truly a lump of coal.
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Last Christmas (Legacy Recordings)
VIDEO: Wham! “Last Christmas”
Okay, this isn’t strictly a holiday album. Okay, this actually isn’t a holiday album at all. It’s an ersatz George Michael and Wham! compilation, serving as the soundtrack to a Christmas-themed romantic film titled after Wham!’s Christmas classic. I didn’t get a chance to see the film before it disappeared from my local multiplex (don’t release movies like this is early November, Hollywood), so I can’t say exactly how the songs fit into the film, apart from knowing that the lead character is a big Michael fan. It’s a decent listen, and fortunately the version on Spotify U.S. (where most will likely encounter the album) omits the one previously unreleased song, the not very good and quite unfortunately titled “This Is How (We Want You to Get High).” Whoever thought releasing that was a good idea is clearly a moron. Honestly, if you want a great George Michael comp, 1998’s Ladies and Gentlemen… the Best of George Michael still exists, making this album fairly irrelevant.