Christmas Present(s): 2020 Holiday Album Roundup
What’s notable in this year’s crop of Christmas+ albums?
Our annual roundup of this year’s holliest, jolliest new Christmas 🎄 albums on the market is upon us. Enjoy!
Carrie Underwood, My Gift
I love Carrie Underwood; I’ve been a fan since her 2005 post-American Idol debut album, Some Hearts, which made her a massive country star (one she still is). But. Underwood has a predilection towards big, blown-out, Celine Dion-esque balladry, that sometimes works (her debut country single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which is overblown in the best possible way) but often doesn’t. (Her uptempo material generally fares much better: for starters, try the crossover pop smash “Before He Cheats,” “Blown Away,” and “Dirty Laundry.”) At times, Underwood confuses singing bigly, or loudly, for singing well. And unfortunately, the bulk of her first Christmas album (scorecard: 8 trad/3 orig) is hymns that can be sung in a big, blown-out manner: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” In addition, one of the new songs is a John Legend co-write which he and Underwood sing as a duet, seemingly attempting to see who can sing the loudest and drown out the other. Between how much I like Underwood and how much I like Christmas music, this album should’ve been a slam dunk for me, but apart from her sensitive take on “Mary, Did You Know?” (a contemporary Christian/country holiday classic), this all falls flatter than day-old champagne.
VIDEO: Carrie Underwood and John Legend “Hallelujah”
Dolly Parton, A Holly Dolly Christmas
Before Carrie Underwood, before Shania Twain, Dolly Parton was, of course, the queen of country crossover. She’s one of the best American songwriters of the past 60 years, and frankly one of the best people in the world, helping finance one of the first COVID-19 vaccines with a high efficacy rate. However, her ecumenical approach to music – the fact that she seemingly loves everything – lets her down more often than not these days. In the past year alone, she’s had a dreadful top 20 dance hit with Swedish dance duo Galantis, and a pair of (much better) Christian radio smashes with the Arkansan Chris Stapleton manqué Zach Williams and the Aussie brother duo for KING & COUNTRY (see below), along with releasing her own would-be pandemic anthem. So her first Christmas album in over 30 years, accordingly, features everyone from her goddaughter Miley Cyrus to holiday king Michael Bublé and, uh, obnoxious talk-show host Jimmy Fallon.
The Bublé duet, “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas,” is frankly a little gross; he’s at his most sleazy-slash-louche, and WTF does “cozy down” mean anyway? There’s a couple of songs from Parton’s new Netflix film Christmas on the Square, none of which are great. Her cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is basically a karaoke version plus a banjo and, unfortunately, Fallon. Parton duets with Willie Nelson on his classic “Pretty Paper,” and it’s fine, if a bit goopy (it could use more of Nelson). And as for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” well, maybe – just maybe – Parton’s a little long in the tooth to be singing a kiddie song such as that one. Yes, she’s a national treasure, but this is nowhere near a good album.
VIDEO: Dolly Parton “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas”
Chilly Gonzales, A Very Chilly Christmas
He’s done pop-rock with the group Son, he’s made hip-hop records on Kitty-Yo, he’s produced and worked with the varied likes of Daft Punk, Feist and Jarvis Cocker. And now he’s something of a Windham Hill artist for the indie kids, making contemplative piano records. For his first seasonal offering, he covers everything from “Silent Night” and “O Tannenbaum” to Mariah Carey and Wham! (you know which ones) to the late David Berman (“Snow Is Falling Manhattan,” featuring both Feist and Cocker on vocals). Every single one of these tracks is utterly lovely – he even does something interesting in his playing/arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” a song you’d think couldn’t be made interesting anymore. The album’s sole original number, “The Banister Bough,” spotlights a very close-mic’d Feist, whose vocal sounds even more intimate as a result. I can’t recommend this album enough.
VIDEO: A Very Chilly Christmas trailer
Shaggy, Christmas in the Islands
I’m not sure which is less expected: the fact that the scorecard on this album is 2 trad/13 orig (!) (this “12 Days of Christmas” is a new one), or the fact that Shaggy has made a holiday album in the first place. But the thing is, this is only nominally a holiday album; this is a Shaggy record, more dancehall than usual (aka no Sting, no “It Wasn’t Me” crossover garbage) and, accordingly, better than he’s been in some time. These songs feature some Christmas-referencing lyrics and most have sleigh bells on them, but apart from that this is just pop-leaning dancehall. That said, Bounty Killer, Conkarah, Beenie Man, and Junior Reid all feature, giving this some real cred – even a Joss Stone feature can’t do much to damage that! And I’ve gotta say, this does give a legitimately island vibe, though I’d recommend ending the album at track 10; the last third is three solo Shaggy joints (he’s often better with others’ assistance) and two limp cuts with female vocals (incl. the aforementioned Stone).
VIDEO: Shaggy feat. Nee-Yo and Ding Dong “Holiday In Jamaica”
for KING & COUNTRY, A Drummer Boy Christmas
fK&C are a pair of Australian brothers with a penchant for Coldplay-style epic-ness, EDM beats, and (oddly and unfortunately) 19th-century military garb. In the past half-decade they’ve become one of the biggest artists in contemporary Christian music – notable, particularly, as they don’t make the worship songs that have become the genre’s bread & butter. Their first Christmas album, however, largely leaves the beats behind and puts the focus on their plaintive vocals on a set full of mostly traditional, religious songs. That focus helps the album succeed, even as it switches back & forth between the grand (“Joy to the World”) and the austere (“The Carol of Joseph”).
VIDEO: for KING & COUNTRY “Little Drummer Boy”
Goo Goo Dolls, It’s Christmas All Over
Do you remember that there was a time when the Goo Goo Dolls rocked, at least nominally? They were actually a punk band early in their existence! I often grouped them in with the Replacements back then. Hell, their first five records came out on Metal Blade! Of course, those days are far in the rearview mirror, and now the Goos make ultra-bland pop/rock for Karens, and that continues on this holiday collection of 3 originals and 7 covers. “You Ain’t Gettin’ Nothin’” is Johnny Rzeznik’s attempt to write a Grinch-style classic; he fails badly. And who needs “here’s the town’s favorite bar band, playing the town square tree lighting!”-type covers of “Let it Snow” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”? Their take on Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” isn’t bad exactly, but has none of his cheek, nor spark; their ability to turn most anything into musical oatmeal is almost impressive, were it not so depressing.
VIDEO: Goo Goo Dolls “This Is Christmas”
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