25 Pieces of Christmas Music to Actually Enjoy in 2019

 

Guarantee: No Mariah Carey fans were harmed during the making of this column. Check out some cool videos at the bottom, too. And yes, the photo above was grabbed off the web. Meanwhile, below, Jason Gross, a longtime BLURT contributor, is also the editor/publisher/majordomo of Perfect Sound Forever, the internet’s greatest-ever music magazine. Yeah, he was and always will be an early adopter. Accept no substitutes. Listen to his picks on Spotify right HERE. 

BY JASON GROSS

But first, a standalone single pick from the editor:

Let’s get into it, kids. Tell the parents to let you stay up late tonight. Ranging from classical to mash-up to indie to country to ‘hood pop’ to boy band to folk to art rock, there was plenty of variety and quality in 2019 Xmas music to choose from.  As for the controversy over John Legend’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” aren’t there more important, substantial things to get pissed over? Yes, there are.

  1. The 5 Browns Christmas With the 5 Browns (Steinway and Sons) In theory, this sibling group of Mormons sounds like they’d be the Osmonds of the classical world. But by taking tried and true holiday classics that even non-classical slobs like me know well (especially “The Nutcracker Suite”) and arranging them for a bunch of pianos (presumably Steinway’s), they craft a lovely album you can enjoy with your parents, grandparents, etc.
  2. Amerigo Gazaway “Notorious B.I.G. – Christmas Time In Crooklyn” (Bandcamp) The great mash-up master takes Biggie’s “Juicy” and layers it on top of holiday schmaltz, creating something hip, nostalgic, old-school and new at the same time. Also see his holiday album remixes.
  3. Big Stick Sauced Up Santa (Fortes Music) John Gill is a raunchy never-say-die indie artist who once howled about hot rods over womping drum beats but here grumbles like Tom Waits and adds on a kiddie choir. Modern Family‘s patriarch Jay Pritchett once marveled that Waits’ voice could be beautiful and horrible at the same time. Ditto for Gill. End result: the unlikeliest children’s record in recent memory.
  4. Bleached “Single Bells” (Amazon) Courtesy of the elves at the online giant, a joyous indie/grrl stomp in honor of Santa.
  5. Wade Bowen Twelve Twenty-Five (Bowen Sounds) Technically, it’s a country Xmas party (you can tell by the twang of the guitars and voice) but it’s almost as much of a soul Xmas, which definitely ain’t a bad thing. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” does right by Darlene Love and you can more easily stand to hear his version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” than Mariah’s by now.
  6. Molly Burch “Last Christmas” (Captured Tracks) Her whole Christmas Album is sweet and low-key but this is a particular highlight, especially with its goofy, funny video.
  7. Ceraadi “Christmas With You” (Roc Nation) This L.A. ‘hood pop’ group (yep, that’s a thing) imagines Xmas as a time for twerking in the kitchen and drinking games. Definitely a better time than the holiday office party you’ll be forced to go to.
  8. Judy Collins & Jonas Fjeld “Bury Me With My Guitar On” (Wildflowers) Courtesy of the folkie legend, Chatham County Line and Norwegian singer/songwriter Fjeld comes this high-stepping country/bluegrass tune with some fatalism for the holiday.
  9. Lucy Dacus “Last Christmas” (Merge) By now, the Wham song is such a standard that even cover songs of it are standard for this time of year, so give the normally-downbeat Dacus credit for revving it up to indie rock speed, adding in a moshing finale.
  10. The Flaming Lips “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (Warner Bros) Leave it to these lovable Midwest space cadets who graced us with cult film Christmas On Mars to remake the song that Bing/Bowie made (in)famous and mash it up with another Xmas classic. Maybe it’s their bizarre/perverse sense of humor that made them dress up like Hindu gods there.
  11. Rob Halford Celestial (Legacy) Just in case you haven’t been keeping track, this is actually the 2nd holiday album from the Judas Priest frontman- first was 2009’s Halford III: Winter Songs. You’ll either head bang or laugh along or annoy the hell out of your friends (or all of the above). You definitely won’t be bored, any way it turns out.  Especially gnarly: “Donner and Blitzen” who sound like rampaging huns and “Deck the Halls” which get a demonish “fa-la-la-la” chorus.
  12. Jonas Brothers “Like It’s Christmas” (Universal) Even if you’re not a fan of the recently-reunited trio of heart-throb brothers, you have to give them their due for pulling off a swinging holiday pop tune that you’d actually wanna hear more than once.
  13. Keb’ Mo’ Moonlight, Mistletoe & You (Concord) Though you’d wish that a holiday album from this noted bluesman was a little less sentimental, he does bring soul to the proceedings (“Better Everyday”), makes a blues standard like “Please Come Home For Christmas” upbeat and gets the music downhome now and then (“Santa Claus, Santa Claus,” Merry, Merry Christmas”). Plus, you just can’t argue with “Christmas Is Annoying.”
  14. Los Lobos Llego Navidad (Rhino) Christmas en español! This great roots rock band hasn’t fully returned to its Spanish roots since 1988’s La Pistola y El Corazón and there hasn’t been a holiday album like this which stood a chance of breaking out to a multicultural audience since the 70’s- not just Jose Felciano but also Fania Records’ wonderful Asalto Navideno collection. And yes, of course we get “Feliz Navidad” but everything else here is a joy too.  I mean, how could you say no to a delightful Tex-Mex tune like “It’s Christmas Time In Texas”?
  15. Kacey Musgraves The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show (MCA Nashville) Probably the only new Xmas special you need to watch this holiday, the show loses some of its silly appeal without the visuals but even then you’ll have no problem digging the bouncy “Ribbons and Bows” finale and a Hawaiian duet with Zooey Deschanel that definitely ain’t trad fare, though it should be. And FYI, it’s actually her 2nd Xmas album after 2016’s A Very Kacey Christmas.
  16. Ne-Yo Another Kind of Christmas (Motown) A nice R&B joint and you gotta love the ladies here- Candice Boyd’s “Carol of the Bells” and Satori’s “Christmas VIbez.” He even does a nice blues turn and doesn’t make you regret he covered “The Christmas Song” (which is a feat by now). But what might be most notable is that it’s one of the few holiday albums not made to be offensive that comes with an explicit song- “Talk About It,” which drops an N-bomb along with ‘shit.’ Cool tune but don’t expect to hear it at family singalongs.
  17. Mark Peters Winterland (Sonic Cathedral) This Brit ambient master is no stranger to the holiday spirit- check out his 2018 take on “Jingle Bells” and 2017’s “Silent Night.” After improving the already-impressive Innerland with a beat-less version, he comes home for the holidays to collect the two aforementioned titles along with his own tune “The Box Of Delights,” which sounds like a music box gone nutty before drifting off blissfully.
  18. A Prog Rock Christmas (Purple Pyramid) Not a new bunch of tunes but a varied collection from the past few decades. It’s as perverse as the Halford album and a lot better than you’d expect. Sure, there’s plenty of over-singing but “Christmas Lights” has drunken Elvis impersonators,  “Carol of the Bells” is something you could almost head bang to, “Fairytale of New York” sounds fine without Shane’s croak, one of the Buggles/Yes guys wisely keeps “Linus and Lucy” (from the Peanuts) in a jazzy tone, a pair of Hawkwind refugees give up a spacey “Silent Night” and you get Malcolm McDowell howling the Grinch song as a wonderful ringer.
  19. The Regrettes “Holiday-ish” (Warner Bros) Though this pop-punk group is turning into much more of the former and much less of the latter, they land in a nice place for an adorable heart-warmer of a jaunty tune with some help from Dylan Minnette (from Netflix’s 13 Reasons).
  20. Josh Rouse “Heartbreak Holiday” (Yep Roc) His Holiday Sounds album is soft rock that isn’t soft in the head. Even if that’s too mellow for your taste, you’ll be hard pressed to deny this catchy little pop song that evokes Nick Lowe and manages to sound cheerful even when he’s taking back his ex-lovers’ presents and wonders if she’s doing the same.
  21. Lionel Scardino “Navidad” (1631 Recordings) Clocking in at a neat 2:22, it doesn’t sound like the Spanish classic but you do get a gentle piano refrain that sounds like snow falling softly outside.
  22. The School Christmas EP (Elefant) This Cardiff band starts with pop-punk and ends up with two pieces of 60’s girl group pop, with three originals clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes. Sweet and effecting, especially on “It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without You,” which deserves to be a future standard.
  23. Tim Story “Silent Cycles” (Curious Music) This Philly soundtrack composer and Cluster collaborator starts out with looped bits of “Silent Night” and then stretches it out with gentle. shimmering ambient drones and synth-choirs. By the time he reaches an album-length 73-minutes, he’s made the little old carol into something majestic and cosmic.
  24. Sharon Van Etten “Silent Night” (Amazon) Yet another reason Jeff Bezos hopes that you sign up for his music service. This alone might not warrant the monthly fee but this rising indie-folk star turns the standard into a beautifully spooky chant that you should hear at least once.
  25. Rick Wakeman Christmas Portraits (Sony Classical) Granted, this art rock codger and master of excess might be the last person you’d wanna hear Xmas music from, but here, he wisely pares it down to just him tinkling away on a piano, playing the trad pre-Tin Pin Alley Xmas classics. Other than a few fancy flourishes, the result is surprisingly simple and charming. Maybe his label can convince him to lay off the synths in the future.

 

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