The Best (and Worst) Christmas and Holiday Music

Poptional Reading reviews this year’s Christmas music

The world falls into two camps: those who love Christmas music and those who hate it. As a member of the former group (provided Thanksgiving has passed), I feel sorry for the latter group. Holiday music at this time of year is absolutely unavoidable.

Not only that, a lot of it is really bad. Any so-and-so can put on a Santa hat and cut a holiday album — and it’d probably make good financial sense for so-and-so to try. It’s enough to make the Christmas-music lovers turn.

What you need is a guide to sift through the offerings and tell you what holiday albums are worth your time. As in years’ past, I volunteer. If you’re looking to stuff a stocking with some festive music, read on.

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After checking out the new holiday releases, one album immediately emerged from the pack to be the most essential — or at least worth a look. That is CeeLo Green’s CeeLo’s Magic Moment. Why? Because, of all of the artists putting out Christmas music this year, CeeLo was the only one smart enough to get help from one of the most spirited bunches out there: the Muppets. Since the days of John Denver and Emmet Otter, the Muppets have been like furry little elves spreading holiday cheer. In this case, they help out CeeLo with a new song called “All I Need Is Love.” Just try not to be charmed.

I enjoy the way CeeLo incorporated the famous “Mahna Mahna” into the song, but this video gets bonus points for having a rap bridge by Pepe the Prawn. The rest of the album has some pretty lively takes on “All I Want for Christmas,” “What Christmas Means to Me,” and “Run Rudolph Run,” but the Pepe thing alone is enough to put him above his The Voice co-judge, Blake Shelton and his twangy Cheers, It’s Christmas. Shelton definitely puts a country twist on songs like “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Let It Snow,” but they’re otherwise straightforward interoperations of the songs. (The freshest-sounding one is “Santa’s Got a Choo Choo Train.”) If you have to have some country music in your Christmas collection, you have two more not-that-exciting options: Lady Antebellum’s On This Winter’s Night and Scotty McCreery’s Christmas with Scotty McCreery (the traditional American Idol victory lap). The latter is as bland as its title.

Country music aside, when it comes to this year’s crop of holiday albums, the biggest question mark hung above the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta team-up, This Christmas. Do Danny and Sandy still have it? Of all the albums, this is the one that really could go either way. I’m sorry to report it’s disappointing on all levels: Not a knock-out-of-the-park from the pair that got “You’re the One That I Want” stuck in our heads for the past three decades, but not as much of a train wreck as its insane-looking album cover suggests. (Seriously. Look at their eyes.) Middle-of-the-road all around, as you can glean from this video.

The proceeds of This Christmas do go to charity, though, which is commendable.

Let’s face it: Christmas is not a time to be subtle. If you like your trees scraping the ceiling, your stockings bursting at the seams, and your houses lit up like the one in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, you’ll appreciate more-is-more approach to Sufjan StevensSilver and Gold compilation. The indie rocker usually releases some seasonal music this time of year, and Silver and Gold collects the Christmas songs he’s recorded between 2006 and 2010. That’s 58 tracks of Christmas goodness, in a mix of new twists on traditional songs and offbeat originals. Hear his spacey, synthy take on “Joy to the World.”

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Others you might consider:

  • You can’t leave the kiddies out: Children’s entertainer extraordinaire Laurie Berkner puts her for-kids-but-not-irritating spin on Christmas music with A Laurie Berkner Christmas.
  • Hey, we haven’t heard from some of these guys in a while: Rod Stewart put out Merry Christmas, Baby, which features Michael Bublé, CeeLo Green, and Yonkers native Mary J. Blige as guest vocalists; James Taylor takes you from “Winter Wonderland” through “Auld Lang Syne” with his James Taylor at Christmas; and Richard Marx gives you that oh-my-God-I-remember-him moment with his Christmas comeback, Christmas Spirit.
  • Now for the ladies: If you’re in the mood to hear from female singer/songwriters, Colbie Callait’s Christmas in the Sand is a mash-up of Santa and surf songs, while Christina Perri also has a more traditional six-song EP, A Very Merry Perri Christmas.
  • Mix it up, as there are compilations for everyone on your list: Now That’s What I Call Today’s Christmas for the tweens and teens (with songs by Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber, and Demi Lovato), Holidays Rule for the returning scholars who got super into their college radio stations (featuring the Shins, Andrew Bird, and Eleanor Friedberger), and A Very Special Christmas 25 Years for the parents (with songs by Jewel, Amy Grant, Michael Bublé, and Train). As always, that last one benefits the Special Olympics.

What’s your favorite Christmas album? Any holiday song you wish someone would dust off and revive? Let me know in the comments.


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