Presents are okay I guess, in limited doses. I love Christmas primarily because the confluence of commercial advertising plus the subconscious longing for religious salvation and the family bond creates a monthlong ritual fantasy of wholesomeness. For 24 days in December we march around in boots and scarves, drink peppermint hot chocolate with whipped cream, watch our breath slowly dissipate in the cold morning air, and admire our reflections in department store windows. You needn’t celebrate the holiday or buy a single piece of product to get swept up in the ecstasy of an anticipatory period that, like all anticipatory periods, beats the anticlimactic event by a miracle mile. Holiday spirit is a fantasy that instantly becomes real if you choose to believe. Just like intimacy, it exists simply because you believe it does. That’s why Christmas is so eternally rock & roll.
She & Him: Christmas Party (Columbia)
Of course She & Him have made a second Christmas album. That Zooey Deschanel, so chipper even as her adorable quirks slide down the long hill that ends in Molasses Swamp! Mall music is her calling, the mode her original songs strive for and slightly miss. The holiday theme distinguishes this one from She & Him’s other albums in name only.
Usually Deschanel and creative partner M. Ward specialize in generic coffeehouse folk slicked over and sugared up with heavy pedal steel, backup harmonies cooing and crooning, and other retro gestures designed to meld idealized classic-pop cheer with a sleepy coziness at odds with such facsimile’s potential accuracy. Here they dial down the polish, cultivating a muted, brushed, downtempo feel suitable for curling up by the fire with a blanket, warm beverage, and similar clichés. Theoretically their modest sophistication could turn the Christmas tradition ironic, only it’s the wrong kind of irony, and reflexive self-awareness backs the album into a corner as Deschanel’s delight in preciousness, aiming to deflate it, accidentally heightens it instead. While the new songs haven’t been heard any other way, the familiar material here reveals her as a creature of mannerisms. Once charming as an enunciator, she’s become a parody of perk; quavering around vowels in “The Man With the Bag” or spelling out each cutesy syllable in “Mele Kalikimaka” is the equivalent of an actress relying on speech tics and funny gestures. Quietly alert, the savory acoustic backup lends some saving grace.
Taking into account 2011’s A Very She & Him Christmas, 2014’s Classics, and now this record, they’ve released as many tribute albums as they have original ones. Perhaps it’s an honor to record holiday music less cloying than one’s own songs.
Kacey Musgraves: A Very Kacey Christmas (Mercury Nashville)
Christmas and country music generally mesh due to religious piety, excessive respect for tradition, and a willingness to guzzle the sentimental juices spurting from the big fat national heart. Christmas and Kacey Musgraves mesh, on the other hand, because Musgraves is a genius at parsing American archetypes and repackaging them in palatable modern contexts. Trust her to enjoy the creepiest, juiciest archetype of all.
Detractors will consider this record too predictable a move — she’s so pat, so homiletic, so complacent in her niceness that for her to release a Christmas album after only three years as a solo artist hardly surprises. But only a nice, downhome, exemplary model of an American girl could address the theme so knowingly. This album isn’t an exuberant tribute-critique of convention like 2015’s Pageant Material; it’s just a barrel of monkeys. Her strummed country-folk band unfolds in weird directions, revealing miniature pocket orchestras and pop-up choirs before reassembling into a different ensemble altogether, foregrounding strings or Hawaiian guitar, cogs whirring, gears flying. There’s a rickety, plastic quality to the music exactly suited to the occasion, evocative of old toy stores and elaborately crafted gingerbread sculptures. Musgraves sings in her typical chirp with just a shade of drawl, although she does sound younger than usual. She picks old chestnuts, performs new comedy routines (“A Willie Nice Christmas”), honors multiculturalism (“Feliz Navidad,” “Mele Kalikimaka”). She captures the sense of wonder we’re often told children feel.
The nuance she’s capable of would be inappropriate here — pure material enjoyment is the idea. Should country radio one day altogether tire of her, she has a bright future revitalizing children’s music.
Amy Grant: Tennessee Christmas (AGG)
Hating Christian rock is such a boring reflex — as if this absurd niche genre were somehow threatening. Although the genre’s reigning queen recorded excellent (secular) synthpop in the ‘90s, and her downtempo acoustic Christmas album sticks to (largely) secular material, that’s no reason to expect anything other than polite normativity when sitting down for Christmas dinner in the Grant family home. Tame rather than godawful, the record succumbs to every cliche about tradition and family bonding.
I won’t accuse her of proselytizing, not even subliminally. The norm among Christian-identified rock stars is to make a show of perpetually reconverting their audiences, who haven’t strayed an inch. That’s not her — it would be vulgar. Grant’s Christmas is a sincere, adult affair, where LL Bean model lookalikes convene to solemnly say grace and tear up a little because the family’s finally back together; where people who spend the year just trying to get by feel an annual moment of solace sitting by the tree; where we open our doors to strays because Christmas is about community. She represents these stock images with hushed, well-groomed, pedantically slow folk-rock that sweeps piano chords and guitar twang into a soothing organic blend. She sings in a breathy, tender whisper evocative of virtues like maternal caring and beaming altruistic compassion. Her original songs focus on the eternal pleasures of home, family warmth, and — that wonderful state to aspire to — togetherness. To the classics she adds spoken voiceovers looking back happily on her family’s Christmas tradition, making pronouncements like “I guess I like nostalgic gifts because they remind me of my childhood.”
Whether or not these heartwarming sentiments qualify as universal, they perform some sinister, insidious cultural work. After twelve songs in which she (mostly) avoids dropping His name, she closes with a massed choir singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Message received.
The Killers: Don’t Waste Your Wishes (Island)
Every year for the past ten, everyone’s favorite new wave and/or heartland-rock revival band has released an original Christmas song, and this stellar compilation adds them all up to produce, somehow, one of their best albums ever. Just what the Christmas tradition needed — familiar cozy platitudes transposed into bighearted camp.
What astounds about the album is how little the music departs from their norm. Anthemic arena-rock ballads with soaring, vaguely Springsteenesque melodies, their guitar slam intermittently beefed up with glitzy synthesizer polish and always arranged with a subtle, layered sense of pop dynamics, parade by in rousing succession. Terrific guitar riffs abound (“Boots,” “I Feel It in My Bones”), as do fist-pumping choruses one could scream at the karaoke bar. Brandon Flowers’s voice evolves, over the decade, from arch monotone to soulful cry, as it did on their albums throughout the period. Only the lyrics establish a theme that fits their larger project of celebrating the grandiosity of American myth — specificity narrows the scope a little, that’s all. Moreover, the novelty factor inspires Flowers to get truly silly, romping through bucketloads of camp. On “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” he learns that naughty boys get more than just a lump of coal. On “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” he attends a lively square-dance soiree complete with massive synthesizer hooks. Yet nothing tops “A Great Big Sled”: Flowers’s well-timed “ho ho ho’s” magnify the disparity between frivolous subject matter and the song’s gripping, urgent tone in an earnest plea for transcendental escape.
None of this pious handwringing for the Killers; they know the holiday as a kitschfest. They’re correct. Merry Christmas and keep on rocking.