Christmas albums are largely dismissed by mainstream rock critics, and with good reason — consisting mainly of the same old songs over and over again, they’re filler product designed to rake in the cash while the corporate titans who created them take a year off to enjoy private cruises and improve their golf game. Sideshows by design, most Christmas albums meld sappy nostalgia for the prerock era and the rampant corn that gets played only in elevators and dentists’ offices, which right there makes three reasons not to take them too seriously. But for anyone who cares about mass culture, neither do they deserve to be completely ignored; like it or not they constitute their own unique American musical tradition. So I’ve assembled a number of them for your delectation this holiday season. Though it’s been said many times, many ways, merry Christmas to you.
Renee Fleming: Christmas In New York (Decca, 2014)
Theoretically, Fleming is exactly the kind of artist who could make something of the Christmas album. Endlessly rehashing the canon is what opera singers do anyway, and I confess I’ve always wanted to hear a few of these songs delivered in grand aria mode — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with soaring vocal climax, how could you resist? But Fleming is no ordinary opera singer. Having sung her contributions to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in an imagined fantasy tongue, so fluent in pop language that she once recorded an entire “rock” album wherein she covers Leonard Cohen and Peter Gabriel, she takes crossover to impossible extremes, and she prides herself on being able to appropriate all sorts of modern styles. Laying her finger aside of her nose, she conjures up whole smooth jazz ensembles to produce exactly the slick saxophone solos and glistening legato guitars that have become de rigueur in the genre, and she adapts her voice to a plainer but also jazzier croon. I know next to nothing about the technical side of opera singing, and am not qualified to judge her vocal dexterity in Italian or French. But given the awkward, delicate mannerisms she resorts to here, she should never ever ever touch the English language again.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Holiday (Legacy, 2014)
I didn’t take Earth, Wind & Fire for a shtick-prone band, but the still-active funk pioneers somehow pull this album off, mostly because their music is so irresistible. Adding thick mellow guitar, energetic thumb piano, and giant walls of horn to a wealth of strong melodies, they play nearly every song in their usual style. Their rhythm section just continually grooves, swaying up and down as chewy riffs lock into place around liquid basslines, cruising back and forth as trumpets and saxophones blast forth in unison, leaving you humming familiar songs in new ways. Despite the inevitable schmaltz factor, this is quite a pleasant surprise, especially when they remake their old hits to fit the concept (“September” turns into “December”, “Happy Feelin” into “Happy Seasons”). Wouldn’t you rather hear holiday-themed music performed over jumpy funkbeats?
Seth MacFarlane: Holiday for Swing! (Republic, 2014)
You know MacFarlane as the mastermind behind Family Guy and American Dad, but he released a pretty conventional swing album in 2011, and here he is making his bid for the Yuletide market. For such a big comedy star, he plays the whole thing surprisingly straight — no wit, no jokes, not even bad ones. Just an eager cornball with a professionally trained voice who desperately wishes he were Michael Bublé. His generic big-band arrangements are just as classy, and he shares the same attentive sense of timing. He has that same sleazy burr in his voice, too, which helps distinguish him from dozens of other retro-identified scam artists churning out nearly identical renditions of the same songs this holiday season, though he never approaches the level of sex appeal we all envy Bublé for in the first place. In fact, he never shows any sex appeal at all. He does have a perfectly nice, functional, professionally trained voice, though.
Idina Menzel: Holiday Wishes (Warner Bros, 2014)
So much more than a big set of pipes, Idina Menzel is the true Broadway singer, epitomizing the blend of crisply enunciated syllables and sudden surges of operatic pathos that implies not just commercial showtune but commercial religion, Disney on steroids, Riverdance. Yet because she has mastered her vocal tradition so completely, and because it really can be pleasurable sometimes to hear syllables crisply enunciated, I can’t help but hum along despite myself, and the holiday concept suits her like ornaments on a tree. Clear and spare, dominated mostly by light synthesizer beds with ostinato violin coloring in the background at times, this is as tasteful a Christmas album as exists on the market today. All I want now is for her to cover “Santa Baby”.
Darius Rucker: Home for the Holidays (Capitol Nashville, 2014)
If Darius Rucker, quite possibly the only African-American man to lead a commercially succesful roots-rock band, were just a little more tough-minded, if he only had a tiny bit more edge, he would be revered as an alternarock hero and his group Hootie & the Blowfish namechecked as an influence by countless aspiring young indie songwriters. But of course Rucker is the kind of sentimental goof who gets misty-eyed at Christmas pageants and whose idea of a rousing protest song is “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and of course his deep, soulful growl lends itself to schlock all too easily. So while it’s a little disappointing that he should choose the Christmas album and/or placeholder strategy as he takes a break from his country solo career, it’s not at all a surprise. His singing never shakes off its own jocular reverence for the same old chestnuts that everybody covers. The arrangements equal not the jangly Americana he first became known for but standard-issue elevator Muzak. Play it at your local shopping center and I bet nobody would know the difference between Rucker’s album and Seth MacFarlane’s.
LeAnn Rimes: One Christmas: Chapter One (Iconic, 2014)
This is not veteran country artiste Rimes’s first Christmas album, and judging from the title it won’t be her last, so we who enjoy holiday radio had better get used to her cadences. From her refined melisma to her solemn intonation to her stately tempos and even to her album cover, she’s an ice princess extraordinaire. She wears sweeping white dresses to accentuate her bright blonde hair, steely blue eyes, and pale complexion; she wears a white fur vest to evoke angel wings sprouting from her shoulders; she stands before her palace, looking majestic, staring down at her subjects from the throne that is her cheekbones; despite the grand vocal melodrama she brings to every song she touches, she seems incapable of conveying any emotion. Lest you think she has no sense of humor, however, she covers “I Want a Hippotamus for Christmas,” thus completely confirming your suspicions.
Michael W. Smith: The Spirit of Christmas (Capitol, 2014)
Complete with string-drenched fusion jazz accompaniment, mini pop-up orchestras, soft-rock guitar solos, soaring classical interludes, passionate acoustic plucking, delicate piano balladry, endearingly dorky singing, key changes in songs that usually lack them, and cameos for Lady Antebellum, the Nashville Children’s Choir, and Bono, who contributes a very serious spoken-word piece, this carefully assembled devotional package might sound like your average, generic, predictably Christmas album, with one caveat. Most Christmas albums are born from expediency—whether motivated by the promise of commercial reward, the desire to please one’s fans, or just simple writer’s block, the vast majority of artists who record these trifles do so to make money. By contrast, the biggest Christian-rocker alive released this album to sincerely commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Kitsch that most people appreciate with knowing irony if at all fills him with strong religious emotion. Songs that most people find cheerful and amusing he considers sacred, edifying, tokens of God’s grace. What you hear as tacky vulgarity he hears as deep, heartfelt piety. That’s not to say he has zero interest in making money, however. Why else would the man record no less than four Christmas albums over the course of his career, including this one, often repeating the same exact songs from one to another, each the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting?
Pentatonix: That’s Christmas to Me (RCA, 2014)
How many a cappella singers does it take to relentlessly cram vapid holiday cheer down your throat until your gag reflex hurls red and green-colored Christmas puke back over their smug, smiling faces?
Bad Religion: Christmas Songs (Epitaph, 2013)
This album came out in 2013, but I couldn’t resist. The long-running Los Angeles hardcore punk band blasts through a collection of Christian hymns, turning each one into a catchy two-minute rock song. The format is spare, consisting of hyperactive drumming, distorted crunches of power chords, and Greg Graffin’s hectoring voice; the effect is the sure-shot minimalist thrill of all classic punk, packing a special anthemic charge. These songs have great melodies, after all, and each is left intact. Instead of giggling sophomorically at the source material like so much postmodern genre exercise, the band gives it new life, new respect, and a new format. It’s a tribute to both genres that they mesh so well. The tour de force is “Little Drummer Boy”, featuring a mechanical hammering beat you could have sworn was always part of the song.
Digging up everybody’s ickiest, most sentimental feelings and putting them on shameless display, the Christmas album is a venerable tradition that only rarely produces anything like compelling art. But it can happen, and it will you teach a lot when it does. My favorite Christmas album of all time is the 1984 edition of the Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait. Far from the tasteless cocktail/mall music they get dismissed as, the Carpenters were not what they seemed, because as we now know from her biography, Karen Carpenter had as tortured a mind as anybody in rock & roll. For all the music’s artificial good cheer, the emotion conveyed in almost every Carpenters song is sadness — deep, profound, crippling, all-consuming melancholy. She was attracted not to cathartic hard-rock or to complacent folk-rock but to the meticulously composed, scarily manipulative easy-listening lite-pop her brother Richard had mastered in the studio. It was a genre that stood in for a whole structure of feeling, one that held a huge amount of popular/romantic American life in its sway, and I believe it was this structure of feeling that ultimately failed to save her. As the most extreme apotheosis of this cultural branch, the Christmas album is a form the Carpenters were made for. Karen’s rich, carefully phrased velvet shawl of a voice finds little pockets of pathos in even the emptiest of oversung carols, and Richard’s arrangements are subtle and masterful if you have the heart to hear them that way, moving from standard radio material to selections from The Nutcracker to original “interludes” and “overtures” in a broad, sweeping suite seeking to unify the entire Christmas tradition. Throughout the album, Christmas is treated not as an occasion for commerce or a winter wonderland but as a promise of redemption, of wholesome family values, of the psychological bedrock that comes with convention and home. That this fantasy remains unattainable only makes it all the more worth longing for, and it is this vision of the holidays that artists who record Christmas albums adore and fail to live up to. But with January comes hope for a new year and the opportunity to realize these mad cultural dreams. I’m already looking forward to next December.