The holiday season is fabulous because it’s tasteless. If you live in a capitalist society, this monthlong celebration of commodity fetishism is for you. By now the buzz of dopamine we feel when looking at commodities is so strong we can derive significant pleasure merely from wandering around a mall for hours, without buying anything, just delighting in the sparkle. Such is my relationship to Christmas music. The assorted gems reviewed below represent a tradition valuable for how it reveals the inner workings of mass sentiment. Enjoy them while you can, for humming these tunes is forbidden after the new year.
Eric Clapton: Happy Xmas (Brushbranch/Surfdog, 2018)
Unexpectedly, Clapton’s minimalist blues mesh coherently with classic Christmas pop, perhaps because two separate traditions of sentimentality are colliding. His technical skill, evident in his loose, laid-back, absent-minded guitar noodling, is as reassuring to fans of power blues as “White Christmas” and “Sentimental Moments” are to the collective American heart; the result is a brand of synthetic all-purpose pumpkin pie so rarefied it evaporates into ether.
Old 97’s: Love the Holidays (ATO, 2018)
On one of their liveliest albums, holiday festivities bring out the long-enduring alternative country band’s rowdy side. Adding jaunty horns to the forward rush of their frantic drumming and punchy riffs, revving up the blues growl on “Love the Holidays,” and veering into rockabilly on “Rudolph Was Blue,” the band sees Christmas as an excuse to rock and roll. The album is upbeat and merry; guitar noise is simple and messy as jangle-rock solos dishevel percussive power chords. The closer, “Auld Lang Syne,” rocks hardest of all. Rhett Miller writes sly, calculated lyrics that examine their subject from several perspectives. For children, Christmas is an antidote to boredom, and the band fondly captures a child’s visceral excitement on Christmas morning (“I’ll wake up at 6AM just so I can open them/merry Christmas/ you gotta love being a kid”). For adults, Christmas is the reward for a year’s worth of struggles, and the musical exuberance is also tinged with melancholy (“When we are born we are swaddled and suckled, whispered to, fussed over, tickled and cuddled/ when we grow up things get muddled/ and here it is, Christmas time”). Rather than indulging in nostalgia, they acknowledge this dilemma, almost approaching a strange double consciousness; the propulsive energy signals an unsentimental determination to enjoy life even if they’re not supposed to. “Christmas Is Coming,” in which Miller writes his beloved a Christmas song because he’s too broke to buy presents, demonstrates what it means to construct cheer out of thin air.
John Legend: A Legendary Christmas (Columbia, 2018)
From Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me” to Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” to the Jackson 5’s “Give Love on Christmas Day,” this album’s nostalgia is for bygone eras of soul music — the thumping bass, glistening rhythm guitar, and skippity horn arrangements imagine a fictional retro-R&B style whose interlocking elements click together with the synchronized perk of a big-band ensemble. A cannier soul singer (producer Raphael Saadiq, say) might have lent such a project political resonance, but Legend’s beauteous voice conveys only blank enthusiasm. The music precisely evokes a stiff tuxedo.
William Shatner: Shatner Claus: The Christmas Album (Cleopatra, 2018)
Among the handful of spoken-word albums Shatner has intermittently released to augment his acting career, this one especially suits him: his jolly cadences are perfect for the camp of Christmas songs. Like a parent reading to a child, he exaggerates every intonational contour, feigns shock and delight, and contrives ad-libbed exclamations:. “Then all the reindeer loved him/ as they shouted out with glee/ Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, hey babe, DUDE, you’re gonna go down in … HISTORY!” “Shall I PLAY for you, baRUMpapumpum?/ on my DRUM? barumpapumPUM?” After a few songs the effect is hilarious; he finds in party songs and religious songs alike the potential for absurdist theatrics. As the album wears on, though, his emphasis begins to seem arbitrary, suggesting he’s not really paying attention to the words.
Pentatonix: Christmas Is Here! (RCA, 2018)
Why does this clean-cut a cappella group, whose two previous Christmas albums rank as historic bestsellers for the genre, appeal to the American public? Their eager precision, their oooohs and ahhhhs and sighs and hums, the vanilla smoothness of their voices, as polished and feel-good as Broadway vocals (minus the enunciation) — are all throwbacks to Glee and High School Musical, whose late-’00s success proved, if only for a fleeting moment, that a diverse troupe of show choir kids could get revenge on their high school tormentors by finally becoming cool and taking over the world — which they accomplish by flattening classic pop songs into blandly idealized replicas. By covering Amy Grant and the Neighborhood as reverentially as the usual batch of early 20th-century chestnuts, they demonstrate that the so-called Great American Songbook lives, and that the rosy past we all long for extends into the present age. America was always great! To future generations, I suspect the success of Pentatonix, Glee, and the a cappella show choir will seem like a sad relic of the Obama era, the product of a blinkered idealism.
Gwen Stefani: You Make It Feel Like Christmas (Interscope, 2017)
Although I’m delighted America’s favorite ska-punk queen is recording again after a decade-long hiatus, this glowing compendium of bells and synthesized strings hardly brings out her bouncy side. She covers Wham! and “Silent Night” and tentatively sings original songs about finding love on Christmas. She can’t seem to decide what kind of Christmas album she wants to make. While her general inability to comprehend genre distinctions often conjures chintzy magic, here her duet with Blake Shelton elbows country strumming and big-band horns awkwardly into the same space. “When I Was a Little Girl,” a daft, yearning ballad that conflates eros, prayer, and holiday cheer (“When I was a little girl I wondered who I’d give all my love to/ I asked Santa who he’d recommend”), is the keeper.
Lindsey Stirling: Warmer in the Winter (Lindseystomp/Concord, 2017)
The pop-classical crossover violinist’s largely instrumental Christmas album is a marvelous hookfest, in which spry tunes, from “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to “Carol of the Bells” to “Jingle Bell Rock,” are tweaked for maximum catchiness. Stirling plays themes and elaborated solos over skittering drum machines and glistening keyboards to lend electronic textures and a dance beat to what are essentially classical arrangements. Her trills and whirls and switcheroos complicate once-familiar snatches of song that now sound disarmingly agile and intricate; the melodic restlessness and rhythmic oomph produce music as soaringly kinetic as Chicago footwork, constantly in motion. Occasionally guest singers poke their heads in, but none interrupt the liquid flow. It’s the rare Christmas album that modifies overplayed melodies so elegantly you’re happy to hum them again.
David Archuleta: Winter in the Air (Shadow Mountain, 2018)
I feel for him — once you finish second on American Idol, what is there to do but record Christmas albums in perpetuity? Crooning piano ballads that use snow as a metaphor for happiness, flexing his vocal muscles on traditional Christmas carols as well as modern Christian rock songs, desperately wishing it could be Christmas every day, he’s reached the career stage when all-American boys dissolve into spectral spirits gliding through the wintry night, materializing out of nowhere to sing generic power ballads before spookily vanishing from whence they came, doomed to haunt public retail spaces for eternity.