Not everyone wants chestnuts for Christmas. If you’re looking for some holiday music that hasn’t already been said many times, many ways, we’ve surveyed 15 newly released holiday music collections, including superlative sets of all-original material from pop auteur Sia and rock underdogs the Minus 5, who land at the top of our “nice” list. The roundup also includes a rip-roaring Cheap Trick album worth surrendering to, a more traditional Gwen Stefani album we’ve got some doubts about, and fresh holiday efforts from Fantasia, Lindsey Stirling, Hanson, Smokey Robinson, and DJ/curator Rodney Bingenheimer.
Sia: “Everyday is Christmas” (Atlantic)
Other pop stars may phone their Christmas albums in, but Sia is the only one in recent memory to commit herself to the holiday with a fully self-penned effort. She and musical partner Greg Kurstin (a current producer of the year Grammy nominee) have come up with a collection that’s in turn sumptuous and delightfully ridiculous, summoning the spirit of Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album without ever stooping to direct homage. Love songs don’t get any more temporal than her straight-faced mash notes to a melting “Snowman” (“Who’ll carry me without legs to run, honey?”) and “Snowflake” (“Catch you and keep you on ice, my love”). She’s completely serious, in any case, on the Motown-beat-driven “Puppies are Forever,” which is about conscientiousness in dog adoption: “They’re so cute and fluffy with shiny coats/But will you love ’em when they’re old and slow?”
The Minus 5: “Dear December” (Yep Roc)
They’re far from a household name, but the Minus 5 are well-known to R.E.M. fans, at least, as the collective led by occasional sideman (and Young Fresh Fellow) Scott McCaughey with assistance from guitarist Peter Buck. On this swell set of 11 holiday originals, Mike Mills also shows up — to sing a Hanukkah song! — along with guests including Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, M. Ward, the Posies, Chuck Prophet, and Decemberist Colin Meloy. The power pop-oriented bashers and ballads will delight anyone who ever dug Nick Lowe’s or Chris Stamey’s Christmas albums. Punny highlight: “Yule Tide Me Over,” a twangy anthem for lonely singles looking for a quick holiday pickup.
Cheap Trick: “Christmas Christmas” (Big Machine)
The originals are fewer here, but that doesn’t much matter when Robin Zander is effectively scream-singing his way through some of the most celebrated holiday rockers of all time, as originated by everyone from the Ramones to Nilsson. In place of the children’s chorus on Wizzard’s classic “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday,” you get a Rick Nielsen guitar solo, which is not a bad tradeoff. Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” actually improves in this modern translation. “Father Christmas” comes off sluggish compared to the Kinks’ original, but that’s an exception. In covering “Saturday Night Live’s” “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” Cheap Trick turn the stuff of sketch comedy into a roaring supersonic jet.
Gwen Stefani: “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” (Interscope)
Twenty years ago, No Doubt did a terrific cover of the Vandals’ “Oi to the World.” If you’re looking for anything remotely that fun in Stefani’s own Christmas album, it’s less “oi” and more like “oy.” Rather than adopt the six standards that make up half of this collection to her own style, she opts for generic big-band arrangements. Stefani’s six originals are more personal, but not always to their benefit: “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes Before You” is slightly interesting as a minor celebrity revelation, but it’s not much of a Christmas song. Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Blake Shelton, duets on a song they co-wrote, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” which mostly makes a good argument for keeping their careers separate.
Fantasia: “Christmas After Midnight” (Concord)
For “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Fantasia brings in Cee-Lo Green, who might not have been everyone’s first pick of duet partner for this particular song after his troubles a few years back. That choice aside, Fantasia has made a smart call to go with brassy but far from overbearing horn arrangements in this jazz-skirting pop/R&B collection. Bonus points for reviving Leiber & Stoller’s (and Ray Charles’) bluesy “The Snow is Falling.” Points docked for considering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a Christmas song.
Lindsey Stirling: “Warmer in the Winter” (Concord)
Hope you like violin. Really, really, really like violin. Maybe that goes without saying for any Stirling album, since fiddling around with classical/New Age/EDM crossover is the stock-in-trade that made the young Utah violinist into an unlikely star. But somehow the monotony of a single lead instrument gets older faster in a seasonal set. At least she finds an interesting instrumental partner in “Warmer for the Winter,” where Trombone Shorty shows up for a rare bowing-‘n’-blowing duel.
Various artists: “Holidays Rule Vol. 2” (Capitol)
The main attraction is a revival of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” as recorded by Macca with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots for “The Tonight Show” a year ago. It may be the second most-disliked holiday song of all time, after “Christmas Shoes,” but it turns out to be more palatable when you (a) ditch those ‘70s synths, (b) make it a cappella, and (c) have the whole thing over and done with in 1:27. Lake Street Dive make something even more listenable out of an oldie no one over 6 ever wanted to hear again, with their swinging “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” But the high-class keeper is Roseanne Cash’s cover of Louis Jordan’s “May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas.”
Hanson: “Finally It’s Christmas” (S-Curve)
Not much has changed in the 20 years since Hanson released their first Christmas album, “Snowed In”… except for Taylor Hanson’s voice. That means this follow-up is not the inadvertent tribute to the Jackson 5’s Christmas album that the first one was. The brothers’ youthful energy remains unflagging, and while the clichéd seasonal sentiments in their handful of original songs may make you feel a little MMM-bah, the title track is finally kind of irresistible.
Smokey Robinson: “Christmas Everyday” (Amazon Originals)
Looking at the cover art, you might mistake this for a vintage album or repackaging. The good news is, it’s easy to mistake the contents for something minted in the ‘60s, too. The presence of the Dap Kings as guests on one track is a good sign that the 77-year-old Robinson is going for something vaguely retro on his first full Christmas album since 1963’s “Christmas with the Miracles.” Producer Adam Anders, the former executive music producer for “Glee,” has come up with an approach that will satisfy vintage Motown fans without getting too self-consciously throwback-y. You might even say it’s a Christmas Miracle.
Various artists: “Santa’s Got a GTO Vol. 2” (Gearhead)
It’s been 19 years since Rodney Bingenheimer, the L.A. scenemaker and KROQ DJ, brought out his first album of garage-rock Christmas tunes. A fresh generation of caroling punks and feral girl groups appears on this long-needed sequel (which has “on the rock” instead of “ROQ” in the subtitle now, owing to his recent departure from his longtime radio home). The Mansfields’ “Broke on Christmas Again” is an instant anthem for a generation; the Glitter Critters’ “Little Drummer Boy” stands out among the revved-up standards. (Currently available on vinyl or download via Amoeba, Wacko/Soap Plant and Gearhead.com.)
Reba McEntire: “My Kind of Christmas” (Nash Icon/Big Machine)
Maybe Reba’s third holiday album should come with a warning label for no orchestration. The entire album (except for one bonus track with Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood) ) has the country superstar being accompanied solely by piano, which led one reviewer to wonder about McEntire’s “budgetary constrictions.” That sparseness is actually a nice choice, though, particularly on the jauntier carols, which are easier to take without a huge brass section or even band. Instrumental modesty becomes her.
Chuck Berry: “Berry Christmas” (Geffen/Ume)
At last, all four of Berry’s Christmas recordings — two of them very famous (“Run Run Rudolph,” “Merry Christmas Baby”), two very rare (“Christmas,” “Spending Christmas”) — are collected together for the first time on one disc. But there’s a catch: it’s only on vinyl. Oh, and an even more limiting caveat: this 10-inch red EP is only available as a bonus disc in a brand new vinyl boxed set of the late guitarist’s most notable material, “The Great Twenty-Eight — Super Deluxe.” But any sane person with a turntable should want the whole shebang anyway. (Currently available only through UDiscoverMusic.com.)
Frank Sinatra: “Sinatra Ultimate Christmas” (Capitol)
A deal to merge Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise catalogs came together in 2013, but it’s taken a few more for the Christmas music from those respective labels to be joined together on one disc. (His even earlier Columbia Christmas singles are still waiting to join in on the merger fun.) “Ultimate Christmas” reprises the better part of 1957’s excellent “A Jolly Christmas,” his only true, full Christmas solo album, before moving on through some collaborative efforts and singles from the ‘60s, ending with a poignant, frail-sounding version of “Silent Night” that he cut in 1991.
Tom Chaplin: “Twelve Tales of Christmas” (Interscope)
If you’re in England, this holiday set from the former frontman of the band Keane is a very big deal. If you’re in the States, you’ve probably already skipped over this entry. Chaplin’s second solo album is by far the most somber holiday set you’ll hear on any side of the Atlantic this year; sometimes that quest for beauty serves him well, and sometimes you wish someone would load up his stocking with uppers. The sleepers include “Walking in the Air,” based on a favorite song from “The Snowman,” a perennial British holiday special, which would be akin to someone in America making “Holly Jolly Christmas” into a sad pop smash in 2017.
Various artists: “A Capitol Christmas Volume Two” (Capitol)
This 24-song set from the Capitol vaults of music skirts the fine line between pre-rock pop excellence and elevator-music revivalism. Two selections from the Beach Boys’ Christmas album represent the fresh, “edgy” choices on an album that includes other boy bands like the Four Freshmen and the Lettermen, along with heritage acts both brilliant (the Louvin Brothers, Les Paul) and less so (two Wayne Newton songs might be one too many). Collectors will take interest in a couple of tracks never before officially released, including a surprisingly jazzy “Jingle Bells” from Dinah Shore previously limited to an automotive promo disc. Who knew (or remembered) she could swing more than just a golf club?