- The Magazine
Love it or hate it, the holiday album is an institution. Nearly every mainstream artist will attempt one at some point, in a festive rite of passage that spans genres, tastes and the boundaries of acceptability (look no further than 2008’s We Wish You A Metal Xmas).
Though a handful of records enter the seasonal canon each year, most are quickly forgotten once the presents are opened and the eggnog consumed. Still, a holiday album’s transitory nature is part of its kitsch appeal, and while most people eventually return to the holiday staples, the novelty of a new set of songs is sometimes exactly what we need to break up the monotony after the fiftieth playthrough of “White Christmas.”
Country is well-represented this season by both the iconic Loretta Lynn and rising pop-country star Kacey Musgraves. Lynn’s second holiday release, White Christmas Blue, comes 50 years after her first seasonal collection, A Country Christmas. Part love letter to her fans, part reflection on her six-decade career, Lynn includes classic material as well as reimaginings of songs that appeared on A Country Christmas. Where Lynn grounds her album in a sense of nostalgia, Kacey Musgraves gives classic songs a pop-country update. A Very Kacey Christmas is full of the jaunty, unabashedly energetic sound that has characterized her music since she began to turn heads as a solo artist in 2014. The eight traditional songs and four originals are fun, sincere, and animated, and her cover of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is worth the price of admission alone.
Less conventional offerings in 2016 include releases from Pentatonix, The Killers and R. Kelly. A Pentatonix Christmas is what one would expect — a capella covers of a diverse selection of songs, ranging from “Up on the Housetop” to “Coventry Carol.” Given their first holiday album went double platinum, a follow-up was inevitable. The Killers’ Don’t Waste Your Wishes might seem like a less obvious choice, but the alt-rock band has been releasing Christmas music for years. Anyone remember 2009’s “Don’t Shoot Me Santa?” Their latest effort repackages several of the band’s holiday-themed songs, with appearances by Elton John and Jimmy Kimmel and all profits going to Bono’s AIDS charity (RED). R. Kelly’s 12 Nights of Christmas is without a doubt the most unconventional holiday album on offer this year. It’s hard to imagine who exactly was clamoring to hear the R&B legend croon about making “holiday love” to Mrs. Santa Claus, but here we are. It’s definitely not your grandma’s Christmas album, but whether you happen to be an R. Kelly fan or not, 12 Nights of Christmas deserves a listen, even if only to hear lyrics like “I’m just a snowman looking for a snowgirl/someone who can share my snow world” sung without a hint of irony.
Following the success of last year’s Christmas Queens and the incredibly successful All Stars season 2, the girls from Rupaul’s Drag Race have returned with an hour-long celebration of camped up holiday cheer. Aside from ensemble renditions of “Deck the Halls” and “Auld Lang Syne,” and Michelle Visage’s cover of “O Holy Night,” Christmas Queens 2 features all original holiday material, tailored to the personalities and styles of the various queens. Even the less festively-inclined among us may enjoy reigning all-star Alaska’s “Chr!stm@$ $Ux,” or Season 5 winner Jinkx Monsoon’s “Passive Aggressive Christmas.” While Drag Race alumni have become somewhat infamous for putting out albums that might have been better off not seeing the light of day, Christmas Queens 2 reminds us that when a group of talented queens comes together with veteran producers (and World of Wonder’s budget), the results can be magical. It’s a sprawling, indulgent, and incredibly campy ode to Drag Race, full of references to iconic moments from the show and the fandom’s many inside jokes. It’s enough to be exhausting, but might also be exactly what’s needed to get us through the off-season.
If the cozy intimacy of a classic holiday album is more your speed, 2016 still offers worthwhile options. Leslie Odom Jr. brings the energy of his Tony-winning performance as Aaron Burr in Hamilton to Simply Christmas — by all accounts a standard soul-jazz holiday album. Sarah McLachlan offers a similar approach to her second holiday release, Wonderland, which features eleven versions of holiday classics, including a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the Canadian holiday staple “Huron Carol.” As usual, McLachlan’s voice glides over minimal instrumentation, making this one a perfect album to unwind with after braving an hours-long commute home. Neil Diamond’s Acoustic Christmas rounds out this year’s traditional albums, with a more stripped-down, folky departure from his previous holiday releases. There are few surprises on any of these releases, but their familiarity and timelessness are definitely strengths.
After the litany of horrors that 2016 has been so far, it seems almost cruel to think we still have to endure one whole month more of it. With their familiarity, festiveness, and occasional silliness, holiday albums are a welcome distraction while we countdown the remaining weeks. Whether you prefer your holidays cozy or festive, soulful or campy, this year’s offerings provide plenty to choose from.
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