The Christmas album is often loved for the same reasons it’s hated — it’s just easy. At one of the busiest and most stressful periods of the year, the appeal of renditions of songs that have been played every year can’t be understated. Holiday music is by and large relatively easy to record, with few artists bothering to pull off a Mariah Carey with original material, and just as easy to listen to for a quick hit of seasonal joy. It’s often just as easy to forget, but 2020 brought an unusually strong crop of holiday albums and singles that deserve a listen before the holiday playlists are archived until next December.
A Holly Dolly Christmas, Dolly Parton — There’s no better place to start than Dolly Parton’s star-studded third Christmas album. It’s odd to consider that the singer of the iconic “Hard Candy Christmas” hasn’t put out a holiday album since 1990’s Home For Christmas. As if to make up for lost time, this one radiates holiday cheer, bringing on the likes of Willie Nelson, Michael Bublé, and Willie Nelson to spread some much-needed joy as only Dolly can.
Make You Mine This Season, Tegan and Sara — As notable as Happiest Season is for centering a gay holiday romance, its soundtrack shouldn’t be overlooked either. With a roster that includes Sia, Brandy Clark, and Bebe Rexha, Tegan and Sara’s lighthearted synthpop-rock single “Make You Mine This Season” stands out. Uplifting yet full of yearning, despite its festive theme it’s a Tegan and Sara single through and through.
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, Caveboy — Another song to be featured on the Happiest Season soundtrack, this rendition of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” from the Montreal indie-pop band Caveboy is a novel take on the well-known but seldom-played carol. True to their style, it’s a fun, upbeat cover with a bit of ’60s sheen that is sure to make it a staple for years to come.
Holiday, Lil Nas X — The festive first single from Lil Nas X’s upcoming debut album is futuristic, moody, and incredibly catchy, which together would make it an outlier in any season. If it is an indicator of the full-length to come, however, it is an incredibly promising one. Notwithstanding the Santa-themed music video, it stands to make an impact long past December.
You Make it Feel Like Christmas, Gwen Stefani — Every year sees a handful of artists get their feet in the Christmas album door early. This year, Gwen Stefani counted herself among them with a reissue of her first holiday album. The new deluxe edition of You Make it Feel Like Christmas features five new tracks including “Here This Christmas,” prominently featuring in the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas.
My Gift, Carrie Underwood — Getting ahead of Stefani by a whole month, country music A-lister Carrie Underwood’s My Gift is one of the more high-profile holiday albums to come out this year. Underwood sticks mostly to tasteful renditions of holiday staples with only a couple of original tracks, making this the perfect album for those sticklers for traditional Christmas tunes.
How Could This Be Christmas, Mandy Moore — This year marked Moore’s triumphant return to recording. So triumphant, in fact, that she decided to follow up her seventh album, Silver Landings, with a two-track victory lap. “How Could This Be Christmas” and its B-side, a cover of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” are plaintive and light, a perfect momentary seasonal distraction.
Hark!, Andrew Bird — Hark! is yet another surprising first Christmas album, this time coming from baroque pop darling Andrew Bird, whose quirky indie stylings match up well with the equal parts sincere and kitschy nature of the season. His covers of “Oh Holy Night” and “White Christmas” are certainly worth the price of admission, but what the album really deserves attention for is its COVID-inspired “Christmas in April.”
December Baby, JoJo — For her holiday album debut, JoJo is leaning hard into nostalgia. The warmth and brightness of holiday seasons past is a powerful and resonant touchstone for many, and JoJo does her best to capture those fuzzy feelings with an album that does feature some original material, but leans heavily on old favorites.
Christmastide, Tori Amos — For the less festively-inclined among us, Tori Amos’ moody, wintry stylings are probably already a holiday album of sorts. The EP Christmastide features four original tracks done in her signature piano-driven ballad style that have an atmospheric, albeit uplifting bent to them. Amos meant it to be “positive” and “joyful” to lift people’s spirits in an otherwise bitter year, and while it’s not exactly Sarah MacLachlan, it’s a cozy, intimate holiday offering to curl up by the window to.
All are available for purchase and on major streaming platforms.
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