By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
By Julie Seabaugh
By Julie Seabaugh
For many musicians, the lure of the Christmas songbook is hard to resist. Despite the challenge of reworking well-worn (and, in some cases, worn out) songs, each year a few dozen acts try to make something fresh out of these seasonal favorites. This year's crop is heavy on female-fronted pop, but within that milieu one can find jazzy sophistication, folksy warmth and pure pop sweetness. Whether you're a stickler for vocal perfection or a connoisseur of off-the-wall holiday jams, chances are good that something on this list will add a little joy to your holiday soundtrack.
Pink Martini, Joy to the World
Better Known As: Multilingual pop-classical troupe fronted by chanteuse China Forbes.
Sounds Like: Classic vocal jazz and elegant pop Christmas albums of yore but with a much wider breadth of influence. Forbes, her bandmates and several special guests tackle songs in English, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian and French, touching on holiday traditions from all corners of the globe. The disc manages to be ridiculously ecumenical even while maintaining a distinct, comforting aesthetic.
Notable Tracks: The Martin Denny-esque "Little Drummer Boy" features some lovely cocktail piano, and the Japanese translation of "White Christmas," featuring Saori Yuki, is music-box perfect.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Your all-inclusive, non-denominational holiday cocktail party.
Various Artists, A Very Bert Dax Christmas: Volume 8
Better Known As: The (mostly) annual collection of local seasonal cheer, curated by Bunnygrunt's Matt Harnish.
Sounds Like: Eleven varied acts from St. Louis' folk, rock and noise scenes, including Glass Teeth, Popular Mechanics and Cassie Morgan. As with the Dax comps of Christmases past, you often have to strain your ears to hear the seasonal sentiment, but that's part of the fun. Theodore's "Morning Star" sounds like it was recorded on a rickety 4-track lowered to the bottom of a well, while Union Electric's sinister "Jack Frost Is Innocent" places dub-like levels of reverb on Tim Rakel's voice.
Notable Tracks: Trigger 5's "X-Mas with My Exes" is the standout here, a classic country story-song with a great hook and a can't-miss premise: What are the holidays for, if not for hooking up with old flames?
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Repping the STL to your out-of-town friends and relations.
Christopher Cross, A Christopher Cross Christmas
Better Known As: The angel-voiced Texan who softly rocked the early-'80s adult-contemporary airwaves with such hits as "Sailing" and "Ride Like the Wind."
Sounds Like: Sappy, gooey reworkings of holiday standards, not that you could expect much else from Cross. Still, his voice remains undiminished and is a good fit for these feel-good favorites. There are also a few original tunes.
Notable Tracks: Though he sounds like a Muppet on more than a few of these tracks, Cross is strong and subtle on the White Christmas chestnut "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)."
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: The imaginary Christmas episode of the late, lamented Yacht Rock.
The Superions, Destination... Christmas!
Better Known As: The minimal synthpop side project of B-52's frontman Fred Schneider.
Sounds Like: A drum-machine-fueled trip into Schneider's Day-Glo Christmas wonderland. The first track, "Santa's Disco," provides a pretty clear mission statement of playful irreverence and that unmistakable campy, twangy delivery. The lyrics are purposefully atrocious, as are the canned beats and Casio keyboard tones. It's a fun, funky exercise in bad taste.
Notable Tracks: The seasonal slow jam "Chillin' at Christmas," wherein Schneider provides both voices for an amorous (heterosexual) couple in the throes of pine-scented, brandy-fueled ecstasy. Later, "Jingle Those Bells" introduces some much-needed double-entendres into the Christmas canon.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Trimming your hot-pink Christmas tree while a yule-log DVD burns brightly on your TV screen.
The Indigo Girls, Holly Happy Days
Better Known As: Socially conscious folk-rock duo and Lilith Fair patron saints.
Sounds Like: The folksier end of the duo's spectrum, with plenty of banjos and acoustic guitars setting the table for Amy Ray and Emily Saliers' famed harmonies. The disc is an even split between well-known holiday songs ("I'll Be Home for Christmas") and a combination of lesser-known tunes and originals.
Notable Tracks: The jazzy, shuffling "Your Holiday Song" (led by Saliers) offers an inter-faith, all-inclusive holiday blessing. Ray's "The Wonder Song" is more bluegrass-driven and features some vocal interplay between the Girls.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Spending a mild winter evening around the fire pit.
Annie Lennox, A Christmas Cornucopia
Better Known As: The vibrantly coiffed lead singer of the Eurythmics and erstwhile solo artist with steely and strident vocal chops.
Sounds Like: Lennox has multi-tracked her vocals to create a one-woman choir, and the effects are striking. She mostly sticks to traditional Christmas carols and revisits some forgotten gems. A spiritual mysticism hovers around these hymn-like arrangements.
Notable Tracks: The worldbeat-driven "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" drifts into solo-album Sting territory, but Lennox's creative harmonies and modest use of Auto-Tune is effective. The acoustic, solo-vocal take on "In the Bleak Midwinter" is also a standout.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Driving home from Midnight Mass.
Wilson Phillips, Christmas in Harmony
Better Known As: The '90s female vocal trio featuring Chynna Phillips and sisters Carnie and Wendy Wilson, all sprung from famous musical parentage. Their "Hold On" stands tall as a modern "I Will Survive."
Sounds Like: Saccharine harmonies on top of overproduced backing tracks. This disc may be responsible for more cavities than all the candy canes in the world. Christmas in Harmony is relentlessly, aggressively cheery; you either surrender to the Christmas spirit or get trampled by it.
Notable Tracks: The best thing that can be said about this collection is that it doesn't revisit the Wilson sisters' seasonal hit "Hey Santa!" Although, ending the disc with the wordless, non-holiday track "Our Prayer" (the opening cut on the Beach Boys' Smile) is a nice nod to the Wilsons' papa, Brian.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Driving unwanted holiday guests from your home.
Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas II You
Better Known As: Songstress, actress, perfume peddler, Mrs. Nick Cannon and proprietor of 1994's Merry Christmas.
Sounds Like: Since this is the product of Mariah, the queen of over-singing, expect lots of silky vocal melisma on sacred tracks like "The First Noel/Born Is the King (Interlude)." The mood is more party-like on the funky "Here Comes Santa Claus" medley.
Notable Tracks: The cheerleader stomp of first single "Oh Santa!" kicks things off with a bit of manicured hip-hop flava. Carey also revisits her 1994 hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You" with an "extra festive" version of the Phil Spector-indebted song.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Psyching yourself up for that last trip to the mall.
Shelby Lynne, Merry Christmas
Better Known As: Tough-to-peg singer-songwriter who mixes country roots with a jazzy sensibility and an avowed love of Dusty Springfield.
Sounds Like: A mix of low-lit jazz ("Christmas Time Is Here"), cheery folk ("Christmas Time Is Coming") and a little barroom blues (the Lynne-penned "Xmas"). Much of the collection is strong and the selections well-arranged, but due to either Lynne's effortless cool or a blasé sense of duty, several of these interpretations fall flat.
Notable Tracks: Opening track "Sleigh Ride/Winter Wonderland" nails the classic-country vibe, with double-tracked vocals and some Chet Atkins-worthy guitar strums. Lynne even handles "O Holy Night," a vocalist's true test, with grace and aplomb.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: Sneaking a nip of Jack Daniel's into the family eggnog.
The Boy Least Likely To, Christmas Special
Better Known As: British indie duo of singer Jof Owen and instrumentalist Pete Hobbs, whose 2005 debut, The Best Party Ever, won many hearts with its cheeky twee pop.
Sounds Like: Sweetly sung lo-fi bedroom pop, with plenty of twinkly glockenspiel, wheezy accordion and breathy vocals. Hobbs and Owen fill this collection with mostly original songs, and they lend a fun, jangly sensibility to the season's soundtrack.
Notable Tracks: "George and Andrew" imagines a modern meeting between Wham!'s George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, as a tune eerily reminiscent of "Last Christmas" plays in the background.
Perfect Seasonal Soundtrack For: The December meeting of your arts and crafts group.