In 2008, Stephen Colbert released “Another Christmas Song” where he sang a finger-snapping, big band send-up of the Christmas music business. He comically extolled the faux virtues of writing, recording and releasing best-selling Christmas music.
Its lyrics name-dropped the usual holiday suspects, including Santa Claus and the baby Jesus, while all the while cynically salivating over the profit potential of penning a new Christmas classic. It’d be even funnier, however, if it wasn’t also too true.
It’s the tag end of 2013, and Colbert’s observations still ring true — both on cash registers and with jingle bells. This season has forced some rather unlikely Christmas albums down our chimneys, including Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas (that’s the Duck Dynasty folks, y’all) and even an album filled with festive spirituality (Christmas Songs) from our favorite punk rock atheists, Bad Religion.
Along with these seeming white elephant gifts, there is the opportunity to stuff those stockings with Kelly Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red and Mary J. Blige’s A Mary Christmas, two presumably more sincere holiday offerings. Perhaps, best of all, Nick Lowe has triumphantly entered the Christmas music making realm.
The big challenge of creating something seasonally noteworthy however, has never been greater. There once was a time when Christmas music was not omnipresent. Radio stations waited until after Thanksgiving to begin playing Christmas music 24/7, and TV holiday specials only began airing about a week before Christmas day, instead of December 1st the way The Family Channel does it every year.
What this means for the average person is that most of us are sick to death of Christmas music long before the Grinch even gets his chance to save the day. We’d rather watch Miley Cyrus twerk half-naked with Santa’s reindeer than listen to even one more annoying version of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
I’m glad to bring you tidings of great joy because this year Santa’s sack contains a few memorable Christmas albums.
If its creators could have predicted the future, the Duck Dynasty Christmas album should have been re-titled Duck the Halls: A Politically Incorrect Family Christmas, what with the whole recent Phil Robertson controversy over statements he made in a GQ interview. If you’re not scared off by that family patriarch’s religious persuasions, you’ll likely take a liking to this better-than-expected country music album.
For starters, Missy Robertson is a darn good singer and vocalizes beautifully with Josh Turner on the Turner-penned “Why I Love Christmas.” This album also features contributions from George Strait and Alison Krauss, making it one of the most traditionally country Christmas albums you’ll (or is that Yule?) hear all year.
The very thought of a Bad Religion Christmas album sounds more like an April Fool’s Day joke, or — at the very least — a The Onion story. Why, after all, would singer Greg Graffin — a man that’s debated Christians over the existence of God ” crank out a pop-punk “O Come All Ye Faithful” when he would never in a million years count himself as a ‘Ye’ mentioned in its title? But, believe it or not, Graffin sounds as sincere as a choir boy (a Mohawked choir boy, at least) singing these Christmas hymns.
Even if you’re a believer, you’ll dig these versions. After all, nobody under the age of 40 can sit through Andy Williams or Perry Como holiday albums, so why not crank it up loud with Bad Religion?
Fans of Bad Religion probably hate Kelly Clarkson and everything the whole American Idol alumni stand for, but hear me out: This girl can flat out sing! Her Wrapped in Red album finds the powerhouse vocalist trading verses with Ronnie Dunn on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” while actually making you forget Elvis Presley’s iconic version of “Blue Christmas.”
On Mary J. Blige’s A Mary Christmas, you get the benefit (or curse) of a diva-palooza because Blige sings a duet with elder diva Barbara Streisand on “When You Wish Upon A Star.” It’s lovely, too, complete with an orchestrated string section and two of the strongest vocalists in pop music. Blige also takes the chance to get her gospel on (along with The Clark Sisters) for a churchy take on “The First Noel.”
Lastly, there’s my favorite 2013 holiday album, Nick Lowe’s Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All the Family. Lowe is best known for producing early Elvis Costello albums, as well as being a member of the pioneering band Rockpile.
But like a fine wine, Lowe is aging extremely well. He’s gone from being a smart-assed pseudo-rockabilly singer, to something more along the lines of a modern day Mose Allison, where he combines accumulated lyrical wit with a naturally jazzy musical feel. He’s the ultimate gray-haired hipster laying down cool, latter day beatnik rhymes on swinging jams like “The North Pole Express” and “Hooves on the Roof.”
He also succeeds at rocking out on “Silent Night,” not usually a rocker, and sounds authentically gospel for “I Was Born in Bethlehem” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Lowe hits a new high with this gem.
It’s easy to play the cynic when it comes to approaching Christmas music. As Stephen Colbert has reminded us, there’s always plenty of good reason for cynicism. Yet even Colbert, in one of his rare serious moments, might advise you not to throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater.
Finding the best holiday music is a little like discovering the perfect gift while sorting through a picked-over pile of items at the department store on Christmas Eve. But don’t give up hope. If you just keep following that star, you’ll find what you’re seeking, which will make your long journey worth the while.
Another Christmas song? Yes, please!
Dan MacIntosh has been a professional music journalist for 30 years and his work has regularly appeared in many local and national publications, including Inland Empire Weekly, CCM, CMJ, Paste, Mean Street, Chord, HM, Christian Retailing, Amplifier, Inspirational Giftware, Stereo Subversion, Indie-Music, Soul–Audio, Roughstock.com, Country Standard Time and Spin.com.