It’s late October, which means we’re deep into the most terrifying season of the year: that moment when all kinds of musicians unveil their new Christmas albums. That’s right, it’s time to continue the treasured annual tradition that is Stereogum’s Halloween holiday music guide.
As a sentimental mark, I love the onset of Christmas music. I love busting out my well-worn Christmas mix, with its assortment of schlocky classics, while driving past Christmas lights. I love throwing Christmas parties and soundtracking them with faux-classy jazz bullshit I’d never listen to in any other context. I love singing “Silent Night” to my kids while rocking them to sleep. On the other hand, every year a bunch of new Christmas albums come out, and most of them are turds. Also, it’s still October. This stuff can’t be authentically experienced until at least the week leading up to Thanksgiving, yet much of it will be released before Halloween. And although my tolerance for saccharine dreck increases exponentially when it’s Christmas saccharine dreck, it would be nice if more people took the opportunity to do something actually creative with their seasonal fare. I guess everybody can’t be Low.
Anyhow, ’tis about to be the season, so let’s sort through the annual glut of holiday tunes. As ever, this year’s crop of yuletide LPs includes a mixture of the predictable (most of it), the intriguing (a very small percentage, to be honest), and the head-scratchingly weird (William Shatner). Trade out that Octoberfest for a Christmas Ale and we’ll run them down, superlative-style. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a sleigh ride through all the assorted seasonal miscellanea such as tours and TV specials.
Most Likely To Be A Galactically Humongous Hit
John Legend — golden-voiced secular priest of neo-soul, newly minted EGOT, televised Broadway Jesus, and your conservative mother’s absolute favorite despite a vocal political presence she’ll conveniently ignore while “All Of You” is reducing her to a teary pulp — is a man who was born to release a Christmas album. And so he shall. Out 10/26, it’s called A Legendary Christmas because how could it not be, and it presents an undoubtedly tasteful mix of originals and traditionals. Prepare to fill the Scrooge McDuck vault.
Most Subtly Tragic
Ingrid Michaelson told Billboard she recorded Songs For The Season, out tomorrow, in part because both of her parents died and she needed to find a new context for her beloved holiday traditions. That’s a heavy backstory for such lite music.
Most Likely To Be Intentionally Weird
William Shatner’s Shatner Claus, out 10/26, appears to be — like most everything else Shatner undertakes these days — an exercise in winking camp. Give him credit for wrangling Henry Rollins, Brad Paisley, Todd Rundgren, Rick Wakeman, Judy Collins, Iggy Pop, Ian Anderson, Billy Gibbons, and others onto the same Christmas album. But will anyone want to listen to any of this more than once? Press play on Iggy and Captain Kirk’s knowingly maudlin run through “Silent Night” and see for yourself.
Least Embarrassing Lullaby Album
If you’re playing your kids one of those collections of Beyoncé lullabies or Radiohead lullabies or whatever, I hate to break it to you, but you’re trying too hard. However, a collection of Christmas lullabies hits the sentimental sweet spot. My only question is why Rockabye Baby! Merry Christmas, out now, is only a three-song EP (“All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Last Christmas”) when so many public domain carols are just begging to be converted into this format.
Least Likely To Do Justice To Thurl Ravenscroft’s Good Name
I’ve already voiced my displeasure about Tyler, The Creator and Danny Elfman’s attempt to modernize “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” for the new Grinch reboot. Is there any real hope that “I’m The Grinch,” the pair’s original contribution to the soundtrack, will honor the legacy of one of the great goofy entries in the holiday canon? Find out when the soundtrack drops on 11/9, I guess.
Most Authentic Recreation Of An Old-Fashioned Sound
Retro rock ‘n’ roller JD McPherson pulls off a believable facsimile of a sound you might expect to hear on dusty old vinyl from the 1950s. Maybe you won’t mistake “Hey, Skinny Santa” for an actual contemporary of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” but it seems like Socks, out 11/2, might scratch a similar itch once you wear out the actual oldies.
Most Likely To Be On Dad’s List
We have a battle on our hands here. Eric Clapton, the guitar deity who’s been instrumental in transforming the blues into dire soft-rock lifestyle music, has a whole new album of that stuff out now. Except they’re Christmas songs this time — some new, some traditional. My general aversion to most of the man’s solo work remains intact, but I have to admit he surprised me by dropping a six-minute EDM “Jingle Bells” into the middle of the Happy XMAS tracklist in tribute to Avicii. It’s certainly more intriguing than anything dad-rock staples the Monkees or Michael McDonald pulled off on their respective Christmas Party and Season Of Peace — both out now — though McDonald teaming with ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro on “White Christmas” is pleasant at least.
Pentatonix, the massively popular vocal group, are in the business of Christmas. They’ve only been together since 2011, yet Christmas Is Here!, out tomorrow, is their fourth(!) collection of seasonal hits. Sadly(?), this one does not have a Fleet Foxes cover. It does, however, have a song from The Nightmare Before Christmas, prettied up enough to actually horrify Tim Burton.
Most Premature Reissue
A tight race here: Pop-punk crossover hero turned solo star turned TV personality Gwen Stefani released You Make It Feel Like Christmas just last year, but she’s already giving it the deluxe reissue treatment tomorrow. Ditto theatrically whimsical violin shredder Lindsey Stirling and her deluxe version of last year’s Warmer In The Winter, which came out last week. Looks like Stirling wins by the whisker of a fiddle’s bow!
Most Timely Reissue
The good people at Rhino Records decided to isolate Aretha Franklin’s “Silent Night” vocals and pair them with a spare, simple piano accompaniment. It’s great, of course.
Some Other Reissues I Don’t Feel Like Categorizing
All of these are out 11/9: Hanson’s 1997 effort Snowed In (on green vinyl), New Kids On The Block’s 1989 collection Merry Christmas (also on green vinyl), the Bonanza cast’s anthology The Complete Christmas On The Ponderosa (on CD, the format Bonanza demands), and Andre Kostelanetz And His Orchestra’s The Complete Christmas Albums (on 2xCD).
The Battle For Country Christmas Supremacy
Here we have a four-way tie between LeAnn Rimes, the Mavericks, Rodney Crowell, and the Old 97’s. Rimes seized the lead in this race by landing the title role in the new Hallmark movie It’s Christmas, Eve, premiering 11/10, for which she recorded three original Christmas tunes. The Mavericks respond with a full album of holiday originals (plus two Christmas classics) called Hey! Merry Christmas! (11/2). Crowell throws his cowboy hat in the ring with Christmas Everywhere (11/2), which dispenses with the standards entirely in favor of new songs. And alt-country veterans the Old 97s are promoting Love The Holidays (11/16), which also features all-original songwriting. That’s a lot of new country Christmas songs! Probably more than necessary if we’re being honest.
The Battle For Indie Christmas Supremacy
Two noteworthy reissues from the indie-rock world this season: Sufjan Stevens’ multi-volume set Songs For Christmas — the one from 2006, not the second heaping helping of holiday fare from six years later, which was called Silver & Gold — is coming to vinyl for the first time (11/9). Meanwhile Sub Pop is putting grunge progenitors Green River’s “Away In A Manger” and U-Men’s “Blue Christmas” — both originally released via out-of-print ’80s obscurities — together on a 7″ for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event (11/23). Disrupting this battle of many soft, quirky songs versus two loud, sludgy songs is Say Sue Me, the alternately surfy and shoegazy Korean indie band whose album Where We Were Together was one of this year’s pleasant surprises. They’re following up April’s covers EP with a quartet of original Christmas songs called Christmas, It’s Not A Biggie (12/7).
Chances To Be Jolly Alone In Front Of Your TV
Ezra Koenig and Jaden Smith’s animated Netflix series Neo Yokio is streaming a one-off Christmas special (with special guest Jamie Foxx) starting 12/7. Reba McEntire will host the star-studded CMA Country Christmas on ABC sometime this season. Also TBA is The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration. The aforementioned John Legend will team with wife Chrissy Teigen for A Legendary Christmas With John And Chrissy 11/28 on NBC. The 13-year-old America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynn will take viewers to Oklahoma City in Darci Lynne: My Hometown Christmas, also TBA. Bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent have a special called The Sounds Of Christmas airing sometime on PBS. PBS will also air the Mormon Tabernacle Christmas Concert at a date TBA. On 12/16 the CW will air footage from the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball 2018 featuring Shawn Mendes and Cardi B. And don’t forget that LeAnn Rimes movie It’s Christmas, Eve premieres 11/10 on the Hallmark Channel (or, you know, definitely forget that).
Chances To Be Jolly In Person, With Friends
Lots of tours and live music events are coming up. In terms of standalone events, Warren Haynes is hosting his 30th annual Christmas Jam, with guests including Dave Grohl, Eric Church, and Jim James, on 12/7 and 12/8 in Asheville. (All those guys are on 12/8, FWIW.) There’s a The Nightmare Before Christmas 25th anniversary event this Friday 10/26 and 10/27 at the Hollywood Bowl. Spouses Vince Gill and Amy Grant are once again doing a marathon run of Christmas shows at the Ryman in Nashville this December. And Cyndi Lauper’s eighth annual Home For The Holidays homeless LGBTQ benefit is 12/8 at the Beacon in NYC.
As for traveling celebrations of yuletide cheer, Christmas industrial complex house band the Trans-Siberian Orchestra are launching a 20th anniversary tour, Mike Love is leading the remains of the Beach Boys on a holiday tour, Jewel is traversing the land with her Handmade Holiday Tour (“featuring pre-show artisan craft and gift making”), and Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are doing a quick run of She & Him holiday shows in LA, San Francisco, and Austin. A bunch of the artists who are releasing Christmas music are going on holiday tours, too, such as Pentatonix, Old 97’s, Lindsey Stirling, Michael McDonald, Ingrid Michaelson, and, of course, John Legend.
For the fifth week in a row, Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” is the #1 song in the country. That extremely mild song does not strike me as a five-week chart-topping powerhouse, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been surpassed by Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” or Post Malone’s “Better Now,” two massively popular songs that have been lingering behind it in recent weeks. But those tracks haven’t made it past Adam Levine and Cardi, and maybe they never will because a new challenger has entered the ring.
Kodak Black, the young Florida rapper who’s been in and out of jail on charges related to weapons, drugs, child neglect, and sexual assault, is free again. Reportedly he finished his high school diploma during his most recent stint behind bars, so maybe he’s undergoing some kind of reform? In any case, he’s definitely been working since he got out. First he appeared on the Gucci Mane/Bruno Mars collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” which has been on my local rap radio station just about every time I get in the car lately. And now he’s got a new single with a #2 debut.
According to Billboard, Kodak’s “Zeze,” featuring Travis Scott and Offset, would have entered at #1 if not for the release of a second “Girls Like You” music video last week. It’s the highest-charting track for all three artists (not counting when Offset went to #1 as a member of Migos). “Zeze” bumps the aforementioned “Lucid Dreams” and “Better Now” down to #3 and #4 respectively.
Debuting at #5 is Bad Bunny and Drake’s “MIA,” on which Drake sing-raps entirely in Spanish and sounds pretty dang fluent. It’s the second top 10 hit for Bad Bunny following this year’s Cardi B collab “I Like It” and the 12th for Drake just this year, breaking a record previously set by the Beatles in 1964. (Actually it’s his 13th if you count Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” which doesn’t give Drake a feature credit for some reason.) “MIA” also bumps Drake’s career total to 32 top 10 hits, third all-time behind the Beatles (34) and Madonna (38).
Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” hits a new #6 peak, the best Hot 100 chart position of Marshmello’s career and just one spot behind Bastille’s #5 peak with “Pompeii.” The rest of the top 10: “Sicko Mode” at #7, Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard” at #8, 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood” at #9, and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” at #10.
Speaking of “Shallow,” Gaga and Cooper’s A Star Is Born soundtrack spends a second week at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart this week with 143,000 equivalent album units and 86,000 in pure sales. It’s followed by Quavo’s debut solo album Quavo Huncho at #2 with 99,000 units and only 6,000 in sales. According to Billboard, Quavo album technically debuted last week at #66 with 11,000 units based on a few hours of streams and sales after dropping slightly early two Thursdays ago; those extra 11,000 still wouldn’t have been enough to unseat A Star Is Born at #1.
After Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V at #3 and Lil Baby & Gunna’s Drip Harder at #4 comes the week’s only true debut, Ella Mai’s self-titled LP, at #5 with 69,000 units/19,000 sales. The rest of the top 10 comprises Drake, Twenty One Pilots, Travis Scott, Post Malone, and Eminem.
Ellie Goulding, Diplo, & Swae Lee – “Close To Me”
Ellie Goulding back! However, I am sad to report that although “Close To Me” does not live up to my worst fears about a Goulding x Diplo x Swae Lee convergence, it also doesn’t live up to that grouping’s potential. It’s like a smoothed-out, even more easy listening version of her great Police-inspired “On My Mind” — all vibes where some punchy grit would go a long way.
Lauren Jauregui – “Expectations”
The former Fifth Harmony singer’s first solo single is a soulful retro pop ballad with searing rock guitar, clever lyrics, and a killer vocal performance. It rules.
Normani & Calvin Harris – “Checklist” (Feat. Wizkid) & “Slow Down”
Speaking of former Fifth Harmony members, Normani — riding high off the success of her Khalid duet “Love Lies” — has teamed with Calvin Harris on not one but two new tracks. The Wizkid duet “Checklist” does a good job watering down the Afrobeats sound without completely diluting its power. The other rides that brisk disco-house wavelength that helped Harris and Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss” to become such a big hit.
Dua Lipa & BLACKPINK – “Kiss And Make Up”
Dua Lipa already had two monster collabs this year with “One Kiss” and “Electricity.” Rather than pairing her with a superstar producer or two, “Kiss And Make Up” assigns her as the temporary frontwoman of K-pop girl group BLACKPINK. It’s a smart way to Trojan-horse the quartet into the Western mainstream, but “Kiss And Make Up” — although not one of Dua’s stronger offerings of late, with its dated-sounding neon tropical bounce — is significantly more enjoyable when she’s on the mic.
Khalid – “Suncity” (Feat. Empress Of)
Khalid’s new Suncity EP doesn’t do much to fix the unshakeable OK-ness that haunts most of his output, but there’s a warm richness to its best moments that reminds me why I liked him in the first place. And hey, he used the perfectly acceptable yet entirely unmemorable title track to turn millions of algorithm zone-out kids on to Empress Of, so there’s that.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Kacey Musgraves detailed how “Slow Burn” was inspired by an acid trip and shared its early demos with the New York Times. [NYT]
- Kanye West and Chance The Rapper appeared at mayoral campaign event for Amara Enyia in Chicago, though Kanye only stayed for a few minutes and was on his phone the whole time. [ABC7]
- Drake and Scooter Braun invested in the esports company 100 Thieves. [Forbes]
- In other Drake news, he threw himself an ’00s-themed birthday party complete with Blockbuster Video wall. [Twitter]
- Britney Spears announced another Las Vegas residency. [Twitter]
- Cardi B handed out free coats at a public housing complex in Brooklyn. [ABC7]
- Takeoff’s solo album The Last Rocket is out 11/2. [The Fader]
- Jason Derulo and David Guetta (featuring Nicki Minaj and Willy William) have a new video for “Goodbye.” [YouTube]
- Zara Larsson released a video for “Ruin My Life.” [YouTube]
- Walk The Moon released a video for “Tiger Teeth.” [YouTube]
- Taylor Swift donated $15,500 to a fan whose mother has been in a coma for three years. [ABC]
- TMZ claims Halsey and G-Eazy broke up again. [TMZ]
- Kesha shared a video for “Here Comes The Change” from the film On The Basis of Sex. [YouTube]
- We are sorry to report that Lana Del Rey teased a Machine Gun Kelly collab. [Billboard]