It’s Not Even Halloween And The Christmas Albums Are Already Pouring In
There hasn’t been a new Christmas standard for 26 years now. Not since Mariah Carey’s 1994 classic “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has a fresh original yuletide tune made its way into the canon. Some other songs have been shoehorned into Christmas rotation despite not actually being Christmas songs — please, I beg of you, keep “Hallelujah” off your holiday playlists this year — but nobody who has set their sights on penning a new Christmas standard has found success in a quarter-century.
This has not stopped musical artists from releasing new Christmas albums. Every year, a new assortment of characters decides to join the annual wave of holiday releases. Sometimes they’re contributing original material they hope will break the streak and enter into the unofficial catalog of universally-agreed-upon Christmas staples. Sometimes they’re putting a new spin on the same old songs. Often they don’t even bother with a new spin. They don’t really need to; the general public loves Christmas music, and they often want it to sound as traditional as possible. Many people are perfectly happy to keep returning to the same old Christmas songs every year, pulling them out like decorations stashed in the crawl space. It’s one reason why, thanks to the (ahem) advent of streaming, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” improbably hit #1 for the first time just last year.
A Christmas album is, in other words, an easy layup for artists seeking to resuscitate a flagging career or ingratiate themselves with the broadest possible audience. It’s an especially obvious maneuver for artists whose usual output is already aimed squarely at the middle of the road anyway, but quite a few musicians of a more interesting ilk always join the pile-on too. Every year since 2016, I’ve been rounding up a bunch of this stuff, and I make sure to spring it on an unsuspecting public before Halloween is even over. Although I started doing this at my boss Scott Lapatine’s behest, I have come to appreciate this yearly opportunity to fill Christmas haters with a deep sense of foreboding at the oncoming tsunami of yuletide cheer. Merry Christmas!
Most Countrypolitan: Dolly Parton’s A Holly Dolly Christmas, Carrie Underwood’s My Gift, And Maddie & Tae’s We Need Christmas (Tie)
Three generations of pop-adjacent country women have released Christmas records already this fall. Maddie & Tae, the girls from “Girl In A Country Song,” have a new six-song EP called We Need Christmas, titled for one of two originals on the tracklist. (The other is “Merry Married Christmas.”) There’s also a treatment of “O Come All Ye Faithful” plus three Christmas pop songs.
They were preceded by genre legend Dolly Parton, who not only released A Holly Dolly Christmas last month but will also star in a new holiday movie debuting 11/22 on Netflix. Titled Christmas On The Square, it’s named for one of the original songs in her album’s wintry mix of traditionals and new stuff. Both Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus appear, as do Willie Nelson, Michael Bublé, Willie Nelson, and Dolly’s brother Randy Parton.
Before either of those albums, Carrie Underwood released My Gift way back in September. It’s helmed by Greg Wells, who has produced everything from The Greatest Showman soundtrack to Twenty One Pilots’ debut to songs by Adele, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry. Real talk: The playlist of Christmas favorites I bust out every year around Thanksgiving includes multiple Carrie Underwood performances of hymns, including “O Holy Night,” which features here. This new cut isn’t on the level of whatever random MP3 I found years ago, but it still works as a reminder that Underwood was born to slay uber-dramatic Christmas ballads.
Most Indie (Mannered And Sophisticated Division): Andrew Bird’s Hark!
Last year Andrew Bird, the whistling violinist, erstwhile Squirrel Nut Zipper, and newly minted Fargo actor who thrives in the space between chamber-pop and NPR-friendly indie rock, released a Christmas EP called Hark! This year he’s expanding that six-song tracklist to 13 and releasing Hark! as a full-length album. It’s out this Friday and contains originals, standards, and covers of John Cale, John Prine, and the Handsome Family.
Most Indie (Gruff And Lawless Division): Mark Lanegan’s Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020
Eight years ago, under the name Dark Mark, former Screaming Trees leader and growling Queens Of The Stone Age sideman Mark Lanegan released a surprisingly reverent tour-only EP called Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012. He’s back with another five songs this year, which have been combined with five from the original EP to form the LP-length Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020. So, more or less exactly like what Andrew Bird is doing, except if Lanegan were cast on Fargo he would definitely be playing a serial killer or a mob enforcer and not a meek and uptight funeral home operator.
Most Indie (Quirky Canadian Division): Jenn Grant’s Forever On Christmas Eve
The Nova Scotia folk-pop singer-songwriter Jenn Grant is a decade and a half into a prolific career. She’ll continue it with the Black Friday release of Forever On Christmas Eve, a Patsy Cline-inspired collection of standards plus the original “Downtown On Christmas.” It seems nice!
Most Likely To Remake “Iris” As A Christmas Song: Goo Goo Dolls’ It’s Christmas All Over
Every year there are some seemingly random “huh, sure, why not” blasts from the past among the annual crop of Christmas releases. Goo Goo Dolls, who remain active but have been more actively promoting the hits of their heyday in recent years, have found a new way to do so: Their album It’s Christmas All Over is out this Friday, and its lead single “This Is Christmas” might have you accidentally bursting in with “And I don’t want the world to see me! ‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand!”
Least Corny: JoJo’s December Baby
JoJo, the former teen star who has been quietly carving out a hell of a grownup catalog, is dropping December Baby this Friday. She hasn’t shared any advance singles, but my promo is highly enjoyable. The album stylishly walks the line between pop and R&B, working in flourishes like violins, sleigh bells, and choral a cappella where appropriate. It’s a rare find: a Christmas album that doesn’t go out of its way to be weird and artsy, but also never feels embarrassing to listen to like some of the more cookie-cutter Christmas fare.
Most Soulful: NOW! That’s What I Call Music! R&B Christmas
The venerable(?) NOW! franchise is back with a collection of tracks from across many Christmas R&B releases over the years, including selections from Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, John Legend, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, and more.
Most Trainor: Meghan Trainor’s A Very Trainor Christmas
It honestly does not get any more Trainor than this collection, out Friday, which features Earth, Wind & Fire, Seth MacFarlane (huh?), and members of Meghan’s family.
Most Christian: For King & Country’s A Drummer Boy Christmas & Tori Kelly’s A Tori Kelly Christmas (Tie)
For King & Country are a Christian pop-rock duo out of Nashville, which beyond its country roots is a longtime bastion of contemporary Christian music. After their version of “Little Drummer Boy” from A CMA Country Christmas won acclaim last year, they’ve gone ahead and made a whole Christmas album, A Drummer Boy Christmas, out this Friday. Guests include the worship band NEEDTOBREATHE and recent country crossover star Gabby Barrett.
Earlier this year For King & Country teamed with gospel/hip-hop veteran Kirk Franklin and Tori Kelly, a longtime industry favorite who keeps one foot in the Christian pop world, on a single called “TOGETHER.” Kelly’s also dropping a Christmas album this Friday, A Tori Kelly Christmas, for which both Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Scooter Braun served as executive producers. Babyface also duets with Kelly on “Let It Snow,” but it hasn’t been released as an advance single for some reason. Bah humbug.
Most Christian With Bonus Avril Lavigne: Tommee Profitt’s The Birth Of A King
Tommee Profitt, a Dove Award-winning producer best known for his work with his fellow Michigan native NF, recently released The Birth Of A King, which sequences and arranges traditional Christmas hymns to sound like gothic high-tech movie trailer epics. The project features a cast of CCM luminaries including Chris Tomlin, Tauren Wells, Stanaj, and Avril Lavigne, who had major Christian radio success with last year’s comeback Head Above Water.
Most Likely To Usher In The Holiday Season: Jingle Jangle: The Soundtrack
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is a new Netflix Christmas movie with a mostly Black cast including Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose, Madalen Mills, and Phylicia Rashad, plus Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville and, uh, Ricky Martin! The soundtrack’s key song is “This Day,” an elaborate production that matches Usher with newcomer Kiana Ledé and makes me think Usher would be pretty good on Broadway if he ever wanted to try it.
Most Likely To Undermine What’s Great About Your Favorite Christmas Songs: Matt Nathanson’s Farewell December
Last year the soft-batch singer-songwrtier Matt Nathanson covered two of the greatest Christmas pop songs ever, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” upping each song’s saccharine qualities significantly. Now he’s used those covers as the basis for a whole album, despite the fact that both of them just make me wish I was listening to the original. Farewell December is out now, and I will indeed be saying goodbye to it.
Most Likely To Feature Dave Grohl On Drums: The Bird And The Bee’s Put Up The Lights
Somewhere between playing keyboards in Beck’s band circa Sea Change and producing for a shit-ton of major acts including Adele, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Paul McCartney, and Twenty One Pilots, Greg Kurstin was one half of the quirky pop duo The Bird And The Bee. The project’s new Christmas album Put Up The Lights, out now, includes a version of “Little Drummer Boy” with regular-sized drummer man Dave Grohl (whose Foo Fighters hired Kurstin to produce their most recent album) behind the kit. It is not exactly “No One Knows,” but you can hear that old Nirvana thwack pretty clearly in the mix.
Most Likely Developed To Compensate For Pandemic-Related Losses: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve And Other Stories Livestream
Every year, the Christmas-themed band Trans-Siberian Orchestra take their holiday show on the road throughout the season, playing a bunch of lounge-y rock music plus “Carol Of The Bells” to packed arenas. Obviously that isn’t happening this year, so instead, like so many other touring musicians sidelined by COVID-19, the band is doing a livestream. It’s going down Friday, Dec. 18, and you can pay $30 for it here.
Most Likely To Be Purchased As Collector’s Items And Never Played: The Truckload Of Record Store Day Releases And Other Similar Reissues
This year’s Record Store Day Black Friday release list includes a bunch of 7″s from the likes of Dave Brubeck, Vince Guaraldi, Juliana Hatfield, and the Fleshtones. Outside the RSD banner, Shirley Collins is releasing a Christmas Card flexi-disc single, which will definitely go straight to Discogs too.
Most Likely To Keep Sending The Same Song To #1 Every Christmas Until We Die: Mariah Carey
After releasing a memoir, an archival remix project, and the revelation of a secret alt-rock album this year, it’s clear Mariah Carey is in full-on legacy mode (despite continuing to release high-quality projects like Caution). She’s doing what she can to send “All I Want For Christmas Is You” back to the top of the charts this year with Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, premiering sometime this season on Apple TV+, and what appears to be a new version of the song featuring Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson (as yet only teased in a vague capacity). Are you ready for “All I Want For Christmas Is You” to continue hitting #1 every year for the rest of your life? There are worse traditions, I guess.
We’re in the midst of a major album drought right now. It’s going to end this Friday with the release of Ariana Grande’s Positions, but for now former #1 albums are rising back to the top in the absence of new competition. Last week it was the late Pop Smoke, and this week it’s once again Taylor Swift. For the eighth nonconsecutive week, Folklore is America’s #1 album. Per Billboard, Folklore pulled 77,000 equivalent album units and 57,000 in sales, bumping Pop Smoke back to #2. After 21 Savage and Metro Boomin at #3 and Juice WRLD at #4 comes Tom Petty’s Wildflowers reissue at #5 with 44,000 units and 38,000 in sales. It’s a new peak for the LP, which debuted at #8 back in 1995. K-pop act NCT debut at #6 with 43,000 units and 40,000 in sales for Resonance, Pt. 1. The rest of the top 10 includes Lil Baby, Hamilton, Machine Gun Kelly, and Blackpink.
24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” remains #1 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week. Also steady from last week: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” at #2, Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #3, and the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #4, extending its record for most weeks in the top 5 to 30. Per Billboard, “Blinding Lights” has now spent 36 weeks in the top 10, so the record for most weeks in the top 10 — 39, held by Post Malone’s “Circles” — is also in sight. Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” is back up to #5, followed by Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” at a new #6 peak. Rounding out the top 10 are BTS’ “Dynamite,” DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar,” Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy,” and Internet Money’s “Lemonade” featuring Don Toliver, Nav, and Gunna.
Ariana Grande – “Positions”
The metaphor is dumb, but as usual Ariana is bringing the heat in terms of vocals and production. Those strings are such a sublime touch, and the understated R&B vibe is a nice pivot from the gaudy “7 Rings” era. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the album this week.
Ty Dolla $ign – “Spicy” (Feat. Post Malone)
This doesn’t have the mesmerizing melodic power of previous Ty$/Posty team-up “Psycho,” but there’s a lot to like about that banging 808 loop, the guitar riff that weaves its way through it, and the strings that drift through the background like smoke. “Spicy” also works wonders as a part of the grander whole that is Featuring Ty Dolla $ign.
Jack Harlow – “Tyler Herro”
Arguably the biggest white rapper of the moment made a song about one of the most prominent white NBA players of the moment, and although I can’t argue with this critique, I must sheepishly admit that I like it. In the grand hierarchy of rap songs named for Florida-based basketball star, “Tyler Herro” is no “MO BAMBA,” but the beat (by Scott Storch, of all people) instantly ingratiates itself, and Harlow has charisma for miles.
Marshmello & Imanbek – “Too Much” (Feat. Usher)
If you didn’t already know Imanbek was the guy who made SAINt JHN’s hyperactive “Roses” remix, you could figure it out pretty quickly upon hearing him crash Marshmello’s latest superstar collaboration with a startlingly similar beat. That said, it’s an infectious beat, and I could imagine this becoming Usher’s biggest hit since the last time he was doing EDM crossovers.
Finneas – “Can’t Wait To Be Dead”
Is Billie Eilish’s brother and producer trying to pivot to country? He might’ve had a shot until that righteous “Fuck your Confederate flag!” outburst.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Miley Cyrus’ new album Plastic Hearts — featuring her recent Cranberries and Blondie covers along with 12 originals — is out 11/27. [Instagram]
- Ariana Grande sent hundreds of pizzas to Floridians waiting in line to vote. [Twitter]
- Lil Bibby says a second posthumoius Juice WRLD album is in the works. [The Fader]
- Iggy Azalea shared photos of her son Onyx and confirmed she’s no longer with Playboi Carti. [People]
- The Weeknd and Roddy Ricch lead the American Music Award nominations with eight each. [CNN]
- Harry Styles released a video for “Golden.” [YouTube]
- Netflix released a trailer for Voices Of Fire, a docuseries about Pharrell putting together a gospel choir in his Virginia hometown. [YouTube]
- Machine Gun Kelly and Halsey released a video for “forget me too.” [YouTube]
- J Balvin will play a concert in Fortnite on Halloween. [Engadget]
- Bebe Rexha and Doja Cat did “Baby, I’m Jealous” on The Tonight Show. [YouTube]
- BLACKPINK did “Lovesick Girls” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
- Julia Michaels released a video for “Lie Like This.” [YouTube]
- Borat wished Katy Perry a happy birthday. [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
@boratPlease help identify this Gypsy criminal responsible for theft of statue of me during night. Approach him with caution!!