Ah, another shitty year is ending, and we find ourselves trying to buy our way out of it with Christmas presents while struggling to block out the same old endless stream of yuletide muzak. Luckily, there’s always a few notable holiday-album standouts to break the tedium, this year including both new efforts and a few revived chestnuts. Santa advises you to skip the holiday dreck from Susan Boyle, Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, and the O’Jays, and try these out instead:
11 Acorn Lane, Happy Holy Days (Wooden Hat)
While saccharine, painfully sincere holiday “classics” spin on endless repeat at the mall, this Gotham twosome wisely schlock up their lounge-y yuletide sound. Sexy and drunken horns, swinging accordion, cooing choruses, and a cha-cha beat are all milked for maximum merriment on jolly takes of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” Ideal warm-weather music for a freezing season.
Various Artists, A Blackheart Christmas (Blackheart)
An unheralded late-’09 holdover courtesy of Joan Jett’s label, this features Joan, of course, plus her bandmates on their own, her producer, and her label roster, making for a collection that’s a cut and a half above your average mall-punk. As such, the Dollyrots’ bitchy take on “Santa Baby,” Jett’s tense version of “Little Drummer Boy,” the Cute Lepers’ trashy “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” and the Ramones rush of Girl in a Coma’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” make for a headbanging holiday party.
The Boy Least Likely To, Christmas Special (Too Young To Die)
On the U.K. duo’s third album, they prove themselves twee-er than even Belle and Sebastian, but they’re still far from wimpy, crafting adorable, jaunty, breathy, folk-tinged pop. When they sing “I still believe in Santa Claus” (on “Happy Christmas Baby”), you believe it. When they sing “Jingle My Bells,” they make it sound PG-rated (if that) rather than NC-17. And even when they go out and get bombed on “Christmas Isn’t Christmas” (“…without you”), they still sound sweet.
James Brown, The Complete James Brown Christmas (Polydor)
This massive two-CD, 37-song collection of the Godfather’s three Xmas albums (from ’66, ’68, and ’70) starts with raw soul (a beaut of a take on “The Christmas Song,” and dig the chilling screams on “Please Come Home For Christmas”) and works up to some uncut funk (try “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” plus “Hey America” with its “Hava Nagila” shout-out) that’s so solid, even the vibes-based instrumentals aren’t wasted.
Willie Colón/Héctor Lavoe, Asalto Navideño, Vols. 1-2 (Fania)
It’s not two hours of “Feliz Navidad,” wise guy. What you have here is two early-’70s albums so full of infectious salsa — including hoards of percussion, blaring horns, and festive choruses — that you’d feel out of place sitting down while listening to it. Featuring genre staple “La Murga” and the boisterous “Traigo La Salsa,” and led by Lavoe’s soaring vocals and cuatro master Yomo Toro, it’s become a justifiable Latin-music classic that you can now call one of the best reissues of the year.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Crazy For Christmas (Surfdog)
Imagine your weird uncle getting up at a holiday gathering to do some folkie-swing novelties, except the result isn’t nearly as creepy: The ’70s vet’s sensibility is sweet, dizzy, and cozy enough for kiddies as well as precocious adults. Dig the kazoo refrain of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on “Cool Yule” — or the infectious fun he has with “I Saw Mommy Kissin’ Santa Claus” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” — and you’ll wish Dylan had done the same on his own Xmas album.
Shelby Lynne, Merry Christmas (Everso)
A nice spare album with a cozy fireside feel, featuring Lynn’s gorgeous voice and minimal instrumentation as it rolls through a honky-tonk holiday celebration. It’s best when she’s less reverential and lets it all hang out, like on her original “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas,” the bluegrass romp of Tex Logan’s “Christmastime’s A-Coming,” and a jazzy take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” that Willie would surely appreciate.
The Superions, Destination . . . Christmas! (Fanatic)
Leave it to the B-52s’ Fred Schneider to craft the best Xmas camp this side of John Waters. His wonderfully kitschy dance party includes “Fruitcake” (not just the icky loaf, but a gay joke he turns on himself), “Christmas Conga” (oh yes), the jolly “Crummy Christmas Tree,” and the sexy “Santa Je T’Aime,” which proves that Fred can ho-ho-ho with the best of ’em.
Poly Styrene “Black Christmas” (Future Noise Music) and Viv Albertine “Home Sweet Home (At Christmas)” (Burning Shed)
Two free downloads from a pair of U.K. punk goddesses returning to action, with both suspicious of yuletide cheer, as you’d expect. Inspired by a holiday-time slaying, Styrene’s deceptively joyous reggae “anti-Christmas” tune was done with the help of her daughter, Celeste; Slits founding member Albertine starts her ode out with a simmering rock groove, later descending into a wrenching, roaring psycho-drama.
Matt Wilson, Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O (Palmetto)
This post-bop drummer and Either/Orchestra alumnus shows both respect and disrespect to time-honored standards (including a number of cartoon-based classics), breathing new life into them until they sing again, thanks in large part to saxophonist Jeff Lederer, who sounds both joyful and triumphant. Try the buoyant opener “Winter Wonderland,” the rollicking “Christmas Time Is Here” or the noirish “You’re a Mean One Mister Grinch.”
Also notable: Black Sabbath (Idelsohn Society): No metal here, just Billie, Aretha, Lena, and Nina giving it their all, kosher style. Deer Tick, Holy Shit, It’s Christmas! (Partisan): grimy garage-rock rules. Jimi Hendrix, Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year (Legacy): Wanna hear his six-string roar through “Silent Night/Little Drummer Boy/Auld Lang Syne”? Original Soul Christmas (Atlantic): A little too much King Curtis and Booker T. on this down-home ’68 Stax reissue, but Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and William Bell make every syllable count. Puppini Sisters, Christmas With the Puppini Sisters (Verve): WWII-era harmony-group retro done straight, no chaser. Seasonal Favorites, Vol 3 (Double Crown): Honoring the Ventures, Santa hangs ten with Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and German surf bands. Ronnie Spector, Best Christmas Ever (Bad Girl Sounds): Her classic girl-group sound updated with less of her ex-hubby’s bombast.