Sufjan Stevens

eMusic’s Holiday Essentials

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

Contributor
on 11.27.13 in Collections

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it’s just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We’ve compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

Big Gifts

Brooklyn indie darling Sufjan Stevens will probably never finish his one-album-for-every-state project (48 to go!), but his holiday-music series seems unstoppable. By now, you should know the drill: Every year he gathers some musical friends and stitches together an EP to send out to loved ones. Some of the songs are standards, lovingly rendered. Some are standards, flipped into rock songs or spooky ballads. A lot of Stevens's holiday tunes are originals, either sincere in their cheer or absurd, moody or baffling. ("Christmas Unicorn" is all of these.) Stevens's last five holiday EPs are finally collected in the new Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas Vols. 6-10, a collection that's as upbeat and earnest as it is completely bonkers. Read here for a rigorously scientific unwrapping of the highlights of each volume, broken into statistical categories.

Many artists — particularly those of the country, soul and pop persuasions — record at least one Christmas album in the course of their career. They're a sure-fire seller, guaranteed to move units. "Mom likes Tim McBride and he's made this holiday album, so OK, I know what I'm getting for her stocking this year." The way most of these are made, you can knock one of these out in just a few days. Who doesn't know the music backwards and forwards already? All you need are the right people to sing your little "crossover duets" with. It's like making your own money.

Low's Christmas album is just called Christmas. It was made well before Sufjan made Christmas safe for indie-rockers, and is far more original and less cloying than Sufjan's holiday recordings, likable as those may be. There are four originals and three cover songs on here. It's just under 30 minutes — Beatle length — but it's surprisingly diverse. Some of the songs sound like they were recorded live in a living room while others employ a total, Spectorific, wall-of-sound approach. Instruments employed include an organ that sounds like a flute, guitars both strummed and fuzzy, and, naturally, a lot of bells. I wonder if half the bells sold in music stores aren't for people playing Christmas music. Some of the tunes are fuzzed-out and blissed-up, while others are these gentle little lullabies that you have to listen to over and over. True to the band's "slowcore" aesthetic, all the numbers unfold at an achingly, deliberately slow pace.

If you were anywhere near a TV set in the early '00s, you've likely already heard their take on "Little Drummer Boy." It was featured in an oft-repeated Gap commercial (umm, speaking of commerce). Theirs is the second-best version of this song ever recorded, in my own humble opinion (the first being the one by David Bowie and Bing Crosby, of course). Their dreamy molasses pop approach to the song advances toward the sublime on this song. I know that's a totally rock critic type thing to say but it's true! Their jazzy version of "Blue Christmas," which showcases Mimi's strong voice, is very nifty and you should put it on a mix tape for your folks right now. The take on "Silent Night" is solid too, though it's so stripped-down and earnest it might not merit as many repeat plays as the rest.

The original numbers are really the centerpiece here. In a just world, they'd have become standards already. The most controversial one is the slow-burning and lovely "If You Were Born Today." The song's opening lines go "If you were born today/ We'd kill you by age eight/ Never get a chance to say/ Joy to the world and peace on the earth." The tune continues with a handful of Christ's best-known sayings. Coupled with those startling introductory lines, the song can't help but remind the listener that Christ's messages of total love and the desire for peace can't help but be absolutely revolutionary, and so clearly at odds with the everyday machinations of our governments and our shopping malls. It's as if the song is there to remind us all that giving thanks for the birth of Christ is of course awesome. But don't forget, that hippie looking guy not only said "Blessed are the meek," but also "Deny the flesh" and "Deny all that's evil." What's extraordinary is that Low manage to say this in a delirious and pretty little song without any didacticism at all.

To blazes with a diamond! Low's Christmas album is the real gift that keeps on giving.

CeeLo\'s Magic Moment

Cee-Lo Green

Holidays Rule

Various Artists

The Beach Boys\' Christmas Album

Beach Boys

The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album/Christmas With John Fahey, Vol. II

John Fahey

Arguably one of the greatest Christmas recordings of modern times, A New Possibility was recorded by just one visionary folk icon and his acoustic guitar — no overdubs. John Fahey accomplished a lot in his lifetime: he virtually re-invented the acoustic guitar as a solo instrument with his idiosyncratic and mournful style, and he founded Takoma and Revenant, two influential independent record labels. For a great many people in the '60s and '70s, the bearish-looking dude also saved Christmas, rescuing holiday music from the schmaltz that so often drenched it.

Recorded in a beautiful, loping and often very simple style, the melodies resonate throughout the entire, unadulterated album. On the first three songs alone — "Joy to the World," "What Child is This?" and "Medley: Hark the Herald Angels Sing / Come All Ye Faithful" — Fahey's tone slips from joy to reverence and back again. As Fahey wrote in the original liner notes, "I hope that you like my new arrangements — they are not progressive; 'different' is the word — and I hope that you will celebrate Christmas with me." It's hard to think of better music to mellow out next to the tree with.

The Complete James Brown Christmas

James Brown

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it's just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We've compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan

If you're scratching your head at the idea of this legendarily iconoclastic Jewish-turned-fundamentalist-Christian-turned-who-knows-what songwriter (with one of the unloveliest singing voices around) recording a Christmas album, look at it this way: Dylan loves the dusty old fairgrounds of the Great American Songbook, and the carefully crafted songwriting era that ended around the time he started making records. Dylan loves hokum and corniness and schmaltz. He usually puts quotation marks around them in his own work, but he's always admired songs that tug at the heartstrings. And what Dylan loves most of all is flying directly in the face of whatever he's expected to do. At this point, what could be more iconoclastic for him than crooning "Little Drummer Boy"?

Assuming you can accept its premise — Grizzled Old Beloved Entertainer in a Santa Claus suit — Christmas in the Heart is a hoot, mostly because Uncle Bob is clearly grinning from one edge of his fake beard to the other. He sounds like he's about to burst into giggles when he rasps verses of "Silver Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" that everyone else has forgotten. And he's pulled up a fantastic selection of songs (to win friends and influence elderly relatives), including a handful of ace obscurities, like the Hawaiian novelty "Christmas Island." The album's highlight is "Must Be Santa," with its whirlwind polka arrangement based on Brave Combo's rendition. The album's effectively a Christmas-themed episode of Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" program, performed entirely by the man himself.

Various Artists

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector

Various

Not since singing cowboy Gene Autry lassoed a batch of holiday songs did a collection make such an impact on the caroling canon. The Wall of Sound mastermind — now locked away behind a different kind of wall — corralled his stable of singers and musicians to produce 1963's breakthrough Christmas album, with a dozen tunes gleaming with the Phil Spector sparkle.

Included here are three originated by Autry: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," delightfully delivered by the Crystals, with 16-year-old Lala Brooks singing lead; "Frosty the Snowman," courtesy of the Ronettes, featuring Spector's future wife, Ronnie, on exuberant lead vocals; and "Here Comes Santa Claus," one of two tracks by the album's sole male vocalist, Bobby Sheen, of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, featuring the Blossoms on harmonies.

Blossoms vocalist Darlene Love transformed into Queen of Christmas, thanks to her memorable set (and as witnessed every year during her yuletide visit to the Letterman show). Her dramatic solo turns, particularly on the Brill Building composition (written by Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry) "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," are spectacular. Ronnie Spector has also kept the tradition alive, performing annual holiday shows and releasing a new collection of Christmas songs in 2010.

Spector's murder conviction adds a pall to track 13, the album closer — his spoken narrative, backed by "Silent Night" *212; but sassy Ronnie spotting Mommy kissing Santa Claus (complete with the sound of a smooch) and Love singing of marshmallow worlds and winter wonderlands take you back to a more innocent time when all was merry and bright.

Merry Christmas

The Supremes

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz

Various Artists

Aside from James White's reliably angular and bad-ass "Christmas With Satan," the additions to the 1981 ZE LP A Christmas Record included on this "reloaded" incarnation are marginal. But that doesn't diminish the best of the rest: The Waitresses contribute their second-most-familiar cut, "Christmas Wrapping," which delivers their sly, hooky humor but actually ends happily, while August Darnell's "Christmas on Riverside Drive" similarly compares to his swanky Kid Creole hits. Fueled by Detroit's crumbling economy, Was (Not Was)'s "Christmas Time in Motor City" swaps the usual seasonal fantasies for the dark humor of winter realism.

Snow Globe

Erasure

Trees festooned with gaudy balls. Comedy sweaters. Snow globes. Christmas is essentially a festival of camp, and it may just have found a new soundtrack. Erasure's 15th studio album, a faux-solemn amalgam of Christmas carols, hymns and original material, is so archly irreverent that it virtually arrives sporting a tinsel tutu. Vince Clark's analog bleeps and squelches, unchanged since Erasure's '80s heyday, sound so quaint that they virtually qualify as retro-futurist, while Andy Bell's cherubic trill ("I've re-found my inner choirboy," he claims) fits these festive frills perfectly. Of the self-penned tracks, the Hi-NRG pledge of devotion "Loving Man" and mischievously melodramatic nativity tale "Blood On The Snow" stand out, but inevitably it's the covers that command the attention: a still, sepulchral "Silent Night," a narcoleptic, drone-driven "White Christmas," and a sleigh-bell-laden take on "In the Bleak Midwinter" wherein Bell's meticulous, forensic enunciation is all the more laudable given that he is presumably simultaneously attempting to keep a straight face. From its sleeve shot of the pair posing inside the titular ornament in question, Snow Globe utterly redefines the concept of the queens' Christmas message.

Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

Ella Fitzgerald

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it's just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We've compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

Many have tried to sing with the Muppets. It's tougher than it sounds.

No. 1, no matter who you are, you won't be as charismatic as your co-star. Recall the tendency of reporters interviewing Henson and Kermit to put the mic in front of Kermit (Carson did it a couple of times). That, boys and girls, is star power.

Number two, it takes a certain kind of voice to make it work. Generations of pop stars have tried hanging out on Sesame Street. It's an unforgiving place. Oh, everyone does OK, but it's rarely great. Sometimes it destroys the song entirely. For example, "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon," a Jeff Moss song sung originally by Ernie, is a complete showstopper, a simple ballad about traveling and missing home that will reduce grown-ass adults to tears. Amazing song in its original form. But add Aaron %$#@ing Neville in a duet and you have little but oversung mush. Bleh.

But John Denver...well, John Denver was something else. When people called him "the human Muppet," they were usually making fun of him. But Denver's let's-call-it-mellow vibe and patina of fundamental decency made him an ideal addition to Hensonworld, not to mention his telegenic look. (Think about how many really big stars you've seen on TV and how few of them you can describe in detail. Denver's look is etched in everyone's memory.) And his voice never overwhelmed the songs

All of which is why A Christmas Together holds up as well as it does. Denver and the Muppets crank through the "Twelve Days" (only slightly funnier on TV than on album). Rolf gets his best piano-bar hack on for a duet on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Denver sounds like he's singing about ten feet from the mic). "Christmas Is Coming" is an utter head-scratcher, a Scooter/Piggy duet round with a weird island vibe. "Little Saint Nick" is as close to rock as we get, "Silent Night" remains orthodox and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" very funny.

A Charlie Brown Christmas [2012 Remastered & Expanded Edition]

Vince Guaraldi Trio

"I don't think I'm a great piano player," Vince Guaraldi once said, "but I would like to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience. I hope some of those tunes will become standards. I want to write standards, not just hits." As even those with limited exposure to Guaraldi's work can tell you, he didn't just write standards; he set them. His cool jazz-infused compositions for Charles Schulz's Peanuts TV specials — music that was by turns spirited and poignant — certainly qualify as classics, not just within the genres of children's programming or of jazz but in the popular imagination.

Guaraldi's much-loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, a soundtrack originally released way back in 1965, is the most classic of this self-effacing piano player's classics. It's also a big seller. No wonder, then, that Fantasy Records reissued it, first in 1988 and then again, with Concord Records, in 2006. Naysayers have grumbled on various websites, including this one, about the remastered A Charlie Brown Christmas Album (with bonus tracks). They say it's too pristine sounding and that the alternate takes are not on par with the perfection of the original. In the case of the former, hey, it's a matter of taste; some people like tape hisses and such, and some prefer a sleeker sound. The merit of the bonus cuts, however, cannot be debated.

The additional versions — of "Greensleeves," "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Christmas Is Coming" — are more of a good thing, period. There will never be an album of fresh material from Vince Guaraldi; tragically and unexpectedly, he died from a heart attack in 1976, when he was just 47. We're fortunate to have newish songs like these, especially when they're this good. The restrained "Greensleeves" on the 1965 album seems almost ponderous compared to alternate take 6, which has a hep pizzazz resulting from looser piano playing, a more-prominent bass, the stirring use of what sounds like an egg shaker and snappy drumming in place of the original's gentle, splashy brushwork. If Charlie and Lucy grew up and went to sophisticated jazz lounges on dates, this is the kind of song a skillful trio onstage would be playing.

Alternate take 13 of "Greensleeves," on the other hand, is at least 13 shades darker than both of the other versions. At times, it sounds like Guaraldi is sinking his fingers right down through the ivories, like he's implanting the notes in his piano. A snare drum kicks in protest, while the cymbals shiver. The three renditions of "Greensleeves" make the case for this reissue all on their own, I would argue. The alternate "Christmas Is Coming" is also both a real find and a real joy. Guaraldi and his fellow musicians deliver a performance that is rangy and sly, and the sheer aliveness of it is — dare I say — a gift that keeps on giving.

Pretty Paper

Willie Nelson

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it's just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We've compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

Even among earnest singer-songwriters, Aimee Mann stands out for her unflappable solemnity. So it comes as no surprise that this woman who rarely cracks a smile has produced a Christmas album that sets the mood for post-holiday-gorge loafing, not a drunken office party. Fortunately, Mann knows how to choose classics that work with her natural aesthetic. When it comes time to liven things up with a Yuletide cartoon anthem, she opts for one that's serious but fun, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," with Grant-Lee Phillips taking over Boris Karloff's narrating duties. In addition to the standards, One More Drifter in the Snow features "Christmastime," a song written by husband Michael Penn and frequent collaborator Jon Brion, which enters on a light-hearted mandola strum and quickly takes a slinking, minor-keyed turn. The singer's own "Calling on Mary" is a somber bit of introspection, the sort of brooding that naturally occurs every December, but which most carol composers choose to ignore.

A Motown Christmas

Various Artists

Motown was as programmatic as it was genius, and this compilation is as programmatic as it gets: Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Supremes, Miracles, more or less in that order, over and over, with Marvin Gaye snuck in at the end with the surprisingly sexy and raw "I Want to Come Home For Christmas." Sadly, this package doesn't include Gaye's other great holiday track, the luminous "Purple Snowflakes," which released for years; the idea seems to be to stick with material from the holiday albums the label issued in its time.

As with Broadway, Christmas songs didn't tend to induce the best in Motown's glossy vocal roster. (Or its best vocalists, as the Jackson 5 cuts helmed by Jermaine attest.) Some of A Motown Christmas is pretty stolid — hymns make even Stevie and Smokey sound inanimate. (Broadway appears too, on the Supremes' "My Favorite Things" — someone interpreted "Brown paper packages tied up with strings" pretty liberally there.) But there is a good amount of charm on display here, as well as a taste of backstage wildness. The Funk Brothers tended to play looser than usual on tracks that weren't meant to be hits; you can hear that especially well on the lazy-stroke groove of the Temptations' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" ("Hey, Rudolph! Won't'cha guide my sleigh?" as a sign-off mantra is a good idea, too) and the more charged, but still sleek, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by the Jackson 5. And the material — well, you know.

Elvis\' Christmas Album

Elvis Presley

A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa's Bag

Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra

If you're fed up with Yuletide records that put the "white" in "White Christmas," Shawn Lee's A Very Ping Pong Christmas might just cure what (wass)ails ya. Lee's previous Ping Pong outings have suffered from a paucity of memorable melodies, but here he applies his knack for funky beats and atmospheric grooves to twelve holiday classics, resulting in one of the cooler Christmas waxings in recent memory. There's a heavy '60s/'70s soul vibe goin'on, and it's easy to picture Santa pulling up to your house in a red Cadillac with matching velvet double-breasted pimp vines to the tune of Lee's clavinet-stoked "Do You Hear What I Hear" or wah-inflected "Jingle Bells." His takes on "Deck the Halls" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" would surely have Ramsey Lewis's 'In Crowd 'doin'it to death around the ol'Tanenbaum. Hopefully we'll get a Volume 2 in next year's stocking.

A Very Rosie Christmas

Rosie Thomas

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it's just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We've compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

René Jacobs

Eugene Ormandy

A John Prine Christmas

John Prine

Leave the Christmas carols to the gleeful crooners: John Prine is largely uninterested in regurgitating seasonal favorites on this eight-song collection. Though he takes "Silver Bells" for a swingin' ride and gets cheeky with "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," the focus here is on Prine originals that have only tangential connections to holiday concerns. For example, "Everything Is Cool" (given the full-band treatment, compared to the stark solo version on Prine's 1991 comeback album The Missing Years) starts with the couplet, "Everything is cool, everything's OK/ Well just before last Christmas, my baby went away" — but that's it for yuletide references. No matter, as it's a typically sublime Prine tune, mixing darkness with light: He sings of seeing 100,000 blackbirds flying in the shape of a teadrop that washes his sins away. Three cuts are live recordings, including "If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man," which has nothing to do with Christmas but does feature an angelic duet vocal from Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, and "Christmas In Prison," which is as wistful and lonesome is its title suggests. The closing title track is mostly a spoken-word story from Prine's childhood, punctuated by a verse of "Away in a Manger" with a boisterous conjunto-accordion finale. You won't hear it like that at the candlelight service.

A Classic Soul Christmas

Various Artists

The Ventures' Christmas Album

Ventures

Joe Gibbs Reggae Christmas

The Joe Gibbs Family Of Artists

With a shared color schema of red, gold and green, it seems fitting that one of the greatest Christmas albums is also a stellar reggae album, cut by legendary producer Joe Gibbs. For more than a decade, Gibbs had been at the forefront of Jamaican music: rocksteady in the late '60s, then onto roots reggae, dub, and lovers rock throughout the '70s. There isn't a tree big enough to hold all of the gifts that Gibbs had given listeners over the years: Culture's epochal Two Sevens Clash, Althea & Donna's brash cut "Uptown Top Ranking," and breaking the likes of Dennis Brown, Sly & Robbie, as well as producer Winston "Niney the Observer" Holness to the world.

Consider this the '70s version of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, a producer at the peak of his powers showering us with even more unbelievable aural treats. There's Horace Andy lending his angelic pipes to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and an uptempo version of "Deck the Halls" that could even get Scrooge to skanking. Bookending the disc are two massive medleys featuring Gibbs and his stable of artists strutting through fare like "Joy to the World," "Deck the Halls," "Auld Lang Syne," and "Little Drummer Boy" with such audible joy that it turns these old musty chestnuts into an evergreen dance party.

Bing Crosby - Christmas Classics

Bing Crosby

We know how it is: You love the holidays as much as anybody else, it's just all that schmaltz has a way of unsettling the eggnog in your belly. Sugar is fine in cookies and candy canes, but does it have to be in the carols, too? Fear not: We've compiled a hearty list of saccharine-free classics designed to get you through the holiday season with the minimum number of eye-rolls and toothaches.

A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

While this may be the only album on this list that doesn't deserve the phrase "masterpiece," it's far from a throwaway. Anytime arranger — conductor Gordon Jenkins wasn't being epically sad (as on Where Are You?, When No One Cares and All Alone) or "serious" (as on September of My Years) he could be downright corny. Not, as they say on Seinfeld, that there's anything wrong with that. This 1957 holiday album (his second actually — he'd released a Christmas collection for Columbia in 1948) brought out the delightfully corny side of Sinatra — never more enjoyably than on the opener, Jenkins's gleefully dopey mock-doo-wop re-do of "Jingle Bells." Sinatra and Jenkins make beautiful music especially on those very touching "sad" Christmas songs, the ones about being separated from your loved ones during the holiday, like "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." This is what it's like, you imagine, to spend Christmas in a bar, hanging your stockings over a rack of Jack Daniels.

Stocking Stuffers

The Crocodiles

Wishing You A Rave Christmas

The Raveonettes

Holy Shit, It's Christmas!

Deer Tick

It\'s Christmas So We\'ll Stop

Frightened Rabbit

Christmas with Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

Christmas Spirit...In My House

Joey Ramone

Carol Of The Bells

The Bird And The Bee

Here It Is Christmas Time

Old 97's