Best New Christmas Music: 2016 Edition

Best New Christmas Music: 2016 Edition
Kacey Musgraves

It is a commonly known rite of passage for all musicians to churn out a Christmas album at some point in their careers. Jewish? Islamic? Doesn’t matter- suck it up and get it done. I happen to love Christmas music and have a years-old playlist that I add to each year based on what the newcomers bring. In general, this assignment is a tall order: the artist either has to put their own stamp on a time honored classic, thereby risking alienation of the purists, or they must remain true to the original versions of the songs and while simultaneously distinguishing themselves from the thousands of artists who came before them. This year I listened to 10 new albums, which I have reviewed below, along with the songs I have added to my personal collection. My holiday gift to you is listening to the bad Christmas music so you don’t have to. You’re welcome!

A Pentatonix Christmas (Pentatonix) – This is currently the #1 Christmas album. People go nuts for Pentatonix, and I’m not sure I’m on board with the allure. I would say this is a good album for people who maybe like the words in the Christmas songs but aren’t emotionally invested in the underlying musical arrangements? In some cases it’s really hard to discern what song you’re listening to because they’ve scrambled the original music so much, but for people who aren’t traditionalists when it comes to their Christmas music, that might be acceptable. Honestly, it reminds me of the holiday concerts I went to for my kids when they were in grade school where they put a new twist on a classic. When it’s passed off as mainstream Christmas music, however, I find it somehow unsettling.  I did, however, really like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

A Very Kacey Christmas (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey turns to her sweeter side for this album, leaving her usual trailer park shtick behind. Many of the songs have a Hawaiian feel to them, curiously, and she gets sentimental—dare I say downright sad—on some tracks, namely “Christmas Always Makes Me Cry” (see also: “Present Without a Bow”- how sad can you get). For the classics, she doesn’t stray too far from the original versions. In particular, I enjoyed “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which morphed into “Auld Lang Syne” with background sounds of a lovely dinner party. Some of the songs are a bit cutesy for me, but I appreciate the innocence. Kacey does provide us with a fairly authentic version of “Feliz Navidad” that took my right back to seventh grade Spanish, but I’ll forgive her for it.

Kylie Christmas (Snow Queen Edition) (Kylie Minogue) – This seems to be a follow-up to Kylie’s album from last year, simply Kylie Christmas (while you might notice this is the Snow Queen Edition, or SQE as I like to call it). Since I am unfamiliar with Kylie’s previous output, I can’t comment on any enhancements, but I will tell you that the SQE contains a robust 22 songs. That’s a lot of Kylie! Maybe too much! Some of the songs are a stretch for a Christmas themed album; for instance, “100 Degrees” sounds very much both in lyrics and music like a possible jazzercise accompaniment. On some songs, whether it’s intentional or not, she sounds like she’s channeling her inner Madonna, particularly on “Santa Baby”, which sounds very much like Madge’s version. I’m not a big fan of “sexy Christmas”, and Kylie seems a bit coquettish for my taste. I’m boring, what can I say. Her version of “Christmas Lights” isn’t bad, but in my book nothing can touch the Coldplay version. Sorry, Kylie.

A Swingin’ Little Christmas (Jane Lynch) – As you might guess from the album title, this is a very high energy compilation- maybe too high energy. I understand the temptation to feed into the holiday excitement via up-tempo versions of some of our old favorites, but this album sounds downright over caffeinated. Honestly with the stress of all that needs to be done in December (and let’s not forget about writing those year-end reviews at work), I need music that’s going to lower my blood pressure. I must say, though, that that things relaxed a bit after the first few songs, and the a cappella version of “Coventry Carol” is particularly beautiful. Jane has enlisted a number of friends to help her out on these songs, although she has a great voice in her own right (hence her role on “Glee”).

Merry Christmas from Andra Day (Andra Day) – This is a quickie, just five songs. Andra, who I must confess I love and am probably predisposed to like , teams up with Stevie Wonder for “Someday at Christmas”, and they harmonize beautifully. That being said, the other songs felt a little overdone in terms of her vocals. She has a beautiful voice, and I think she wanted to put her own stamp on these songs, while I feel they would have been amazing just keeping it simple. I was expecting to like this one more.

Acoustic Christmas (Neil Diamond) – This album is very…Neil Diamond, which you can take in whatever way you normally take your Neil Diamond. I’m kind of neutral on him in general, which is how I felt about this album, so if you’re a fan you’ll probably like it. He did add a few unexpected songs (‘Christmas in Kilarney” and a very up-tempo “Christmas Medley”). Sorry I don’t have more to say about this one.

’Tis the SeaSon (Jimmy Buffet) – If Christmastime for you brings visions not of snow and pine trees but rather sand and outdoor bars, you will probably like this "seasonal" album. I wasn’t crazy about some of his song choices (namely “All I Want for Christmas” complete with toothless lisping and a modified version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to include island relevance). He does have one original creation that I liked: “Drivin’ the Pig (Manejandro el Cerdo)”, which was more successful because it was devised specifically to include both island and Christmas than the holiday songs he tried to shove into an island mold. Also, “Mele Kalikimaka” is perfect for this album. Overall, however, I wasn’t crazy about this one- the disparate island and holiday sounds just don’t meld in my opinion. It sounded “wrong” and forced.

To Celebrate Christmas (Jennifer Nettles) – She of Sugarland fame has brought us her own Christmas album, enlisting help from the likes of Idina Menzel and the aforementioned Andra Day. I really like the arrangements on this, and a couple of the songs bubbled to the top for me, particularly the ones on which she collaborated. Jennifer has a great voice, but it can sound a little harsh on its own—at least for Christmas song purposes. I liked this one.

Laura Navidad (Laura Pausini) – First, who is Laura Pausini? Great question: she’s an Italian pop singer songwriter (Michael Scott quote). I’m at an immediate disadvantage because I’m not familiar with her work, so I don’t know what we should be expecting, but I can tell you she tried to do something for everyone: English, Italian, gospel, and opera. I had to listen to the album a couple times through to make sense of it.  Overall: neutral.

White Christmas Blue (Loretta Lynn) – This doesn’t sound all that different than you would expect, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your general position on Loretta Lynn . I wasn’t exactly an aficionado on LL, so I went to the Google machine to see where that accent came from: a coal mining town in Kentucky. It’s especially acute when she’s reading “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”- that one was a little tough for me (she’s a better singer than reader). If you want all of your Christmas songs to sound like country songs with incidental holiday lyrics, you’ll probably like this one.

Note: I wanted to listen to Christmas Together, the Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood collaboration, but it’s not on Spotify, only Amazon Music, which is apparently not part of Amazon Prime, and I wasn’t willing to pay to listen to it since I already pay for Spotify and Prime. Boo!

Here are the songs I added to my Christmas playlist this year (which I realize now has two versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" out of only eight songs):

  • "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - Pentatonix
  • "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" - Kacey Musgraves
  • "Coventry Carol" - Jane Lynch
  • "Someday at Christmas" - Andra Day with Stevie Wonder
  • "Drivin' the Pig (Manejando el Cerdo)" - Jimmy Buffett
  • "Mele Kalikimaka" - Jimmy Buffett
  • "Circle of Love" - Jennifer Nettles
  • "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - Jennifer Nettles

If you enjoyed this post, please check out some of my previous Christmas music posts, including:

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