I try to recommend some Christmas music every year. Christmas is always too busy of a season to listen to as much of its music as I’d like, but here are a few albums I enjoyed: 3 albums from 2016, 1 classic album I’ve loved for a while, and 1 classic album I just discovered.
Kacey Musgraves, A Very Kacey Christmas (2016): If you expected the writer of “Follow Your Arrow” to take a Willie Nelson approach to her warm Christmas album, you’re not far off. Nelson is clearly an influence, but I’d point to “Mele Kalikimaka” as the main progenitor of Musgraves’s sound on Very Kacey Christmas. Every song has a welcome, Christmas-on-the-beach feel, and Musgraves even has Andrews-Sisters-style backup singers on a few of the songs.
Lauren Daigle, Behold: A Christmas Collection (2016): Daigle’s album of regular Christian music, How Can It Be, was, at best, generic, though Daigle has an undeniably beautiful, smoky voice. Behold puts that voice to work carrying standard versions of the usual suspects (“Have Yourself”, “What Child”), but Daigle allows some jazzy variations on some of these songs. “Jingle Bells” sounds nothing like the safe music on How Can It Be, and original “Light of the World” is a more layered praise song than anything she’s yet released, reaching a new level of emotional depth that makes me excited for her next non-Christmas music.
Wonderlux, Christmas Eve (2016): I have a soft spot for Christmas standards, but it’s hard not to appreciate Christmas music that goes for something complete different. Wonderlux is a new-ish label from producer Brad Benedict, and the music on this album is by the label’s house band and members of the Blue Hawaiians. American Songwriter described it as “surf, spaghetti western, lounge, and gangster film noir”, which just about covers it.
An Old Favorite
Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960): There’s nothing on Ella Fitzgerald’s utterly charming Christmas album that is the ultimate version of its song, but that doesn’t stop Swinging Christmas from being delightful from beginning to end, without a single moment of let-down. There’s something so reliable about taking familiar Christmas songs and pairing them with a world class singer. And yet, Fitzgerald’s voice is so smooth and classic and the production so assured that Swinging Christmas is even better than you’d expect.
A New Old Favorite
Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin’ (1964): If Fitzgerald’s Swinging Christmas gives us Christmas music in the comfortable jazz realm, Smith’s Christmas Cookin’ presents us Christmas music in the what’s-going-to-happen-next jazz realm. Christmas albums are often simple affairs full of uncomplicated covers. That goes against the spirit of instrumental jazz, and while all these songs are familiar, Smith’s twists are endlessly exciting.