My colleague Clover Hope and I thought it might be fun to check out this year’s crop of new Christmas albums, which is sort of like thinking a root canal might be pleasurable. Is optimism a truly positive thing if it so often leads to pain and disappointment? No matter: Leave wisdom for the three wise men.
Because we aren’t complete masochists, we have allowed ourselves to tap out whenever we see fit when listening to these albums for review. Our endurance, in fact, is the conceit of our write-ups below of new holiday music from the likes of Gwen Stefani, Sia, Fantasia, and (spits egg nog... oh no wait, that’s vomit) diabolically chipper a cappella quintet Pentatonix. Below, we reveal just how much we could take of each of these nine 2017 releases, and exactly what gave us our fill. —Rich Juzwiak
Clover: Got to half of the last song. For me, Sia’s tone is best absorbed in small doses, and yet I have to say her style works for this genre of saccharine spirit music. I like her tongue-in-cheek sensibility—a la her singing, “Puppies are forever, not just for Christmas”—and that she understands the hallmark of a holiday soundtrack is to brighten everyone’s moods.
Rich: Similar to the puppies sentiment is the subject of the ballad “Everyday Is Christmas” (the penultimate song on this album, which is as far as I got), in which Sia chokes out, “Everyday is Christmas when you’re by my side / You’re the gift that keeps giving, my angel for life.” I mean, if everyday were Christmas, Christmas wouldn’t be special and then we’d need to invent Mega-Christmas. And then someone would sing “Everyday Is Mega-Christmas” and we’d need to invent Mega-Christmas Deluxe (Holiday Edition). But also, if everyday were Christmas, then Sia’s wouldn’t be Christmas songs, they’d just be songs. And maybe that’s the point, given the secular, non-traditional, mostly non-cultural nature of Everyday Is Christmas, which sometimes aren’t really about Christmas but mention it a few times. (And then there’s the precious “Snowflake”: “There is no one like you / So I’m gonna hide you my sweet.”) I’ve never heard something be so matter-of-factly festive. Props for trying something different, and this is more tolerable than most albums from Sia, whose voice to the ears is what flourescent lights are to the eyes.
Rich: Almost all the way—I turned off during the last track, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is not a Christmas song but a song that makes everyday feel like whatever the opposite of Christmas is because at this point the relentless remaking and ensuing ubiquity of that song is starting to feel like some kind of sophisticated torture. I’d trade canceling Christmas, my birthday, Arbor Day, the window in which the GNC Gold Card program actually yields discounts, and the stack of Bed Bath & Beyond paper coupons I’m sitting on if I was promised I’d never have to hear another person ever cover this song again. Otherwise, Christmas After Midnight is a pretty stellar, oddly secular collection of big band-type numbers. Instead of saluting her church roots and going the traditional route, Fantasia mostly sticks to perennial R&B radio favs like the Jackson 5’s “Give Love on Christmas Day,” James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” and, of course, Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” The very idea of Christ isn’t explicitly acknowledged until eight songs in, via an atmospheric, acoustic rendition of “Silent Night.”
Clover: Midway through “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” I knew Fantasia would give me classic, effortless Eartha Kitt-ish Christmas soul (and scratchy wails), but there’s some pretty blues here, too, namely “The Snow Is Falling.” I skipped the final two songs because I felt sufficiently full, but overall I love how she made timeless songs sound as Fantasia as possible.
Clover: The beginning of the last song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This album legitimately put me in the Christmas spirit! Their arrangements and harmonies really work for cheesy holiday music and most of the album is appropriately buoyant. Dare I say, it rocks. And makes me want to listen to it while shopping. Didn’t care much for “Happy Christmas,” but thankfully it’s a short song.
Rich: I turned it off five songs in, when I realized they had the unmitigated gall to cover Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas.” Clover, I appreciate your enthusiasm and positivity, but no fuckin’ way am I listening to a white man with a voice slightly more butch than Melissa Etheridge’s earnestly warble his way through that holiday soul classic. And I thought it was weird that Mrs. Claus’s lips were described as “ruby red... like The Wizard of Oz” in “‘Til New Year’s Night,” like Mrs. Claus gives enough of a fuck to get all prettied up for Hanson. That song’s subgenre is whatever subgenre Meatloaf’s song is in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And while I’m complaining, I can’t believe they called this album Finally It’s Christmas, as it’s their second Christmas album and a better title would have been It’s Christmas Again and It’s All Hanson’s Fault (Again). Their second goddamn Christmas album!
(Clover: True, It’s Christmas Again would be better. Or, It’s Christmmmasbop.)
Rich: I got to track three, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” because it was redundant coming immediately after a song called, “I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day.” I disagreed with you the first time, Cheap Trick!
Clover: I got as far as a minute-and-a-half into “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.” The title of this album (a pop-rock Christmas album) is Christmas Christmas and there are nine songs with “Christmas” in the title, which I’m going to list here to make everyone feel crazy: “Merry Christmas Darlings,” “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” “Merry XMas Everybody,” “Please Come Home for Christmas,” “Remember Christmas” (Yes, I do remember), “Father Christmas,” “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” and the title track “Christmas Christmas.”
Rich: I wonder if this album is about Christmas.
Rich: I’m not trying to be a dick and turn off all these albums immediately... but at the same time, I’m not trying not to be a dick. The second song on this album by pop-violinist Lindsey Stirling (whom I had a sneaking suspicion must have been on some talent show or another before Googling her and seeing that, yep, she was a semifinalist on America’s Got Talent, of course) is a cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” sung by Disney Channel veteran Sabrina Carpenter to an electronic shuffle beat. Yeah, no. That’s where I draw the line. In fact, any single one of those elements is where I draw the line.
Clover: Made it to the beginning of the third song. To put this plainly, I do not want to listen to an entire album of violin holiday music.
Rich: I didn’t. I’m not listening to this. Sorry.
Clover: I decided to sacrifice myself and give this a shot for the good of mankind. Here’s my pain: The album opens with a beatboxed a cappella version of “Come All, Ye Faithful,” which I would’ve immediately cut off in anger if I didn’t take this experience as a personal challenge. I laughed all through the second song, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (five words that don’t go together), with its bum-buh-bum melody and stuff about tidings and joy. On track three, “White Christmas,” I wondered how anyone listens to Pentatonix with genuine joy or seriousness. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” wasn’t too hard to endure since it’s got more of a traditional song format. Then came “Up on the Housetop,” a song made to ruin me. That’s where I stopped, but I feel like I did the world a service even getting that far.
Clover: About 30 seconds into track two, “Please Come Home for Christmas.” This is the brand of commercialized, phoned-in Christmas music I can’t deal with because it’s nuked of any type of soul or oomph. Remember when 98 Degrees made “Thank God I Found You” with Mariah Carey and Joe, and then Joe and Mariah did a way better remix with Nas that’s one of the best remixes ever? I’d much rather listen to that.
Rich: I’d rather listen to that remix than about 99.9 percent of existing recorded music. As for Let It Snow, I got to Track 5, “Season of Love,” which starts with a crisp house beat that, as the sounds pile up, quickly gets as soggy as overloaded nachos you’d get from Applebees when you popped in during your Christmas shopping when you used to do it at the mall. And then I got distracted by... I don’t even know what? Dust made visible by natural light streaming through my window? A faucet dripping in the background that I could see but not hear (since I was listening to this album on my headphones)? My own blinking? These arrangements are more generic than a tube of assorted boxers my mother would buy me at Kohl’s just so I had an extra present to unwrap on Christmas morning. As on the Pentatonix, there’s beatboxing here (“Let It Snow”), and like Hanson’s new one, this release is in fact 98 Degrees’ second Christmas album. It’s almost like... people record Christmas albums when they have literally nothing to say and want to get handsomely compensated for doing so.
Clover: Seven of nine tracks. It’s a decent, abridged collection of B-level singers and rappers feeling the holiday spirit but seems cobbled together based on whoever was available (not Rihanna). I almost hit the kill switch upon hearing DJ Khaled adlib-screaming, “It’s a cold world! Bundle up!” on “3 Kings.” Yet I soldiered on. This was at least listenable, though it made me wish for sexy, yearning Christmas jams like Boyz II Men’s “Let It Snow.”
Rich: “Let It Snow” is my favorite ‘90s Christmas song after “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I listened to all of A Very ROC Christmas, but that’s not quite a compliment. Firstly, it’s only 23 minutes long so it was easy to get through. But I also, I was riveted during that brief time by how disjointed the ROC Nation roster is. DNCE do neon dad rock (their song has so many pauses in it that it always seems like it just ended to which I say, don’t threaten me with a good time!), Ella Mai does an 808 yuletide slow jam, J.S. Ondara warbles about missing his mother over an arpeggiated acoustic guitar, and Yo Gotti, Fabolous, and Khaled string Christmas references together like popcorn over a track that is to “Jesus Walks” what The Simpsons’ Funzo was to Furby. I guess this is supposed to present a diverse range of flavors, but the overall taste is about as thrilling as fruitcake.
How far did you make it?
Rich: Halfway—I turned it off during the “Last Christmas” cover that’s intended to sound Phil Spector-inflected but plays more like Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” The rest of this thing is vaguely retro in a way that anything green and red is vaguely Christmassy. “When I Was a Little Girl” is based on a repeatedly hit guitar string that reminds me of the intro to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (???).
Clover: Two-and-a-half tracks. Making it past the first song, “Jingle Bells”—which sounds like Gwen doing an impression of Tom Jones singing “Jingle Bells”—proved to be a challenge since there’s nothing thrilling about Gwen’s voice that makes it worth powering through. Once I got to track three, “My Gift Is You,” the drum thump was enough to give it a whirl but, again, the nasal vocals kept compelling me to give up, and then the song went country. It’s when she sings “I can’t wait to give all my lovin’ to my best friend” that I felt the spirit of Blake Shelton and had to cut it off.