Like holiday turkey and seasonal egg nog, if you don’t add spice and throw in new flavors when it comes to freshly recorded and released Christmas music, all that’s left is tired tradition and tryptophan sleep. Thankfully, there are enough new Christmas albums, EPs, singles and streams to satisfy jaded holiday music listeners. Here are 22 releases to look out for:
Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande, “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me (Live)” (Atlantic)
This hearty, live rendition of “Santa, Can’t You Hear Me” — initially recorded for Clarkson’s “When Christmas Comes Around….” album — is more lustrous than its studio version. Credit Clarkson’s edgy alto on an original song co-written by Aben Eubanks, and Grande’s flitting, breezy voice for a surprisingly (for holiday music) improvisational vibe. It’s as if the duo were caroling right outside your front door.
Alicia Keys, “Santa Baby” (Alicia Keys Records/Apple Music)
For her first holiday album, the soulful, clarion vocalist and pianist tackles jazzy teasers like “Santa Baby” (minus Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman purr), a smooth version of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and a hymnal take on Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts).” Stick around, though, for Keys’ newly penned, holy-rolling tunes such as “December Back 2 June,” “You Don’t Have to Be Alone,” “Old Memories on Xmas” and her Emeli Sandé co-write “Not Even the King.”
Phoebe Bridgers, “So Much Wine” (Bandcamp)
Nobody does ruinous ruminative Christmas covers in such a heavenly fashion as Phoebe Bridgers does on an annual basis. Just look at Bridgers’ back catalog of wintry favorites such as Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow” and the lonely traditional “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This year, the singer looks up her country cousins in Chicago, the marrieds behind the Handsome Family, and takes their Year 2000 track, “So Much Wine,” for a fiddle-filled Christmas hayride. All proceeds from the sale of Bridgers’ new holiday tune — complete with a Bing Crosby-like whistle from the track’s violinist, Andrew Bird — go to the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Louis Armstrong, “Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule” (Verve)
It seems impossible in an epic career such as his that “Cool Yule” is Satchmo’s first official Christmas album. Verve makes up for lost time by filling the holiday debut from the trumpeter and gravelly-voiced singer/scatter with bopping syncopated blues (“Christmas Night in Harlem”), blowsy comic fare (“‘Zat You Santa Claus?”) and one of vocal jazz’s finest duets in “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” performed with Ella Fitzgerald. Between director Sacha Jenkins’ “Black & Blues” documentary and “Cool Yule,” 2022 is the year (again) of Louis Armstrong.
David Byrne, “Fat Man’s Comin’” (Bandcamp)
To the accompaniment of a roaring chamber ensemble of woodwinds, brass and strings arranged by orchestral percussionist and co-producer Jherek Bischoff, David Byrne quietly yelps his wonky way through an ominous but lush introduction of Santa’s visit, sleigh bells and all. The “Fat Man” track only costs $1 at Bandcamp, and every buck benefits Reasons to be Cheerful, Byrne’s nonprofit, daily, online news magazine.
Joss Stone, “Merry Christmas, Love” (S-Curve Records)
Great Britain’s rough-edged queen of blue eyed-soul turns her first holiday-time album into a heady blend of haughty R&B and unadulterated pop with great heaping touches of classical music. Stone’s sweet Yule songs such as “What Christmas Means to Me” are so cool and soulful you’ll listen to it all-year-round.
Harry Connick Jr., “Make It Merry” (Apple Music)
Never count out standard-bearing crooner and New Orleans pianist Connick when it comes to rousing, jazzy Christmas fare. Not only does he do a mean, gospel-ish version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Harry’s got two new, original tunes, the big-beat “Make It Merry” and “On This Christmas Morning,” that sit snuggly alongside a handful of warm, traditional holiday favorites. Don’t act like you don’t still get all woozy thinking of Connick singing “Winter Wonderland” in “When Harry Met Sally.”
Noah Cyrus and PJ Harding, “Snow in L.A.” (RECORDS/Columbia)
Since few people had Cyrus’s sparkling new album “The Hardest Part” atop their list 2022, the quaintly quirky singer and her Australian songwriter-producer pal PJ offer a darkly quiet holiday world “where no one answers their door for carolers anymore,” and crushing climate issues affect the west coast. Hummable and glum. Dig that.
Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, “The Christmas Waltz” (Decca)
Jeff Goldblum – enigmatic actor, fashionista, jazz pianist – and his grooving band of renown offer a Hammond B3-filled “Waltz,” complete with Steely Dan-like horn charts and Goldblum doing his best, weird Chet Baker whisper. And yes, the guy from “The Fly” wants figgy pudding according to Mildred’s wilding-out fade.
Dolly Parton, “A Holly Dolly Christmas Ultimate Deluxe Edition” (Rhino)
Expanding her original 2020 holiday package with eight new songs – like its first version, mostly Parton-penned – the rhinestone cowgirl traverses homey bluegrass (“A Smoky Mountain Christmas”) and cushy AOR country (“Three Candles,” “The Wish Book”) before landing at showbizzy brass (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Rod Stewart) and tender reverence (“Silent Night”). As always, every Dolly record is a gift.
Elizabeth Chan, “12 Months of Christmas” (Merry Bright Music)
Any day can be Christmas when quirky wordsmith and vocalist Elizabeth Chan comes to town. That’s oh-so-ho-ho-ho-obvious from her 2013 album debut, “Everyday Holidays,” the first of the original Christmas albums that Chan has released every year, on up through 2021’s spoken word “The Queen of Christmas” (the title of which ended up being a trigger for Chan realizing Mariah Carey was applying for the trademark, which landed in a court that ruled it will remain in the public domain). For 2022, Chan owns the sparkly season, and beyond, with the warmly emotional “12 Months of Christmas,” and its four-on-the-floor, dance-heavy track “Merry Merry.”
Various artists, “A Philly Special Christmas” (Vera Y Records)
With the Philadelphia Eagles currently kicking ass, front-office exec (and one-time outside linebacker) Connor Barwin and several fellow Eagles recruited the War on Drugs’ drummer Charlie Hall to co-produce and co-curate a Christmas album filled with locals. Along with securing additional War on Drugs members, singing Eagles including Jason Kelce, and alt-rock Philadelphians from Dr. Dog, Pissed Jeans and MeWithoutYou, Hall and Barwin also snagged R&B goddess Lady Alma, avant-garde jazz-bo Marshall Allen of Sun Ra Arkestra, and Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. Together, these locals muster up holiday cheer, cover funky Charles Brown blues, and benefit the Children’s Treatment Crisis Center. How good is the album? Its green vinyl version is sold out – Bah! Humbug! – with a digital edition being offered for release starting Dec. 23.
Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst, “Christmas at Birdland” (Club44)
The only thing better than hearing jazz and cabaret pianist Billy Stritch stretch out on his own is when he acts as confidant and collaborator to stage greats Liza Minnelli, Christine Ebersole, Linda Lavin, Marilyn Maye and Jim Caruso. The latter, a friend with whom Stritch has performed shows such as “The Sinatra Century” and a weekly Broadway-based Birdland showcase, “Cast Party,” never met a Christmas they didn’t like, and they welcome elegant vocalist Klea Blackhurst to join in their holiday jam. This newest edition of 2019’s “Christmas at Birdland” features four newly recorded holiday tunes.
Lola Kirke, “Christmas Alone – Live from The Blue Room” (Third Man Records)
Along with intimate, live versions of wintry tunes from her dramatic new “Lady for Sale” album, actor, songwriter and chanteuse Kirke debuts a somber, original holiday song, “Christmas Alone,” at Nashville’s Blue Room for your listening and cigarette-smoking pleasure. The whole package screams (OK, whispers) Seasonal Affective Disorder and gorgeous melancholy melodies.
The Skivvies, “Sleigh My Name” (self-released)
Actors, instrumentalists and singers Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley, as the Skivvies (named for their habit of stripping down to their underwear in performance), love a good and clever medley. At Christmas time, the Skivvies bring their cello, ukulele, glockenspiel and melodica backing to bear on merry mash-ups such as the new album’s title tune and its union of “Say My Name” (Destiny’s Child), “Formation” (Beyoncé), “C’Mon N’ Ride It” (Quad City DJs) and “Say You Say Me” (Lionel Richie), as well as traditionals “The Dreidel Song” and “Sleigh Ride.” And that’s just one song.
Scott Weiland, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Deluxe” (Rhino)
Dressed up in festive red vinyl, the late Weiland’s Bowie-esque solo album – which was his third apart from grunge gods Stone Temple Pilots and post-glam rockers Velvet Revolver – again proves a weirdly warm, holiday traditional music treat, now with four extra songs. Snowy, showy favorites from composers Mel Torme, Irving Berlin, Hugh Martin and more are augmented in the reverie and revelry by Weiland’s winsome original, “Happy Christmas and Many More.”
The Tribe & All Star Friends, “This Christmas” (Getogetherfoundation.com)
Producer-arranger Ken Stacey and a merry band of Los Angeles’ finest studio players enlisted an “All Star” singing cast of Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Richard Marx, Melissa Manchester, Lamont Dozier, Jr., Freda Payne, Frank McComb and Florence LaRue to capture the soul and spirit of Donny Hathaway. Along with his fellow songwriter Nadine McKinnor, the late Hathaway wrote possibly the finest post-traditional holiday song of all time in “This Christmas.” With Loggins and McDonald re-creating their “What A Fool Believes”/”This is It” SoCal vibe of the 1970s, the new version of “This Christmas” is sunnily soulful and harmony-driven, with proceeds benefitting the Donny Hathaway Legacy Project.
Rosie Thomas featuring Sufjan Stevens, “We Should Be Together” (Bandcamp)
Two effervescent pop artist pals with shimmering Christmas albums under their wide Santa belts (Thomas has “A Very Rosie Christmas,” while Stevens has two seasonal boxed sets, “Songs for Christmas” and “Silver & Gold”) unite for a heavenly holiday track filled with cascading choruses and bittersweet lyrics rife with make-ups, break-ups, longing and missed opportunities. Plus, Thomas sells the broken heart locket of the single’s cover at Bandcamp.
Victoria Clark and Maury Yeston, “December Songs for Voice and Orchestra” (PS Classics)
Neo-operatic Broadway vocalist Victoria Clark and the composer-lyricist of “Nine,” the legendary Maury Yeston, join forces for a grand, Christmas-time suite (37-piece orchestra and all) that is equal parts Aaron Copland, Gil Evans and Yeston’s usual genre-jumbling musicality. Grab a bourbon, turn up “December Snow” and chill.
Stars, “Christmas Anyway” (Bandcamp)
Canada’s favorite, snarky indie-rock export, Stars, charm the pants off of holiday shoppers with this sparsely melodic, churlish, spacious ditty of reconciling and reconnoitering. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from “Christmas Anyway” go to the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal for indigenous women and their children’s safety and support.
Drew Larimore, Billy Recce and Co., “The Bestest Office Christmas Party Ever” (self-released)
Off-Broadway composers Larrimore and Recce join forces with three-time Tony nominee Mary Testa, drag doyenne Paige Turner, and actor-vocalists Deb Radloff, Jamen Nanthakumar, Bryan Munar, DeAnne Stewart and Ryan McCurdy for a showy, edgy, altogether campy look at boring holiday parties. Thrill to the New Wave of “Bitch Face David.” Groove to the funk of “Sex Machine Reindeer.” Add in some caustic lyricism, and this “Party” EP is a glorious mess.
The Residents, “Santa Dog 2022” 7″ vinyl single and “Faceless Forever – A Residents Encyclopaedia” book holiday bundle (Cherry Red)
For its 50th anniversary, San Francisco’s anonymous, avant-pop quartet re-recorded its raw, jingle-jangling holiday single, “Santa Dog,” managed to make it noisier still, and packaged it with a dense and colorful hardback book that dives deep into “pulling together 50 years of mythology, half-truths and rumor concerning this most unknowable of bands.” Woof.
Vince Guaraldi, “A Charlie Brown Christmas Super Deluxe Edition” (Craft Recordings)
It bears repeating — after this earlier Variety preview — that autumnal San Francisco-based jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi is original Christmas music’s best friend. And that you can never get enough of the 1965 special’s spare, moody score – now across five discs, featuring forgotten tape reels lost in the Fantasy Records vaults and other demos. Snoopy-dance, forever.
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