It feels like the summer just ended, but Thanksgiving is already here, which means Christmas is also here, because the years go fast, and holidays run into each other’s set times now, like rival bands on festival stages. This also means it’s quick-hit holiday album season. Below, you’ll find a roundup of the best of the crop, some quality cash grabs, and a few delightfully boring ones.
Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
The Queen of Christmas awakened the holiday spirit this month when she posted an Instagram video of her Tina Turner Halloween costume transforming into Christmas pajamas at the stroke of midnight on November 1, just in time for a call from Santa. The date marks the 25th anniversary of the release of her Merry Christmas album, which includes the holiday standard “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The new anniversary deluxe edition out this month includes a second disc of bonus ephemera like “Sugar Plum Fairy Introlude,” a swatch of Tchaikovski’s Nutcracker sung in Mimi’s signature whistle tone, sought-after audio of her 1994 Christmas performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem, and dance remixes of the original singles. The extras make it a good catch for casual fans and diehards alike.
John Legend, A Legendary Christmas (Deluxe Edition)
The rerelease of last year’s elegant John Legend holiday album A Legendary Christmas adds four new tracks to the first side, including quality covers of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “My Favorite Things” and Donny Hathaway’s enduring soul serenade “This Christmas” that should’ve made the original cut. The talk of the set is a remake of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in collaboration with Kelly Clarkson that changes lyrics so that the original song’s scene of a man giving a woman stiff drinks and convincing her to stay the night plays out more like pleasantries exchanged while considering calling an Uber. Deana Martin, daughter of Rat Pack fellow Dean Martin, whose 1959 recording of the song is considered to be the definitive version, says Legend should either play the song as is or write his own — a funny dig on two counts, since Dean didn’t write it, and Legendary Christmas did feature six originals — and complained that the rewrite made the song more sexual, since the cab is sent away in the end. They’re all right, in a sense. There’s no way to play “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that isn’t either very creepy or a little silly. Points are allotted for trying.
Ne-Yo, Another Kind of Christmas
If you need trap drums in your December festivities, check out Ne-Yo’s Another Kind of Christmas. It kicks off with a feisty “This Christmas,” then acts out even harder on “Talk About It” — a song about loving the holidays in spite of all the drinking and fighting they can bring — which devolves into a diss track for Santa Claus in the last verse. (“Mama working double, triple shifts / For each and every one of them gifts / But mama said, ‘Don’t be giving no fat white dude credit for my shit / ’Cause if you got shit, I’m the reason you got shit.’”) The writing is as smooth and solid as you ought to expect from the veteran performer and hitmaker who made “Because of You” and “Miss Independent,” although the harmonies sometimes fall into that Pentatonix trap where you feel yourself being lulled to sleep by the softness of the melodies. Christmas is a time for naps.
Idina Menzel, Christmas: A Season of Love
Various Artists, Frozen 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Lea Michele, Christmas in the City
Sequelitis is in the air for Frozen and Glee star Idina Menzel, who is serving twice the cold-weather cheer this year as she reprises her role as Queen Elsa in Frozen 2 and launches Christmas: A Season of Love, her second holiday album. Season of Love showcases Menzel’s incredible voice and formidable range, mixing carols like “O Holy Night” with soul classics like Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas” and jazz tunes like “A Hand for Mrs. Claus,” an Ariana Grande collaboration written by Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The Lopezes also penned seven originals for the Frozen 2 soundtrack, including the stately folk song “All Is Found” (which touts an even more stately cover from country singer Kacey Musgraves), the easy-listening tune “Lost in the Woods,” which sounds like an ’80s Peter Cetera ballad even when Weezer does it, and the Menzel showcase “Into the Unknown,” a noble second crack at the windswept power of “Let It Go” that doesn’t quite match the highs of its predecessor. Menzel’s former Glee castmate Lea Michele borrows a song and a castmate from her friend on her first holiday collection, Christmas in the City. Michele does a serviceable “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and duets on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Jonathan Groff, the Looking and Mindhunter actor currently kid-famous for playing Frozen’s Kristoff. Christmas in the City is pleasant if you’re already a fan but might not bowl you over if you weren’t one going in the way A Season of Love does.
Chicago, Chicago Christmas
On their third Christmas album, the classic-rock big band Chicago serves warm, soulful vocals and lush horn arrangements that recall hits like “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Saturday in the Park.” Lifers Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, and James Pankow prove their mettle as a hit machine in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s with a batch of swanky original tunes balanced out with a few choice covers. The adult-contemporary radio fan in your life will likely love Chicago Christmas, and you might too.
Various Artists, You Wish: A Merge Records Holiday Album
Andrew Bird, HARK!
Merge Records is an indie-rock institution with a record of excellence including classic albums by Spoon, the Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, Superchunk, and more. The label’s first Christmas album calls on an eclectic roster of gifted artists for a wide-ranging selection of wintertime gems. Founder and Superchunk front man Mac McCaughan duets with Spent’s Annie Hayden on the gorgeous original “Down We Go (Sledding Song).” Hiss Golden Messenger and country/folk legend Lucinda Williams take a crack at John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison.” Guitar whiz William Tyler serves rustic poise in an instrumental cover of “Jesus Christ” from Big Star’s underrated Third/Sister Lovers album. If you’re looking for more music in that vein, Illinois singer-songwriter Andrew Bird’s HARK! is a quick shot of Christmas classics rendered as warm folk songs. You Wish and HARK! are welcome alternatives for the indie-rock fan looking to slip off the beaten path in between trips back to the Sufjan Stevens Christmas canon.
Various Artists, This Warm December, A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 3
Josh Rouse, The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
The hemp-hoodied friend in your life might appreciate This Warm December, the new holiday compilation from acoustic troubadour Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records. Johnson, G. Love, Mason Jennings, Zach from Rogue Wave, and others pitch in a few adorably cozy tunes bionically engineered for cuddling. Slip further into your fedora bro-bag with The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse, where Rouse — whose aughts albums Under the Cold Blue Stars and Nashville were catnip to a few turn-of-the-century primetime dramas — keeps things light and low key enough to make solid sleep music. Play Holiday Sounds and This Warm December with an edible before bed and drift off to visions of sugar plums sharing craft beers.
Rob Halford with Family and Friends, Celestial
If your tastes run darker and louder than that, metal god Rob Halford has got you covered. The Judas Priest vocalist celebrates the birth of the Christ child with a family band including his brother Nigel, his nephew Alex, his sister Sue, and close friends. Celestial leans into the drama in the story of the baby Jesus. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” makes surprisingly solid heavy metal. “Away in a Manger” gets played like the wilderness vagabond survival song its lyrics hint at. “Deck the Halls” receives a doom-metal makeover you have to hear to believe. Some of this stuff is silly, but most of it is fun. Rob Halford’s Celestial is the perfect soundtrack for throwing up devil horns at neighbors’ nativity displays.
Dionne Warwick, Dionne Warwick & the Voices of Christmas
Wilder than Halford’s hardened holiday collection is soul and pop legend Dionne Warwick’s new duets album Dionne Warwick & the Voices of Christmas, the only album on this list to dare to put the Oak Ridge Boys on the same album as Michael McDonald, Chloe x Halle, and Wanyna Morris of Boyz II Men. The measure of a soul singer’s holiday album is how hard their version of “This Christmas” goes, and Mama Dionne and Aloe Blacc did it justice. Come to Voices of Christmas for Warwick’s still silky voice; stay to hear Michael McDonald’s ridiculous albeit rock-solid “Jingle Bell Rock.”