Grinches, you are doomed in the next few weeks as holiday fervor reaches unholy proportions and the sounds of Christmases past—yes, that is Clay Aiken’s unfortunate 2004 hit “Merry Christmas with Love”—stalk you through every store and across every radio frequency. There’s a reason musicians sooner or later get around to recording a holiday album—they are the low-hanging fruit of rock and pop, immune to the usual laws of time, poised to bounced back each Christmas like some ghastly cousin with onion-breath that insists on sitting next to you.
But every now and then, a musician does something exemplary and produces a Christmas album that you feel you could listen to in June. Case in point, the just-released Tinsel & Lights by Tracey Thorn, one half of the shimmering synth-pop duo, Everything But The Girl. Maybe it’s her richly maudlin voice, or her awesome line-up of collaborators including Magnetic Fields’s Stephen Merritt and Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, but Thorn avoids the usual syrup for a spare, elegant holiday album that you’d be happy find at the bottom of your stocking.
Here are six other holiday albums that surprisingly don’t suck:
Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift for You (1963)
The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and The Crystals—what more could you want? Spector’s album came out the same day JFK was assassinated, leaving it to posterity to judge his success, but those “Ring-a-ling-a-ling, ding-dong-ding” background vocals in The Ronettes “Sleigh Ride” are illustrative of the kinds of Spector flourishes that elevate this into an enduring classic.
Standouts: The Ronettes, “Sleigh Ride”; Darlene Love, “Winter Wonderland”
Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas volumes 1-5 and 6-10 (2006)
Detroit’s finest has been recording an annual Christmas EP since 2001, initially for friends and fans, appropriating a variety of instruments abandoned around his home—banjo, sleigh bells, Hammond organ, even a bit of tinsel. The result is fragile and lovely, though not always cheery. These two box sets comprise 100 songs, and an original Christmas essay by one Rick Moody.
Standouts: “Come On! Let’s Boogie to the Elf Dance”; “Get Behind Me, Santa!”
The Beach Boys Christmas Album (1964)
Almost half a century after its release, in 1964, The Beach Boys Christmas Album remains the master class in how to rock around the Christmas tree. “Little Saint Nick” is essentially Christmas on the beach, sunny and blissful, with a few sleigh-bells thrown in for good measure. As a Rolling Stone reviewer wrote at the time, “If you liked surfing and cars, you’ll love Christmas.”
Standouts: “Little Saint Nick”; “The Man With All The Toys”
Annie Lennox, A Christmas Cornucopia (2010)
Lennox, who made her name as the red-haired, sharp suited dominatrix of “Sweet Dreams” can sometimes take herself too seriously, but in this case the earnestness pays off in a beautiful, often spare arrangement of traditional Christmas carols that benefit from her soulful voice.
Standout: “The First Noel” and “Silent Night”
Canned Heat, Christmas Album (2007)
Fans of the Stones get all aflutter when discussing the rockers’ combined ages—275—but blues band Canned Heat can give the Stones a run for their money, having clocked up 29 albums in 47 years (and a lot more casualties along the way). This little gem from 2007 includes guest appearances by Eric Clapton and Dr. John.
Standout: “Christmas Time”
Mariah Carey, Merry Christmas (1994)
The best-selling Christmas album of all time is, like Christmas itself, gluttonous, excessive, and inevitably, headache-inducing, but with one massively redeeming feature: Carey’s hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You,” with it’s Phil Spector-ish Wall of Sound and Motown harmonies set the standard to which all contemporary Christmas songs aspire. Kudos to Ms. Carey — creating a modern holiday standard is no small feat.
Standout: “All I Want for Christmas is You”