Well, folks: ’tis the season, and you won’t be able to escape Christmas music no matter where you go. It seems like the typical holiday music you hear in stores and on the radio falls into two camps: the über-traditional stuff (your Nat King Cole, the Carpenters, and the like) and the contemporary music that becomes dated too quickly (like the song I heard in the mall with some Bieber wannabe going on about all the expensive gifts he’s getting for Christmas before telling his guest rapper that it’s not about the stuff).
If you’re like me, you tire of the clichéd holiday music pretty quickly. But never fear, dear reader — if you’re willing to wander off the beaten path a bit, you’ll find some quality sounds that will help make your season bright. It’s my pleasure to present to you ten off-the-beaten-path albums and EPs that are worth a listen this Christmas.
For a soulful Christmas, check out:
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, It’s a Holiday Soul Party (2015)
This retro-soul ensemble just released one of the most fun holiday albums I’ve heard in a long time. Jones wraps her powerful voice around classics like “Silent Night” and “White Christmas,” and originals like “8 Days of Hanukkah” and “Big Bulbs” are loads of fun as well. If this album (which is also available on red vinyl) has a weak spot, it’s the saccharine “World of Love,” but one song doesn’t stop the hottest holiday party on record.
Cee Lo Green, Cee Lo’s Magic Moment (2012)
If you only know Cee Lo Green from his ubiquitous hit “F— You” from a few years back, don’t let what you know keep you from this well-done Christmas album. Green makes sure there’s plenty of fun for all, from a duet with the Muppets on “All I Need Is Love” to lush takes on songs like “This Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me.” But the most meaningful moments here come when Green takes on faith-based carols like “Silent Night” and “Mary, Did You Know?”
For a more traditional Yuletide vibe from some lesser-known albums check out:
Jo Stafford, Happy Holiday (1955)
Jo Stafford is my favorite female vocalist from the pre-rock era, and this album is a lovely collection of holiday favorites. Happy Holiday is a family affair in every sense of the phrase; her husband at the time, Paul Weston, conducted the orchestra, and their children appear on the record as well. A year later, she recorded a collection of winter-themed tunes called Ski Trails. You can often find the two packaged together as Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather.
Johnny Cash, Christmas With Johnny Cash (2003)
Not many people think of festive seasonal celebrations when they think of the Man in Black, but just after his passing, Sony released a compilation of a dozen tracks he had recorded between 1963 and 1980. For such a span of time, the songs fit nicely together, and they sound like quintessential Johnny Cash. It’s a wonderful edition to anyone’s Christmas music playlist.
For an alt-pop Christmas playlist, check out:
Future of Forestry, Advent Christmas (2008), Volume 2 (2010), & Volume 3 (2013)
San Diego Christian rock outfit Future of Forestry issued a trio of EPs over a five year period that put a unique spin on holiday sounds. FoF have crafted sets of songs that suggest the anticipation of the season — hence the title Advent Christmas for the series.
The band combine familiar carols with beautiful originals and even a couple of thoughtful non-Christmas pieces and give them an atmospheric alt-pop spin. The tunes are delicate and often introspective, but always gorgeous.
For a folk-y approach to the season, check out:
Peter Mayer, Stars & Promises (2000)
Peter Mayer has played lead guitar in Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band for over two decades, but his solo music lies more in a folk/acoustic vein that what he plays for Parrotheads. Stars & Promises is a rich collection of familiar carols and lovingly crafted originals that captures the spirit of the holidays in its own unique way.
Mayer and his band explore elements of jazz, Latin, Indian, and Native American musical styles throughout. I had the privilege of hearing him perform the songs from the album live several years ago, and the success of his yearly Christmas tours led him to release two live albums containing the songs from Stars & Promises.
For a completely sublime Christmas music experience, check out:
Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year (1996) and Snow Angels (2006)
Over the Rhine, the husband-and-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, have crafted my two favorite holiday treats — and the two albums couldn’t be more different from each other. The Darkest Night of the Year is what I’d be inclined to call a song cycle or concept album. Inspired by the humble candlelit Christmas church services of Detweiler’s youth, the record carries a somber, reflective mood.
Instrumental and vocal carols with simple arrangements, combined with a handful of original songs, weave together a tableau of Christmases long since past, before the season became a rush of retail and busyness.
A decade later, Over the Rhine released Snow Angels. It feels much more like a traditional Christmas album, with Detweiler and Bergquist applying their unique stamp — and including tributes to Karen Carpenter, Charles M. Schulz, and Vince Guaraldi.
Snow Angels tackles subjects as diverse as despair, romance, sorrow, determination, and hope. The pacing of the songs allows them to refrain from being too melancholy or too celebratory at a stretch. The promise of Christmas remains of the forefront of every song, and that’s what makes the album so great.
There you go — my favorite lesser-known Christmas albums. What are your favorites that deserve a wider audience?