TERRY GROSS, Host:
Every holiday season brings a new batch of holiday pop music, some of it from unlikely or obscure sources.
Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to all the new collection and has chosen a trio of albums that he thinks might make your holiday a bit more fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT CHRISTMAS BY THE TAIL")
DAN HICKS AND THE HOT LICKS: (Singing) Every year I get ants in my pants when Christmas comes along. Every year I go into a dance, I know every single Christmas song. Every year I am first on the block to tell Santa what to bring. Every year I jump in with the flock and with the reindeer on the wing.
I've got Christmas down pat. I know just when Christmas is at. You got your snow, you got your sleet and hail. I've got Christmas by the tail. I've got Christmas by the tail...
KEN TUCKER: That's Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks applying his combination of blues, country and jazzy swing on a new album called "Crazy for Christmas." Hicks specializes in the mood most of us want to achieve around this time of year - a relaxed, chilled-out demeanor. Hicks is shameless in reworking his material: He turns his old song "Where's the Money?" into the low-down "Christmas Morning," which finds Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tossing back a couple of beers before leading Santa's sleigh.
At the other end of the spectrum is Shelby Lynne's album "Merry Christmas." The brooding moody country singer wouldn't have seemed a likely candidate for an album of holiday cheer. That's okay with me, since my favorite Christmas song has always been Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" - I like my holidays decked with melancholy. Listen to "Christmas," song Shelby Lynne has written as a piece of kitchen-sink realism set to a slow-tempo soul melody.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS")
SHELBY LYNNE: (Singing) Christmas makes you sad and daddy's being bad. Made us weight on the tree, bicycles for you and me. I want a radio, a ghetto blaster in stereo. Everybody's got one at school and mama was nobody's fool yeah.
TUCKER: Lynne is bold enough to offer a couple of the year's few new original songs. Along with covers of chestnuts like "Silent Night" and "White Christmas," she provides this fine, upbeat composition called "Ain't Nothin' Like Christmas." Beginning with a simply strummed acoustic guitar and a bluesy vocal, it builds into the party song it wants to be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NOTHIN' LIKE CHRISTMAS")
LYNNE: (Singing) Ain't nothing like Christmas, baby. Don't come but once a year. Ain't nothing like Christmas, baby, with carols and good cheer. Ain't nothing like Christmas, baby. Let's meet around the tree. I'll bring the nog, you put on a log, it's a Christmas party.
Oh, with tinsel in our hair and presents everywhere, families in the kitchen watching it snow, yeah. There's a party...
TUCKER: You can even imagine Elvis rocking out to it in his 1968 comeback leather outfit. Shelby Lynne's "Merry Christmas" is the most consistently good new holiday album I've heard this year.
II: Snowed In." It sounds like a discarded title for a Disney 3D animated film. The 21 selections on "Snowed In" include artists ranging from Devo to David Foster to The Flaming Lips. The sister duo of Tegan and Sara have come up with a sly, sweet version of "The Chipmunk Song" - yes, the 1960s novelty hit by Ross Bagdasarian. And in this case, Tegan and Sara have enlisted their mother to round out the act.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHIPMUNK SONG")
QUINN: All right, Tegan and Sara. Ready to sing your song?
TEGAN AND SARA: I'll say we are. Yeah. Let's sing it now.
QUINN: Okay, Tegan?
TEGAN QUINN: Okay.
QUINN: Okay, Ted?
QUINN: Sara? Sara? Sara?
SARA QUINN: Okay.
AND SARA: (Singing) Christmas, Christmas time is near. Time for toys and time for cheer. We've been good, but we can't last. Hurry Christmas, hurry fast.
Want a plane that loops the loop. Me, I want a hula hoop. We can hardly stand the wait. Please Christmas, don't be late.
TUCKER: The prettiest song on "Snowed In" is credited to Ben Keith, who died in July of this year. Keith is best known as a pedal steel guitarist working with Neil Young, and he enlisted Neil Young and Young's wife Pegi to sing a lovely version of "Les Trois Cloches," or "The Three Bells," a gorgeous pop hit for the brother-sister act The Browns in 1959. The song invokes Christmas in its first verse, but with its lyric about the cycles of a man's life, it's a bigger, more poignant piece of music, denying mere nostalgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THREE BELLS")
BEN KEITH: (Singing) There's a village deep in the valley, among the pine trees half forlorn. And there on a sunny morning, Little Jimmy Brown was born.
All the chapel bells were ringing. In the little valley town and the songs that they were singing were for baby Jimmy Brown. Then the little congregation prayed for guidance from above. Lead us not into temptation, bless this hour of meditation, guide him with eternal love.
TUCKER: We use holiday music in different ways, most often as background sounds while we're doing something else. Novelty songs can be fun, but I never want to hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" again. The most interesting Christmas songs nod to, or even revel in, the loneliness that can surround the merry atmosphere. Whether you're seeking comfort, escape or Muzak, there's something for everyone in this new batch of holiday releases. As Devo sings in another song this season, "Merry Something to You."
GROSS: Ken Tucker editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. You can hear three tracks from the albums he reviewed on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.
I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC )