Every year brings a flood of new holiday CDs, and with good reason: They're quick and easy to make, most if not all of the songs have already been written (many are even in the public domain), and they get reissued practically every year, making them a reliable source of royalties and exposure. Consequently, the genre is larded with quickie compilations and cash-ins — if you were to play all of 2006's new holiday albums back to back, it would take at least as long as it takes to beg for silence while punching yourself in the ears — but a few gems and entertaining oddities stand out. Here's a look at a dozen of the year's best, worst and weirdest.
Songs for Christmas
Listen: "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"
Prolific singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has been recording holiday EPs on and off since 2001, but their audience has consisted mostly of friends, family and lucky music-blog patrons. Now, in the wake of Stevens' 2005 breakthrough with Illinois, his label has released Songs for Christmas, a lavish — and bargain-priced — five-disc box set compiling all five years' worth of endlessly warm, beautiful holiday tunes. The tone here is consistently kind, with an appropriate mixture of religious fervor ("Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing") and goofball whimsy ("Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!"). Anyone who loved Low's sleeper classic Christmas is virtually guaranteed to love Songs for Christmas, and vice versa.
One-time Lilith Fair icon Sarah McLachlan returns after a lengthy hiatus with the characteristically delicate Wintersong, which mixes new arrangements of holiday standards ("Silent Night," "The First Noel") with assorted covers (of John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and others) and the self-penned title track. The emphasis here is on winter as much as the holidays themselves, and McLachlan displays impeccable taste in holiday classics, applying a smoothly drowsy, McLachlanizing sheen to the moody likes of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
The dB's & Friends
Christmas Time Again
Listen: "Christmas Time"
What began as a seven-song EP in 1986, and then a 17-song CD in 1993, has now ballooned into the 21-song Christmas Time Again, an ever-evolving all-star collection of holiday-themed pop and alt-country music. Members of the scrappy Southern jangle-pop band The dB's headline the set, but big-name guests (Big Star, Whiskeytown, Marshall Crenshaw) abound, contributing an assortment of good-natured, agreeably retro favorites. The tone is set from the charming opening jangle of The dB's "Christmas Time," which instantly conjures up images of not only its season, but also its exact place and era — namely college radio, circa 1987.
Brad Paisley Christmas
Listen: "Penguin, James Penguin"
Those who have long sought to have a Brad Paisley Christmas will be delighted by the opportunity presented here; for the rest of the public, Brad Paisley Christmas may be a tougher sell. Paisley's stock in trade — conventional, hat-fancying Nashville country music — lends itself to a taste in cornpone ("Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy"), but he also gives deadly serious readings to somber staples such as "Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night." And, of course, Paisley takes a stab at constructing a bit of holiday mythology with "Penguin, James Penguin." It's a sweetly dopey trifle, but as original compositions go, the more modest "364 Days To Go" is preferable. And a fork in a light socket is preferable to "Kung Pao Buckaroo Holiday," on which Paisley closes his heartfelt celebration of the season with a bunch of aggravating, disingenuous whining about political correctness.
Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah
Listen: "Hanuka Gelt"
A natural companion piece to this year's Wonder Wheel, a Woody Guthrie tribute by long-running klezmer outfit The Klezmatics, Happy Joyous Hanukkah finds the group tackling Guthrie's little-known Hanukkah songs. Written for Guthrie's children, these appropriately jumpy tracks run the gamut from the somber history lesson "The Many and the Few" to the loopy "Hanuka Gelt," which brings out Guthrie's insufficiently celebrated mischievous side.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Listen: "Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental)"
The 1965 Peanuts TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas endures as one of the most sweetly melancholy — and most overtly religious — holiday specials of all time, capturing the spirit of Christmas in all its deeply conflicted glory. Alternately springy and somber, Vince Guaraldi's classic score provides an ideal companion piece to Charles Schulz's meditations on commercialism and Christianity, shifting moods seamlessly between (and, in the case of "O Tannenbaum," within) songs. A remastered and handsomely packaged reissue features four additional alternate takes that will likely intrigue hardcore fans, but those same fans may be put off by the remix job, which tweaks the original material's sound to an occasionally distracting degree.
Listen: "I Like Christmas"
It's hard for Ali Lohan to get a fair shake in the marketplace. She is, after all, the younger sister of tabloid fixture Lindsay Lohan — which is a high bar to set, fame-wise, and a low bar to set, expectations-wise. Even those predisposed to seek out the seasonal musings of a lesser Lohan may be disappointed with this punishingly tinny, featherweight set, though Lohan Holiday at least works in a few new compositions to go with the obligatory guest appearance by Lindsay (and mom Dina!) and the lavish assortment of photos depicting a veritable army of Lohans as they work, play and pose.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Dig That Crazy Christmas
Listen: "Cool Yule"
Former Stray Cat Brian Setzer has been at his swinging rock 'n' roll throwback act for so long, it's gone in and out of style several times over, all for a shtick that inherently relies on nostalgia for a bygone style. It's a wonder Setzer hasn't folded the universe in on itself by now — are fans nostalgic for his early-'80s heyday, his late-'90s comeback, or the '50s rock he's been emulating all along? — but he's still at it, banging out an aggressively cheerful set of swinging holiday standards and agreeably chugging originals. Setzer's whole hep-cat Zoot-suit routine couldn't be more played out, but it's hard to deny Dig That Crazy Christmas' playful buoyancy.
A Twisted Christmas
Listen: "Heavy Metal Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas)"
So the notorious hard-rock group Twisted Sister, whose members have resurfaced on and off since their mid-'80s heyday, decides to record its final album, and it's a collection of Christmas staples performed in the band's glam-metal style. Makes perfect sense, right? The tracks are almost shockingly straight-faced in execution: With the exception of the weirdly interminable "Heavy Metal Christmas (The Twelve Days of Christmas)," singer Dee Snider barely fiddles with the words at all. Those looking to explore the melodic similarities between "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the band's 1984 hit "We're Not Gonna Take It" won't walk away disappointed, nor will those wondering what guest vocalist Lita Ford has been doing lately. But for virtually everyone else, it's the most puzzling holiday disc — both in concept and in content — since 1996's Suge Knight-produced Christmas on Death Row.
Christmas Is 4-Ever
Listen: "Sleigh Ride"
As if Twisted Sister performing holiday classics weren't surreal enough, here's a collection of oddball holiday funk jams featuring Parliament-Funkadelic icon Bootsy Collins. Those prone to judging CDs by their covers won't be let down by the artwork here, which depicts Collins inside a snow globe, decked out in a comical top hat and star sunglasses; the corresponding music sounds appropriately whacked-out and playful. Naturally, given Collins' tendency to wander off into flights of fancy, the 68-minute Christmas Is 4-Ever lacks discipline, getting bogged down in skits and lengthy asides. But those whose yuletide scavenger hunt necessitates a version of "Sleigh Ride" featuring Bootsy Collins and country fiddler Charlie Daniels can cross that off their lists at last.
One More Drifter in the Snow
Listen: "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
It's no surprise that Aimee Mann, the singer-songwriter who gave futility a soundtrack in Magnolia, fails to inject the holidays with a whole lot of perkiness. Instead, One More Drifter in the Snow could just as easily have been titled A Very Dour Christmas, as Mann examines the holidays' lonely underbelly, surrounded by more slide guitars than sleigh bells. Her selection of covers favors the genre's most melancholy staples ("I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), though Mann does cheer up long enough to give "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" an alternately silly and sinister reading.
Christmas with The Chipmunks
Listen: "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)"
It's important for parents of young children to remember that today's childhood trifle is tomorrow's tear-jerking nostalgic obsession. No matter what music children experience around the holidays, if they hear it enough, it will come to be viewed as a soundtrack for sepia-toned memories of blissful family togetherness. Sadly, for many, that heartwarming holiday classic is Christmas with The Chipmunks, which has just received a super-sized 24-track reissue. (What? No Dolby 5.1 Surround?) This is a mixed blessing for those with warm memories but limited patience, and yet the mischievous, squeaky-voiced cartoon rodents somehow retain their unnerving allure after all these years.