Forget boy bands and Barry Manilow; Christmas music might be the ultimate guilty pleasure. It's inherently corny, unrepentantly joyful, and the tiniest bit reverent — which are all qualities largely reviled by rock and roll purists. And although you would be forgiven for never wanting to hear "Jingle Bells" ever again, Christmas songs have proven a versatile format for artists in almost every genre, as well as a rite of passage for a certain stripe of singer. The following CDs represent some of highlights of this year's Christmas crop. There are some new faces, a few old favorites, and plenty of reasons to embrace the sound of the season — if only for a few songs.
Relient K, Let It Snow Baby ... Let It Reindeer (Capitol)
Like fellow Christmas caroler Sufjan Stevens (who gave us last year's five-disc set Songs for Christmas), Ohio's Relient K poses a tricky question: When avowed Christians make rock music, is it necessarily Christian rock? This cheekily titled disc (say it out loud) doesn't give a straight answer. Singer and pianist Matthew Thiessen leads the band through a mix of secular and religious tunes, six of which he penned himself. The original "I Celebrate the Day" sounds like a standard piano-based emo ballad, until it becomes clear that Thiessen is singing to the little baby Jesus. Elsewhere the band plays up its pop-punk roots, tearing through "I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas" with the fervor of a slicked-up rockabilly combo and turning "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" into a rough-edged thrasher.
The Isley Brothers, I'll Be Home for Christmas (DefSoul Classics)
Set the yule log to dim, poor that eggnog into champagne flutes, and get ready for some baby-making 'neath the mistletoe: It's a slow-jam Christmas with Ron and Ernie Isley. As is customary in this stage in their career, the brothers showcase Ron's elastic, silken voice, one tailor-made for smooth seduction no matter the season. There are a few missteps here — "I'm in Love" barely qualifies as a holiday song, and Ron pulls out his pimpalicious alter ego Mr. Biggs for "What Can I Buy You?" — but mostly the program sticks to holiday classics. "Winter Wonderland" starts off the disc with a jazzy bounce, and the "Isley Christmas Medley" is a trio of hushed, reverent carols.
Patti LaBelle, Miss Patti's Christmas (DefSoul Classics)
Like the Isley Brothers' collection, Patti Labelle's Christmas album was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, although LaBelle favors a more faith-and-family-centered approach. The opener, "Christmas Jam," serves as a convocation for togetherness and unity, and it's a theme that runs through these 10 tracks. LaBelle mostly stays away from traditional carols (though she closes the set with "Away in a Manger"); instead she turns to more modern songs, several of which were penned by Jam and Lewis. "What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?" offers no easy answers, and "Holidays Mean More to Me" looks at the true meaning of Christmas amid slick R&B production.
KT Tunstall, The KT Tunstall Holiday Collection (EMI)
The Scottish singer, best known for her hit "Suddenly I See," turns out a pretty little mix of rock-centric holiday tunes. KT Tunstall blends a little bit of singer-songwriter self-awareness with a heaping helping of seasonal nonchalance. She nails the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" and brings a smoky quiver to "Lonely This Christmas." She proves herself an estimable musician and arranger as well; Tunstall plays everything but the drums on these six songs, moving from guitar to harmonium to penny whistle with aplomb. This collection is worth picking up if only for Tunstall's duet with Ed Harcourt on the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," which retains much of its grandiose folk flourishes. This EP is available only at Target stores.
Dionne Warwick, My Favorite Time of the Year (Rhino)
Dionne Warwick wears a few hats on her first Christmas disc. Depending on the mood, she ranges from a pop-standards crooner to a full-on diva; she even leads a choir through a gospel version of "Joy to the World." Saxophonist Dave Koz drops in on a few tracks to keep things smooth, like on an adult-contemporary take on "White Christmas," and BeBe Winans belts it out on "I Believe in Christmas." Best of all, Gladys Knight drops in for a duet on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — but sadly, Stevie and Elton don't pop up for a "That's What Friends Are For" reunion. It would have been a Christmas miracle.
Darlene Love, It's Christmas, of Course (Shout! Factory)
Darlene Love came to fame through her recording of "(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home" on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, an album that many consider to be the definitive rock and roll holiday comp. It makes sense, then, that she cherry-picks some of the finer modern Christmas songs from the rock genre, and although she can no longer hit those high notes, her voice has matured nicely. She doesn't revive her Spector-ized hit, but Love gives a rock and soul reading to songs written by Tom Petty (a jangly "Christmas All over the World") and Robbie Robertson (a gospel-flecked "Christmas Must Be Tonight"), among others. Love even gains a few hipster points for turning XTC's oft-forgotten "Thanks for Christmas" into a sultry soul number.
Davie Allan & the Arrows, Fuzz for the Holidays 2 (Spinout)
Ever since the Ventures proved you can turn surf-rock into holiday gold, guitar-led bands that are long on twang and reverb have taken a swing at Christmas classics. To wit: California-based sextet Davie Allan & the Arrows have turned out their second batch of mostly instrumental tracks, which are full of echo-laden guitar runs and raunchy saxophone eruptions. "Blue Christmas" takes on a sinister edge with Allan's string-bending technique, and the original "A Winter Song" struts with a bit of glam-rock pomp. There's nothing groundbreaking here — but what is Christmas about if not tradition?
Various Artists, Stockings by the Fire (Starbucks Entertainment)
Because Starbucks is more a lifestyle brand than a coffee purveyor, your favorite baristas have again compiled a mix of seasonal tunes that alternate between jazzy swing and seasonal affective disorder. For real — does every comp aimed at hipsters and NPR listeners have to include a version of Joni Mitchell's beautifully depressing "River"? (Apparently so, and here Herbie Hancock and Corinne Bailey Rae turn in a rather rote version.) Hem's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will likewise have you contemplating jumping from the Bedford Falls Bridge, but other contemporary artists such as A Fine Frenzy and the Bird & the Bee liven things up. Ella, Frank, and Nat pop up for a bit of classic cheer, and the similarly minded Diana Krall keeps the mood buoyant and suave with "Winter Wonderland."
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Various Artists, Classic Soft Rock Christmas (TimeLife)
Sadly the AM Gold-spoofing web sensation Yacht Rock never got around to filming a Christmas webisode; consider this a worthy stand-in. This disc compiles songs from genre-defining lite-rockers Kenny Loggins (singing a buzz-killing "The Bells of Christmas") and Hall & Oates, who offer their faithful reading of "Jingle Bell Rock." Air Supply goes for broke on a massive and orchestral "The First Noel," while Jim Croce gets wistful with "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way." The fellows in America earn their wings for turning their evergreen "Tin Man" into "White Christmas" (though I bet that if you tried, you could repurpose "Horse with No Name" into "The Twelve Days of Christmas").
Various Artists, Peace on Earth: A Charity Holiday Album (Hardtofindafriend.com)
Some of the sleepiest, shaggiest bands in indie rock get into the holiday spirit with this album, which collects 18 mostly original tracks from acts such as Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla and Springfield, Missouri's Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Rather than rehash Christmas carols, many of these bands take inspiration from the varying moods of the holiday season, from hope and peace to longing and loneliness. The Long Winters sing of the plight of the working man on "Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas (Sometimes)," and the Great Lake Swimmers sound uncharacteristically upbeat on "Gonna Make It Through This Year." This comp is curated by the music blog Hard to Find a Friend and is available by download only, with all of the proceeds going to the Toys for Tots program.