I wonder if the pop stars update a shared spreadsheet so they can keep track of whose turn it is to make a Christmas album. They all get round to it sooner or later, usually mixing the umpteenth unnecessary take on a few classics with the occasional original that just might, if Santa thinks they’ve been good, let them join Mariah Carey, Michael Bublé and Noddy Holder on the list of girls and boys who can spend December after December finding that their golden coins aren’t made of chocolate.
This year it’s harder than ever to write a new Christmas song that gets the tone right. Is it weird if you tick off all the clichés – mistletoe, fires, snow etc – without acknowledging the sprout in the ointment that is the ongoing global pandemic? And if you do mention that, how to do so without turning your toasty ballad into a mood-ruining sleigh crash? Even Ed Sheeran and Elton John’s current number one single, Merry Christmas, piles on the winter charm but also follows the line “Just having so much fun” with the unquestionable downer: “While we’re here, can we all spare a thought for the ones who have gone?”
Gary Barlow, who wisely consulted the spreadsheet to release The Dream of Christmas (Polydor, **) two years after his former Take That bandmate Robbie Williams’ similarly underwhelming The Christmas Present, tries to tackle you-know-what in an unusually upbeat manner. His song Come on Christmas pictures December 25 as Godzilla to Covid’s Mothra – the only thing that can defeat the disease. “Come on Christmas, oh, you gotta make it all right,” he urges over jaunty Caribbean horns. It’s the weirdest moment on a collection that tries it all: carols, boogie-woogie backing vocals, an Aled Jones cameo and a bleak midwinter take on Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone that sounds like it tried and failed for the John Lewis commission.
Norah Jones gets a much more consistent cosy vibe glowing on I Dream of Christmas (Blue Note, ****). Even White Christmas gets a little fresher when she drapes her velvet vocals over wandering piano and shuffling jazz drums. Her approach to another Christmas of restrictions is to hope that it’s not as bad as last time on the cute original It’s Only Christmas Once a Year. She’s wonderful company for any degree of isolation.
Like the Marvel Universe, it can be hard to know which newer songs are “canon” and on the must-play playlist every year. Kelly Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree, from 2013, is a bubbly contender, and made such a hit of her first Christmas album that now she’s recorded a second, When Christmas Comes Around... (Atlantic, ***). Ariana Grande and country giant Chris Stapleton join the party on a lively collection with a more modern sound than most.
The other genre of Christmas album is the one that simply puts the C-word at intervals into songs that sound the same as the artist does at any other time of year. Kentucky R&B singer Bryson Tiller wrongfoots the listener for a moment on his brief EP, A Different Christmas (RCA, ***), opening the first track with a sumptuous wash of strings, before the computer beats arrive and his high voice starts meandering all over some cold, decidedly unfestive synths. Justin Bieber makes an appearance and so does Tiller’s young daughter Halo when he finally gives in and makes something truly sugary.
Country trio Pistol Annies replace sleigh bells with twangy guitars and downhome harmonies on Hell of a Holiday (Sony, ****). Again it’s very different from the traditional sound of the season, especially on Harlan County Coal, which finds them “Making decorations out of shotgun shells.”
But the one who really takes the Christmas spirit somewhere else is North Carolina troubadour MC Taylor, who trades as Hiss Golden Messenger, on O Come All Ye Faithful (Merge, ****). Recorded as a reaction to the grating festive standards blaring over the speakers when he visited American superstore Target, he gives a warm folky feel to a few carols and covers Woody Guthrie instead of Bing Crosby. It won’t make him Mariah’s money, but it’s a welcome alternative in an overstuffed market.