Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Spotify: 15 New Holiday Albums Reviewed, From John Legend to William Shatner

Troll the modern Yuletide carol with our takes on Christmas albums from Eric Clapton, Pentatonix, JD McPherson, PJ Morton and more.

2018 Holiday Albums Reviewed, From John Legend to William Shatner
Courtesy Columbia Records

Now that America has come together as one and finally settled that whole “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” thing (we did, didn’t we?), it’s time to spend the remaining days of the Christmas season resolving some other debates. Like, who made the best new holiday music of 2018? Okay, that one’s too easy: Clearly, by popular acclamation, it was Cecily Strong, faithfully covering Barbra Streisand’s breathless 1967 arrangement of “Jingle Bells” in an “SNL” mic drop moment.

But as far as actual new recordings go, there are still questions to be resolved, as in: Who wore it — “Silver Bells” — better, Legend or Shatner? We’ve waded through every new “White Christmas” and neoteric Nativity song so you don’t have to. Here are 15 of the year’s most notable holiday albums:

John Legend, “A Legendary Christmas” (Columbia)

Big points, first of all, for the album cover, which has Legend paying direct homage to a famous illustration of Bing Crosby in a Santa hat and bow tie on one of his iconic album covers. (Legend’s bow tie is not made of mistletoe, like Bing’s was, but close enough.) Beyond the cover, it’s not Crosby that he’s chasing in the grooves here. Vocally, it’s surprising how much of a dead ringer Legend can be for Nat “King” Cole at times, but the idea is more like, what if Cole made a Motown Christmas record? That idea is literalized right at the outset with a cover of “What Christmas Means to Me,” with a harmonica outro from Stevie Wonder that sounds practically sampled from his ’67 original. The celebrative, chirpy, old-school-soul mood never lags from there, for better or worse. Over the course of 14 upbeat and brassy odes to home and hearth, the relentlessly eager-to-please “Legendary Christmas” starts to feel almost oppressively cheerful. Major props, anyway, for the most unusual pick here: Marvin Gaye’s rarely covered “Purple Snowflakes.”

William Shatner, “Shatner Claus” (Cleopatra)

The “Star Trek” actor’s opening rendition of “Jingle Bells” is performed as a duet with Henry Rollins; if this were a hip-hop track, you’d say that Shatner’s recitative verses are the rap and Rollins’ sung choruses are the hook. It’s almost as much fun as Cecily Strong’s version, with Shatner racing through the archaic language as if he really were narrating the action live from an out-of-control sleigh, surprised, frightened and delighted all the way. It’s an approach that extends throughout “Shatner Claus,” as he overdramatizes familiar carols as if every thought and emotion were occurring to him in real time instead of being read from a songbook. But a little of this goes a long way, and by the time he’s joined by Judy Collins for “White Christmas” or Iggy Pop for “Silent Night,” you will probably have long since lost interest in knocking around the eternal “kidding, or earnest?” questions. As an album, “Shatner Claus” makes a great single.

JD McPherson, “Socks” (New West)

It’s not really much of a contest, in the end: McPherson’s album is so far ahead of the rest of the 2018 pack, everyone else is having to eat his Christmas dust. All tracks are originals, every one of them a keeper. If you’re not familiar with McPherson, his three previous albums have revealed him as operating at a genius level in his ability to recreate the exact sonics of the great records of the late 1950s — specifically, that wonderful nexus where R&B met rockabilly — while crafting clever new material that never falls into the realm of rank nostalgia. That brilliance carries over to “Socks,” which is surprisingly on a par with his non-holiday material If Sam Phillips had assembled his entire crew of rock and “race music” signings to make a Christmas album, it couldn’t have been much better than this one. Childhood is evoked in a less sentimental than usual fashion in “Bad Kid,” in which even parents and Santa are scared of a leather jacket-wearing juvie delinquent, and the title track, a lament about a perennial gift that’s worse than coal. Things get sexier with “Claus vs. Claus,” a duet with Lucie Silvas that has Santa arguing and flirting with the missus, and “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy,” an ode to four different gals who make the season bright.

Eric Clapton, “Happy Xmas” (EPC)

About half of Clapton’s first holiday collection is a really terrific Christmas blues album, and the other half is a serviceable set that finds him in his more commercially friendly, adult-contemporary mode. The AC stuff isn’t bad, but separating out the superior blues tracks is what personal playlists was made for. The rendition of “White Christmas” that opens the album is as dull as anybody else’s “White Christmas,” but you shouldn’t let that dissuade you from an album that has greater charms to offer. Covers of Lowell Fulson’s “Christmas Tears,” Sonny James’ “Christmas in My Hometown” and the Charles Brown chestnut “Merry Christmas Baby” all have the guitarist doing what he occasionally does best in his later career. To his credit, he also gets emotionally bluesy in some of the non-bluesy numbers: Clapton sings the original, sad, “muddle through” lyrics of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and contributes one original, “For Love on Christmas Day,” that’s a lovely downer. There is at least one major head-scratcher among these smarter choices: an unnecessary EDM version of “Jingle Bells” (seriously) that Clapton has dedicated to Avicii. But the rest of the set is suitable for anyone who needs a Santa with a Slow Hand.

Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere” (New West)

Mirth and melancholy are the twin streams running through Crowell’s album —which, like that of JD McPherson, his labelmate, dispenses with covers to deliver a whole set of originals. (Hurray.) You know exactly what you’re getting with titles like “Christmas Makes Me Sad” and “Merry Christmas From an Empty Bed,” a couple of laments that put the “ex” back in Xmas. On the other hand, Crowell goes for melan-jolly with “Let’s Skip Christmas This Year,” a spirited suggestion that, when it comes to the obligation to meet up with family you have nothing in common with for the holidays, abstinence is actually an option. Crowell lets his country roots show, but Americana fans and the twang-avoidant alike will appreciate the deeply breathy, bluesy sax solo in “When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney on for Size” and the album’s healthy dose of reasonably rocking tunes. He’s made the rare album that has something for everybody this time of year — which is to say, those who feel affection orantipathy for the season.

The Monkees, “Christmas Party” (Rhino)

The first Christmas album from the Monkees feels mostly like a Micky Dolenz solo album — co-produced by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger — that happens to have a few odd interjections from Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and, yes, the late Davy Jones. Some of the same contemporary songwriters who showed up on 2016’s “Good Times!,” or those of a similar hep ilk, appear here: XTC’s Andy Partridge contributes a tune in the great tradition of slightly risqué Christmas tracks, the so-so “Unwrap You for Christmas,” but there are better results from the album’s two highlights — “What Would Santa Do,” by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and Schlesinger’s own, very FOW-like “House of Broken Gingerbread.” Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” and Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” are good picks that come of a bit wan compared to the originals; although we can’t resist the novelty of the Monkees covering a Beatle, “Wonderful Christmastime” is exactly as wan as the original. Nesmith, sounding like a visiting grown-up who wants nothing to do with the kids’ alt-rock nonsense, drops by to long enough to half-heartedly warble “The Christmas Song.” Jones’ own leftover covers of a couple of Christmas chestnuts make you wish he could have survived long enough to participate in the more imaginative choices Dolenz takes on.

Old 97s, “Love the Holidays” (ATO)

The venerable alt-country band neatly partitions things on their first Christmas album: It starts off with a healthy nine originals, then tags six holiday standards onto the end as bonus tracks, more or less. They have a way with a hook, so even if the lyrics of the new songs occasionally fall back a bit more on yuletide bromides than the edgier songwriting you’d expect, you assuredly won’t find a better collection of rock sing-alongs this year. The most irresistible of the Rhett Miller-led tracks is “Rudolph Was Blue,” which adds to the musical reindeer mythology by finding a red-nosed lady friend for the lonely hero. Fellow member Murry Hammond takes over gruff lead vocals for what may actually be the album’s standout, “Hobo Christmas Song,” the jauntiest ode ever written to trainhopping for the holidays.

The Mavericks, “Hey! It’s Christmas!” (Mono Mundo/Thirty Tigers)

You know the Mavericks are serious about doing Christmas music when you scan the credits and see that not just one but two members are credited with playing glockenspiel. (Bang a glockenspiel, get it on, as we always say around this time of year.) Eight of the 10 songs on the album are originals, but they do tip their Phil Spector-saluting hat by adding “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as one of the two covers. Singer Raul Malo does get around to indulging his balladic side, as you’d expect from his past side projects, but there’s not much in the way of pure country, as you might still have expected from the band’s origins. They’re more interested in getting their Darlene on — although you do get a bit of slow rockabilly in “Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride,” an entry in the hallowed tradition of dirty Christmas songs.

PJ Morton, “Christmas with PJ Morton” (Morton Records)

You may know Morton as one of Maroon 5’s two keyboardists or for his own burgeoning solo career doing New Orleans-inflected soul, which just earned him three Grammy nominations, for Best R&B Album (“Gumbo Unplugged”), Best R&B Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance. He definitely wins this year’s unofficial award for best R&B Christmas album; this is closer to the album I wish John Legend had done — simpler, spare and without the barrage of overpowering arrangements. It’s fairly traditional soul, but with a crisp, dry bottom end that gives it a very contemporary-feeling kick. I wish Morton’s LP had even more than two originals among its eight tracks, but the fact is, if you’re looking for an album that includes the vintage likes of “Winter Wonderland” and “The Christmas Song” framed in less familiar ways, this is absolutely 2018’s best bet. Bonus: If you’re convinced you’re sick of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Morton’s Stevie-esque take will convince you you’re not.

Chely Wright, “Santa Will Find You” (Painted Red)

The Mavericks aren’t the only ones in love with Phil Spector’s Christmas album. Wright includes two versions of “Christmas Isn’t Christmas Time,” a collaboration with Richard Marx, on her six-track EP, and the reprise that’s been arranged in that style is actually subtitled “(Spector Version),” just so there’s no mistake. Nothing else in Wright’s set is quite that stylistically specific — there’s definitely nothing, arrangement-wise, to remind you that she was once a mainstream country star — but the warmth she brings to everything she does is genre enough. Every song here is an original, although I would have sworn the title track was a cover of a lesser-known tune from one of the Tin Pan Alley greats of the ‘40s or ‘50s, just because it’s that familiar-sounding and that good. As holiday songs for kids go, “Santa Will Find You” is its own kind of masterpiece, written to assure children that the gift-giver in chief does chart their comings and goings between extended family manses or broken homes. If you’re feeling in need of a little reassurance in these troubled times yourself, metaphorically, it’s almost a spiritual.

Ingrid Michaelson, “Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs for the Season” (Cabin 24)

Michaelson is such a gifted songwriter that when I saw she had recorded a 12-song collection of pretty reliable Christmas chestnuts, using a lot of brass and orchestration, with only one original song in the bunch, my heart fell a little. It picked up again when I actually heard it, because she’s made an album that does tread extremely familiar waters (“Christmas Time is Here,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” et al.) but is arranged and recorded with exceptional taste. The horns are recorded in a dry, minimalist way that for once doesn’t seem designed to run Nelson Riddle over with a tractor trailer but achieve something more intimate. She gets extra credit for kicking things off with a far less familiar chestnut, “Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter,” and for evoking a whole spectrum of emotion with the lone self-penned track, the perhaps deceptively titled “Happy, Happy Christmas.” “Love the ones who love you too,” she wistfully advises. “They say time flies, and baby, it’s true.” Tell us about it.

LeAnn Rimes, “It’s Christmas, Eve: A Hallmark Channel Original Movie Soundtrack” (EverLe/Thirty Tigers)

Rimes has been to the Christmas well more than once; this is her fourth holiday release overall and third in the last five years. Once you’ve covered “Must Be Santa” and“I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” can there be anything left? Well, yes, and this TV-movie soundtrack has something for a few different audiences. For the Hallmark crowd, there are a couple of go-to carols; for the dance-music crowd that has recently celebrated her remixes, there’s a big-beat medley that ensures “Here Comes Santa Claus” is soon to be heard in some gay discos. And then, perhaps for a smaller niche of people who actually know Rimes’ underrated singer/songwriter side, there are a few tender new originals, including a lovely title track. (It seems to ditch the gimmicky comma from the name of the Hallmark special, mindful that not very many of us are named Eve.) There’s a sense of something even harder-fought and harder-won at Christmas than the basic-cable romcom that comes with it can convey.

Martina McBride, “It’s the Holiday Season” (Vinyl Recordings)

There’s a name that should be co-billed here with McBride, and it’s that of Patrick Williams, the Emmy- and Grammy-winning composer and arranger who died in July, not long after completing work on this album. The big bang arrangements are testament that there was nothing small about Williams’ work, even when things must have gotten tougher to manage toward the end. It’s such a product of Williams’ big-band personality that it’s not necessarily the best venue for McBride’s personality to shine through; she’s as up to this task as she is to any, but there’s a sense that it could be any talented vocalist with a flair for the throwback stepping up to the bandstand in front of all those horns. The track list here won’t set any records for a sense of adventure, either. But it’s when you get to the penultimate number, “Frosty the Snowman,” that you best realize there is invention to Williams’ arrangements, however comfort food-like they’re intended to be. Against all odds, Frosty swings.

Elizabeth Chan, “Best Gift Ever” (Chan in Chance)

There are only two artists who reliably put out a Christmas album or EP every single year. The other one, Pentatonix, cheats some by issuing a deluxe edition of the previous year’s album in odd-numbered years. But no such dodgy slacking for Chan — recently anointed the real “Queen of Christmas” by the New Yorker. (Take that subtweet, Mariah.) Chan has not only released an all-new holiday collection every annum for seven years’ running now, but each track on each release is self-penned, with rare exceptions. She makes one of those exceptions this year for “The First Noelle,” which may have as much to do with the fact that she named her 18-month-old daughter Noelle as it does that other kid. But that’s not the hit here — it’s the title track, now lodged in the top 10 of the adult contemporary charts, which managed to make room for one post-Carey, post-Wham! track upon flipping this Thanksgiving. It’s another milestone for Christmas’s one-woman Brill Building.

Pentatonix, “Christmas is Here!” (RCA)

Say what you will about Pentatonix — and what I would say is that the world doesn’t actually need new a capella Christmas product in the marketplace every single calendar year — but, to their credit, they aren’t phoning in all the song choices. A few years ago, whoever is guiding their picks had the temerity or wisdom to pick Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” as a Christmas song. This year, the odd song out is the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” — because if we can’t have “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a chilly perennial anymore, we’ve got to come up with something. They also score points for being among the first, if not the first, to determine that Danny Elfman’s slightly sinister “Making Christmas,” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” bears consideration for the Xmas canon. Another outside choice: “When You Believe,” a collaboration with Maren Morris, taken from the obviously not-Christmas-mentioning animated film “Prince of Egypt.” Now, the docked points: Even guest Kelly Clarkson can’t redeem the eternally schmaltzy “Grown-Up Christmas List.” And “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is the 11 billionth version of Brenda Lee’s classic to not rock — although Pentatonix has a better excuse than most for leaving out the electric guitars.

Bonus pick:

Sia, “Everyday is Christmas (Target Exclusive)” (Atlantic)

Sia’s holiday album came out in 2017, but has been reissued this year on a retailer-exclusive CD and on streaming sites with three additional tracks. This provides an opportunity to remind you that, as good as any of the 2018 albums we’ve recommended are, Sia’s Christmas album is one that should literally be played every day, of the entire year, for the rest of the millennium.