The 2010 holiday season has already seen announcements of a Paul Simon song called “Get Ready for Christmas,” as well as a Target compilation headlined by a Best Coast/Wavves duet and contributions from Bishop Allen, Blackalicious, and Crystal Antlers. In other words: the abundance of Christmas music already out there is about to get even more abundant. But for listeners whose musical tastes stray away from the traditional, finding appropriate choices to spin whilst trimming the tree or setting the Yule log alight can be a difficult task indeed. Attempting to balance the musically esoteric with the varying sensibilities that can arise during familial holiday gatherings can be virtually impossible. (We have personally seen several December 24th arguments break out over the relative merits of John Fahey’s New Possibility.)
What follows is a list of 10 albums, singles, collections, and compilations that might achieve that balance between general accessibility and an intriguing, offbeat sensibility. These may be your best bet for holiday music to satisfy a wide range of musical tastes — at least, until some microhouse producer spins the dulcet tones of the Jingle Cats into bliss-inducing gold.
Sufjan Stevens — Songs for Christmas
There’s always been a bit of Vince Guaraldi in Sufjan Stevens’s more baroque-pop side. On this five-EP collection of Christmas songs new and old, that sensibility comes even more to the forefront, and the short, simple renditions of traditional songs are neatly played with an abundant sense of yearning. And on volume five, one can find more than a few Stevens originals (“Christmas in July,” “Sister Winter”) brilliantly illustrating his fondness for large-scale pop.
Various Artists — Where Will You Be Christmas Day? Of the 24 songs here, some of them are familiar and some are brand-new. The names, likewise, range from the well-known (Bessie Smith, Leadbelly) to the much more obscure, and the songs heard here cover traditions including blues, gospel, and folk. The album’s scope is broad enough to include both the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers’ majestic “Sherburne” and Leroy Carr’s wry “Christmas In Jail — Ain’t That a Pain,” and the overall effect of this compilation is a seasonally appropriate musical history lesson that never ceases to be compelling.
Low — Christmas
Newly released on vinyl, Low’s Christmas is a beautiful album that encompasses moods from elation to devotion to exhaustion. (In other words, it runs the gamut of holiday-related emotions in just under half an hour.) “Just Like Christmas,” with its ’60s pop production and sleigh-bell percussion, remains one of the trio’s best songs, and their subdued take on “Silent Night” and shoegaze-bedecked approach to “Little Drummer Boy” are equally beguiling.
Jonathan Kane — The Little Drummer Boy Drummer Jonathan Kane has worked with the likes of Rhys Chatham and La Monte Young; he’s also a bandleader, whose group February combines a minimalist composition ethic with traditional folk and blues numbers. (That makes for a very dry description, but the group’s performances are gripping.) On this EP, Kane applies the same technique to the aforementioned Christmas standard; the taut result nonetheless makes its way steadily towards bliss over the course of 14 minutes.
John Fahey — The New Possibility
Mostly recorded in the late 1960s, these versions of Christmas carols arranged for solo guitar are unadorned, pristine, and meditative. That sense of meditation has a flipside, however — the two “Fantasy” pieces on A New Possibility find the recognizable spinning off into instrumental flights and experimentation.
Julian Koster — The Singing Saw at Christmastime
This album finds Julian Koster, bandleader of The Music Tapes and onetime member of Neutral Milk Hotel, performing a dozen songs on the musical saw. The resulting album is both endearing and neatly surreal, sounding like some lost broadcast from a history that never was, that odd place where Rankin-Bass meets Jeunet and Caro.
David Bazan — Christmas singles
The music made by David Bazan over the past decade has found him wrestling with questions of religious faith (and, more recently, its absence). One constant, however, has been his tradition of releasing a Christmas-themed 7” on Seattle’s Suicide Squeeze Records. Songs have ranged from the traditional (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) to the more modern (“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”), sung and played in Bazan’s stark, haunted manner — and sometimes turned on their head.
X — Merry Xmas From X Were one to assemble a list of bands likely to release a holiday-themed song or album, the longstanding Los Angeles punk quartet X would probably not be on it. And yet, this 2009 single, featuring versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” is solid and catchy, and earns points for the gleeful inevitability of the title.
The Ventures — The Ventures’ Christmas Album
Originally released in 1965, this album features the likes of “Blue Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Silver Bells” arranged for an instrumental quartet and played enthusiastically and dynamically. Crisp enough to sound fresh, and yet classic in its scope, it’s an album seemingly designed to bridge numerous musical divides. The fact that it features one of the few tolerable versions of “Jingle Bell Rock” to be set to tape doesn’t hurt, either.
A decade ago, the independent label My Pal God released a pair of compilations in which punk and indie bands took a stab at holiday numbers contemporary and traditional, and offered up a few of their own. Vol.1 features a few more covers, though Vol.2 does close with Drums and Tuba offering up a surreal, ultimately triumphant version of “Auld Lang Syne.” And Crucial Youth’s rewrite of Iron Cross’s “Crucified” as “X-Mastime for the Skins” may be the sole Christmas song suitable for a circle pit.