by Tom Cendejas
If you’re looking for holiday party music where people perk up and seek you out to ask, “Who’s that?”, thus validating your host/DJ aspirations, consider these recent releases. Also great for: wrapping presents, baking cookies, turning driving in holiday traffic into less of a misery, winter-themed sound baths, and even some cozy Christmas lights on the tree, snuggling on the sofa with a glass of wine quietude (the best!).
Josh Rouse — The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
This is a shimmery and soulful set of original songs by one of the best singer-songwriters who came up through the ‘indie’ music scene. Rouse has a real knack for melody, and a pleasant rasp in his voice that make his sharp lyrics resonate with both emotion and a tinge of melancholic irony. “Mediterranean X-Mas” glows with light and mellow appreciation; “Easy Man” is a cut for every Gen X dad you know who rolls with the punches during the holidays; “New York Holiday” blends in some “Charlie Brown Christmas” Vince Guaraldi tinkling with ice-cube cocktail party chatter, a tour of New York, and a wistfulness to stop the clock. “Red Suit” is an instantly memorable soul crawl, and “Christmas Songs” layers journalistic detail with long-distance heartache. A lovely record to sit and unwind to at the end of the night or play during appetizers and drinks.
Los Lobos — “Llegò Christmas”
This first Christmas album by Los Lobos is perfect for that tamale fest on Christmas Eve, or the end of the party when you want Mom and Dad to get up and dance. Full of Chicano soul and sterling musicality, this is a beautiful album to sway with, particularly on cuts like “Christmas and You” (you can practically feel the crepe paper streamers falling onto the dance floor) and “Llegò Christmas”, a yearning, sexy delight. A beautiful, instant-classic of an album.
Ana Gasteyer — “Sugar and Booze”
Too many Christmas albums are filled with songs we’ve heard on dozens of other records. Ana Gasteyer (she already has an SNL holiday comedy sketch classic as one of the leads on “Schweddy Balls” with Alec Baldwin) wrote several originals, including the title song. Blending swing and jazz and piano bar stylings with warm, tart vocals, Gasteyer has created a holiday album that makes you sit up and take listen. Lyrics like “You can keep/that tray of crudité/Honey, I refuse/Martinis at lunch/Pastries and Punch/ It’s an annual excuse” will have you smiling at their wit and their full-bodied café society arrangements. Added bonus: the funny, sexy “Secret Santa” with Maya Rudolph and full Desi Arnaz orchestra rhythms.
The McCrary Sisters — “A Very McCrary Christmas”
If you’re down, put on “Joyful Joyful” by these sisters and let yourself be elevated by their unique gospel sounds. Separately, each sibling has sung for singers like Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan; together they are a formidable force, with a sincerity in their beliefs that will ground the Christmas holiday meaning for you. “Away in a Manger”, with Jerry Douglas and Keb’Mo’ is a revelation. Gospel holiday music that gets under your skin.
Kacey Musgraves — “The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show”
The soundtrack to Musgraves Amazon Christmas special, this recording includes the sweetened audience reactions and banter with her impressive list of guests. Musgraves loves toying with retro recipes and approaches Pee Wee Herman-level of holiday sketch weirdness. In between the comedy bits are some felicitous duets, including a lovely new song with Troye Sivan, and a guest list that features Lana Del Rey, Zooey Deschanel, Fred Armisten and Camilla Cabello.
Ramsey Lewis Trio — “More Sounds of Christmas”
This is a recent re-issue of a 1964 album, a follow-up to their immensely popular “Sounds of Christmas.” This is ‘sit back with the lights turned low’ perfection. “Egg Nog” will have you snapping and bopping, and “Snowfall” is a gorgeous drench of a keyboard and strings.
Put this on and watch everyone gradually ease into their best holiday mood.
Judy Collins — “Winter Stories”
Folk legend Judy Collins hasn’t made another Christmas record, but chose to make a record that would suggest the season and last past it. The songs picked here all feature winter — the length of it, the warmth and fire of romance that can occasionally pierce the cold indifference of the world, the stories of those who have a hard time surviving winter, and the hint of spring at the end. Collins has recorded the album with bluegrass group Chathan County Line, and the coming together brings out the best in both of them. An album for cups of tea and a book, or for headphones and hiking in the snow.
Robbie Williams — “The Christmas Present”
This is a giant bear hug of an album, 28 songs full and carrying the heft of Williams’ theatrical voice and its tender undercurrent. Williams, with three young children, is a convert to the joys and contrasting sadness of the season, and produces an album that’s got maximalist production and the feeling of a West End musical. Attention to Beach Boys-style harmonies and the sheer, swinging-for-the-rafters ambition of his effort here may be enough to carry it past the legion of Williams’ fans and soar into the holiday libraries for everyone who loves a big Britpop hook and a sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs gigantic chorus.