For fellow elves who share an interest -- if not my obsession -- with holiday music, here's our annual round-up of the most noteworthy new contributions to the Christmas canon:
Tracey Thorn, "Tinsel and Lights" (Strange Feeling/Merge) -- In every way that Annie Lennox's 2010 Christmas album failed so dreadfully, Tracey Thorn's succeeds beautifully. The Everything but the Girl vocalist, two years on from her latest underappreciated solo outing ("Love and Its Opposite"), manages her natural melancholy to deliver the right mood on each song. The selection of material can't be beaten -- this is a splendidly curated songbook of new Christmas standards in one cozy binding. The stage ballad "Hard Candy Christmas," Stephin Merritt's "Like a Snowman," Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," Randy Newman's "Snow," they're addressed on their own musical terms but with the saving grace of Thorn's voice -- a tender, imperfect and comforting instrument (often described as smoky, but actually it's pure fog). Not specifically holiday selections such as "Snow in Sun," "Taking Down the Tree," "Sister Winter," even an edgy, for Thorn, reading of the White Stripes' "In the Cold, Cold Night," make this an album that might sound even better the week after Christmas. Chilly and warm all at once, "Tinsel and Lights" is this year's gift you didn't know you wanted.
Add to your Christmas mix: The album's simple piano ballad "Joy" is strong and graceful and has the makings of a timeless holiday standard.
Sufjan Stevens, "Silver and Gold" (Asthmatic Kitty) -- Something of a self-styled Bing Crosby for the millennial generation, indie-rock's Sufjan Stevens introduced himself as Mr. Christmas in 2006 with "Songs for Christmas," a Santa sack-full of holiday tunes he'd been recording between projects for years. He didn't stop. "Silver and Gold" is another red-and-green dump of frosty delights -- 58 songs! -- recorded during the last six years. Why so many? Because this is how Christmas music works: You put it on and then tend to other things, tuning into it between conversations and presents and pieces of pie. Not that there isn't plenty here deserving a close listen, and that's the joy in Stevens' marshmallow world. More than four dozen tracks and, other than a cluster of brief instrumentals, not many sound like toss-offs or throw-aways. Carefully arranged (with a masterful balance between the old-world instrumentation of many of the carols' origins and the fiddles and banjos of his Midwestern roots), delicately played and sung often with the backing of a casual hipster choir, every song evokes both melancholy and merriment. As in 2006, the originals carry the sleigh. "If drinking makes it easy / the music's kinda cheesy," Stevens sings in "Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past," but there's little cheese in the slow, crystalline beauty of "Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)," the "positive Christmas energy" in all 15 Jeff Buckley-esuqe minutes of "The Child With the Star on His Head" or the title-defying haunting beauty of "Justice Delivers Its Death."
Add to your Christmas mix: Hey, there's a Prince cover -- "Alphabet" is a blippy take on "Alphabet St."
The Polyphonic Spree, "Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. 1" (Good/Kirtland) -- Christmas music is challenging because most of it see-saws between childlike wonder and awesome majesty, sometimes within the same song. Fortunately, some pop acts come pre-loaded with that feature. Dallas symphonic pop collective the Polyphonic Spree is an ideal candidate for the Christmas canon, and "Holidaydream" is typical of its winning ambition. The album -- all covers, unfortunately, save 54 seconds of keyboard noodling at the end by leader Tim Delaughter -- often gleefully flips the script on the wonder and majesty, taking the joy of "Winter Wonderland" and redirecting it toward unabashed awe, for instance, or making "Silent Night" into a Mannheim Steamrolling instrumental taut with surprising menace. Likewise, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" takes a Vince Guaraldi arrangement into almost Dirty Three territory, as if instead of returning to the Peanuts gang after his tree-shopping debacle Charlie Brown instead went on an epiphanic bender. The best part: "Vol. 1" implies a "Vol. 2."
Add to your Christmas mix: Both versions of "Silver Bells." The first is slow, thrumming with woodwinds, bracing with Delaughter's deliberate Tiny Tim voice. The reprise opens with harp and horns, then breaks into a triumphant celebration ringing with bells and booming with timpani.
Rod Stewart, "Merry Christmas, Baby" (Verve) -- Rod Stewart was once a respectable rocker, became a caricature of himself and then devolved into money-grubbing songbook shlock. But most Christmas music is proudly shlocky. Thus, finding himself in something of a natural environment, Stewart (it pains me to admit) is a fairly dynamite Christmas crooner. His solo performances here are wonderfully laid-back, easygoing and placated by Stewart's well-coached, somehow appealing sandpaper pipes. The album's only real nuisance are the gimmicky duets -- Michael Buble's smarm gets in the way ("Winter Wonderland"), Mary J. Blige sounds like she's in the wrong studio ("We Three Kings") and, brother, digging up Ella Fitzgerald for a posthumous duet ("What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?") was a shameless trick a decade ago. Only Cee Lo Green makes a lovely marriage with Stewart on the smooth, solid title track.
Add to your Christmas mix: The simplicity of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," buoyed by strings and acoustic guitar, finally boosts Stewart into Tony Bennett territory.
Cee Lo Green, "Cee Lo's Magic Moment" (Elektra) -- Since emerging as a singular voice from the pop duo Gnarls Barkley, Cee Lo Green's performance cred has soared and stalled, devolving into phoned-in shows and far-out fashion. Given the primary-colored plumage of last year's Grammys, a duet with the Muppets couldn't be far behind. And here it is -- "All I Need Is Love," a bouncy thrill that mashes up the Muppets' adopted "Mah Na Mah Na." That's even followed by a scenery-chewing performance and narration of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," backed by a cappella group Straight No Chaser. Peer past Cee Lo's sugarplums, though -- plus an over-sung duet with fellow "Voice" judge Christina Aguilera ("Baby, It's Cold Outside") -- for the more rocking roasts of holiday chestnuts. The even-keeled "Please Come Home for Christmas" and gritty, groovy "Run Run Rudolph" earn him silver and gold.
Add to your Christmas mix: His purring verses and strong-and-steady chorus make him a worthy air on Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."
Steven Curtis Chapman, "Joy" (Reunion)
Francesca Battistelli, "Christmas" (Fervent)
For those who keep the "Christ" in Christmas always at the forefront, two significant figures in Christian pop have new holiday albums out. Francesca Battistelli's offering, as usual, overengineers her fine vocal delivery, particularly in several mechanistic arrangements of holiday classics. Some humanity leaks through some new originals, namely the prayerful "You're Here" and a consideration of making every day Christmas Day, "Heaven Everywhere." Still, she's no reason to garage-sale your Amy Grant albums. The plain-voiced but musically inventive Steven Curtis Chapman brings earnest fun to his holiday set by keeping guitar-forward, rocking it (with mandolin, no less, in "Joy to the World"), balladeering ("I Am Joseph (God Is With Us") and getting wistful for home ("Christmas in Kentucky").
Add to your Christmas mix: Grab Chapman's mandolin-driven "Joy to the World," and go yee-haw on the mountain.
Various Artists, "A Very Special Christmas: Bringing Joy to the World" (Big Machine)
Since 1987, the occasional "Very Special Christmas" compilations benefiting Special Olympics have been reliable batches of new holiday singles, usually from artists who have not (and have no business) recorded a full-scale X-mess. But this eighth collection, celebrating the series' 25th anniversary, lacks a spark to light the tree, overloaded as it is with maudlin meditations from Jewel, Jordin Sparks, Rascal Flatts, Amy Grant, OneRepublic and the like. Cheap Trick at least perks thing up with "I Want You for Christmas" -- yes, a well-intentioned but tepid rewrite of "I Want You to Want Me." Most notably, this album represents a turning point in the ongoing conflation of music and commercialism with the inclusion of "Something in the Air (Coca-Cola 2012 Christmas Anthem)," an advertising jingle fleshed out to full pop-song form. (A second, separate disc is available, too, "A Very Special Christmas: Bringing Peace on Earth," featuring all Christian pop artists.)
Add to your Christmas mix: Two sheepish stand-outs here include "Best Christmas Ever," a sweet bouncy tune with interesting breaks from K-pop stars the Wonder Girls, and a live recording of one of the most moving contemporary Christmas songs out there, Dave Matthews' "Christmas Song," recorded at his Sept. 18, 2010, show at our own Wrigley Field.
Lady Antebellum, "On This Winter's Night" (Capitol Nashville) -- Country's biggest trio obviously wanted a horn section for Christmas, and they play with it all over their new holiday album. "On This Winter's Night," a full-length follow-up to 2010's seasonal EP, is typically slick and soulless. Aside from the cheerless orchestration of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and a limp reading of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," the rest of the album is passable reheated turkey. The only ingredients piercing the tryptophan coma are those horns and occasional trademark harmonies -- wait, is this yet another holiday album from Chicago?
Add to your Christmas mix: The title track here is the best offering, sweet without too much sugar and a careful arrangement that eases into a subtle backbeat. But be warned: children's choir at two minutes in.
Scotty McCreery, "Christmas With Scotty McCreery" (19/Mercury Nashville) -- "American Idol" season 10 winner Scotty McCreery could set off your carbon monoxide detector, his voice is so colorless and odorless. That wasn't completely the case on his post-"Idol" debut, "Clear as Day," where he sounded achy and breaky beyond his young years. Here, however, he offers little more vocally than a studied country curl, and his deep, Randy Travis vibrations don't exactly get this album shaking. It'll probably be on the PA while you shop at Hobby Lobby, but your brain will pass by it like any other sonic wallpaper.
Add to your Christmas mix: If there's one to save here, it's McCreery's "Christmas Comin' Round Again," the only performance where his aw-shucks persona isn't quite so mercilessly studied.