Hark! A non-essential Xmas album
by John Cameron
Before I had a chance to even review Christmas Songs, The A.V. Club went ahead and declared Bad Religion’s Christmas EP one of the least essential records of the year. I wish I could argue –– after all, the proceeds from the sales of Christmas Songs are going to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. (So if you were wondering whether this EP signalled some kind of late-game theistic conversion on the part of Greg Graffin: no worries.)
It also seems sort of silly to call special attention to a 19-minute EP just so you can shrug at it –– but it’s equally silly to recommend Christmas Songs as anything but a novelty.
Credit where it’s due, though: Bad Religion puts a ton of effort into what sounds like a one-off goof. For a band full of dads fronted by a college prof, these guys can sure play some expertly tight punk rock.
And, man, the vocal harmonies on this thing — rich, mellifluous and the only real reason to be listening. It’s funny that Graffin, pioneer of the droning-sociology-lecture-as-vocal-line school of punk rock, would wind up being a genuine melodic anchor for a bunch of Christmas standards, but here we are. Some parts, like the a capella intro to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Ev’ry Christmas card I write” in “White Christmas”, ask a lot — but he pulls it off admirably.
It’s solidly put together, but what the hell to do with it? It’s Bad Religion showing up on your doorstep, a-wassailing, so it’s ridiculous. And it doesn’t hit the rarefied heights of Low’s Christmas EP, so you won’t be thinking about it by July.
Probably the best thing to do is to leave it alone. But if you have to have it, be sure to slot it between the Boney M Christmas record and Merry Christmas by The Supremes to freak out your relatives during Christmas dinner.
Kool And The Gang
Kool for the Holidays
If you ever wanted to feel truly terrible about the state of your family, then have a listen to “Home for the Holidays”, the opening track from Kool for the Holidays. The disco veterans, now mellow and middle-aged and sporting some amazing sweaters on the album cover, can’t wait to get home and decorate the hell out of their living rooms with their loved ones. But they may be a little too insistent on the joys of winter holiday times. “Why can’t every day be Christmas?” wonders Kool on the terrifyingly titled “Christmas Always”. Are Kool and his gang actually a gang of mad funk scientists seeking to create a 24-hour time loop in which we’re forced to live out Christmas day for all eternity? Is Kool for the Holidays, with its super slick jazz-funk renditions of Christmas standards, a sonic machine for trapping us all in perpetual Yule? Yes. Yes it is. /Aidan Morgan
Wrapped in Red
It’s obviously strange when a singer like Clarkson, a pop star barely in her thirties, decides that making a “classy” Christmas album means going full retro, with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney-style arrangements included. (Cue the timpani rolls and swelling strings! Put on that bulky red sweater and smile goddammit!)
But here’s Wrapped in Red, with Clarkson travelling back in time to the ’50s and ’60s. There’s Phil Spector-esque production (“Wrapped in Red”), Stax-era soul (“Every Christmas”) and a twangy “Blue Christmas” even Elvis would approve of. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned for anyone who makes pop music in 2013, but her technical ability is admirable.
Bluesy growls, jazzy trills –– she can do it all, and she commits fully to the performance. This verve and confidence is the reason she charmed the pants off of American Idol audiences back in the day, and why she endures in the present. /Gillian Mahoney
A holiday album is a proper pursuit for Nick Lowe. The 64-year-old’s last two albums –– 2007’s At My Age and 2011’s The Old Magic –– showed he still has polished pop gems left in him to rival his ’70s and ’80s pub-rock hits. And Christmas songs, both classics and originals, are just the kind of music a clever, classic songwriter like Lowe should relish.
Unfortunately, he tanks it in a stretch in the middle of the album, when bald-faced, plain-Jane Christmas sentiment takes over — as impersonal as a million rosy-cheeked Coca-Cola Santas. But his gentle genre takes fare better, with Lowe slipping into country-western and mod-ish tracks with equal ease.
He excels at slices of grounded discontent: “Christmas at the Airport” could coast on its wit alone, but wins by being a tuneful and catchy track on top of that. And “A Dollar Short of Happy” is as good a song as Lowe has ever recorded, a slice of holiday malaise twisting lyrics from “Silver Bells” and “The Christmas Song” into a theme for a sad man’s season. /James Brotheridge