We take our holiday music seriously here at Weekend headquarters — yes, even when wee elfin heartthrob Justin Bieber is involved in the merriment. As far as we're concerned, there's a time and place for every Christmas album, no matter if it's sappy or cheesy or Bieby — or even Bob Dylan's throat-clearing '09 grotesquerie Christmas in the Heart.
Despite the residual nightmares, we still listen to Bob when the time is right — and that time is usually right after three cups of eggnog. That strategy got us thinking of a new ratings system for holiday music this year, something to enhance our listening of the 10 new LPs you'll find here. We're ranking them according to when, and for whom, they'll sound best. Yes, even lil' Justin's Under the Mistletoe, which sold more than 200,000 copies its first week of release.
EGGNOG: These albums will be best fortified by the jolly spirits of the season. Cheers!
AUNT SHIRLEY'S HOUSE: I adore my Aunt Shirley. My Aunt Shirley, on the other hand, adores Celine Dion.
REMEMBRANCE: For those quiet, introspective times, however you like to spend them.
DISTRACT THE CHILDREN: Will you please leave your dad alone for two lousy seconds and go listen to music or chase Grandma or something?!
MISTLETOE: Is it getting warm in here? Yes, baby. Yes it is.
HIPSTERAMA! Your Greenpeace-y neighbor Elijah will be playing these albums at that weirdo house party where you can't pronounce any of the exotic appetizers. Shashmockla?
Got it? Good! Now let's fire up the Victrola, make sure we have plenty of ice and get this swingin' holiday shindig under way.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (ATCO)
Our research team at Weekend is fairly certain that Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver frontman Scott Weiland is the first artist in history to appear on a Christmas album wearing a skull ring. Currier & Knives, anyone? Here's this year's hands-down winner for Most Unlikely Holiday Album. The instrumentation is Bing Crosby; the throaty, wobbly vocal is Bing Crosby on laughing gas. (I'll Be Home for Christmas is the sound of a besotted Santa about to tumble off the roof.) Weiland is creepy, and yet he doesn't know he's creepy, which actually makes him even creepier. We strongly advise a glass of EGGNOG.
Under the Mistletoe (Island/Def Jam)
Under the Mistletoe is Da Biebs' third No. 1 album, making him the only solo artist to do so on the U.S. charts before reaching his 18th birthday. That said, sales of this seasonal sucker have been more good than great, making a few folks wonder if this marks the end of Bieber Fever — and maybe the start of a nasty Bieber Rash. This record is pretty much what you expect: breathy, milquetoast R&B from a kid still doing the Puberty Cha-Cha. A couple of guest spots, however, save it from being a total bore. Seventeen-year-old Bieber makes googly eyes at 41-year-old Mariah Carey on a May-December remake of All I Want for Christmas Is You. And on the most memorable track, growling rapper Busta Rhymes joins a laughably militant Biebs on a feisty, frenetic Drummer Boy. DISTRACT THE CHILDREN
This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 2 (Brushfire)
Brushfire Records, barefoot crooner Jack Johnson's eco-friendly record label, put out a deliciously cheeky holiday compilation in 2008, filled with curious cuts that found inspiration in December's lesser-loved rituals. Money Mark's Stuck at the Airport was not just funny but comforting, too. I'm happy to report Money is back again on Brushfire's second yuletide go-round, gently telling us to Make Time for each other, a synthy trip-out not unlike something you'd hear on a 1972 after-school special. This Brushfire comp isn't as front-to-back stellar as the original, but it has several chummy moments, including Matt Costa's I Bet on Flying High and Jack Johnson's own Angel (Holiday). HIPSTERAMA!
Songs of December (Decca)
Every year we lose a few more heroes from the golden age of the Great American Songbook, but thankfully cufflinked cats Tony Bennett and Paul Anka are still singin' and swingin'. Here Anka gives crisp, brassy readings of the secular classics, all while maintaining one of the best year-round tans in music history. Anka studied under the Sinatra School of Phrasing, so you know he'll hit and hold all the notes that make your mom's book club go crazy. You need a smart gift to bring to AUNT SHIRLEY'S HOUSE? Here you go. Prepare for a big lipsticked smooch!
The Christmas Album: Volume 2 (Columbia)
The kids at William McKinley should be in grad school by now — or at least making straight-to-DVD movies co-starring Richard Grieco. And yet they remain in the slushie-coated halls of high school. If they're getting restless, so are we, as both the spark and inspiration seem to be waning from the hit show and the music that drives it. This second helping of Christmas ditties doesn't have the zip of the first, especially the wheezy "group" sings. But a few solo performances stand out, most notably Lea Michele's mournful River and Naya Rivera's Santana-steamy Santa Baby. EGGNOG
Born Is the King (Hillsong)
So many Christmas albums are released each year that it's often the novelty ones — the Biebers, the Weilands — that get the most ink. So it's nice to discover a record that earnestly, and entertainingly, honors what the holidays are truly about: faith and family, religion and reflection. Australia's Hillsong is the U2 of Christian rock, not just in popularity but in sound, as well. Case in point: O Come Let Us Adore Him, which is arena-sized (thumping percussion, rousing harmonies, tingly instrumentation) but also deeply personal, one of the most moving, intimate renditions I've ever heard. REMEMBRANCE
Elf :The Broadway Musical Original Cast Recording (Sh-K-Boom)
As a big fan of the spazzy Will Ferrell flick — and a bigger fan of slathering syrup on spaghetti — I had to include this goofy, good-natured soundtrack from Elf's Broadway incarnation. Theater mainstay Sebastian Arcelus made his mark in such furrowed-brow fare as Rent and Wicked, but here he conjures the right amount of sugar-smacked hyper playing Buddy, the world's largest, most clueless helper of Saint Nick. You'll be able to DISTRACT THE CHILDREN with repeated spins of insanity-inducing Sparklejollytwinklejingley. Remember: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!"
A Holiday Carole (Hear)
Okay, I let out a laugh at the start of this one, as King's opening cover of My Favorite Things uses the same fired-up roadhouse piano of I Feel the Earth Move, making me imagine Julie Andrews' Maria Von Trapp as a foot-stompin', bell-bottom-wearin' 1971 feminist mama. "Liesl, gather your bras, we're going to do some burning!" King's smoky delivery is still intact, and she borrows from her '60s days in the Brill Building and her own Tapestry to rework some Christmas favorites. Maybe not for everyone, but Carole's carols will kill at AUNT SHIRLEY'S HOUSE.
This may sound a bit negative, but it's actually a compliment, uh, for the most part: Michael Buble is so incredibly smarmy and smirky, it's a testament to his looks, management and intangible charm that certain people call him, with a straight face, "the new Sinatra." Unless they're referring to my mechanic Larry Sinatra, I find that flabbergasting. But hey, millions of lovesick 28-year-old single women can't be wrong! Produced by schmaltzmeister David Foster (boy, are these two perfect for each other), Christmas fires up the big band for 15 classics, including a sh-boppin' White Christmas with Shania Twain. The album works best when Buble nods to his own lounge lizard tendencies: A winky version of Jingle Bells with the Puppini Sisters trio — think the Andrews Sisters with punk edge — is so randy and lascivious, it's amazing the four of 'em even managed to finish the song. As far as grading this album, some snugglies will whisper MISTLETOE, and hey, I hope it works out for you! As for me, pass the EGGNOG — and make it a double.
She & Him
A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge)
The unlikely duo of actor Zooey Deschanel and Oregon busker M. Ward is so incredibly earnest and sweet, you wondered if it was all an act, a postmodern response to the upturned-nose elitism of most indie music. Then they went and soundtracked the new Winnie the Pooh movie for Disney, and you realized that, no, they really are that incredibly earnest and sweet. Deschanel's voice matches her eyes: wide and perpetually innocent and not unlike those of a young girl meeting Santa Claus for the first time. It's like she sings in cursive. It's all so cooey and cuddly it's enough to make you sick. That said, I kind of love this album. And you will, too. Or you'll want to punch something. Could go either way. HIPSTERAMA!
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay).