John Legend is a well-respected, family-friendly Pop star and his new holiday album, A Legendary Christmas, is destined to become a timeless classic. It’s designed that way.
A Legendary Christmas’ cover art nods to Bing Crosby’s 1945 Merry Christmas album and the material — a mix of originals and standards like “Silver Bells,” Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” — is presented with a perfect sipping-cocoa-by-the-fireplace vibe that ensures it will be dusted off (or re-streamed, as it were) for decades to come.
This is a great thing, not only for Legend and others profiting from album sales, but also for everyone who enjoys listening to the same kind of sipping-cocoa-by-the-fireplace music every holiday season.
But what about those who crave something slightly more left-of-center? For those looking for something different, 2018’s new Christmas music crop does have a few chestnuts to add to your holiday playlist.
The Monkees’ Christmas Party
Though wildly successful, The Monkees remain one of the most criminally underrated acts of 1960s Rock & Roll, their insanely memorable music stigmatizedin the minds of some for, early on, being written and performed (outside of vocals) by a team of producers, writers and studio musicians. Just as they love The Monkees’ legacy regardless, true fans (and any lover of catchy Pop Rock) will be going gaga over the band’s Christmas Party album, even though they didn’t write a single note of it.
Produced by contemporary Pop Rock genius Adam Schlesinger, Christmas Party is a great full-album concept. It includes a handful of classic Christmas tunes, but the big draw are the ones written by some Modern Rock icons known for their love and respect for the classic Pop Rock of The Beatles, Beach Boys and Big Star. XTC’s Andy Partridge penned opener “Unwrap You at Christmas,” which Micky Dolenz delivers with upbeat abandon. The pattern repeats on “What Would Santa Do,” written by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and R.E.M. musicians Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey’s title track. There are also charming covers of a pair of classic Power Pop Xmas gems — Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” and Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.”
Dolenz is the best living Monkee vocalist and he takes the lead on most of the tracks, but the album does include the late Davy Jones on the Hawaiian-themed Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Silver Bells.” Schlesinger does a great job constructing the tracks out of archival vocal recordings and new instrumentation. Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” sounds beautiful with Mike Nesmith on lead vocals, while Peter Tork does his best on the religious carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
While it gets a little snoozy on the mid-tempo tracks, Christmas Party is the Power Pop Christmas album the world has been waiting for.
Tyler, the Creator’s Music Inspired by Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
There isn’t much new on the soundtrack album for the new Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. It’s primarily a half-hearted Christmas Pop collection, repackaging songs by Nat King Cole, Brian Setzer, Pentatonix and Run D.M.C. But it does have a pair of fabulous tracks from Hip Hop maverick Tyler, the Creator — a bass-rumbling remake of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and the strings-and-bells-laced original “I’m the Grinch.” Both are, as one might expect, oddball modern holiday classics.
The soundtrack’s worth is all in those two tracks, but it also spawned an interesting offshoot project from Tyler. Music Inspired by Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is a blissfully bizarre six-track EP that is mostly reflective of the slanted cinematic sound of “I’m the Grinch.” The short instrumentals “Whoville” and “Cindy Lou’s Wish” sound like they might have been Tyler’s audition for Danny Elfman’s scoring job on the new Grinch flick. The stoned orchestral Soul of “Hot Chocolate” and airy ElectroPop of “Lights On” (featuring vocals from Santigold and Ryan Beatty) are endearing, but “Big Bag” is the most Tyler of the tracks. Though only a minute-and-a-half long, like his actual Grinch contributions, it offers a refreshing, side-eye holiday perspective that deserves a prime slot on your weird-ass Xmas playlist.
JD McPherson’s SOCKS
Salt-of-the-earth rocker JD McPherson’s new SOCKS doesn’t include a single Christmas cover song. McPherson wrote or co-wrote all 10 tracks, which are delivered in his estimable retro-Rock & Roll and Rockabilly style (think Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent or early Elvis) with a sly streak of humor runningthroughout. If Brian Setzer’s Christmas music (a cottage industry in its own right) represents the overblown, over-commercialization of the holiday, McPherson’s SOCKS is the cool, late-night Dec. 25 party at the corner dive bar that ends up being one of your most memorable Christmases ever.
The album includes the Christmas lament of a bad kid who’s had “government surveillance since (he) started to walk” (“Bad Kid”); a shakin’, rattlin’ and rollin’ tribute to Santa’s ride (“Santa’s Got a Mean Machine”); an airing of the grievances of a North Pole power couple (“Claus Vs. Claus,” a duet with Lucie “Mrs. Claus” Silvas); and some swinging, playful body-shaming (“Hey Skinny Santa!,” on which McPherson sings, “Fill him up with beignets and a box of pralines/We’ll get his red britches bursting at the seams”).
A lot of the songs are from a rascally adult standpoint (nothing profane, though “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy” gets a little randy), but the title track lays bare the naughty, childlike essence of the humor, with the young, disappointed gift-getter complaining, “It doesn’t beep or buzz or bop or rattle in that box/Why’d you waste the paper on a lousy pair of socks?”
William Shatner’s Shatner Claus
William Shatner’s 1968 album The Transformed Man became a kitschy classic because it was unintentionally hilarious, with the actor bringing his overwrought dramatics to Pop music as a weird art experiment. Shatner has winkingly played up the schtick since, returning to the format wholeheartedly in 2004 for the surprisingly effective Ben Folds-produced album Has Been. His other musical attempts haven’t been as successful, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to cash in on the concept. That, of course, had to at some point include a Christmas album.
Another hook to the gag that was introduced on Has Been was pairing Shatner with unlikely music stars, and Shatner Claus plays that angle up throughout. Iggy Pop schmaltzily croons “Silent Night,” with Shatner wafting in with some spoken-word religiosity, while Henry Rollins does the chorus of “Jingle Bells,” between Shatner’s chaotic verses, which, at best, sound like street-corner ramblings (there’s also a “Punk Rock Version” where the actor sounds both insane and drunk). Elsewhere, Shanter rolls through some standards with Todd Rundgren, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and poor Judy Collins, who beautifully sings a few lines of “White Christmas” as Captain Kirk rants and stutters like someone just woke him up, put a bag on his head, drove him to the studio, spun him around 100 times, pulled the bag off and yelled, “Talk! Talk! Talk!”
Shatner Claus, hands down, wins the 2018 prize for Christmas album most likely to make your grandma exclaim, “What the fuck?” while the family unwraps presents on Christmas morning.Last year we debuted a massive "Weird/Funny/Crappy/Cool Holidays" Spotify playlist featuring around 150 offbeat seasonal tunes with which to freak out your family and party guests. In honor of Shatner's gift to the "so-bad-it's-good" zeitgeist, the playlist has now been updated and stands at nearly 10-hours' worth of holiday songs that are unique, odd, crude, cool or sometimes just plain bad — in a way that's at least worth a bemused chuckle or two.