We’ve all had that moment: you’re hanging up holiday decorations, with the local Christmas music station on as background music. Suddenly, you stop and say: “Wait, is this the third time they’ve played ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ this hour?”
It’s the bane of the holiday season, even for those of us who count down the days until Christmas music can be found on the radio dial. It’s great for a few days, then you realize there’s only so much Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” one can take.
For those who write about music, it’s not much better on our end. Around October, you begin receiving a deluge of new Christmas album announcements from artists across all genres, but all of them tend to tread the same familiar ground. You can have some fun guessing whether someone’s cover of “White Christmas” is going to be patterned after Bing Crosby, or the Drifters version that everyone knows is infinitely better. It’s a safe bet that it will be on 80 percent of the new Christmas albums offered.
Don’t even get us started on the dozens offering up their vision of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” which has become the holiday cousin to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”: a perfectly good song that needs to go away for a while, so we can learn to miss it again.
With all of this in mind, we’ve made a playlist of not just the best holiday tracks to be released in 2018, but one that features just two covers of a previously recorded song.
1. “Clement’s Lament (We’ll See You In the Mall)” by Rodney Crowell
No one knew that the world was in desperate need of a Rodney Crowell Christmas album until we received it. The legendary country singer-songwriter has long been perturbed by the commercialism that surrounds the holidays, and his sarcastic wit is on display in this opening track to his “Christmas Everywhere.” Laugh along in the shared experience of acknowledging that “the season starts in August now.”
2. “Bad Kid” by JD McPherson
If anyone has ever wondered, “What would a prequel to Bo Diddley’s 1956 hit “Who Do You Love?” sound like?” we have your answer in JD McPherson’s “Bad Kid.” The track from his stellar “Socks” holiday album is sung from the viewpoint of a tyke who asks for nothing more than a stocking full of “kerosene, matches and wood.” This rockabilly-leaning tune is what you’ll wish was playing every time “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” comes on the air.
3. “Give Love on Christmas Day” by PJ Morton
R&B performer PJ Morton caps off a stellar year that began with a pair of Grammy Award nominations (Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song) with an album that is evocative of the work the aforementioned Hathaway was producing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This song, originated by the Jackson 5 and one of two remakes on our list, is definitely the most soulful of those listed thus far, with vocals that make this deserving of repeat plays over the coming years.
4. “Christmas Time (Is Coming ‘Round Again)” by The Mavericks
One of the more rollicking holiday releases this season, the Mavericks’ “Hey! Merry Christmas!” would make a fine playlist for any office party on its own, as it is packed to the gills with infectious songs that will put a smile on anyone’s face. That being said, this is the tune that most lends itself to unfortunate moments of spontaneous dancing from coworkers, which is what most of us are really showing up for.
5 and 6. “What Would Santa Do” and “House of Broken Gingerbread” by The Monkees
Yes, we were as surprised as you are to learn that The Monkees released a Christmas album, “Christmas Party,” this year. Even more surprising: It features a surprising array of contemporary rock figures collaborating with the band — with surviving members Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork — on several of the tunes, and is one of the cooler albums to be released overall in 2018.
“What Would Santa Do” is the result of the band enlisting Weezer (“The Sweater Song”) frontman Rivers Cuomo to create a song for the album, and boy, did he ever. Featuring a man who has been kicked around all Christmas long, this is the flip side of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” as our narrator walks inside at one point, only to overhear the jolly old elf delivering presents far from the Christmas tree.
“House of Broken Gingerbread” is stunning in its presentation of a story seldom told through music: the child of a divorced couple confronting another holiday he’ll have to celebrate twice. The literary quality of the lyrics make sense, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) helped cowrite the song with Fountain of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger.
7. “I am the Grinch” by Tyler, the Creator
An updated version of the animated classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!” calls for an updated version of the theme song. But Tyler, the Creator surprises by flipping the script on the original here. While the earlier version was sung from the viewpoint of a critic to the Grinch’s behavior, here, Tyler gives us a song where the Grinch revels in his notoriety, as well as the only entry on this list to feature someone being accused of being problematic.
8. “My Old Santa Claus” by Sia
This is the tale of two reissues. While Gwen Stefani’s 2017 holiday album “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” returned to shelves this year in a special deluxe edition, none of the five new tracks make up for the cheese factor found in the title track duet with country singer (and her boyfriend), Blake Shelton.
Meanwhile, Sia’s “Everyday Is Christmas,” originally released in 2017, returns with three new songs, and each of them are a home run. I specifically mention “My Old Santa Claus” because upon one listen, you realize that this has the timeless pop feel that Stefani hoped for on her own disc, and most likely Sia looked at it as just busy work on a slow day.
9. “I Got Your Christmas Right Here” by Aloe Blacc
Soul artist Blacc (“I Need a Dollar”) gave listeners his “Christmas Funk” album this year, but with our ninth song on this list, he also gives us a chance to slow dance on top of all the torn-apart gift wrap covering the living room floor. This sweet song, “Right Here,” is a chance to tell your loved one that you’ve “been spending the whole day/thinking how special you are.”
10. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Rachel Potter and Lucie Silvas
This is our only entry that isn’t an original, but hey, what better way to wrap things up than the song that makes everyone count their blessings each winter? Potter is an incredible vocalist, and the former “X Factor” finalist gave us a late gift in Music City Christmas, released on Dec. 7.
The EP features collaborations with a host of talents from Nashville, but none come close to the coalescing of abilities you’ll find here with British singer-songwriter Silvas (“Letters to Ghosts”). While we’ve often heard these melancholy lyrics sung, never have they featured the hypnotizing harmonies on display on this cut.