Part of what makes Christmas music so irritating is also what makes it appealing. It’s the white toast of music: comforting, readily available, and easy to make, but mostly bland. Still, even though the market is saturated, each year sees loads of new Christmas albums, because the payoff for a popular holiday song can be huge. By 2013, Mariah Carey had reportedly earned $50 million in royalties for her 1994 track “All I Want For Christmas is You,” and each year brings yet another occasion for us to listen to it — and make money for her — all over again. Thing is, when the realization hits that you’ve heard “All I Want For Christmas is You” 37 times in one day just by existing in public, the thought of listening to more Christmas music might make you twitch. But by ignoring the genre entirely, you miss dozens of albums every year, and the chance to throne a new classic.
So I went on the hunt to find options for anyone who still wants holiday cheer, but is sick of listening to Nat King Cole yammer on about chestnuts. And I stuck to the new stuff, which means it was a delightful, chintzy slog through more “Jingle Bells” remixes than one person should have to endure. Here are seven Christmas albums that came out in 2016 — some good, some bad, but all pretty darn merry.
The Christmas album is a rite of passage for any pop star. Now that Musgraves has two fairly popular LPs in the bag, industry etiquette dictates it’s time for her to get that rite out of the way. I came into this album optimistic — Musgraves has previously managed to make contemporary country both friendly and wry — but Christmas music has an unfortunate way of smoothing over quirks with cheer, and that’s what happens on A Very Kacey Christmas. The songs that are listenable, like the wistful “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” don’t sound like Christmas songs. The ones that sound festive, like the plucky “A Willie Nice Christmas” (Willie as in Nelson), have lyrics like, “I hope you have a really, really, really, Willie nice Christmas.” Do with that what you will; I’m putting it in the garbage.
Highlight: “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Ah, the question on everybody’s lips come December 26th. This track is classic Kacey Musgraves relatable-ness. It’s also a drunk-and-alone country song, which is a nice antidote to this season’s general air of gluttony.
Somehow, this is Kylie Minogue’s first Christmas album, but apparently she had a lot of ideas in storage, because it’s 22 tracks long. And 22 long tracks, one of which is “Santa Baby.” Which is a good example of what to expect from this album: gooey, squirmy vocals, disco keyboards, and fluffy percussion. Basically, classic Christmas songs refurbished for a Las Vegas stage. The album is about equally padded with classics, like a pretty faithful cover of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” and originals, like a murmury ballad called “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good).”
Highlight: “Santa Claus is Coming To Town (feat. Frank Sinatra)” Pay close attention to that parenthetical, because, Minogue has somehow managed to duet with a dead man. Okay, the most likely scenario is that they just stuck an old Sinatra recording in there, but I love the idea that Christmas isn’t Christmas unless someone’s reanimated a deceased pop culture icon with a questionable history.
The Return of East Atlanta Santa is Gucci Mane’s fifth project so far this year, and lucky for us, it’s Christmas-themed, kinda. Holiday references include “trapping in the snow,” walking on water (if you consider any mention of Jesus to be implicitly Christmas-y), and a Drake feature in which he raps about being both drunk and high. (It’s party season, baby!) Gucci Mane may be the East Atlanta Santa, but his presents aren’t quite seasonal. It’s a skittery, smirky tape, but you’d have a hard time making the case that it’s an Xmas classic.
Highlight: “Both (feat. Drake)” It might not be a heart-warmer, but this track takes advantage of Guwop and Drake’s strong points: playful trap beats and late-night reminiscing, respectively.
Although I considered leaving this one off the list, I ultimately decided that it didn’t make any sense to ignore NOW’s contribution to the canon. Nothing says “Christmas” like an as-seen-on-TV compilation album. But this album doesn’t follow the usual NOW format of “popular songs that came out this year, all in one place.” Most of the songs on That’s What I Call Merry Christmas are years old, like Elvis Presley's “Blue Christmas” and a 2006 Josh Groban cover of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” (Side note: Why does Josh Groban always sound like he’s in the scene right before the romantic climax in a Broadway musical?) A collection like this, which is mostly covers of recognizable songs by recognizable musicians, is almost too predictable to be considered good or bad. But it is 20 tracks long, and the word “Christmas” appears a lot, so… it delivers on its title?
Highlight: Justin Bieber, “Mistletoe” As one of the only originals on this album, “Mistletoe” takes the crown here, even though Bieber’s croon is so slick, he risks sounding like he’s reciting a nursery rhyme.
Did you know the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is an all-volunteer choir? Found that out on Wikipedia. I thought it’d be good to check out this release so readers who don’t like pop stars all over their Christmas joy have an option, too. This sounds like the kind of music that would play in a church. (I say this as a person who has rarely been inside a church.) It’s kind of apocalyptic when they all get in there and harmonize, but apocalyptic in a festive way. Their frantic version of “Carol of the Bells” is the song that’s gonna be playing when the ship goes down, right?
Highlight: “Silent Night” This is one of those songs that just lends itself to massive angelic choirs paired with the most delicate string arrangements. Without songs like “Silent Night,” would the Mormon Tabernacle Choir be resigned to doing covers of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”?
Over here we have an album on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Mormons. Not classic (yet), and you probably wouldn’t hear it played in a church. For starters, it opens with a Cam’ron track that begins with him yelling, “Merry Christmas, motherfuckers!” It only gets better (and worse) from there. Chingy has a song called “Chingy’s Christmas.” The Ying Yang Twins (the gosh dang Ying Yang Twins!) have a song called “Ho Ho Ho” — they basically just yell the entire time! Khia’s rapped remix of “Santa Baby” is actually great (trippy and tough, not beholden to the original’s infantile sound) but you have to get through 27 other tracks before you get there.
Highlight: “Surviving Christmas” by Kool Moe Dee. This one’s an oddball among a big group of oddballs. Kool turns a sample of “Carol of the Bells” into a nightmarish tale of cold weather, greed, and loneliness.
Apparently, The Killers have released a Christmas song every year for the past decade. (The proceeds always go to Bono’s RED foundation.) The cheerily named Don’t Waste Your Wishes is a compilation of all those releases. The album is admittedly catchy, but it sounds more like a Killers greatest-hits album than a Killers greatest-carols collection. Oh, and there’s the small matter that this album is an Apple Music exclusive. Spread holiday cheer to one and… to Apple Music subscribers!
Highlight: “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” Frontman Brandon Flowers spins a strange tale where he runs into Santa Claus and the big guy threatens him with a gun. Santa, in a gruff yalp, gets to tell his side of the story, too, which is that he has no choice but to murder poor Brandon. Guess it’s not so easy being a mythological gift-giver!
I didn’t realize it before, but I guess Chance is also at the career milestone that warrants a Christmas album. Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is a collaboration with Jeremih featuring all original tracks. Chano and Jeremih are both subdued and cozy here (On “Joy,” a nostalgic track about a place that might not exist, Chance sounds like he just woke up from a nap). To balance out the sweetness, Hannibal Buress makes a surprise appearance early on: “Oh I love Christmas, being obligated to buy shit for people at a certain time of the year.”
Highlight: “Snowed In” A song about what you can do when you’re stuck inside with only one other person (wink, wink). Jeremih is at his ceiling here, velvety and warm, which, when you think about it, is pretty perfect for a snow day. If you listen to one song from this list, it should probably be this one.
Okay, holiday-heads, let’s regroup: we’ve got a country album that doesn’t quite get to Christmas, a disco album that would sound out of place around a yuletide, a hip-hop mixtape that leaves only a vague Santa Claus impression, a predictable NOW compilation, a scheming choir of holy Christmas volunteers, the return of the Ying Yang Twins, a collection of songs that sound like “Mr. Brightside” drank too much eggnog, and a last-minute Chance the Rapper entry. Still, it’s about what I expected from the record-label elves — a lot of variety and no clear winner. Looks like we can’t overthrow Mariah just yet.