The 2020 No Depression Guide to Holiday Music That Doesn’t Suck
A lot of traditions have had to be laid aside in this giant bummer of a year, but a slew of new holiday music releases isn’t one of them. To help you wade through all the shiny paper and twinkling lights and get right to the good stuff, No Depression writers once again offer their favorite new roots music releases for the holiday. You can check them out below, and in our 2020 Holiday Music That Doesn’t Suck playlist on Spotify!
Calexico – Seasonal Shift
In this totally unprecedented year of 2020, why not shirk tradition and feast your ears on some less traditional holiday music? This is the message behind Calexico’s Seasonal Shift, a collection of 10 tunes that embrace the inevitable cocktail of emotions that come with this time of year: togetherness and warmth, loneliness and solitude, immense joy, immense dread. Whatever December does to you, it will no doubt look a bit different after the last several months of the “new normal,” and Seasonal Shift is just the thing to get you through it.
Aside from a few familiar covers, including a quieter take on John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and a driving, swoony version of Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” Seasonal Shift finds the beauty in all kinds of celebrations in true Southwestern Calexico fashion. Portuguese and Mexican folk-inspired bops featuring the loveliest guest vocalists mingle with true holiday originals like the euphoric “Hear the Bells” and the cheeky “Peace of Mind.” Heartwarming horns and the soothing, merry-making harmonies of Joey Burns and John Convertino prove to be a grounding mood booster in a time when we surely need it most. — Maeri Ferguson
Hear the Bells
Christmas All Over Again (Tom Petty cover)
Dolly Parton – A Holly Dolly Christmas
What’s better than a passel of Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel and a bevy of Christmas specials to get us in the mood for the season? Why, a new Dolly Parton Christmas album, of course! Her first holiday album in 30 years (she released Home for Christmas in 1990), A Holly Dolly Christmas takes its lead from one of her favorite songs — and the opening track — Johnny Marks’ perennial favorite “Holly Jolly Christmas,” which she turns into an up-tempo country waltz complete with steel guitars and fiddles, warmly inviting us into her festive holiday world.
The album features five Parton originals, including the bluegrass Christmas hoedown “Christmas on the Square,” as well as the soulful, gospel-inflected “Christmas Is,” featuring a duet with Miley Cyrus. Other highlights include a poignant duet with Willie Nelson on his standard, “Pretty Paper” (he also plays guitar on the song), a shining pop country duet with Billy Ray Cyrus on the Jada Roberts and Barry Jobe-penned “Christmas Where We Are,” and a touching version of Mark Lowery and Buddy Greene’s now-classic “Mary, Did You Know?” The album’s standout, though, may be Parton’s duet with Jimmy Fallon on a rousing, humorous, and soaring take on “All I Want for Christmas is You.” — Henry Carrigan
All I Want for Christmas Is You (with Jimmy Fallon)
Christmas on the Square
Mary, Did You Know?
Andrew Bird – HARK!
There’s more to the holidays than jingle bells and sleigh rides. As perhaps we can appreciate this year more than any other, the real magic is in the stillness amid all the bustle, and that cozy feeling is at the heart of Andrew Bird’s HARK!, a full-length expansion of last year’s six-song EP of the same name.
Alongside his thoughtful renditions of classics like “White Christmas,” “Oh Holy Night,” and Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Skating,” Bird nestles John Cale’s “Andalucia” and John Prine’s “Souvenirs.” It might look surprising on a track list, but in your ears they work together perfectly, with lyrics that reference the season but, more than that, give voice to the wistfulness that the end of the year can bring.
Bird original “Christmas in April” captures the struggle of looking ahead in 2020, going charmingly meta about “writing a song about Christmas in April this year” and holding out hope that the “winds blow away all our fear.” As we wait out the storm here at the end of year, HARK! offers songs to celebrate the quiet moments inside. — Stacy Chandler
Andalucia (John Cale cover)
Christmas in April
Auld Lang Syne
Kelly Finnigan – A Joyful Sound
Sure, 2020 has been a real downer of a year, but it’s the holidays and there’s still a lot worth celebrating. Kelly Finnigan reminds us of this on his newest LP, the seasonally appropriate A Joyful Sound. Bearing gifts in the form of soulful vocals, super slick falsettos, and backing support by members of the Dap-Kings, Durand Jones and The Indications, and The True Loves (to name just a few), Finnigan offers up 11 sweet holiday-themed tracks for all the good boys and girls out there.
A Joyful Sound calls to mind a few ’60s and ’70s Yuletide classics like A Motown Christmas and Atlantic Records’ Soul Christmas. On this album of all-original fare, Finnigan pairs familiar holiday topics with eminently danceable grooves that touch on the wide range of sounds within the soul music genre, from the Philly soul stylings of “Merry Christmas to You” to the gritty Southern thrust of “Santa’s Watching You” and the Temptations-esque “Heartbreak for Christmas.”
If you’re looking to keep Jack Frost from nipping at your toes and want to get those chestnuts roasting with a winter soul party, look no further than A Joyful Sound. — Jim Shahen
Just One Kiss
The Miracle is Here
Santa’s Watching You
Grant-Lee Phillips – Yuletide [EP]
Like a charming handmade ornament tucked away on a grand Christmas tree, Grant-Lee Phillips’ humble Yuletide is a soothing alternative to the forced high spirits of flashier holiday fare. Continuing in the understated vein of his recent standout album, Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff, this four-track, 13-minute offering emphasizes the sweeter side of Phillips’ deceptively versatile voice, allowing him to play the gentle crooner to perfection.
The delicate “Winterglow,” the sole original song, is a gorgeous ode to stillness and would sound good any time of the year. Thoughtful renditions of the less-obvious chestnuts “Take Me Back to Toyland” and “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” evoke a quiet longing for something better, mixing equal parts of uplift and regret. Remarkably, Phillips even breathes fresh life into the shopworn New Year’s Eve staple “Auld Lang Syne,” adding new lyrics that look ahead to “the time when peace returns,” closing the proceedings on a lovely note of hope. – Jon Young
Auld Lang Syne
Tom Mason – Under a Mistletoe Sky
No Christmas party this year will be complete without Tom Mason’s bluesy, rocking album. The opener, “Crazy for Christmas,” slithers in on Mason’s resonator guitar, riffing on “Joy to the World” in the intro and slinking jazzily along a funky New Orleans rhythm. The title track rocks steady, rolling high on the waves of Michael Webb’s cascading piano with Mason’s slide snaking around “O Holy Night” on the instrumental bridge, while the Afro-Cuban take on the sonic phrasing of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in “Christmas Boogaloo” weaves a somber, yet joyful, message of the season: “Let’s love everybody.”
The Chuck Berry rocker “Come On Mr. Claus” scampers along Mason’s blazing lead riffs, while Elvis comes alive musically in “Little Elvis, King of the Elves.” The album closes with the blues shuffle “Christmas in Love.” On Under a Mistletoe Sky, Mason, the sly and jolly rock and roll elf, and his merry band of helpers deliver a sack brimming with rollicking songs that keep everybody dancing with the joy of the season. — Henry Carrigan
Santa’s Little Helper
Under a Mistletoe Sky
Various Artists – A Gulf Coast Christmas
Usual recycled holiday ear-canal treacle got you down? Gulf Coast Records has a prescription for your malady. The label’s end-of-seasonal offering features a revved-up run at Christmas by its artist roster stuffed with assorted blues rockers and soulpersons. Label co-founder Mike Zito, also co-founder of the Royal Southern Brotherhood supergroup that featured Zito, Devon Allman, and Cyril Neville, lays down one of his close-to-the-bone Chuck Berry interpretations on “Run Run Rudolph” as well as the slippery, slide-y, bigfoot pounder “All I Got For Christmas is the Blues.”
Sax soulman Jimmy Carpenter shows off his vocal hipness on his Willie Dixon-themed ’70s Stax-soaked soulfunk take on Clarence’s Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” The Proven Ones’ lineup of crusty vets culled from blues institutions including The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Sugar Ray and The Bluetones lays down a bluesy, raucous redo of Elvis’ 1957 iconic “Blue Christmas” that puts a mighty fine present under the tree. Albert Castiglia hangs up his usual dazzling assortment of Kingly (as in B.B., Albert, and Freddie) guitar pyrotechnic ornaments and Billy Price decorates the tree with garlands of deep-dish soul on “Christmas Comes Only Once a Year.”
You’ll want to keep this one hanging around long after the tree comes down. — Grant Britt
The Proven Ones – “Blue Christmas”
Jimmy Carpenter – “Back Door Santa”
Sayer and Joyce – “Please Come Home for Christmas”
Davy Jones – It’s Christmas Time Once More
In 1991, Davy Jones released It’s Christmas Time Again on cassette. Now producer Chip Douglas, who produced the original cassette, has given us a Christmas gift with the 13 tunes remixed and enhanced for a new generation.
Jones’ smooth vocals lend just the right tone and timbre to this set of Christmas standards. His rocking take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for example, captures the song’s frantic, prancing fancy with Jones’ vocals over John Hoke’s piercing lead guitar and Moon Brown’s saucy alto sax. Mickey Dolenz and his sister, Coco, and rock photographer Henry Diltz — who shot the cover — add scampering vocal energy to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” while Jones’ youngest daughter, Annabel, adds her lush harmony vocals to “White Christmas,” one of the album’s standouts.
The album also features two bonus tracks: the original demo of “White Christmas” and the version of the song that features only Douglas on guitar and Jones’ vocals. It’s Christmas Time Once More makes a nice stocking stuffer for Jones fans. — Henry Carrigan
White Christmas (featuring Annabel Jones)
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
A few other 2020 holiday albums of note:
The Infamous Stringdusters – Dust the Halls: An Acoustic Christmas Holiday
Various Artists – Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse: A Holiday EP from South Louisiana
Michelle Malone and The Hot Toddies – Toddie Time
Tori Amos – Christmastide [EP]
Office Romance – Holidays of Love
No Depression’s Through the Lens column covered even more holiday gems recently. Give that a read (and a look through the accompanying photos) here.
And here are some fantastic singles to stuff your stocking!
Tami Neilson – Pretty Paper
Black Pumas – Christmas Will Really Be Christmas
Margo Price – River
Frank Solivan – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
The Barefoot Movement – I Just Wish It Would Snow
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – Ghost from Christmas Past
Phoebe Bridgers – If We Make It Through December
Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets – Winter Wonderland / Let It Snow
Anthony D’Amato – Merry Christmas, I Guess
Jillette Johnson – Cancel Christmas
Grey DeLisle – O Holy Night
Chandler Holt & Lauren Stovall – Winter Night’s Waltz
The Northern Belle – (Dim Down) The Christmas Lights
Ruston Kelly – O Holy Night
Sierra Ferrell – Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Nicole Atkins – Every Single Christmas
Tony Trischka – Christmas Cheer (This Weary Year)
Mark Erelli – Not Quite Christmas
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn – Christmas Time’s A Comin’ (And I Know I’m Staying Home)
Brennen Leigh – Merry Christmas Asshole
Nicki Bluhm — Everyone’s Getting Love for Christmas
Maggie Rose — Happier New Year