5 Ultra-Hip Holiday Albums

5 ultra-hip holiday albums
5 ultra-hip holiday albums

It’s no secret that Christmas songs are typically unfeeling and un-hip. In the mall or even at a party, the corny sounds of FaLaLaLaLa’s and Jingle Bells abound this time of year, putting our sanity-and holiday spirit-to the test. Fortunately, the holiday album pile isn’t pure schmaltz- here are a few gems that will melt your heart, and keep your inner music critic satisfied at the same time:

She and Him
A Very She and Him Christmas

What do you get when the sweet and quirky thespian Zooey Deschanel performs Christmas classics with M. Ward, a long time singer songwriter who has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music? One cool, yet traditional Christmas album, that won’t drive you or your loved ones nuts during the holidaze. Deschanel croons with just as much sugary charm as she performs onscreen, while Ward is a balancing force with his non-saccharine vocals and simple guitar chords. Most of the tunes are Christmas standards, with the exception of a few more modern tracks that have a retro cachet, such as “Little Saint Nick”, written by Brian Wilson and “Blue Christmas”, a song made famous by Elvis Presley’s rendition of it. The 12 tunes will turn any Grinch’s smile upside down.

The Leevees
Hanukkah Rocks

If there are few cool Christmas albums available, one could argue there are even less cool Hanukkah albums on the shelves. One exception to that rule however is The Leevees’ holiday offering, courtesy of Guster guitarist/vocalist Adam Gardener and Dave Schneider of The Zambonis, a Connecticut based pop punk band that sings songs about-you guessed it- hockey. On their album Hanukkah Rocks, you will find lively indie rock songs that are packed with poppy goodness and self-deprecating Jewish wit. From “How Do you Spell Channukkah?” to “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream” to “At The Time Share”… the tracks are playful and show off the fun (and delicious) aspects of Jewish culture. In fact one song, “Goyim Friends” reaches out to their non-Jewish comrades with their chuckle-inducing comparison of the two contrasting traditions. The Leevees perfect pairing of humour and likeable pop rock is a welcome relief during a time when Hanukkah is often overshadowed by the giant force of Christmas that takes over the airwaves. Hanukkah does rock, indeed.

Aimee Mann
One More Drifter in the Snow

You wouldn’t think a singer known for her depressing tunes would produce a must-have Christmas-themed album. But, Aimee Mann’s holiday offering is filled with grace: her emoting is genuine, and she doesn’t force the feeling. That’s not to say that the album is ideal for playing at bustling party… best save this one for a more intimate occasion. Like the conclusion in Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Mann shows us that Christmas cannot in fact be stolen- it comes even though things are less than ideal. (This is an apt metaphor too, since “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” appears on the album, narrated by fellow folk singer songwriter Grant Lee Phillips, front-man for alternative rock band Grant Lee Buffalo) Traditional tracks like “White Christmas”, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” are more jazzy and guitar heavy, while “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” is steadied by a solid drum and horn beat with some pretty bell sounds throughout. “Calling on Mary” and “Christmastime” are the lone original compositions. On the first track of the album, “Whatever happened to Christmas?” originally sung, by Frank Sinatra, Mann asks: ‘Whatever happened to Christmas? It’s gone, and left no traces.’ Which, let’s be honest, is what many of us are thinking this time of year -and it’s a relief to hear someone as earnest as Mann say it.

Low’s Christmas is a pure, undecorated, yet shining tribute to a holiday that has lost its way. It’s no easy feat to record renditions of “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy”-standards that have been played to death-and to have them sound like brand new songs. But, the married Mormon couple really mean what they are singing. Religious or not, Sparhawk and Parker produce a cool sound that is not often associated with quote-unquote Christian music. The opening track, “Just Like Christmas”, is Motown-inspired, complete with a wall of jangly bells layered on top of Parker’s full bodied feminine vocals, while “The Little Drummer Boy” is dripping with ambient sound, and a super slowed down drum beat, almost reminiscent of fellow slow-paced noise band, My Bloody Valentine. This album is considered by most rock critics as the go-to Christmas album for cool content, even though Christmas and “cool” are not usually considered synonymous terms. Ironically, this is precisely why Low’s Christmas is cool-it manages to cut through the phony bullshit to produce a pearl of a sound that stays true to the spirit of Christmas and to the ethic or creative musicianship at the same time.

Sufjan Stevens
Songs for Christmas

If you’re sick to death of the same old trite Christmas albums proclaiming sticky-sweet emotions, release your inner Scrooge and give this album a spin. It may make you fall in love with Christmas again. At the very least, this album definitely won’t leave you indifferent. Unlike most Christmas albums, Songs for Christmas is anything but boring-it ‘s heartfelt, magical and sparkling with instrumentation. In fact, the songs are quite literally gifts. This box set contains 5 separate EP’s of 39 songs that were recorded as presents for Sufjan’s friends and family from 2001 to 2006. It’s a Christmas package down to the token goodies inside the box set, which include an animated short, an essay, a poster of Sufjan Stevens, stickers, comics and a sing-a-long book (with chords) for all five discs. Not that its needed-this album is already filled with musical gifts -like the traditional “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” to quirkier original compositions like the punny “Get Behind Me Santa” and the moving “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved it)”. Sufjan clearly loves Christmas-and for those who love Sufjan, or even those who haven’t yet converted to his special brand of jingly folk, will find their interest at least piqued. Unlike most artists who release half-assed albums to make a buck at Christmas, Stevens treats this album with care and craft, and as a result, it’s a miracle work.

Andrea Pare

Andrea Pare is a Montreal-born, Toronto transplanted writer of all things music and culture and arts-related.

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