There are three ways to make a Christmas album. There's the "casino token" approach, where a performer cashes in on celebrity by making a conventional, predictable holiday record that fans buy out of loyalty. There's the "contest trophy" approach, where a performer loads up each song with as much vocal extravagance, industrial rhythm, and melodramatic earnestness as possible, as if competing on American Idol. Then there's the "artistic license" approach. Figuring that a Christmas album won't face the usual pressures to generate singles and reviews, a few performers seize the chance to loosen up and show another side of their musical personality.
For a very few, that freedom inspires some of the greatest performances of their careers. The bluesman Charles Brown, for instance, was never better than when singing his two holiday hits, "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "Merry Christmas, Baby." Elvis Presley never sounded stronger or sexier than on his seven-minute version of the latter song. The 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is the producer's greatest achievement. Chrissie Hynde has never been as heartbreaking as she is when singing the Pretenders' two holiday numbers, "2,000 Miles" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Hynde's ex-boyfriend Ray Davies funneled his most potent blast of class warfare into the Kinks' holiday single, "Father Christmas." Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas is the singer's finest solo album, because, for once, he discards his chart-consciousness and digs deep into his New Orleans R&B roots.
None of this year's new holiday recordings attain those peaks of perfection, but a few come close, and one box set offers the ultimate exploration of the complicated relationship between Jews and Christmas. There are, of course, casino-token holiday projects from the geezer-rock band Chicago, Jay and the Americans singer Kenny Vance, the country quartet the Oak Ridge Boys, Alvin and the Chipmunks, country newcomer Scott McCreery, and country superstars Lady Antebellum. And there are contest-trophy Christmas records from the Glee TV cast, the cable-TV network Nickelodeon, and such pop divas as Carly Rae Jepsen, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Grace Potter, and Carrie Underwood on Now That's What I Call Today's Christmas. To be fair, the latter album does include lovely, understated, downloadable, acoustic-piano tracks from Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, and Lady Gaga.
One multi-artist collection that really shines, however, is Holidays Rule. Curated by Chris Funk and Sara Matarazzo-multi-instrumentalist for the Decemberists and Wes Anderson's music coordinator, respectively-this compilation extends artistic license to such roots-rock acts as the Civil Wars, Andrew Bird, and Calexico, and such genuine pop stars as fun., the Shins, and Paul McCartney, allowing them to strip away the clutter from their music and present unadorned, unusually emotional vocals. McCartney shows up twice: as the composer of "Wonderful Christmastime," given a Beatlesque treatment by the Shins; and as the singer of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," backed by Diana Krall's acoustic jazz quartet. The Punch Brothers turn in an exquisite string-band treatment of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
Holidays Rule is at its best when it pairs acts that don't normally perform together. Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, for example, render a sly, sexy "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with nothing but two voices and an acoustic piano. Legendary New Orleans R&B singer Irma Thomas is backed by that city's trad-jazz heroes, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, on Louis Jordan's infectious "May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas." And Funk's side project, Black Prairie, backs up-and-coming singer Sallie Ford on a stomping, accordion-driven, string-band version of "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man with the Bag."
As good as this collection is, it doesn't do much to introduce new compositions into the Christmas repertoire. The most interesting new album in that respect is Any Given Day, the ninth album from Chicago roots-rocker Emily Hurd, sort of a cross between Iris DeMent and Carole King. Hurd has written 10 brand-new songs for the holiday, and if she sometimes falls prey to the seasonal hazard of excessive earnestness, she more often constructs sturdy tunes and memorable turns of phrase. It's not difficult to imagine songs such as "Cold Outside," "Heart of Snow," and the title track getting covered by other artists in the years to come.
'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights is an ingenious package from the Idelsohn Society, the smart, witty musicologists who gave us Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations in 2010. This new package-featuring 34 tracks and a 36-page booklet with essays from Greil Marcus and others-presents one CD of Chanukah songs (sung by both Jews and Gentiles) and another CD of such Jews as Bob Dylan, Joey Ramone, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mel Torme performing Christmas songs. The spirit of the whole affair is summed up by the booklet's opening quote from Philip Roth on the oddity of a Jew writing "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas": "What does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. . . . He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely! So nicely the goyim don't even know what hit 'em."
Musically, the collection is hit-and-miss. Woody Guthrie, a Gentile whose second wife was Jewish, wrote a bunch of Chanukah songs; this collection includes one sung by himself and another performed by the Klezmatics. Other highlights include Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt's early 20th century "Yevonim," Flory Jagoda's Sephardic folk song "Ocho Kandelikas," clarinetist Mickey Katz's Klezmer instrumental "Grandma's Dreidel," the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)," Benny Goodman's jazz instrumental "Santa Claus Came in the Spring," Mel Torme's version of his co-written "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," and a version of "Iko Iko" (retitled "Dreidel") by members of the North Mississippi Allstars, the Black Crowes, the Sway Machinery, Balkan Beat Box, and Comets on Fire.
The collection is more fascinating sociologically. The booklet is a good read, as it explains how American Jews, when they weren't co-opting Christmas from the goyim, were artificially building up a previously minor Jewish holiday to rival the Gentiles' own festival of lights and shopping. There's something downright bizarre about both Don McLean's wacky, obviously non-Jewish top-25 pop single "Dreidel" and Jewish actor Stanley Adams rewriting well-known Christmas carols with Sid Wayne on 1962's Chanukah Carols. And the sound of Dylan earnestly half-reciting, half-singing "Little Drummer Boy" is so strange that it transcends questions of good and bad.