Christmas albums are tricky things. Strike gold and you’ve got a pay cheque for life. Get it wrong and it’s forgotten by the time the season rolls around again. They can be charmless, phoned-in collections of standards (the Michael Bublé route), shameless attempts to add new songs to the canon (Leona Lewis and Kelly Clarkson both tried recently; Mariah Carey has a pop every couple of years), or a genuine celebration of the season (Sufjan Stevens writes a low-key Christmas album every year for family and friends). Whatever the motivation, stars make an annual grab for the tinselly pound, and you suspect most musicians reckon there’s a Christmas classic inside them. Will the class of Christmas 2017 still be soundtracking the sherry this time next year? Probably not, if we’re honest.
Gwen Stefani’s You Make It Feel Like Christmas justifies its title only because it’s both cloyingly sentimental and charmlessly tacky. The fun in Jingle Bells is in singing it, not listening, and no amount of faux rat-pack swing is going to make it any more appealing. Her Santa Baby, like versions by Kylie, Madonna and Ariana Grande, bloodlessly retreads Eartha Kitt; Let It Snow tries to swing but misses; and adding a 60s girl-group sheen to Wham!’s Last Christmas and a key change to Silent Night (which has rubbed along fine without one for 200 years, thanks) is more evidence of Stefani’s tendency to over-fig the pudding.
Thank the baby Jesus, then, for Sia’s Everyday Is Christmas. If Stefani’s album was a phoned-in Holiday Special, Australia’s top pop export takes things the other way with no standards and a bare minimum of sleigh bells. It succeeds by funnelling the turkey and trimmings through its star; this isn’t just a Christmas record, it’s first of all a Sia record. There’s joyful bounce aplenty in singles Ho Ho Ho and Candy Cane Lane, while Snowman, in which the singer tries to stop her literally frozen boyfriend from melting, and Underneath the Mistletoe are as good as any ballad Sia has delivered. Stefani’s record could have been made by anybody. This one is uniquely Sia.
Back in 1997, the Hanson brothers, riding high on their Mmmbop! fame, released their first Christmas album, Snowed In. Though rarely bothering the charts since, the trio have never stopped making music, and mark the anniversary of their commercial peak with Finally It’s Christmas, an album as forgettable as the past two decades of their career. There’s a passable run at the Eagles’s Please Come Home for Christmas, a too-sugary take on All I Want for Christmas Is You, and a chirpy version of Wonderful Christmastime that shoehorns in a brand new chorus. You’d admire the chutzpah of rewriting Paul McCartney if the result weren’t so bland.
At least Chicago rock veterans Cheap Trick know how to have a good time. Their album Christmas Christmas swings for the same sonic space as Hanson but does it with far more unpolished fun. You can feel the proper, boozy cheer as the band jam the faders up and rock out unashamedly on Chuck Berry’s Run Run Rudolph and the Ramones’s Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight). American audiences aren’t generally familiar with the British glam classics, so the band allow themselves faithfully joyous takes on both I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Merry Xmas Everybody. It’s an unselfconscious blast.
People ask for lots of strange things for Christmas, but you’d be surprised to find anyone wishing desperately for the singer from Keane to cover East 17’s Stay Another Day. Yet here we are. Tom Chaplin’s Twelve Tales of Christmas is likable enough, though his original songs will exit your brain as quickly as they enter it. His pleasant and plaintive vocal works on a stripped-down Walking In the Air, but the Pretenders’s 2,000 Miles is charmless, and his voice lacks the depth needed to do justice to Joni Mitchell’s classic River. Ultimately, it’s thin stuff.
If Hanson’s cover of All I Want for Christmas Is You isn’t enough, the soundtrack album to Mariah Carey’s animated movie of the same name adds another two – Carey’s original and a near identical version taken from the film. A handful of Carey’s Christmas songs, including an unremarkable new one and a few sub-High School Musical tunes from the movie, are harmless enough, but this is inessential for anyone over the age of seven.
Finally, there’s Elvis Presley’s Elvis Christmas, showing us how it’s done. The sentimentality of the season lends itself to tracks that use Presley’s original vocals over a new score by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. There’s not much levity, save for the opening swing of Santa Claus Is Back in Town, but Presley’s voice on the gospel carols is untouchable. Whether the new arrangements really add much is up for debate, but as a soundtrack to dinner on the big day, you won’t find much finer.