There’s a lot of music out there. To help you cut through all the noise, every week The A.V. Club is rounding up A-Sides, five recent releases we think are worth your time. You can listen to these and more on our Spotify playlist.
Today, we highlight some of 2019’s most enjoyable seasonal celebrations and subversions.
Kacey Musgraves, The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show
Dolly Parton has yet another Christmas movie premiering on the Hallmark Channel this month, and Dolly’s spiritual daughter Kacey Musgraves follows in her footsteps—albeit in a more millennial form—with The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Special on Amazon Prime. The special and accompanying album mostly consist of tongue-in-cheek retro kitsch, as Kacey sings duets of classic Christmas songs with celebrity guests that include Lana Del Rey, Zooey Deschanel, and Leon Bridges. (The album also includes narrative interludes, just to make sure the experience is sufficiently campy.) But there are also a handful of originals sprinkled onto The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Special like so much powdered sugar. And while new song “Glittery” twinkles like Christmas lights in the snow, Musgraves’ most beautiful composition is the ballad “Christmas Makes Me Cry,” originally from her 2016 album A Very Kacey Christmas. Soft and simple with a heartbreakingly lovely melody, the song speaks directly to anyone who, as Kacey puts it “might be feeling a little bit lonely” over the holidays, making them feel a little less alone in the process. [Katie Rife]
Lucy Dacus, “Last Christmas”
Wham’s 1984 mega-hit “Last Christmas” has been covered approximately a kajillion times over the years, with everyone from Gwen Stefani to Ariana Grande to Carly Rae Jepsen to Crazy Frog putting their spin on it. Considering the dearth of decent contemporary Christmas songs, it’s no wonder, but that also means it’s hard to bring something new to George Michael’s holiday tale of lovelorn woe. Lacy Dacus—she of the supergroup Boygenius as well as a killer solo career—injects the syrupy song with some punk energy, turning the verses into distorted little spoken-word segments and pushing the tempo somewhere near twice the original’s. It’s still pretty faithful to the original—it’d be a fool’s errand to try and improve that vocal melody—but with a spin worth hearing, especially if you’ve already heard the original and its many faithful covers more times than you can count. [Josh Modell]
Andrew Bird, Hark!
Two album releases from Andrew Bird in one year feels like a gift, and even more so when one of those is geared toward the holidays. Hark! is the exceedingly accomplished multi-instrumentalist’s first contribution to the canon of wintry revelry music, but it’s just as carefully cultivated as any of his other offerings. Nothing captures the forlorn beauty of winter like violin strings, which, on Bird’s cover of “Oh Holy Night,” are both brittle and pulsing with the snow-covered life that’s ready to reemerge. But consider soundtracking your holiday party with “Christmas Is Coming,” and its bouncy piano notes that pay homage to the Peanuts album that first inspired Bird to make music for the most wonderful (and coldest) time of the year, or the equally lovely and thematically relevant, “Alabaster.” [Danette Chavez]
Sharon Van Etten, “Silent Night”
“Silent Night” has never been the most uplifting or catchy of holiday ditties, its somber liturgical mood better for soundtracking nativity scenes, or the ends of Christmas-themed TV episodes where the main character realizes that, hey, maybe there’s something to this faith thing, after all. But rather than reworking it into some bold new variant, Sharon Van Etten locates the pure pulsing core of the song, and strips it of everything else. Leave it to an artist so adept at coaxing sadness out of simplicity to find a way to make “Silent Night” sound heartbreakingly fragile: With little more than a heartbeat of a synth and the fewest notes possible, she turns the Christ-based music into a tragedy of belief, her Low-like interpretation the sound of someone turning to a bedrock of hope in their darkest hour. It’s haunting and tragic—two and a half minutes of bittersweet holiday beauty. [Alex McLevy]
The Essex Green, “Green Christmas”
The Essex Green has always specialized in bittersweet earworm pop—“Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” has been stuck in my head since its 2006 release—so the idea of the Brooklyn band releasing a Christmas song comes as no surprise. “Green Christmas,” from Merge Records’ holiday comp You Wish, is classic Essex Green: guitars chime, background vocals provide ghostly but sweet counterpoint, and lead singer/guitarist Chris Ziter’s voice sounds equally weary and comforting. While the band sings “Christmastime is coming” in warm harmony over descending chords, the song sums up how many of us feel this time of year: exhausted, overwhelmed, and grateful. The song’s main concept isn’t exactly new—Christmas is coming, and everything isn’t jolly as it should be—but like most Essex Green songs, the band takes tropes and traditions and injects them with newfound energy and perspective. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? [David Brusie]