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. Today we’re highlighting our favorite 2018 holiday releases. You can listen to these and more on Spotify.
The worst thing someone can do to a Christmas song—and this happens constantly and people always think they’re being so tasteful—is to take it and make it all slow and sad and nostalgic. Inversely, the absolute coolest thing someone can do to a Christmas song is to make it fucking slap, as John Legend does with “Silver Bells,” a typically plodding, string-laden carol, best crooned to by some guy standing in a park or something. Not so for John Legend, though, who kicks the fucker off with a big swell of strings before riding endless walking bass lines, funk drums, and seas of appreciative backing vocals, utterly remaking it as a Christmas-party classic. It even has a flute solo! This is that shit you steal a relative’s fancy whiskey to. [Clayton Purdom]
The first-ever Drag Race Holi-slay Spectacular may’ve been a little less than spectacular, but its painfully/entertainingly obvious reason for existing—RuPaul’s new holiday album, now available on iTunes—still holds its delights. In particular, “Hey Sis, It’s Christmas” is a cheeky blast, where Ru pulls together a holiday party while gifting us some truly joyful seasonal innuendo. But behind the song’s irresistible beat and Ru’s hilarious delivery (which calls to mind The Mighty Boosh’s “Ice Flow”), “Hey Sis” is a reclamation of a time of year that can be difficult for many LGBTQ folks, who are more likely to be estranged from family and shut out from their holiday gatherings. “Cuppa tea under the tree, tell me what you want / All that you need is a pal and a confidant,” Ru advises. “Family tree is a mess, but I run this C.U.N.T. / Butch it up straight to the back, sissy to the front.” It’s a reminder to hold fast to the chosen families—and the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent—that get us through. [Kelsey J. Waite]
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has always had the feel of a beloved family hand-me-down, from its picture-book source material to its puppets’ weathered wardrobes to the multi-generational VHS dubs that have long been the only way to see the TV special in its original, uncut state. Listening to the music made by Emmet, Ma Otter, and friends required its own type of toolbox-for-dress-fabric bartering; I’ve been carting around some okay-sounding bootlegs of Paul Williams’ Emmet Otter songs for years. But last month presented an alternative to those presumably-ripped-from-DVD tracks: Fully restored and licensed versions of “Brothers,” “Our World,” and “Riverbottom Nightmare Band” on an honest-to-goodness Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas soundtrack. It’s good news for for anyone who’s ever wanted to cherrypick the special for a personal Christmas playlist, but the truth is these songs work regardless of season or denomination. More than any sort of shared hall-decking, holly-and-ivy spirit, the music of Emmet Otter is united by Williams’ gift for lacing the sweetest of melodies with a melancholic kick—just try to listen to that “Our World” intro without tearing up and/or getting goosebumps. The level of craft on display in the special’s visuals is there in the audio, too, with the spotlight of the soundtrack shining especially bright on the vocal talents of Jerry Nelson and Marilyn Sokol. And, of course, “Riverbottom Nightmare Band” totally rips on record, proof that even though the Riverbottom boys are out of step with the morals and overall aesthetic of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, they absolutely deserve to win that talent show. [Erik Adams]
We’re collecting our A-Sides recommendations over on a Spotify playlist updated every Friday. Tune in and subscribe here.
Original holiday songs are difficult to do well, because it’s too easy to reach for overly saccharine sentiments or instrumentation. Love The Holidays, the first seasonal album by Old 97's, unsurprisingly avoids this trap. The diverse (but cohesive) full-length contains the expected twang-rock rave-ups (the horn-peppered title track) and torchy ballads (“I Believe In Santa Claus”), in addition to subtle moments of orchestral-rock grandeur (“Here It Is Christmastime”) and even gentle, psychedelic-country-pop (“Snow Angels”). Best of all, Love The Holidays’ lyrics celebrate the magic of the holiday with no traces of cynicism. “Gotta Love Being A Kid (Merry Christmas)“ captures the childlike wonder of the season, while highlight “Rudolph Was Blue” is a clever love song about the titular reindeer finding his match. Don’t sleep on the album’s bonus tracks, either, which are Old 97's spins on holiday classics, such as the jaunty jig “Up On The Housetop.” [Annie Zaleski]
New Zealand band (and honoree of our 2018 best albums list) The Beths just unveiled their take on the gentle yuletide ballad “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Refashioning it into a lilting 3/4 waltz rhythm, the group delivers a mellow, almost stately version of the song, adding strings to their sound to expand the sonic palette, and even adding a guitar solo to the tune. It’s a pleasingly old-school offering that resists the all-too-common urge to simply cram an old classic into an updated pop-punk mold, instead letting the graceful tenor of the song dictate the style, thereby keeping the sense of gentle melancholy that always accompanies the best iterations of the Judy Garland stunner. [Alex McLevy]