The best new holiday music in 2020, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Dolly Parton

The best new holiday music in 2020, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Dolly Parton

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Carly Rae Jepsen (Screenshot: YouTube) and Dolly Parton (Photo: Stacie Huckeba)
Carly Rae Jepsen (Screenshot: YouTube) and Dolly Parton (Photo: Stacie Huckeba)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

Right now it seems like there’s at least one definite upshot to our collective upcoming socially distanced holidays: You won’t have to dread that inevitable moment during the family get-together when someone decides it’d just be an absolute hoot to put on “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” for the seven millionth time, and you’re forced to confront the real reason you don’t visit your relatives more often. But the fact is, something needs to fill that void, because the holidays without music is like the Fourth Of July without terrible decision-making on the part of people with fireworks.

Possibly for pandemic-related reasons, there is an absolute glut of new Christmas and other seasonally appropriate music being released this year—some of it fantastic, some not so much. (Watch this trailer for the Goo Goo Dolls’ upcoming “augmented reality movie musical” and tell us everyone involved doesn’t need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.) So The A.V. Club is here to help: We’ve compiled a list of some of the most promising new holiday music put out in 2020, from the sparsely beautiful ballads of Andrew Bird to the campy retro-pop of Meghan Trainor. The only rule: It can’t just a be a collection of old standards or yet another take on “Do They Know It’s Christmas”; there has to be new, original music as part of the release. So here are more than a dozen offerings to brighten your season’s greetings—or to help wallow in the misery of the yuletide. There’s something for everyone!

[As always, desktop users are free to narrow their browser window if you’d prefer to see this as a scrolling feature instead of a slideshow.]

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Andrew Bird, Hark!

Andrew Bird, Hark!

He may not be able to deliver his traditional run of Gezelligheid concerts this year (in person, anyway—the livestream is next week), but Andrew Bird still has holiday cheer for us in the form of this full-length expansion of his 2019 EP. Hark! offers everything from rollicking uplift to wistful wanderlust, all with his signature strings. (And the pandemic-inspired “Christmas In April” is just a heartbreaker.)

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Dolly Parton, A Holly Dolly Christmas

Dolly Parton, A Holly Dolly Christmas

Is there anyone who could deny the endearing appeal of a Dolly Parton Christmas album? (Surely there are, but we don’t want to know them.) It’s the expected mix of standards and originals, but Parton really shines in the latter category, with some numbers—like the theme song to her new Netflix movie “Christmas On The Square”—that might even convince your older relatives to amble to the dance floor.

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Carly Rae Jepsen, “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries”

Carly Rae Jepsen, “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries”

It’s been five years since Carly Rae Jepsen offered up her take on “Last Christmas” (which somehow out-’80s the original), but the intervening time obviously gave her plenty of time to ruminate on the many, many ways the holidays can go south. This is the kind of wry, lighthearted jingle—complete with Santa laugh—that should replace the odious “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” on your family’s xmas playlist.

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Calexico, Seasonal Shift

Calexico, Seasonal Shift

The Tex-Mex-infused Americana of Arizona’s Calexico gets put to festive purposes on Seasonal Shift, a holiday-themed album that manages to celebrate Christmas while also incorporating an array of other traditions—fitting for an act that has always blended genres and national boundaries. And there aren’t many other Xmas albums where you can hear both Portuguese fado and a swoony cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

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Sara Noelle, “Christmas At Sea/Christmastime Is Here”

Sara Noelle, “Christmas At Sea/Christmastime Is Here”

Fans of Imogen Heap, old-school Björk, and the like should add this new track from Sara Noelle to their holiday playlists post-haste. The L.A.-based singer-songwriter incorporates piano, strings, and some fluttering synths to this dreamy track that imagines a holiday that transports you away from all the troubles of the world; it’s paired with a truly impressive reinvention of Vince Guaraldi’s classic song, but frankly, we’re all about the original track.

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The Bird And The Bee, Put Up The Lights

The Bird And The Bee, Put Up The Lights

Unsurprisingly, the retro indie-pop sound of The Bird And The Bee turns out to be the perfect medium for channeling holiday vibes, with the duo of Greg Kurstin and Inara George delivering a spritely album of classics and originals. The whole thing comes across like a wintry night out at an old-school nightclub; plus, bonus points for realizing that if you’re gonna cover “Little Drummer Boy,” get Dave Grohl to play on it.

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Meghan Trainor, A Very Trainor Christmas

Meghan Trainor, A Very Trainor Christmas

It’s all about the bells for Meghan Trainor, who made her first Christmas album a family affair. The pop star collaborated with cousins Jayden, Jenna, and Marcus Toney, as well as her father, Gary Trainor, on covers of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” respectively, while she tapped some of her family’s “all-time favorites” like Earth, Wind & Fire and Seth MacFarlane (the range!) to guest on some of A Very Trainor Christmas’ original tracks. Sure, it’s hokey as hell—and that’s the point.

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Kelly Finnigan (Monophonics), A Joyful Sound

Kelly Finnigan (Monophonics), A Joyful Sound

The Christmas season gets filtered through the sounds of classic ’70s soul on this record from the Monophonics’ Kelly Finnigan, with a murderers’ row of guest talent: Members of The Dap-Kings, Ghost Funk Orchestra, Thee Sinseers, and many more help keep this party moving like a throwback holiday celebration of yesteryear.

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Atlantic Records’ Still Home For The Holidays

Atlantic Records’ Still Home For The Holidays

Atlantic Records hopes you’re in the mood for an R&B Christmas this year. The record company enlisted some of the biggest names on its roster for this compilation that features covers like Pink Sweat$ and Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and originals like Trey Songz’s new offering, “Christmas Morning.” Best song title on the album goes to Shelley KFA DRAM’s “Litmas.”

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Tori Amos, Christmastide EP

Tori Amos, Christmastide EP

Musician and spiritual leader of the wood nymphs Tori Amos is back with this four-song EP of originals in honor of the holidays. Yes, her piano is front and center, but based on single “Better Angels,” this music sounds like it’s going to be downright operatic in scope—of course, such sky-high ambition is fitting for an artist who has always seemed like she’s floating above the planet anyway.

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Black Pumas, “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas”

Black Pumas, “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas”

Yes, yes, technically this violates the “original tunes only” rule. But after much debate, we decided that, if there’s one song that deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of Christmas revelers, it’s Lou Rawls’ “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas,” and the Black Pumas’ typically soulful reworking of the number makes for an excellent introduction.

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U.S. Girls, “Santa Stay Home” 

U.S. Girls, “Santa Stay Home” 

Very much in line with what you would expect from experimental pop project U.S. Girls (who are based in Toronto), this Christmas single has a very anti-consumerism message for jolly ol’ St. Nick: “Year after year / Nice and naughty shop the planet to tears / Life is the gift / Presents don’t, presents don’t mean shit.” All that, and they wrap the message up in a great emo-pop bop. Meghan Remy just can’t seem to go wrong.

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Simply Having A Wonderful Compilation 

Simply Having A Wonderful Compilation 

Father/Daughter and Wax Nine Records gathered a cavalcade of talent—including Bacchae, Sad13, Illuminati Hotties, Ohmme, and more—together for this 13-track compilation. We’d further explain, but the caption to its YouTube video infomercial says it better than we ever could: “pop originals, emo standards, and even a 16th-century carol, this digital stocking stuffer benefiting Feeding America will have you ho-ho-ho-ing from home in no time.” It’s the indie comp of the season, or at least the one we’re buying.

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Happiest Season Soundtrack: Music From And Inspired By The Hulu Original Film

Happiest Season Soundtrack: Music From And Inspired By The Hulu Original Film

Finally, the queer holiday soundtrack compilation album that seems like it should’ve existed already, but hasn’t—until now. With a mix of classic covers and originals (featuring LGBTQ artists on every new song, of course), the record makes a great case for partaking in the holiday-album tradition, with grandly old-school offerings from Bebe Rexha, Shea Diamond, Sia, and more. It’s all charming as hell—and frankly, Tegan And Sara’s contribution is an absolute bop.

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