Low Christmas (1999)
Although ten years ago we'd never heard this album, now the true beginning of the Christmas season in the Thteed household is the sleighbells that open this album. Low's slowcore hermeneutics are the perfect opening to a season that so often turns overloud, overcommercial, overartificial. It will stay quiet and background until slowly you realize it is telling you true things about the season that might otherwise get overlooked in the hustle and chaos. Even the Little Drummer Boy stops banging on his stupid plastic drum and begins to serenade the Christchild who came, like us---yet unlike us---to die. This EP's not even a half hour long, yet I'm not sure a better Christmas album exists.
Barenaked Ladies Barenaked for the Holidays (2004)
The cover art suggests midcentury hokiness and BNL doesn't shy away from that, playing sub-minute galloping renditions of Christmas-album staples on my grandmother's electric organ and presenting an absurdly overthetop sincere "Jingle Bells" (mashed with a borderline screamo "Jingle Bells" that will blow your speakers if you're not careful; "Jingle Bells" is now the one song I skip on any of these albums). BNL embraces the holidays (plural) in Barenaked for the Holidays with new and classic songs about Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's. It's the original songs that are the real standouts though, freshfaced carols that, in a just world, would be regularly covered and showing up on your local all-Christmas radiostation's lists. "Green Christmas" (which I recently learned was written for Jim Carrey's Grinch and "Elf's Lament" bring new emotions to Christmas while simultaneously engaging BNL's uniquely brilliant humor and wisdom. (One note: a live bootleg of BNL doing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" that I got off Napster c. 2001 has more bright originality that this competent and fun but not-fun-enough version featuring Sarah McLachlan. Love you, Sarah!)
Sia Everyday Is Christmas (2017)
Sia is a master of modern pop's fuguelike layering of hook upon hook. And she's bold enough to ignore the Christmas Music Canon, while adept enough to adopt other relevant influences, like turning the Island of Misfit Toys into both a rousing drinking song and a cheerful freakflag athem. But that song's an exception if you worry this album might be too adult. No. There are songs about puppies---our baby's favorite stars colors and candy---but also a melancholy song about the ephemerality of life as represented by snowmen. The surface simplicity of small hooks legoed together into single-length songs is an entry point to an album that is, finally, joyful and fresh and new and unashamed.
The clearest throughline across these very, very different albums is that each of them embraces what the musicians do best. The highlights of all three albums are original songs, grounded in the artists' own sensibilities, and what covers there are are, generally, with a few arguable exceptions on the BNL album, embraced into the artists' respective ouevres.
In other words, instead of crashing the carol's house and having their way with it, these artists invite the carol into the their home and make it feel welcome---thus letting the carol learn something new about itself. Nothing against Michael Bublé, but he just does old things well. And there will always be a place for that---Thank you, Pink Martini!---but the best Christmas albums won't be trying to knock Bing Crosby off his period-appropriate perch. The best Christmas albums will say something about Christmas now, here, beyond the year 2000.