Christmastime is here.
Or, to put it another way, “Christmas Time is Here” is here. That is, 'tis the season when pop music acts mainstream and indie collectively decide what the world needs is more renditions of “Christmas Time is Here,” the Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelsohn holiday standard written for the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas .
Two versions of said holiday classic are included in the Christmas list annotated below, which comes with a Spotify playlist of songs you’ll find ready to stream at the bottom of the story’s online incarnation. And it, of course, is not the only seasonal staple to be covered multiple times this season. Many “Winter Wonderlands” and “First Noels” were sifted through in the making of this playlist.
Besides those highlighted below, a couple of other Christmas releases merit mention. The Texas a cappella quintet Pentatonix once again have the biggest-selling new holiday album of the season with Christmas Is Here, their third yuletide release since 2014. John Legend comes in second.
The requirements for being included on this year’s playlist are two: The music had to be released in 2018 and it must be available to stream on Spotify. So that means one of my favorite releases of the season, Doom Xmas, by rapper-producer MF Doom, is not included. You’ll have to go to Bandcamp to find that one.
Lucius, “Christmas Time is Here.” The vocal duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig set the mood with a sweet and spooky go at the Charlie Brown Christmas classic. Recorded with producer Richard Swift, who died this year, proceeds go to Swift’s family and other music charities through the Fug Yep Soundation.
JD McPherson, “All the Gifts I Need.” The lead cut from Oklahoma art teacher turned rockabilly throwback McPherson’s excellent holiday collection Socks revels in 1950s R&B and anticipatory joy. “There’s music in the air / Grab the boxes from the attic and haul ’em down the stairs.”
John Legend featuring Stevie Wonder, “What Christmas Means to Me.” A foolproof move from University of Pennsylvania grad Legend’s kind of schmaltzy A Legendary Christmas, which brought him through town for shows at the Borgata and the Met this month: Record a Stevie Wonder Christmas song with a bumping bass line, and get the man himself to play a harmonica solo on it.
Aloe Blacc, “I Got Your Christmas Right Here.” The “I Need a Dollar” and “The Man” hitmaker born Egbert Dawkins III has an R&B and soul album of mostly originals called Funky Christmas. This standout’s title sounds like something sarcastic Tony Soprano might say but in fact is a sincere holiday romance.
Old 97’s, “Rudolph Was Blue.” Love the Holidays, the first seasonal album by the rocking Americana band fronted by Rhett Miller, is a winner from start to finish. This reindeer romance finds Santa’s sleigh leader traversing the globe in search of his own special red-nosed Rudolphina.
Anderson .Paak, “Linus & Lucy.” Hip-hip bandleader .Paak warms up with a few bars of “Frosty the Snowman” before diving into this Peanuts workout. From the multi-artist Spotify Singles: Christmas playlist recorded specifically for the streaming service.
Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson featuring Sean Ono Lennon, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Last weekend’s Saturday Night Live musical guest, with producer Ronson and the progeny of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who originally recorded the song based on an 18th-century ballad about a racehorse called Skewball as a Vietnam War protest in 1971.
The Monkees, “House of Broken Gingerbread.” The Monkees’ Christmas Party album is a mixed bag, with contributions from surviving band members, plus recordings featuring Davy Jones, who died in 2012. It’s aided by Monkees fanboy guests, including Andy Partridge, Peter Buck, and Scott McCaughey. This highlight was written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and novelist Michael Chabon.
Phosphorescent, “Christmas Down Under.” A smoldering pedal steel and AutoTune slow jam from Nashville songwriter Matthew Houck’s C’est La Vie.
Jessie J featuring Boyz II Men, “Winter Wonderland.” Philly vocal trio teams with the British singer best known Stateside for “Bang Bang,” her 2014 smash with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. She’s surprisingly conventional in her song selection on This Christmas Day.
The Mavericks, “Christmas Time is (Coming ‘Round Again).” Raul Malo-led neotraditional outfit’s Hey! Merry Christmas is a boisterous affair, and along with nine originals, it contains the only “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” not sung by Darlene Love that you should consider listening to this holiday season.
Tyler the Creator, “I Am the Grinch.” Industrious Odd Future rapper Tyler the Creator supplied this entertaining cut and an inventive cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to the new animated Grinch movie and also has a separate six-song EP of Grinch-inspired songs featuring Philly’s Santigold and Jerry Paper. Cindy Lou Who would be proud.
Bibi Bourelly, “Xmas Trees.” The American German singer who’s written hits for Rihanna wants to be “lit for Christmas,” and hopes Santa Claus’s leaves some “trees” under the tree.
Rodney Crowell featuring Brennen Leigh, “Christmas from an Empty Bed.” Country rock songsmith Crowell took making a holiday album seriously, and it shows on the top-shelf Christmas Everywhere, which is joyful at points but down and out on this divorce duet.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Christmas Song.” Bridgers, one-third of the indie supergroup boygenius, is even more depressive on this gorgeously blue ballad written by Dan McCarthy of Omaha, Neb., band McCarthy Trenching. (Despite its title, it’s not the Mel Torme-Nat King Cole reliable old chestnut.) Jackson Browne sings backup.
Eric Clapton, “White Christmas.” The English bluesman’s version of Irving Berlin’s holiday standard, whose recording by Bing Crosby in both the 1942 film Holiday Inn and 1954′s White Christmas remains the biggest-selling single of all time.
William Shatner featuring Iggy Pop, “Silent Night.” Shatner’s painfully ironic Shatner Claus is not so easy listening, despite guests including Todd Rundgren, Judy Collins, and Brad Paisley. This take on the 19th-century Austrian carol, however, is a recitation, and much more palatable than the sound of Shatner “singing.”
Sufjan Stevens, “Lonely Man of Winter.” Stevens’ 2006 EP collection Songs for Christmas came out on vinyl for the first time this year, and he’s also let loose this typically luminous acoustic rarity from 2007.
Delicate Steve, “The First Noel.” Satisfyingly shimmery electric guitar instrumental of the ancient English carol by North Jersey axman Steve Marion from his recommended The Christmas Album.
Chely Wright, “Santa Will Find You.” This tender Yuletide prayer is the title cut from a six-song Xmas EP by Wright, who made headlines when she took the country music establishment by surprise after coming out in 2011.
Jon Batiste and Danielle Brooks, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The Stephen Colbert bandleader teams with the Orange Is the New Black actress Brooks for a lovely take on the Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane standard about muddling through the season, first sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944.
Six13, “Bohemian Chanukah.” The "Jewish a cappella” sextet from New York are in step with the Freddie Mercury zeitgeist in this clever adaptation of the title song from the Bohemian Rhapsody movie. “Is this the eighth night we light with family?” they ask in six-part harmony. “Recall with great pride, our escape from Greek tyranny!”
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Little Drummer Boy.” The Lankenau Hospital-born Runaways founder revisits the standard written by classical composer Katherine Kennicott Davis that she originally recorded in 1981 in a snarling new take included on the Spotify singles playlist.
Amy Helm and the Wood Brothers, “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Roots-soul singer Helm covers the Robbie Robertson-penned birth-of-Jesus story originally sung by Rick Danko on the Band’s 1977 album Islands.
Wolf Alice, “Santa Baby.” Singer Ellie Rowsell of the London four-piece rock band handles this Eartha Kitt hit about Santa as sugar daddy, covered by Madonna and many others, recorded for Spotify.
The Lumineers, “Pretty Paper.” Willie Nelson’s melancholy tune was first a hit for Roy Orbison and is similarly stripped down, with Wesley Schultz’s vocal accompanied only by acoustic guitar. Proceeds go the the homeless-helping Brown Paper Bag Movement.
Ingrid Michaelson, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” On her nostalgic Songs of the Season, singer-songwriter Michaelson does right by this musical question asked by Frank Loesser — who also wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the uncomfortable pas de deux that has been left out in the cold by Christmas music-makers this season.
Khruangbin, “Christmas Time is Here.” We’ve come full circle and conclude with an instrumental version of the Vince Guaraldi melancholy charmer by the Houston indie funk trio who leave us with sleigh bells in the air and beauty everywhere. Play this mix on an endless loop.