20 Albums That Put a New Spin on the Holidays

20 Albums That Put a New Spin on the Holidays

Mariah Carey’s modern classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” finally hit No. 1 (after 25 years) last holiday season, surely inspiring more songwriters to try their hand at a well-worn but welcome annual tradition. Our pop and jazz critics surveyed the latest releases and picked out 20 that offer worthy additions to your seasonal playlists.

Here are three veteran jazz musicians who understand the joys of a firmly pressed swing rhythm, and how far it can take you. The pianist Jackie Warren, the bassist Amy Shook and the drummer Sherrie Maricle have released three albums as the 3D Jazz Trio (it stands for 3 Divas), which grew out of their work in Maricle’s DIVA Jazz Orchestra. The latest flaunts the kind of powerful locomotion that drives the DIVA big band, steaming through 10 holiday tunes — Warren’s buoyant improvising right hand leading the way. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO

The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and virtuoso whistler Andrew Bird riffles through moods and genres on his holiday album: He’s wistful, sardonic, jaunty and pensive by turns. Along with Bird himself, the songwriters include Schubert, Irving Berlin, John Prine and John Cale. Bird mingles songs of his own with idiosyncratic takes on the standards: whistling a wordless “O Holy Night” over pizzicato strings, toying with bossa nova and Hot Club jazz in the Vince Guaraldi “Peanuts” tune “Christmas Is Coming,” bringing Western swing to “Auld Lang Syne.” Bird’s “Greenwine” is a gruesomely comic rewrite of “Greensleeves,” while “Night’s Falling” and “Alabaster” offer comfort through long winter nights. JON PARELES

Greg Kurstin, a hitmaking producer with Adele, Sia and others, has been recording breezy, slyly retro pop since 2005 with the singer and songwriter Inara George as the Bird and the Bee. Their holiday album has a multitracked George harmonizing coolly with herself on songs like “Sleigh Ride” and “Deck the Halls,” and enlists Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl to supply the hefty beat on “Little Drummer Boy.” Kurstin’s productions for “The Christmas Song” and “Christmastime Is Here” collapse the decades between blurry old movie scores and digital glitches. And two of their own songs, “You and I at Christmas Time” and “Merry Merry,” celebrate domestic comforts amid playfully meandering chords. PARELES

The cozy yet polished Southern California sound of Laurel Canyon in the mid-1970s returns on the holiday album by Karla Bonoff, who’s entitled to it. She got her songs recorded in the mid-1970s by Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, among others. The guitars are burnished, Bonoff’s piano offers hymnlike chords and the vocals are natural and intimate. She sings old carols, Joni Mitchell’s “River” and a song she wrote with Kenny Edwards, “Everybody’s Home Tonight.” PARELES

Barnaby Bright is Becky and Nathan Bliss, a married couple based in Nashville. She sings lead, he’s the producer and occasional backup singer; both write songs. Their holiday album, “Bleak Midwinter,” explores various production styles — Beach Boys in their own “Star-Crossed Christmas,” chamber-pop piano and cello in their “If We Listen,” booming drums and arena-scale reverberations in the English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” electronic percussion with big-band horns in “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Becky Bliss’s voice can be breathy and confiding, but she also has reserves of power when production drama ramps up. PARELES

Over the last two years, Fuerza Régida has emerged as one of the leading trap corridos bands, blending nimble musicianship and attitudinal singing. Holiday music is perhaps too plainly joyful a medium for the group, but on “Navidad con la Régida” it proves game, whether it’s the chipper tuba on “Feliz Navidad” or the brassy singing on “Ven a Mi Casa Esta Navidad.” But the album closer is closer to home: a heart-rending cover of the unerringly mournful “Cada Diciembre” by Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho, on which the frontman Jesús Ortiz sounds almost dizzy with sadness. JON CARAMANICA

The keyboardist and producer Chilly Gonzales mostly offers familiar songs, from “Good King Wenceslas” to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” as restrained instrumentals, usually piano solos. He has fun with reharmonizations, sometimes switching major keys to minor ones, as he does in “Jingle Bells” and “Auld Lang Syne”: every so often, additional instruments twinkle into the mix. The standout tracks have guest vocalists: Feist tiptoeing through a new song she wrote with Gonzales, “The Banister Bough,” and Jarvis Cocker and Feist sharing a fondly observant song by David Berman, “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan.” PARELES

Goo Goo Dolls cling to the earnestness of classic rock, but also step outside it, on their Christmas album. One of the two originals, “This Is Christmas,” splits the difference between Simon & Garfunkel and Billy Joel, with a waltz that praises “Not the things that you buy but the love that you bring.” The other, “You Ain’t Getting Nothing,” looks back to Cab Calloway, with horns, a swinging bass line and wry lyrics: “You think the season’s merry but you better think twice.” They also resurface Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” and a swinging Louis Prima obscurity, “Shake Hands with Santa Claus.” It’s a music fan’s album, cognizant of a long past. PARELES

Cory Henry has shake-your-head-in-disbelief-level talent, and on this self-produced EP he mixes holiday-centric originals with classic carols taken in a gospel-pop style that’s recognizable if you know his work with the Funk Apostles. At an NPR holiday concert held earlier this month at the Kennedy Center in coronavirus-conscious fashion, Henry sat alone at a grand piano and played a short set including Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” an anthemic social justice plea, as well as two of the seven songs included on the EP. RUSSONELLO

After many years stuck in the purgatory of a bad record contract, the 29-year-old singer JoJo is making up for lost time: “December Baby” is her second release of 2020, following the confessional R&B of “Good to Know.” A mix of old classics, sleek originals, and personality-driven interstitials (“does anybody carol anymore?”), the modern-yet-tasteful album showcases JoJo’s silky voice and intuitive phrasings. “Bought a last-minute plane ticket so I could see you not just through a FaceTime,” she sings on “Coming Home,” a dreamy new song that certainly conjures the Ghost of Christmas Present. But “December Baby” is at its best when JoJo updates familiar songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night” with her signature sass and pop-R&B cool. LINDSAY ZOLADZ

The pair of standout songs on this compilation from the Atlanta-based LVRN (Love Renaissance) imprint couldn’t be more different. The wondrous, wise R&B melancholic Summer Walker leans into a damp, deliberate version of “Santa Baby.” And on “12 Days of Bhristmas,” the charismatic female rapper OMB Bloodbath tackles the first half of the calendar, crashing a car and hitting the club and the mall, while Westside Boogie closes out with chaos, including a detour on day 10: “Don’t ask me ’bout the 10th day/got too drunk inside the daytime.” CARAMANICA

Even the Leslie Odom Jr. albums that aren’t about the holidays almost feel like they are. On the heels of his breakthrough role playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” Odom brought that Broadway ebullience into the studio in 2016 with a self-titled debut album. But it was “Simply Christmas,” released later that year, that sent him up the Billboard charts, establishing a niche beyond his stage persona. Two releases later, “The Christmas Album” mixes traditional gems (“Little Drummer Boy,” “O Holy Night”) with contemporary classics (George Michael’s “Last Christmas,” Sara Bareilles’s “Winter Song”) and a couple of his own tunes (the jingle-jangly, synth-bass-driven “Snow” and the power ballad “Heaven and Earth”). RUSSONELLO

Yes, Dolly Parton admits on a hilariously hammy spoken-word bridge of the opening track, the idea for the title predated this album. “Holly Dolly” is just Parton’s second solo-billed holiday album, and her first since “Home for Christmas,” a collection of 10 traditional covers from 1990. The new LP features six of her own compositions: “Christmas on the Square” is a warm, rollicking bluegrass number; “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas” is a characteristically randy duet with a very game Michael Bublé. Aside from Jimmy Fallon on “All I Want for Christmas,” the other guests make the most of their appearances: Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus; Dolly’s brother Randy Parton; and, most effectively, Willie Nelson, joining with Parton to sing his own stirring 1963 holiday tear-jerker, “Pretty Paper.” ZOLADZ

One of the year’s unique holiday albums, Jordin Sparks’s “Cider & Hennessy” is full of Christmas originals that temper tradition with modern twists. The title track is up-tempo R&B about a mother letting her hair down after a long December day, and “Trapmas Medley” smears Maybach and Birkin dreams over rat-tat-tat percussion. But the most radical song might be the most traditional: “A Baby Changes Everything,” a tender track about the trials of a teen mother (who just happens to be Mary, mother of Jesus). CARAMANICA

Maddie & Tae, the spirited duo best known for “Girl in a Country Song,” bring their twangy, angelic harmonies to four standards and two new songs on their festive EP “We Need Christmas.” The originals are a mixed bag: The mawkish “We Need Christmas” contorts itself to be timely (any song that contains the lyric “now more than ever” is probably gunning a little too hard for commercial placement), but “Merry Married Christmas” is a genuinely sweet ode to a newlywed couple’s first holiday season together. The highlight is their cover of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which slows the tempo and draws fresh emotion from a familiar tune. ZOLADZ

Can I interest you in some Wholesome Content™? Savanna Shaw and her father, Mat, became a quarantine-era YouTube success story for their acoustic duets of religious-esque songs that were pinpoint precise, verging on stern. Things are moving fast — this Christmas EP is their second release in the last three months, all sung in the mode of Bocelli and Groban. Their rendition of “Mary, Did You Know?” is poignant and elegantly spacious, almost nervy in its conviction, and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has an unlikely echo of Extreme’s “More Than Words.” Throughout, Savanna sings with airy sweep, and Mat booms like a drill sergeant — on “Thankful,” father and daughter harmonize into billowy bliss. CARAMANICA

Tinashe treats familiar Christmas songs the way hip-hop producers treat samples: as springboards for commentary, moods, tangents, associations, sonic transformations. While the track list for “Comfort & Joy” looks familiar — from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — Tinashe ricochets off the familiar material, adding verbal responses or surreally warping arrangements, using synthetic rhythms and her gravity-defying voice to change and challenge expectations. PARELES

Doesn’t every Meghan Trainor song already sound like a Christmas song? So it should be no surprise that her originals here — the frisky “Naughty List,” the swinging “I Believe in Santa” — could have easily fit in on her other, yuletide-free albums. Mischievous misbehavior, hope beyond hope, belief in the impossible: Trainor, one of pop’s least self-conscious stars, focuses on them the other 364 days, too. CARAMANICA

The first holiday album from country music’s reigning vocal assassin comes full of promise. Bombastic ballads, bring ’em on! Hardcore hymns, thou shalt be exalted! And yet “My Gift” is … placid, light on melodrama. Restrained. Nice. Underwood duets with her son Isaiah, who is 5. And for most of the rest of the album she sings gently enough that he might be able to sing along. Bummer. CARAMANICA

In 1986, stars of Latin pop, mostly Mexican, recorded “Eterna Navidad,” a collection of Christmas songs in Spanish that became a hit across Latin America. “Eterna Navidad Celebremos” revisits its track list and adds a few — including John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” translated as “Llegó Navidad” and sung by Manuel Carrasco, from Spain — performed by a newer assortment of stars. The lineup features Juanes (with a hard-rock version of “Little Drummer Boy”) and the rapper Pitizion from Colombia along with Mexican performers including Alejandro Fernández, Gloria Trevi, Kurt and Banda el Recodo. While the original album reveled in a contemporary, synthesizer-happy 1980s sound, the new one is more self-conscious and rootsy, placing accordions, acoustic guitars and brasses upfront, even in songs written in the United States or Britain, like “Dulce Navidad” (a version of “Jingle Bells”), “Blanca Navidad” (“White Christmas”), “Diciembre” (Wham!’s “Last Christmas”) and “Rodolfo El Reno” (“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), which gets turned into a cheerful cumbia by Los Tigres del Norte. Throughout the album, the voices — scratchy, husky, chirpy, floating — are vividly committed. Time will tell if, in 34 years, this album will sound as dated as “Eterna Navidad” does now. PARELES