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Snarky, Subversive and Somber, A Unique Year For Christmas Music

Christmas Covers

Just as Christmas 2021 feels like a semi-return to semi-normal after 2020’s locked down yuletide, this year’s Americana holiday albums are a bit unusual. Norah Jones may have the most traditional offering among this select list, while Amanda Shires might offer the most subversive yet the most substantial collection of the bunch. Lori McKenna uses the season as fodder for her usual observant songcraft. Pistol Annies brought the sass, Hiss Golden Messenger the stark opposite. Those seeking full albums of guileless innocence and warm updates of the standards may want to rifle through collections from years past. That said, these recordings will certainly make you think and smile with plenty of original songwriting, and those are pretty good stars to guide our way in these disoriented times.

Pistol Annies - Hell Of A Holiday

Who needs three wise men when we’ve got three wise-ass women here in Nashville ready to illuminate your way to all the best holiday parties? This generous 13-song collection includes ten written by the group. The opening title track brings Andrews Sisters harmonies to a song about how Christmas merchandising has overwhelmed the entire fourth fiscal quarter, with a snappy beat and a lead vocal by Miranda Lambert. “Harlan County Coal” finds Angaleena Presley’s divinely country voice side-eyeing the impending yuletide from the perspective of an overworked, underpaid, under-helped momma. One of the finest songs is the luminous ballad “Joy,” in which all three Annies take verses, rounded out by Ashley Monroe. They cover Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” a shimmering “Sleigh Bells” and “Auld Lang Syne” in a flawless three part a cappella. Bonus prize for the best album cover of the season.

Christmas Covers

Lori McKenna - Christmas Is Right Here

She’s one of the best songwriters working today, so Lori McKenna isn’t going to fall back on easy tropes. For adults, Christmas is complicated, she reminds us on clouds of lovely acoustic music in this six-song EP. “North Pole” has nothing to do with the bearded one and entirely to do with how the homes we’ve left behind and how bittersweet memories color our spirit. “Christmas In Nashville” salutes those working through the holiday in a city that “never grew up and never will.” McKenna’s acclaimed eye for detail - a polyester coat, a clip-on tie, a note on the back of a photo - take us inside stories that feel like our own, as she explores memory and gratitude. The only cover is the EP-opening “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney. It’s a trifle from the FM radio when she was a youngster, but here, its sweet chord progression and melody are rendered as well as they could possibly be.

Christmas Covers

Amanda Shires - For Christmas

Even more than McKenna, Nashville’s Amanda Shires uses the holiday as a setting for songcraft more than a cause for sentimental celebration. With her thigh-high boots and hot pants on the cover, it’s easy to tell we’re getting something nonconformist, and we may all be thankful that the writing and sturdy musicianship make for a full album experience that would sound cool any time. “A Real Tree This Year” is a little bit poignant yet amusingly erotic, a six-foot, decorated double entendre. “Home To Me” is more sincere, as she pines for a traveling lover in waltz time. Shire’s warbling voice sounds effervescent on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” the album’s one standard. Her dark twisty re-write of “Silent Night” may be a reflection on forcing a holiday spirit when it’s been so taxed by overexposure. Special notice here for the ever-prominent piano by Peter Levin, the keyboard player we just profiled, who’s coming back from a heart transplant. This rapturous sounding performance was one of the last ones he poured his old heart into before getting a new one and a new year rebirth of his own.

Christmas Covers

Norah Jones - I Dream Of Christmas

The coming year will mark the 20th anniversary of Norah Jones’s breakout album Come Away With Me and the armload of Grammy Awards she earned for it. Yet only now has she released a holiday album, touched by her velvety vocals and her famous skill at popifying jazz without dumbing it down. Jones mingles freshly rendered classics with six originals. Her song “Christmas Glow” stands out for its creative sonic pairing of muted piano and mallet drums behind a smoky vocal and a poetic new take on the season. A similar restrained soundscape sits behind a tender, patient reading of “Winter Wonderland.” By closing the album with her very own update of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and a version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” worthy of Blossom Dearie, Jones ends on her highest notes and seems to say that whatever’s gone down in these past tempestuous 12 months, all is calm and bright.

Christmas Covers

Hiss Golden Messenger - O Come All Ye Faithful

There’s something sweetly compatible between the Christmas season and the Hiss Golden Messenger sound, at least for me, in its pretty serenity and languor. So all leader/songwriter M.C. Taylor had to do was subtly shift his subject matter, or maybe just his time frame, and voila, it’s a Christmas album! Opener “Hung Fire,” an original about being home together, could have appeared on any recent HGM album and not raised an eyebrow. His slow swinging interpretation of the venerable title song makes a bemusing contrast to the way I grew with it as a super-formal Presbyterian church singalong. Other classics include “Joy To The World” and “Silent Night,” and I’d venture that for most listeners, these re-writes of the melodies and the phrasing and the harmony won’t scratch that Christmas itch. But if this is the mellow vibe you’re needing after a fear-addled year, then Merry Hiss-mas!

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org