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Christmas albums 2018 – the good, the bad and the figly

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I have a confession to make, dear Maine Edge reader - I love Christmas music.

I should clarify that I don’t love all Christmas music but if it’s done with sincerity and taste, I can usually find a lot to like. If the vocal is Auto-Tuned or if the song is overly schmaltzy, I become the Grinch – and not this new ‘nice Grinch’ they’re trying to sell to the kids.

Here are a few of the recently issued Christmas albums that I’ve been enjoying this season … along with some titles you may want to avoid.

The Monkees“Christmas Party” (Rhino)

Following the success of their 2016 album, “Good Times!” (a seriously good pop record) the surviving Monkees – Mike, Peter and Micky – team with producer Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne on an album of cool Christmas pop songs written by Andy Partridge of XTC, River Cuomo of Weezer, Peter Buck of R.E.M. and others. “Christmas Party” offers a mix of cool covers (Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” and Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday are highlights) and new tunes written for this project from some alt-pop heroes whose Monkee-love has never wavered.

Eric Clapton – “Happy Xmas” (Bushbranch/Surfdog Records)

Eric Clapton has a private tradition of putting together holiday-themed playlists for family listening at this time of year. When his wife suggested he record a Christmas album of his own, he approached Walt Richmond of country-rock band The Tractors to assist with arrangements. What makes this record work is Clapton’s sincerity in his approach and the fact that most of the songs chosen are not standard Christmas album fare. Two exceptions include Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which opens the record with a blues-tinged arrangement, and a minor-key, techno instrumental take on “Jingle Bells” (dedicated to the late DJ and producer Avicii) that is virtually unrecognizable. The best material comes from the heart, including the down-home “Christmas in my Hometown,” Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” and Freddie King’s “Christmas Tears.”

The Mavericks – “Hey, Merry Christmas!” (Mono Mundo Recordings)

On the eve of their 30th anniversary as a band, roots-rockers The Mavericks have cooked up a Christmas record that will have you singing along from the first spin. In just 31 minutes, they cover a multitude of genres, including rockabilly, swing, blues, jazz, folk and Latino, on eight originals and two covers, all crafted with an organic vintage production aesthetic. Produced by Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Warren Zevon) and the band’s lead singer, Raúl Malo, “Hey, Merry Christmas” is a record I will want to revisit for many Christmases to come.

Aaron Watson – “An Aaron Watson Family Christmas” (Big Label Records)

Maverick indie country artist Aaron Watson decided to make his first Christmas album a true family affair by featuring his wife, Kimberly, and kids Jake, Jack, and Jolee Kate, on six of the album’s 10 tracks. What makes this album work is the choice material, the fact that Watson’s family can actually sing pretty well and that the arrangements and instrumentation are executed with utmost taste. Watson knows that his fans are with him for a reason and he does not disappoint. Real instruments playing music from the heart performed and sung with style and class is a recipe for a winning Christmas record.

Ingrid Michaelson – “Songs for the Season” (Cabin 24 Records)

Maybe I’m a sucker for vintage production styles but I enjoyed this one very much. For starters, you have Michaelson’s elegant voice delivering mostly old-school Christmas songs into a 1950s studio microphone. The arrangements sound like they also come from that era which makes this record very pleasing to the ears and sets it apart from some of this year’s overbaked holiday offerings. The lone original title on the record (“Happy Happy Christmas”) was written by Ingrid about the loss of her parents but doesn’t come close to being a buzzkill. It is an emotional song recognizing the fact that many folks hurt at this time of year; it’s heartfelt and beautifully delivered.

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Meanwhile, I gave these titles a shot but ultimately bailed on each for different reasons.

David Archuleta – “Winter in the Air” (Shadow Mountain Records)

We know this guy can sing, so why do his vocals sound like they were manipulated with Auto-Tune vocal-correcting software? Just put him in front of a mic and let him go.

Dailey & Vincent – “The Sounds of Christmas” (BMG)

These fiercely talented bluegrass players should have made a fiercely good bluegrass Christmas record. Instead, “The Sounds of Christmas” comes off sounding like a thousand other forgettable country-pop holiday records.

Michael McDonald“Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection” (BMG)

His seasoned voice is still in excellent shape, but the arrangements fail him on this mix of standards and originals. I’d like to hear McDonald approach a Christmas album like Ingrid Michaelson tackled her retro-styled disc. This album sounds a bit like McDonald recorded it on his laptop using GarageBand software (credit for that description goes to Lt. Tim Cotton of Bangor Police Dept.).

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