You know how this works. I won't call them the "best" releases because 1) that's subjective and 2) I don't get to listen to all the new releases in a given year. For example, I really wanted to check out Kylie Minogue's Christmas album, but haven't even gotten around to buying it yet (or, for that matter, even playing the samples). Stuff like that happens to me all the time. I require that albums on the list be albums that I actually listened to all the way through (at least once, though, if its a favorite, it likely got repeated spins). Digital-only releases are fine, much as I love hard copy. Neither re-issues nor albums available for free download are eligible. I used to exclude compilations of previously released material because this is mainly about what was new, but I see that I haven't been firm on that and, this year, there's at least one I'd want to include. Which brings to mind another of my rules, which is that these are my rules, after all, so I get to break them. Yeah, I'm a little stinker like that.
I usually say something like "these are in no particular order, but the ones nearer the top probably rank higher with me". But I can't say that this year because everything on this list is so good, I'm tempted to call it a 10 way tie. Yes, there were fewer releases this year and an awful lot of crap. But there was some mighty fine cream, as well. Album art will take you to a point of purchase and we'll link up our reviews or other content on the site as well.
Special mention goes out to the Christmas CD from the Galleons, "Not Another Christmas Album". It was easily a fit for our list--a truly beautiful Christmas record. But, technically, it was one of the incentives and not an official release. Still...damn glad I bought it. And to Astrocolor's "Lit Up" which hasn't arrived yet (probably stuck in some Post Office Christmas mail bottleneck).
Feel free to tell me your favorites of 2015 in the comments, especially if I missed one that you thought should be here.
Stick with me for a truly tortured analogy here. Growing up, in our house, there were two kinds of soup. There was Campbells and there was the soup my mother made which was just so delicious and nourishing and wonderful and thick enough that you could stand your spoon up in it. We called it "eatin' soup". "Songs About The Birth of Jesus" is "eatin' soup". It's the kind of Christmas album that warms you from the inside out and fills you with the spirit of love and joy you used to have before you got old and the world started getting you down. I think its human to lose your faith somewhere along the way. But it doesn't take much more than a bit of your Mom's home cooking to bring it all back. Dang, now I'm hungry. Anyway...
Lee Hawkins' Christmas record was one of the year's big surprises for me. It was released late without a lot of fanfare and its truly a record from the spiritual side of the street. And I loved it. Traditional Gospel records like this--records that are just purely food for the spirit and soul--just aren't being made these days. Gospel records, these days, are full of nods to Funk and Hip Hop (even Disco, for cryin' out loud). And, mind you, I can get with that, too. But "Songs About The Birth of Jesus" is a true joy and a rare gift. And I hope at least one or two people who might not ordinarily take a chance on such a record will do so. It's just beautiful and I think you'll feel well rewarded if you do.
I shouldn't do my writing at night; I'm too easily distracted. So here we go on another tangent. When I was working the radio format that required you to play everything, I got hip to the Jazz and Blues right away. Bluegrass was a bit of a tougher sell for me. But one of the guys who worked there was also a member of a local Bluegrass group, The Late Nite Garage, and I liked their album and he schooled me a bit on the subject. We used to have some disagreements over Bluegrass versus Newgrass, but at least he taught me the difference. What I didn't realize at the time was that nothing goes out of print faster than Bluegrass. There are probably more Bluegrass records on my wishlist than Christmas records. Word. Heck, they don't even turn up on eBay. Anyway...
So the High 48s are a Bluegrass group from Minnesota, which you wouldn't generally think of as Bluegrass country. What I like about the High 48s is that they're willing to take chances, but they do it with the utmost respect for the genre. And yet, they are readily accessible to people who wouldn't ordinarily listen to Bluegrass music. I can't think of another Bluegrass cover of "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch", can you? And, on the same record, they cover Vince Guaraldi's "Skating" and handle "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" in a way that both Bluegrass and Roots Rock enthusiasts can get with. That's range, right there.
Like the rest of the albums on our list, "Holidays With The High 48s" is a superb listen from start to finish and easily stands up to repeated listens. Though every song on the album is truly brilliant, I especially love "Christmas Every Day".
To say I was intrigued would be an understatement. Still, I tried to temper expectations; nothing kills a good record quicker than unrealistically high expectations. On the other hand, the track list also included "The Rebel Jesus"--another personal favorite of mine which is also rarely covered.
Amazingly, the record arrived and exceeded any expectations I could have conjured, no matter how high. On a scale of 1-10, this one goes to eleven. "On A Christmas Night" is a delightful listen featuring a group that weaves through assorted genres with the ease of chameleons. From Folk to Rock to Jazz, Found Wandering covers the waterfront. I was a little concerned when I saw that the closing number was "Joy To The World"--far too often a song that just lays there when people do it. But Found Wandering made that song alive and fresh and just splendiferous. In our review, I described it as Bluegrass Marching Band music, but, upon further review, I may have been wrong about that. Now, I'd describe it as Bluegrass Marching Band music with an Ambient open and a Cajun twist. See? I can admit when I'm wrong. "On A Christmas Night" wasn't Found Wandering's first Christmas album and, God willing, it won't be their last. The important thing to remember is that, whatever Christmas music Found Wandering records, you need to own it.
It would be sufficiently impressive and satisfying if Thisbe Vos just sang the old standards in the style in which they were originally presented back in the day. But the fact that she also writes brand new songs that sound like they were written in the 40s and 50s and then whisked to the present in some kind of DeLorean time machine thing...that's above and beyond. And, on "A Jazzy Christmas", you get both.
This was really an excellent "listening" record--meaning it's the kind of record you can enjoy thoroughly as either background or foreground. Put it on at a holiday gathering and your guests will almost certainly think Thisbe is a contemporary of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Listen for yourself without distraction and you'll just marvel at the whole thing: Thisbe's satin voice, the wonderful arrangements, the audio perfection (really, music aside, this album just sounds amazing; not sure how that happened, but you can practically reach out and touch the band), and original songs that don't just hold their own with the standards, they may even overshadow them. And the record is paced perfectly, I think, for maximum enjoyment.
Right now, my favorite song on the record is "It's Beginning To Snow", a beautiful winter waltz, but my mind changes on that subject quite frequently. Doesn't matter which song you choose because they're all great. Can't wait to hear what Thisbe Vos does next.
This is another instance where I had no expectations going in and they totally blew me away. It's just a 4 song EP, but it packed quite the punch. "Here Comes The Joy" is the equivalent of "Scotch on the rocks...hold the ice." No sir, they aren't watering down their Christmas record with wasted covers of "Last Christmas" or "Santa Baby"; "Here Comes The Joy" is a double shot of Rock. And it's put together just perfectly. They lead with the consensus favorite track "Santa's Got Toys". Good. That's the song you should lead with. And they close it with the awesome "pub crawl". Good again. That's a brilliant closing tune. It's the kind of song you can see as a twenty-minute concert jam. And the two songs in the middle are right where they're supposed to be, too.
I just love "Here Comes The Joy". Every time I put it on, I just let it repeat four or five times. Dang, I really love "Here Come The Joy". And I dig what the drabs are doing, too, whether you call it "slack rock" or "clandestine pop". Heck, call it a peanut butter sandwich or Marvin Tulley. I don't care what you call it, it just has me and it's not about to let go (and I'm just fine with that, by the way). It's not just the Lou Reed-ish vocals, either; the drabs have a sound that is uniquely their own. They're tight. Jeez, this is a great record. I can't help it; I just tossed it on while I was writing this and its got me again. Listen to the guitars, listen to the bass and drums; these guys sound effing fantastic! Your mileage may vary, but, damn, I love this record.
(For a more coherent evaluation of "Here Comes The Joy"--if only slightly so--kindly check the original review. God, I love this record.)
We've talked at length about "A Colorful Christmas"--here, here, and here, for starters--and I really want to get this post up today, so I'll leave it there. But I can't resist sharing this live track of Charlie Sayles singing "A Christmas Blues". That's a real nice way to say goodbye to the Christmas music year that was 2015. 2016 has a lot to live up to.