An old college buddy of mine, Budd Bailey, sends me a Christmas card every year that includes a CD full of new and unusual Christmas-related recordings — everything from new takes on old carols to hard rock tracks with new twists on the Yuletide traditions. He’s been doing this for a dozen years now, and it turns out he’s been nobly carrying on the tradition started by one of his friends who passed away in 2006.
I asked Budd where he finds these festive, fun holiday jewels, and he turned me on to several websites that specialize in this sort of thing: Stubby’s House of Christmas, Santapalooza, Christmas Underground, Hip Christmas and Mistletunes. I’m sure there are others.
Three years ago, I posted a blog that singled out 15 classic Christmas songs by rock and pop artists, and I still enjoy hearing those each year (and have therefore included that setlist at the bottom as a bonus). But it’s always good to broaden one’s palette and try new things, so I have compiled a selection of some of the newer great rock/pop Yuletide stuff that Budd and others have exposed me to recently, and I offer a little background on the artists and the songs they’ve recorded. Have a Rockin’ Yule!
“Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” and “Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride,” The Mavericks, 2018
Formed in 1989 in Miami, The Mavericks made their mark writing and performing an eclectic mix of Tex-Mix, rockabilly, country and Latin, releasing a half-dozen albums between 1991 and 2003, three of which reached the Top Ten on the US Country charts. They also won a Grammy for their single “Here Comes the Rain” in 1996. They reunited in 2013 and continue to make waves on the Country charts, most recently with “Hey! Merry Christmas!” released last month. The Mavericks released the rousing “Christmas Time is Coming ‘Round Again” last year as a single, and it did so well that they chose to put together an album’s worth of material for this year. I’ve selected two tracks from that LP — last year’s hit for the family, and another one with a more naughtily suggestive message.
“Merry Christmas Darlings,” Cheap Trick, 2017
Illinois-based Cheap Trick formed in the mid-1970s, and first became successful in Japan before hitting it big here in 1979 with their “Dream Police” LP. Singles like “I Want You to Want Me” and “The Flame” and covers of Elvis’s “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” were big hits on the singles charts during the 1980s as well. They have continued to tour and release new LPs well into the 2000s, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. From “Christmas Christmas,” a 2017 holiday collection, I’ve selected “Merry Christmas Darlings,” an original by veteran members Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander and Tom Petersson.
“This Christmas Day” and “The Man With the Bag,” Jessie J, 2018
Hailing from Essex outside London, Jessica Cornish got her start as a child actress and then a songwriter before adopting the stage name Jessie J and signing as a recording artist. Her 2011 debut LP, “Who You Are,” spawned five Top Ten singles in the UK, including “Do It Like a Dude” and two #1 hits, “Price Tag” and “Domino.” The latter reached #6 on the US charts and pushed “Who You Are” to #11 on the album charts here. Her superb voice has brought her continued successes through the decade, and this year she dropped “This Christmas Day,” a holiday album featuring a number of guest artists. I was particularly taken by two songs — the title track, a Jessie J original, and her rendition of the 1950 Dudley Brooks-Irving Taylor classic, “The Man With the Bag.”
“The Pagans Had It Right,” Devil in a Woodpile, 2017
Rick Sherry, Joel Patterson and Beau Sample formed Devil in a Woodpile in the mid-’90s, playing country blues and jug music, most of it covers of traditional tunes with a few originals scattered in. They played in and around Chicago for most of their existence, and just last year, they reunited and came up with “13 Day of Xmas,” which included “The Pagans Had It Right,” a whimsical, cynical look at the crass commercialization and drunken revelry so prevalent in the Christmas season these days: “Baby Jesus shoulda lawyered up, put a trademark on his brand, the pagans had it all figured out, debauchery through the land…”
“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” The Smithereens, 2007
The Ramones, never a commercial success but hugely influential as a New York punk rock band, released 14 albums in 19 years between 1976 and 1995. Their 11th LP, “Brain Drain,” included “Pet Sematary,” featured in the Stephen King film of that name, and also “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Joey Ramone’s ragged attempt at a holiday tune. In 2007, The Smithereens, a Jersey-based rock band with a few modest hits (“Only a Memory,” “A Girl Like You”), did an admirable cover of the Ramones’ Christmas song, and I’ve included it here.
“O Come Emmanuel,” Kaskade with Skylar Grey, 2017
A producer, remixer and DJ named Ryan Raddon took on the stage name of Kaskade in 1995 when he was living in San Francisco, where a genre known as “deep house” was taking hold. By 2001 he became a recording artist in his own right, focusing on house, electronic and dance music. Kaskade’s albums and singles became popular on the dance club airplay listings, and by 2013, he was being nominated for multiple Grammy awards and co-headlining the Coachella festival. Last year, he released “Kaskade Christmas,” on which he rearranged traditional Christmas music and invited excellent vocalists to collaborate with him. My favorite track features the superb Skylar Grey singing “O Come Emmanuel.” Grey had a 2013 Top Ten LP, “Don’t Look Down,” has been a featured singer on many other artists’ hits, including Dr. Dre, Eminem, Moby, Fort Minor and Macklemore, and turned in a memorable 2017 performance on Saturday Night Live with Eminem singing a medley of “Walk on Water/Stan/Love the Way You Lie.”
“You Make It Feel Like Christmas” and “Christmas Eve,” Gwen Stefani (with Blake Shelton), 2017
Debuting as the 17-year-old singer in her brother’s ska band No Doubt in 1986, Stefani has built a formidable career in the 30 years since. No Doubt’s 1995 “Tragic Kingdom” LP, with its international #1 smash hit “Don’t Speak,” put Stefani at the top of the heap, and she made multiple chart appearances with No Doubt, as a solo artist, and in various collaborations over the next two decades. She has also appeared in films, launched fashion lines and been active philanthropically. Last year she released her first holiday LP, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” the title track of which emerged as a popular duet written and recorded with her current romantic interest, Blake Shelton. I’ve included it on this setlist, and also added the lovely ballad, “Christmas Eve,” co-written by Stefani.
“Finally It’s Christmas,” Hanson, 2017
Hanson will no doubt forever be best known for the 1997 international #1 single “MMMBop,” and its multiplatinum album “Middle of Nowhere,” which put the trio of teenaged brothers at the top of the pop music business for a spell. They had success with a Christmas album recorded that year (“Snowed In”), but then a corporate merger saw their label swallowed by Island Def Jam, where they were neglected and ultimately cast aside. The trio eventually started releasing independently produced albums that helped them resume their career throughout the 2000s, with chart appearances in the high 20s. Last year’s “Finally It’s Christmas” was among several holiday albums receiving high critical marks, largely for the catchy title track, released to commemorate the trio’s 25th anniversary.
“Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas,” Gaspard Royant, 2017
Although recognized as a musical prodigy at age 7, Gaspard Royant struggled in his efforts to become a professional musician until he was nearly 30. Originally from a small French town on the Swiss border, he ultimately moved to Paris, where he began composing for film, receiving prizes at choral festivals and eventually recording and performing his own material on tour. On the strength of successful Christmas singles on European charts in 2014 and 2015, Royant released the “Wishing You a Merry Christmas” LP last December, which gained him his first US radio airplay. The track I found most distinctive was “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas.”
“Happy, Happy Christmas,” Ingrid Michaelson, 2018
New York-based singer-songwriter-pianist Michaelson emerged from New York state college theater environments to write and record music in 2005, ultimately charting three Top Five albums in the 2010s, including “Human Again” (2012) and “Lights Out” (2014). When she began work on a Christmas album earlier this year, she wanted to focus on traditional holiday songs as performed by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and others from the 1940s-1950s period. She completed a set of 11 cover versions but couldn’t resist including one original, “Happy, Happy Christmas,” which was dedicated to the recent deaths of her parents. Having lost my mother a couple of months ago, I was moved to include this track for the same reason.
“Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice),” Grace Potter, 2011
Grace Potter is a Vermont-based multi-instrumentalist who formed Grace Potter and The Nocturnals in 2002 and has periodically released albums with the band and on a solo basis. The group’s strong 2010 LP, “Grace Potter and the Nocturnals,” reached #19 on the US album charts and #3 on mainstream rock lists. The following year, Potter was asked to be the voice of Carol in an animated Disney project, the holiday-themed “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” for which she also wrote and recorded “Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Acting Nice).” Although it’s highly derivative of Chuck Berry’s classic “Run Rudolph Run,” it has a new millennium feel to it that I found compelling.
“Bring Me Love,” John Legend, 2018
Born John Stephens in 1978, Legend was an instant success with his “Get Lifted” album debut in 2004, and his multiple talents since then have earned him kudos as the first African-American recipient of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) designation. In 2014, Legend co-wrote and sang the Oscar-winning “Glory” for the film “Selma,” and had the second-best-selling song of the year (“All of Me”). In 2016, he won an Emmy for performing the title role in the live TV special of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and then this year, he released his first holiday LP, “A Legendary Christmas,” which includes eight traditional songs and six Legend originals, most notably the Motown-ish Christmas track “Bring Me Love.”
“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Emily Hackett, 2018
John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s musical call for peace at Christmastime 1971 was released as a single that year but didn’t get much airplay. Once Lennon was assassinated during the Christmas season nine years later, it became a haunting, ironic reminder of the senselessness of violence and war, especially in a time of peace and good will. Since then, this revered song has been covered in a wide variety of arrangements by dozens of artists, ranging from Carly Simon to The Moody Blues, from Jimmy Buffett to Darlene Love, from Celine Dion to Pat Travers, from Josh Groban to REO Speedwagon. I happen to be partial to the gentle treatment that singer-songwriter Emily Hackett gives to it, and I think you’ll agree.