Christmas songs from beloved artists can be a bane or a blessing, an unexpected stocking stuffer or a turd lit up in wrapping paper on the porch. As a rule, holiday records rule when artists adapt them to their own style. For example, no one wants to hear R. Kelly do a reverent take on “Silent Night.” We want a nine-minute monster with melodic flourishes on everything and a spoken-word interlude instead of the verses that no one knows. On the opposite end of the spectrum, simply put, holiday records suck when an artist retreads “The Christmas Song” when everyone would rather hear Nat King Cole's sultry rendition. Applying this standard to the Houston holiday songbook, some interesting, excellent and downright ridiculous tunes come into play. In the interests of Yuletide charity, we'll start with the best.
“Run Run Rudolph," Billy Gibbons feat. Dave Grohl and Lemmy Kilmister
At 1:28, this trio knows that this toy's novelty will wear off with a second verse. Instead, they get in and get out on this blues-rock stomper, with just enough time for Santa and the reindeer to pop a 90-second wheelie on the freeway down to Houston.
“Christmas Morning,” Lyle Lovett
Lovett brings out the sadness on this cut, providing a sound track for anyone whose winter blues overrides holiday cheer. Like most of the country star’s catalogue, “Christmas Morning” is perfectly arranged and performed:
And they’ll tell you it’s peace and good will to all men
But hey what could they mean by that?
Perhaps I’m the fool they take me for
Damn, Lovett, that’s cold. Perhaps you and Charlie Brown can bum each other out while the family is shopping their woes away.
If you look through a fake book of Christmas songs, it quickly makes sense why holiday covers sound so similar: Many seasonal tunes written in the 20th century are built over very simple and major-key chord structures. It’s nice for making medleys, but not always great for bolder work. But HSPVA alum and pianist Robert Glasper turns the minor-key, seventh-kissed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into a gorgeous R&B-jazz crossover. Surrounded by a trap kit and Muhsinah’s tidings of comfort and joy, Glasper pops arpeggiated gems into this 16th-century carol.
“Merry Christmas from the Family,” Robert Earl Keen
“Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party,” begins Robert Earl Keen, tipping off the great hillbilly holiday song of our time. In the verses, Keen sacrifices rhyme for realism, documenting the liquored-up memories that took place around his family’s (inevitably plastic) tree.
“Merry Christmas Baby,” Joe Sample and India Arie feat. Michael McDonald
Pianist Joe Sample’s posthumous Christmas With Friends is simultaneously a great and terrible seasonal effort. It’s great because Joe Sample is playing on it, and we get one more round from the late jazz crusader. It sucks because it’s a boilerplate With Friends album that features Michael McDonald’s marble-mouthed singing. With Jeff “Tain” Watts paycheck-playing behind the kit, Sample gets into some lovely blues licks. It’s a shame that he’s overshadowed by the hired guns in the brass section.
“The Borning Day,” Johnny Nash
If the election-year arguments turn violent, spin something everyone can agree on: the slow soul strut of Johnny Nash. The reggae icon takes a break from his genre of fame, opting for laid-back, late-evening riffs on vibraphone and guitar. Bringing “the very best we could,” Nash offers the Holy Child a humble gift of peas, rice and ginger tea, subbing in for the more expensive Magi options.
“A Very Arcade Xmas,” Arcade Fire
Recorded live at a Christmas party in 2001, this boozy bootleg sounds pretty ad hoc, but displays the ambition and energy that the band would hone into glory on later releases. It's not a classic, but it is essential for the Christmas mixtape for your art honey.
What are the instruments on this thing? A harpsichord? Throw-away wind instruments from a Zelda rip-off? Shelley Duvall’s poorly named Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall...Merry Christmas is one of the worst holiday albums ever recorded, up there with David Hasselhoff’s attempt and the god-forgotten Chipmunks. If you have a physical copy of this album, either burn or frame this glorious piece of bad art. It looks like Duvall took a straight-ahead holiday album pic, only to have an overeager illustrator come in and draw animals with clothes all over it. I don’t trust that owl, though. He’s eerily resting off Duvall’s shoulder, perched on nothing at all.
THE VERY WORST
“Last Christmas,” Hilary Duff
Play this dross only if you’re stuck in mall traffic with a sibling and you want to torture him or her for old time’s sake. Hilary Duff’s “Last Christmas” is at a nauseous intersection of the Wham cover and Weather Channel background Muzak.
THE VERY BEST
I love this video so much, if only for the gifts that Beyoncé’s pre-Hova beau showered her with: a diamond belly ring, 30 denim jeans and “a gift certificate to get my favorite CDs.” RIP 1999. For this take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Houston’s golden trio shuts down the mall to doof around inside with their boytoys. Meanwhile, children outside clamor to get into the stores to buy Game Boy Colors and other 1999 things. Personally, I like to shut this video down at 2:25 and pretend that Destiny’s Child snubbed these kids in the cold to play mall rat for an evening.