Our annual roundup of the best tracks of the year is back! Finding the top 10 Christmas albums of 2019 was certainly less difficult than last time – this year has had a breadth of good material, but the true stand-outs are less prominently exceptional than in previous years, and many big-name releases have fallen short. And yet, after jostling through the myriad of hopeful releases, each in its own way trying to tap the elusive Christmas spirit, ten powerful and often fascinating records eventually found their way onto this list. I think every one of them is worth listening to in its own way.
10. Saw Black and The Toys – Christmas in the Background
Lo-fi is a genre that has a surprisingly strong Christmas history, and not just because of Sufjan Stevens’s prolific output. Another excellent addition comes courtesy of Richmond, Virginia singer-songwriter Saw Black, who has switched down his poppy Americana to a considerably more bare experience. His off-kilter voice and softly stumbling musician friends add brightness and warmth go the emotionally complex originals that make up the heart of this album (Spotify), and if you can stomach the occasional intentional sour note, there’s a lot of beauty buried beneath.
9. Anders Widmark – A Soulful Christmas
Much like lo-fi, sometimes acoustic musicians will use the expressive possibilities that comes from recording technology itself to say something meaningful. Veteran Swedish jazz pianist uses such a finely tuned array microphones that every single hammer hitting a string, every musician’s grunt, every double-bass string slap, every drum skin reverberating feels almost larger than real, with a strong physicality to it. It really elevates this album of improvisations on Christmas standards, carols and hymns (Spotify) to something that’s considerably more visceral than your usual listening experience.
8. Robbie Williams – The Christmas Present
If the award for best Christmas record of the year went to the album with the most lofty ambitions, it would definitely go to this frankly ridiculous 93-minute double album (Spotify). With five separate releases, three of which are on different colours of vinyl, a set of two concerts and a #1 album on the British charts as thank you for his efforts, you can really tell the long-time hitmaker has poured his heart and soul into creating what amounts to at least two albums worth of solid material. And, inevitably, something like an entire album’s worth of forgettable covers as well, that do bring it down a bit.
7. Victor Manuelle – Memorias de Navidad
The accompanying DVD for this album (Spotify) is based around a story where a son supports his father, losing a battle to dementia, by reigniting his musical memories from Christmases past. However heart-wrenching the framing device is, it also creates a perfect setup to delve into the history of latin New York music from the past half-century, from boogaloo, to Willie Colón-tinged salsa duro, to the salsa romantica Victor Manuelle is more famous for putting out. The quality may not reach that of the illustrious forebears he references, but it’s nevertheless both enjoyable and a pretty daring step outside Victor Manuelle’s comfort zone.
6. Heidi Talbot, Sophia Stinnerbom, Roger Tallroth, Magnus Stinnerbom – A Light in the Dark
This unnamed quartet is something as unusual as a Swedish-Irish folk music supergroup using a fusion of their (admittedly related) traditional styles to tackle – no, not folk songs, but primarily pop covers and very pop-oriented originals. Since I like pop, and this album (Spotify) is both beautifully played and sung, that is not really a problem, and there’s enough folk melancholy in Sophia Stinnerbom’s amazingly expressive fiddle to win over even the most luddite folkie. It’s not exactly edgy material, but especially at Christmas sometimes it really doesn’t have to be, when the quality shines through like this.
5. Molly Burch – The Molly Burch Christmas Album
Half-way between a playfully knowing indie-folk singer in the mould of Feist, and a Julie London-style contralto cool jazz chanteuse, Austin native Molly Burch seems ideally suited to gently update tired Christmas classics. And indeed, this album (Spotify) truly shines in its fantastic covers of standards. I’ve never heard Bing Crosby’s usually quite hokey “The Secret of Christmas” delivered with this much genuine pathos before, every syllable imbued with anguish and meaning. That makes the album worth a listen alone, even if the originals tend to not live up to the same high level.
4. Various Artists – You Wish
Merge Records out of Durham, North Carolina has spent three decades putting out some of the best indie, Americana and folk-pop in the world, and on their first Christmas compilation (Spotify) the quality and breadth of their roster is really evident. Aside from a couple of interestingly-arranged covers, this is wall-to-wall indie songwriting excellence, with delightful glee, honest emotions and a dedication to musical craft these collectively created Christmas specials often lack. It may not have the coherence of the best albums this year, but for individual tracks it’s heard to beat down.
3. Ana Gasteyer – Sugar & Booze
Every year we’re overwhelmed by a sheer deluge of artists who fancy themselves the next Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee, singing high-verve Christmas standards in a predictable, over-orchestrated big-band setting which is usually more forced than forceful. Most of it is truly risible stuff, including offerings by otherwise very talented singers. So it’s a delightful surprise that a comedian, no less, has been able to best them all. Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer’s album (Spotify) has an agile band, funny comedy songs, peppy standards, and finishes off with a June Christy cover. What more could you possibly want?
2. Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies
Last year, the Norwegians relatively dominated proceedings, with two of my absolute favourite albums of 2018 coming from my Western neighbours. This year, they came extremely close to topping the list again, in the shape of former A-Ha keyboardist and internationally renowned visual artist Magne Furuholmen. His pared-down, wilfully retro, hoarsely-sung Christmas album (Spotify) is often incredibly bleak, full of the most worrying anxieties of the season, but it’s also somehow incredibly beautiful, with heartbreak and human failure enveloped in a sparkling synth-pop shroud that injects a note of hope.
1. Jacquees – Christmas in Decatur
Georgia native Jacquees is the self-proclaimed reigning king of R&B, and for once it’s easy to believe the moniker. The 25-year-old, signed at hip-hop kingmakers Cash Money records, is at the top of his game both as an innovative singer and in terms of popularity, he’s just released a top twenty debut album, and so what does he do? He just goes and releases a full-length, all original, Christmas record (Spotify), that’s what. And it’s not some throwaway, quickly assembled set of songs, but well-produced, memorable, potential hits of the highest calibre, and potentially actually taking more risks than his regular release this year. If there’s anything Christmas music needed, it’s this, and I’ve been humming these stellar tracks for days.
Bonus album: Hanukkah+
Wrong holiday, obviously, but this all-star collection of Hannukah songs (Spotify) featuring some true indie royalty is too good to pass over. If you’re interested in heading into other traditions and conceptions of the winter season, this is a fabulous place to start.