Every year, besides our regular steady stream of classic records, we make a conscious effort to wade thought those thousands of hopeful releases that flood over us every new season. Last year’s feature included some frankly unexpected gems and – while this year may not hold quite the same number of surprises and huge projects – there’s still a lot of interesting smaller things to have a listen to, and the number one album is marvellous indeed. So then, low-key, with no drum roll and no fanfare, here are out top 10 Christmas albums of 2016.
10. The NOLA Players – Christmas Time in New Orleans
One of the most distressing things about a lot of contemporary so-called-jazz Christmas albums is how they just tend to murder the concept of a big band. A big band is not a sleek group of gentle accompanists, but sharp individuals who can be just as abrasive as a small trio, albeit occasionally veering into more arranged territory. Well, this newly put together setup of New Orleans jazz musicians are no studio background muzak – their album (Spotify) is old fashioned, certainly, but alive and inventive and properly jazzy, entirely without the fake bowtie stylings and flapping elbows of the more risible segments of today’s retro jazz scene.
9. David Bazan – Dark Sacred Night
There’s an idea, somehow, that recording in an intentionally lo-fi manner will somehow impart an authenticity and loving warmth to music – just the sort of qualities, in fact, that Christmas music is supposed to have. Gothy folkie David Bazan certainly does his very best for it to happen – including outtakes, hums and environmental noises, and it actually sort of works. This first-time-on-an-album collection of nearly two decades worth of Christmas singles (Spotify) is uneven – anything else would be weird, given the timeframe – but at its best the emotional nakedness the lo-fi approach allows is pretty darn wonderful.
8. Katie Melua – In Winter
Katie Melua has made a career out of being precociously mature and melding dreadfully sophisticated songbirdry with folk-tinged easy listening, Whatever you may think of her oeuvre it makes perfect sense as Christmas music from the now rather more grown-up 32-year-old. Her Georgian heritage at the fore, with a full-sized women’s choir and a selection of rarely-recorded carols, gives depth and meaning to what otherwise have seemed like posturing, and obvious effort has been poured into the originals. (Spotify)
7. Jenny & Tyler – Christmas Stories
Many consider contemporary Christian music to be a watering down of what’s interesting about popular music, replacing the nerve and verve and tension of pop with simple-minded, safe moralism. Sometimes, that’s certainly true. But this Christmas album by folk duo Jenny & Tyler (Spotify) shows that the opposite is also perfectly possible – it’s greatly enhanced by the Christian elements, adding depth, grandeur, earnestness and unusual song choices to what otherwise could have been a competent but middle-of-the-road pop album. When you get the full blast of Händel’s “Messiah” as a massive piano ballad, you know these people have seen something.
6. Manuel Fernández – Una Navidad para Todos
A charity flamenco Christmas album to raise awareness of the situation in Western Sahara? (Spotify) Sure. Why not. Especially when the sounds of Sahrawi music filters into it, and free jazz, and salsa, and avant garde electronic music, and it still comes off as sounding like the best of classic vocal flamenco, pained, microtonal and wailing. No, it never gels fully, but that tension is the lifeblood that a lot of lesser fusion music smooths away, and for a Christmas album a bit of jarring sorrow can sometimes be a blessing.
5. An ABS-CBN Christmas
Featuring some of the biggest Filipino stars singing well-crafted originals, this modestly packaged promotional package by a huge entertainment conglomerate (Spotify) is surprisingly epic in scope. It’s as if Jim Steinman had been shut away since 1996 and forced to write endless Coca-Cola commercials. (That, in case you’re wondering, is not a bad thing.) This is precise, bombastic and slick, full of dramatic tricks and production candy, and comes across as much more enjoyable than many more authentic efforts.
4. SHEL – Winter Fairyland
Twee folk pop band SHEL does not sound like any traditional Christmas music in history. And yet, somehow, their intensely sweet Christmas EP (Spotify) sounds nostalgic, evoking a mystical childhood that never was. Using glockenspiels, ukuleles, handclapping and some surprisingly dramatic turns, the four Holbrook sisters have created a cinematic soundtrack to a Wes Anderson Christmas film that doesn’t exist, with all the subtle quirk that implies. And with an excellent choice of carols – including the marvellously underrated “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” – this is a golden addition to any Christmas list.
3. Jane Lynch – A Swingin’ Little Christmas
A Mighty Wind and Glee alumnus Jane Lynch knows very well how to create convincing and gently jocular parody songs. Doing swing pastiche is notoriously difficult – as a field it’s filled with overwrought ego-massaging bombast, trying to replicate some of the most ambitious recordings in history – but her experience really shows here (Spotify). Jane Lynch and her two companions blast through warm, showtune-style originals and a completely unexpected set of carol interpretations, including what must be the first bebop version of Händel’s “Messiah”. (Yes, that’s the second time it’s appeared on this list.)
2. Gary Wilson – It’s Christmas Time with Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson’s single seventies album You Think You Really Know Me is a proto-freaky-disco experimental oddity, that often veers too hard into making fun of the soul music that serves as its inspiration. Having achieved cult status and resumed his recording career several decades later, his output is surprisingly more compelling now – naivist, intentionally creepy and questionably sung, it’s in equal measures envelope-pushing and full of really catchy hooks. His all-originals Christmas album (Spotify) is no exception, and you’ll find yourself humming along if you can accept the unorthodox presentation.
1. Gaelynn Lea – Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn
I think if you’d said earlier this year that the best Christmas record of 2016 would be a solo violin album, I’d have been pretty perplexed. Isn’t that usually a genre reserved for dull new-age relaxation tapes? But this is no ordinary instrumental album, and Gaelynn Lea is no ordinary violinist. Her intensely raspy and resonant melodies are looped into mats of polytonal drones, a sound honed after leaving The Murder of Crows, the band she formed with Low frontman Alan Sparhawk. Here (Spotify) they’re occasionally joined by layered loops of her characterful soprano voice, adding texture upon folk-tinged texture. It suits the material perfectly, and is perhaps the most engaging instrument-exploration Christmas album since John Fahey’s The New Possibility.