x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Have yourself a merry little Christmas album

Every Christmas brings with it a slew of festive albums. But which are the crackers and which are the cash-ins? Well, we've listened to them all so you don't have to.

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day

Sufjan Stevens, Silver & Gold (Asthmatic Kitty Records)

The Detroit-born hipster Sufjan Stevens would, you think, be far too concerned with ironing his hair or combing his skinny jeans to make fantastic Christmas pop music. You would be wrong. Silver and Gold is a huge collection of his Christmas EPs of the past six years. There are, count 'em, 58 songs here, many of them under two minutes long, so if his utterly beautiful take on How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee does not shine light on your heart (and it really should), the sumptuous sleigh-bell pop of Angels We Have Heard on High will be along quickly enough to make you fairly fizz with festive pleasure. The best Christmas album ever? It's certainly up there.

The Big Fat Christmas Pudding

Cee Lo Green, Cee Lo's Magic Moment (Atlantic)

This bearish bomb of charisma is so thoroughly dominating US TV at the moment, as the most prominent judge of The Voice, that it's no surprise that he's attempted a last-minute Yuletide album. And what a start he makes. What Christmas Means to Me, a cover of Stevie Wonder's 1967 song, fizzes along with a Motown pizzazz and energy that is utterly irresistible. But then along comes Christina Aguilera on a horrid cover of Baby, It's Cold Outside. Cee Lo's tenor is lovely but Aguilera sings as though she's trying to lift a Mini Cooper with one hand. But a fabulously camp version of Silent Night and a slew of other crackers just about drag this album back from the brink of mediocrity.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, This Christmas (UMC)

The existence of the oddest Christmas album of the year raises many questions. Just how did this get the green light at this year's UMC Christmas album brainstorming meeting? Who thought having Travolta, Newton-John, Sir Cliff Richard and the spaniel-haired sax botherer Kenny G collaborating on one track was a good idea? Why bother with Cliff when Travolta sounds exactly like him anyway? And, most importantly, has the designer who Photoshopped Travolta's hair on the front cover invented a new shade of black? As for the music, it's the usual schlock, only saved by Newton-John's glacially beautiful voice.

Jingle Bell Rock

Rod Stewart, Merry Christmas, Baby (Decca)

Rod the Old Mod has been positioned in the middle of the road for so long now he's become adept at avoiding the critical traffic. But where his recent albums have done little but reinforce the impression that his light is dimming to a low glow, Merry Christmas, Baby offers us a radical new Rod. Seriously. Listen to Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and tell me that Stewart is not slowly morphing into a 21st-century Nat King Cole. That rasp has mellowed to a throaty, velvety burr and there's a lightness of touch that few would have thought possible of Stewart. Sure, there's some nonsense here - who needs another faithful-to-the-original version of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town? - but this is superior seasonal fare.

Lonely this Christmas

Tracey Thorn, Tinsel and Lights (Strange Feeling Records)

The only surprise about a Tracey Thorn Christmas album is that she hasn't attempted one before. Christmas is essentially a domestic pleasure and Thorn has always been a keen-eyed chronicler of family life, from the first burn of love, through the chaos of kids to the souring bitterness of divorce. Tinsel and Lights is gorgeous, but probably, and predictably for Thorn, more about spending your first Christmas alone (Hard Candy Christmas and Like a Snowman) than it is about the excitement and clamour of the day itself (Joy). But, as good as this album is, there's still another darned cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Is it a contractual obligation when making a Christmas album?

And Here's The Turkey

Katherine Jenkins, This Is Christmas (Warners)

It's becoming difficult to separate the "I haven't had an affair with [insert celebrity here] although nobody's accused me yet of doing so" attention-seeking of the celebrity Jenkins from the supposedly serious opera singer. What is much easier to establish is that This Is Christmas is a syrup-slathered beast of a Christmas album, all snuggled up in its manger and kept warm and complacent by a thick blanket of glutinous production. The whole album is so overladen with production effects Jenkins' mezzo-soprano is often buried in the mix. On O Holy Night, for instance, at one point she sounds like Miss Piggy of The Muppets. Probably not the effect she was aiming for.