Remember the novelty tune “Christmas Don’t Be Late” by the chirpy-voiced Alvin and the Chipmunks? Well, hold on to your Christmas sleigh. Wait until you hear Kacey Musgraves deliver it in straight-up fashion, with no laughs but plenty of nostalgic warmth, on her new Christmas album. On the same cheery note, you can unwrap Exile’s reggae version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on the legendary band’s just-released Christmas project.
Some would deem such daring maneuvers as sacrilege, Others would defend them as a necessary part of the creative process. After all, why make a Christmas album if you’re merely rehashing the same tunes that we’ve all heard literally thousands of times. We’ve picked five current Christmas albums that definitely think outside the traditional holiday box while managing to stay true to the seasonal spirit: “It Must Be Christmas” by Chris Young, “Celebrate Christmas” by The Oak Ridge Boys, “Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas” by Exile, Kacey Musgraves’ “A Very Kacey Christmas,” and “Glow” by Brett Eldredge.
All five feature unique takes on the classics that perfectly fit the artist. For an additional holiday bonus, the offerings by Young, Musgraves, and Eldredge feature guest appearances by some top-level names.
In promoting her Christmas record, the always-quotable Musgraves reinforced the “unique” ideal. “It would have been easy to simply copy old versions of these songs that have been around forever,” she noted. “But it was very important for us to build arrangements that are totally new and very me.” Her “A Very Kacey Christmas” spotlights her greatest influences, including Hawaiian music. She also wrote three originals, including “A Willie Nice Christmas,” with a guest performance by Willie Nelson.
When you’re a more traditional crooner type like Chris Young, though, you can’t venture too far out into left field. On Young’s “It Must Be Christmas,” the singer reprises classics such as “The Christmas Song,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and others using the standard arrangements complemented by his rich vocals.
“You have to make [these songs] your own,” he says, “but at the same time, you do want to keep the spirit of the song. It has to sound familiar for people, so you can’t mess with them too much.” Listeners will surely take note of the soaring vocal arrangement on “The First Noel,” Young’s duet with Brad Paisley. “What came out of that is going to blow people away when they hear it,” Young says.
Five-man band Exile approached “Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas” as a “challenge,” to use keyboard player Marlon Hargis’ term. “We didn’t want to just slap together an album and put it out,” Hargis told Sports and Entertainment Nashville. “It was a challenge to come up with different arrangements and figure out some original stuff.”
The Oak Ridge Boys recorded their first Christmas album in 1982 and their current “Celebrate Christmas” marks the foursome’s seventh. Unearthing new material is important, the group acknowledges, but not easy. “There’s not too many classics left,” the Oaks’ Joe Bonsall cracked at a press conference announcing the album. “[Lead singer] Duane Allen is good at finding new songs for us, whether it’s a regular project, a gospel project, or a Christmas project.” For this record, Allen and his Oaks mates cover the Pentatonix song “That’s Christmas to Me” as well as “Santa Claus Is Real,” first recorded by gospel group The Isaacs.
Eldredge, as fine a pure-voiced singer as anyone out there, gives his album “Glow” a big-band stamp, with swinging versions of “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with guest star Meghan Trainor. “I recorded these classics in New York City,” Eldredge noted in a release about the album, “and tried to give a tip of the hat to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Ray Charles, by adding that swing and soul to the best of my ability.”
“Glow” is one of the top five that we’ll recommend for the country music lover on your Christmas gift list. Joyeux Noel, y’all.