The best holiday albums you probably never heard

For Christmas Eve, Pop & Hiss offers up a selection of offbeat holiday albums guaranteed to break up the monotony of the same-old, same-old holiday songs and arrangements being piped into malls and over the airwaves of Yuletide-music centered radio stations. Track them down on Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG or other streaming services.

Brave Combo, “It’s Christmas, Man” (Rounder, 1992) This absurdly eclectic quartet from Texas puts its manic stamp on classics (such as "O, Christmas Tree," which gets the samba treatment, and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song [Chestnuts]," done up in a ska version) and four original tunes a la “Santa's Polka.” They're delivered with the wide-eyed joy of a kid who got a chemistry set from Santa and spends Christmas morning seeing what happens when you throw sulfur, calcium carbonate and vinegar into the same test tube. The result--with the album, anyway--is heaps of giddy fun, and far more freshness than one might have thought these tunes had left in them.  And influential? Bob Dylan openly acknowledged using their arrangement of “Must Be Santa” for his 2011 holiday album. The Combo also knows when to play it straight: Check out its utterly traditional--and utterly moving--reading of Schubert's "Ave Maria," above.

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The Burns Sisters, "Tradition" (Rounder, 1997). Folkies Jeannie, Annie and Marie Burns serve up a sterling example of how to put a fresh spin on even so familiar a genre as holiday albums. They've brought together beautifully honest performances, not just of traditional Western European carols, but also of an African American spiritual, an arrangement of a 13th century Persian poem, and Israeli and Tibetan prayers for peace. A loving testament to the universal aspect of the season of peace and brotherhood. Reissued in 2010 on the Philo label as “Tradition: Holiday Songs Old & New.”

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, “Jingle All the Way” (Rounder, 2008). You've never really heard "Jingle Bells" until you've heard it sung by Tuvan throat singers in an arrangement that sounds like bluegrass from one of the outer rings of Saturn.  The boundary-pushing banjo virtuoso, who has snagged 11 Grammy Awards, did for their holiday outing what they'd been doing for nearly two decades: They threw out the rule book, abandoned all sense of musical convention and let their inspiration run wild.

Rosie Flores, "Christmasville" (Durango Rose, 2005). The combination of youthful sweetness and rollicking good spirits this veteran roots-country singer-songwriter exhibits is nearly ideal. Half a dozen smart originals alternate with cleverly reimagined versions of several standards.

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The Fab Four, “Hark!” (Robo Records, 2004). This Beatles tribute band recorded two utterly inspired holiday albums nearly a decade ago, reframing carols and classic pop songs as Beatles songs. You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to get a smile from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” done up as “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Away In a Manger” as “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” Those albums were combined into the single-disc titled “Hark!” which has been expanded  this year with two subsequently recorded bonus tracks: “Sleigh Ride” as “Lady Madonna” and “The First Noel” as “Let It Be.”  

The Louvin Brothers, “Christmas With the Louvin Brothers” (Capitol, 1961). A lot of country fans, including the Everly Brothers, will tell you the Louvin Brothers—Ira and Charlie--were the greatest singing duo ever. Their voices merge in heavenly harmony, despite their earthly sibling rivalry—on an invigorating mix of familiar (“Silent Night,” “Away In a Manger,” “The First Noel”) and lesser-known seasonal songs (“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” “The Friendly Beasts,” “Santa’s Big Parade”) in an effort brimming with down-home country humility and charm. Reissued in 2011 by Ida Loca Records with the title “Merry Christmas With Louvin Brothers.”

The LeeVees, "Hanukkah Rocks" (Reprise, 2005). Guster's Adam Gardner and the Zambonis' Dave Schneider take an unsurprisingly irreverent look at the Jewish holiday. But as whimsical as songs such as "Latke Clan," "At the Timeshare" and "Kugel" are, they're incessantly tuneful and, therefore, well-suited for repeated play.

Kate & Anna McGarrigle, "The McGarrigle Christmas Hour" (Nonesuch, 2005). These veteran Canadian folkies strike an exquisite balance of spirituality and holiday spirit, of musical grandeur and hominess in a session wonderfully free of rote caroling. They get help from talented family members (including Kate's kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright) and friends (Emmylou Harris, Beth Orton) and among them contribute five originals.

Odetta, "Gonna Let It Shine" (M.C. Records, 2005) The celebrated folk singer applies those gorgeous pipes to a gospel-soul telling of the Christmas story with as much spirit as you could ask for. Listeners will find it hard not to get caught up in the joy of the moment.

Over the Rhine, "Snow Angels" (GSD, 2007). Singer Karin Bergquist and multi-instrumentalist Linford Detweiler share songwriting duties, and with this set of original songs, they've crafted not just one of the year's best holiday albums, but one of its best, period. Knowing the season sparks a multitude of emotions, they explore loneliness, romance, hope, spirituality, wonder and forgiveness, subjects wrapped in music that's evocatively atmospheric and irresistibly melodic.

Mindy Smith, "My Holiday" (Vanguard, 2007). Anyone who's been touched by this introspective singer-songwriter's studio albums won't be surprised at the high level of artistry she's brought to her first seasonal album. Rather than dashing off quick versions of holiday classics, she's written a half-dozen original numbers that take a positive view of Christmas and weave them together with beautifully understated renditions of classics secular and spiritual. This year she supplemented “My Holiday” with an equally engaging five-song EP, “Snowed In.”

The Staple Singers, “The 25th Day of December” (Riverside, 1962). This gospel gem is thankfully back in circulation. Between Pops Staples' gossamer tenor and vibrato-laden guitar and Mavis Staples' ultra-smoky alto, the holidays could hardly sound more spiritual. The Staples crew covers a couple of standards, but most of the session is devoted to gospel numbers, including Thomas Dorsey's "The Savior Is Born" and one original from Pops Staples, "There Was a Star."

Tracey Thorn, "Tinsel and Lights" (Merge, 2012). The former Everything But the Girl singer and songwriter has reached well beyond the usual bounds for an especially imaginative playlist of songs from Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt, Jack White, Joni Mitchell, Ron Sexsmith, Green Gartside, Sufjan Stevens and a pair of deft Thorn originals. A holiday collection for the thinking — and feeling — pop music aficionado.

Dwight Yoakam, "Come On Christmas" (Reprise, 1997). This was not only one of the most consistently enthralling holiday releases of 1997, but it's also one of the maverick country singer's best. That's because he allows equal time to his R&B, blues and soul leanings as to his roots-country foundation. Totally inspired.


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