What do the Monkees, RuPaul and William Shatner have in common? They all have new Christmas albums, and we reviewed them

click to enlarge Mr. John Legend
Mr. John Legend

There are dozens of Christmas albums released every holiday season, with everyone from Regis Philbin to Snoop Dogg to Roseanne donning Santa caps in an attempt to cash in on the seasonal craze. But how many of those records — even the good ones — have featured songs that have gone on to become beloved annual classics? Was Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" really the last great holiday original?

So we decided to check out 10 of the newest holiday releases, grading them each on their own individual (and totally arbitrary) rating scale. Maybe we'll uncover a future Christmas classic.

JOHN LEGEND, A Legendary Christmas

John Legend's first holiday record is the musical equivalent of curling up in a beautifully furnished living room, one that smells of cinnamon and gingerbread and is warmed by a fireplace with Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards on the mantle. Legend applies his retro R&B stylings to a solid collection of Christmas songs, both standards and originals, and his voice lends itself so well to the genre that I honestly wouldn't mind a sequel. Highlights include a lovely take on Marvin Gaye's "Purple Snowflakes," a rousing rendition of "What Christmas Means to Me" featuring a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, and the bouncy "Bring Me Love." Even Christmas music Grinches — and I consider myself one — will find this hard to resist. (NATHAN WEINBENDER)

RATING: Four comfy wool sweaters

OLD 97's, OLD 97'S LOVE THE HOLIDAYS

These alt-country cats manage to create a bunch of original new holiday songs you'll actually want to listen to on repeat. Hints of honky-tonk and bar-band blues seep into songs like the title track and "I Believe in Santa Claus," a horn section gives their guitars some added oomph, and singer Rhett Miller is simply one of the best in the biz. Their covers of "Auld Lang Syne" and the Pogues-ish "Up on the Housetop" are pretty sweet, too. (DAN NAILEN)

RATING: Three and a half rodeo belt buckles

JESSIE J, THIS CHRISTMAS DAY

British vocalist Jessie J has always brought a smoky torch-singer vibe to her R&B- inflected pop, and here she performs some classics — "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Let It Snow," "White Christmas" — in the big-band style of yore. The only thing betraying this record's newness is the plasticine production style. Well, that and the welcome cameos from Babyface and Boyz II Men. This Christmas Day doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but it's perfectly pleasant, the kind of slick holiday music that upscale department stores are going to add to their musical rotation next year. (NW)

RATING: Three giant bows

ERIC CLAPTON, HAPPY XMAS

Ol' Slowhand has had some embarrassing moments in his career — his onstage racist rant in 1976, his Michelob beer commercial in 1987 — and I didn't think his new Christmas album would be included in that list until I hit his version of "Jingle Bells." Clapton inexplicably turned the classic into an electro-funk-blues disaster that recalls the worst of his Phil Collins-produced '80s music. Just say no. (DN)

RATING: One broken guitar string

DIANA ROSS, WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME

Not a new album, but rather a collection of songs from 1994 that never got a proper U.S. release. Consider it a regifting. It's nearly 80 minutes of the great Ms. Ross working through gospel standards, centuries-old carols and a few modern tunes — you get Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" and John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," both of which feature cloying accompaniments from a children's choir. The diva's voice is as clear as ever, and some of the arrangements (including those provided by the London Symphony Orchestra) are quite lovely. But most of these songs feel perfunctory and kind of sleepy, and I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing was recorded in a single session. The Supremes' 1965 holiday album Merry Christmas is a better choice. (NW)

RATING: Two sequined caftan gowns

GWEN STEFANI, YOU MAKE IT FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS

The No Doubt frontwoman and The Voice coach went full retro on her Christmas album; her version of "Jingle Bells" could almost be mistaken for the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." That's not necessarily a bad thing, and her cover of Wham's "Last Christmas" totally makes sense for an artist who's previously covered Talk Talk. This expanded edition of her 2017 holiday release has five more songs, but none essential enough for anyone but Stefani completists. Is there such a thing? (DN)

RATING: Two hollabacks

INGRID MICHAELSON, SONGS FOR THE SEASON

Another throwback record, Ingrid Michaelson filters her coffee-shop singer-songwriter vibe through the string and woodwind-drenched sounds of the '50s. She mostly sticks to the obvious song selections, but she wisely throws in a couple lesser-known tunes — "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter," initially recorded by Bing Crosby in 1950, and the sweet "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" — and her original composition, the elegiac "Happy, Happy Christmas," has a Sufjan Stevens-like melancholy about it. Perhaps her biggest risk: She turns "All I Want for Christmas Is You" into a minor key ballad duet with Leslie Odom Jr., and... it's not bad! (NW)

RATING: Three ukuleles

THE MONKEES, CHRISTMAS PARTY

Talk about a pleasant surprise! The three surviving Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz) team up with some seriously cool folks to create a set of winning covers and groovy originals. XTC's Andy Partridge, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger all contribute original tunes, and all the Monkees — even the long-dead Davy Jones, who contributes two tunes posthumously — take turns as lead vocalists on these 13 songs. (DN)

RATING: Four stocking hats

RUPAUL, CHRISTMAS PARTY

Regular viewers of RuPaul's Drag Race are used to seeing each season's contestants lip-synch to the host's latest plastic dance jam, which tends to be a maddeningly repetitious disco-pop confection that'll lodge itself into your brain like a stiletto to the forehead. That trend continues on Christmas Party, RuPaul's third holiday album (following the more creatively titled Ho Ho Ho and Slay Belles), and it's predictably flimsy and only fitfully amusing. In a brisk 28 minutes, the world's most famous drag mother lusts after a not-so-little drummer boy, somehow turns Christmas cookies into a double entendre and brings new meaning to the phrase "don we now our gay apparel." (NW)

RATING: Sashay away — two drag queen death drops

WILLIAM SHATNER, SHATNER CLAUS

Captain Kirk takes a turn behind the mic to deliver a bunch of Christmas classics in his distinct spoken word-meets-"singing" style. In theory, an album that pairs T.J. Hooker with the likes of Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and more should be a gas, at least full of laughs. Instead, it's tough sledding to get through even a couple of songs before you want to turn off ol' Bill and find some Bing. (DN)

RATING: Set your phasers for disappointment: one Star Trek rerun ♦

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About The Authors

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine and The Oregonian. He grew up across the country in an Air Force family and studied at...
Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.