There are holiday embracers and holiday dissenters. Those for whom the season is about celebration and those who seek solace as soon as the evergreens come out. For both groups, however, there is new music this year — a soundtrack for all the seasonal moods. There are traditional holiday tunes polished to a sheen, songs that approach festive joy through completely new musical lenses and numbers that use familiar frameworks to deliver subversive messages. So whether your Christmas is a merry one or a grumpy one, press play.
Eric Clapton, ‘Happy Xmas’
Christmas celebrations take place in homes, in offices and at performance venues. But they also happen in bars, the darkened sort where glee goes to die, or at least drown itself in a pileup of pints. Eric Clapton’s “Happy Xmas” is for those places: the anti-celebrations. This set of modestly scaled blues remakings of classics finds dignity in the downtrodden. Clapton sings with emotion that ranges from worn-out to weepy, and his guitar is a cudgel of cloudy gloom. Together, they make for songs that hold the exuberance of the rest of the world at bay, at least for one eve.
Rodney Crowell, ‘Christmas Everywhere’
A rollicking Christmas album from an old country punk with a rich skepticism about holiday traditions, Rodney Crowell’s “Christmas Everywhere” is good-natured and wry, an album about how adults struggle to process a holiday oriented toward children. The jaunty “Christmas Everywhere” is a quizzical shrug about scrambling to satisfy everyone’s needs. And “Merry Christmas From an Empty Bed,” a stark duet with Brennen Leigh, refracts the holiday through the tragic loneliness it can engender. That aside, throughout most of this album, Crowell is having fun — singing with arched eyebrow and tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s telling that the happiest song here is called “Let’s Skip Christmas This Year.”
Engelbert Humperdinck, ‘Warmest Christmas Wishes’
Let warm oil pour over you this holiday season — the perfect croon of Engelbert Humperdinck is back. “Warmest Christmas Wishes” is his second album of new recordings in two years, following a several-year drought, and it is peak holiday schlock, a hearty and unerringly smooth nog. He still has a meaty voice, his phrasing polished to a gleam by thousands of nights on Vegas stages. There are a couple of originals here, but skip right to the chestnuts — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — platonic-ideal versions delivered without an ounce of camp.
Jessie J, ‘This Christmas Day’
If you imagine Christmas as a fireworks display, as a Busby Berkeley routine, as a series of small-scale exploding bombs that inspire awe and then severe terror, Jessie J is the holiday singer for you. “This Christmas Day,” produced by David Foster, is ostentatious, maximalist, overdecorated. Several songs are like medieval jousts, Jessie J’s yelps answered by shrieking horns. But when she’s most restrained, like on “Let It Snow,” it’s clear she’s having no fun at all.
Karew Family, ‘J. Drew Presents … A Karew Family Christmas’
Hip-hop has been extending its tendrils into gospel for well over a decade now, but sometimes the influence is overt. You can sense the very long arm of Chance the Rapper hovering over this compilation produced by J. Drew Sheard — brother of Kierra, son of Karen Clark. His exuberant production and jaunty rapping exude Chance-ian dynamics, but he is still from one of gospel’s first families, as is clear on “You,” when Mom shows up, bracing old-school vocals in tow: “You may not wanna hear what I gotta say! But I’m gonna say what I gotta say!” She bends, she squeals, she yelps — the future, she’s insisting, can be found in the past.
John Legend, ‘A Legendary Christmas’
Moments of surprise pepper John Legend’s austere first holiday album, “A Legendary Christmas.” There are the savvy song choices, including rarities like Marvin Gaye’s pulpy “Purple Snowflakes.” There’s the beginning of “Merry Christmas Baby,” on which Legend dips into a deep blues register he doesn’t often access. The album is executive-produced by Raphael Saadiq, who on songs like “Christmas Time Is Here,” injects familiar big band arrangements with frisky swing, and who mines luscious 1970s soul on “Wrap Me Up in Your Love” and “Silver Bells.” But the biggest jolt is “Waiting for Christmas,” one of a handful of originals here (written with Saadiq and Dan Wilson) — a song about a hollow, lonely day that lands like a eulogy.
The Mavericks, ‘Hey! Merry Christmas!’
The beginning of “Hey! Merry Christmas!” — the first holiday album by the country music interrogators the Mavericks — strolls along at a friendly pace, their original songs touching on Western swing, 1950s rock, traditional country and more. But midway through comes a bawdy new cabaret-esque number, “Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride,” that feels less like an apostate take on holiday goodwill and more like a lost Blowfly original: “Santa’s gonna stuff your stocking full/He knows what you want ’cause he’s no fool/Got a treat he’s saving, saving just for you.” These words are sung lusciously by Raul Malo, a precise vocalist who sprinkles his singing with dry wit. It’s a testament to his deftness that he makes this raunch sound utterly wholesome.
JD McPherson, ‘Socks’
JD McPherson is a vivid reinterpreter of the strutting rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s. His holiday album, “Socks,” is a collection of original songs with startlingly original conceits. The mopey “Socks” is a tongue-lashing to unoriginal gift givers. “Bad Kid” is a lite-rockabilly boast from someone with “a black leather jacket and a real mean streak” who wants to find a way to enjoy the holiday: “I can’t help it, I was born like this/A permanent spot on the naughty list.” And “Hey Skinny Santa!” encourages Kris Kringle to pack on the pounds after several months of slacking. The peak might be “Claus vs. Claus,” a duet with Lucie Silvas, which portrays the North Pole as a site of domestic disappointment, where a long-married couple air out their gripes, then settle them just in time for the big flight.
Ingrid Michaelson, ‘Songs for the Season’
Polite and precise Golden Age Christmas carol revivalism from Ingrid Michaelson, who is a better singer the less affect she deploys. And so the ornate first half of this album is pleasant, but the looser second half — with a cheeky “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” a spunky duet with Grace VanderWaal on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and a surprisingly understated and tactile version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” with Leslie Odom Jr. — has real joy.
Pentatonix, ‘Christmas Is Here!’
This is the fourth Pentatonix Christmas album in six years, a mercenary pace for a holiday-mascot group that specializes in an especially synthetic brand of mirth. Refreshingly, “Christmas Is Here!” is the least antic of its holiday albums, with a patient “Where Are You Christmas?” and non-asphyxiating moments of expanding the holiday canon, including a cover of the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather.” But this a cappella group still loves its laser-pointer syllables, which arrive like cruel bullets on “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and make for a genuinely harrowing “Making Christmas.” And it’s jolting when more lustrous, nuanced singers arrive for duets — Maren Morris on “When You Believe” and, most strikingly, Kelly Clarkson, warm and robust on “Grown-Up Christmas List.” But they are a temporary dam: The Casio-preset vocals are an unstoppable torrent, and these eerie, plastic songs may well make Pentatonix the Mannheim Steamroller of the 2030s, the 2050s, maybe even the 2110s.
Say Sue Me, ‘Christmas, It’s Not a Biggie’
This EP by the South Korean indie-rock band Say Sue Me refracts holiday music through several different unexpected lenses. “Out of Bed” is morbidly down-tempo — it sounds like seasonal affective disorder. “After This Winter” is a slowcore lament about dark winter nights. And the title track is a rousing surf-rock number that exuberantly calls into question why people even bother singing about Santa at all: “Christmas, yeah, it’s not a biggie/It’s not your birthday/Wonder why people look so excited.”
Zaytoven & Deitrick Haddon, ‘Greatest Gift’
Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon has over the past decade been one of the genre’s limit pushers, tugging at its musical and ideological boundaries. In producer Zaytoven, one of the architects of Atlanta trap music — and also a church-trained musician — he has found a worthy collaborator. “Greatest Gift,” just out, includes hip-hop-inflected gospel on “Christmas With U” and the title track. But hearing Haddon lean in to the secular songs here is the real holiday surprise: “I’ll massage you from head to toe,” he sings on the cheesy adult-contemporary R&B number “Holiday Bae-cation,” while the excellent “Make Love on Christmas” is deeply sweaty: “It ain’t gon’ be a silent night/Ain’t trying to wake up the kids with the noise/But she can’t take it when I unwrap the toys.”