Every year, we add another holiday album or two to the family rotation. This year it was the Carpenters’ An Old-Fashioned Christmas; the year before, Phil Spector. Stevie Wonder and Sufjan Stevens and the Chipmunks always get their due, too.
But there are two albums I know I’ll definitely be spinning every Christmas until my last. They came out half a century apart. But next to one another, they sound perfect.
The first is The Andy Williams Christmas Album, released in 1963. Breezy, secular carols on the A-side, traditional hymns on the B. Everyone knows Williams’ signature, beloved It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, but my favorite, and maybe my favorite holiday song ever, is Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season, a silly, swingin’ reminder to be good for goodness’ sake. Whoop-de-doo, and hickory dock! And don’t forget to hang up your sock!
The second is Kacey Musgraves’ A Very Kacey Christmas, which came out just last year. I very nearly put it on my list of the best albums of 2016, and I kind of wish I had. It is an innocent, endearing and note-perfect homage to cowboy country and the enduring appeal of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, all imbued with Musgraves’ signature sense of whimsy.
What’s the common denominator between the two albums? I was thinking about that at a recent Christmas concert by the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Over the past 15 years the swing and rockabilly veteran has carved out a thriving third career act as a star of the holiday circuit. It’s not just because he has an 18-piece big band and a ton of seasonal stagecraft behind him. It’s because he and his band really embrace and revere the surreal, plasticine dream of seasonal nostalgia. The show makes you pine for a Christmas past that probably never really was, but we sort of wish it did, so we all go along with the silly costumes, the songs about stockings and reindeer, all that sugary magic. At the end of the day, Setzer’s goal is just to get you as happy about the holidays as he is.
"If I didn’t like doing the Christmas tour, I wouldn’t do it," Setzer told me in an interview. "To me, those songs are so good. They’re not trite songs. They’re really well-written songs."
So are the songs on Williams’ and Musgraves’ Christmas albums. Musically, they are timeless; A Very Kacey Christmas even evokes the music of Williams’ era. But it’s their sincere commitment to the joy the season can bring that sets them apart. Nothing about them feels like a lazy cash grab, as so many Christmas albums do. It feels as though they, like Setzer, are doing it for the love. They’re both believers, and their music makes you believe, too.
Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?