During the holidays, airwaves are dominated by Michael Bublé and the same songs sung a thousand different ways. Every year, fresh versions get added to the mix, but in 2016, three holiday albums by country artists stood out above the rest. Here are the year’s best Christmas albums that add a touch of country guitar and boot-stomping flair to classic holiday fare.
Brett Eldredge, “Glow”
Brett Eldredge is famous for pop country sing-a-longs, but “Glow” is a real departure from that. It’s very classic, absent of the gaudy production that often marks Christmas albums. Eldredge took a page out of the book of Bublé, the patron saint of Christmas albums. It has a Frank Sinatra feel and showcases Eldredge’s sonorous– husky at times– voice in a way we’ve never heard him before. Bublé’s formula might have worked even better for Eldredge than it did for Bublé.
It’s a bold claim, but Eldredge’s baritone version of “The First Noel” is arresting. One gets the sense he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this to show off his vocal ability.
The gravelly vocal quirks in his country songs all but disappear here. Other than a guitar riff in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that would be at home in a country song and the rollicky, kitchy country-pop melody in the title song, any country influence is almost unnoticeable. Even on the song “Glow,” the production is decidedly jazzy. It’s probably different than what fans of Eldredge’s country work were expecting, but it remains a truly great Christmas album.
Kacey Musgraves, “A Very Kacey Christmas”
Kacey Musgraves has the indomitable quality of being unabashedly herself. “A Very Kacey Christmas” sticks to that signature, pairing wonderfully vintage elements with an appealing eccentricity. “A Willie Nice Christmas,” featuring Willie Nelson himself, talks of special cookies and stars high up on the tree while “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” flutters with cheer and slide guitar. She even adds a version of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”
Musgraves’ playfulness almost distracts from her musical skill. She has an ability to manipulate her crystal-clear voice similar to the way Dolly Parton does, and her influence on the production of the album is tangible. “Christmas Makes Me Cry” is a feat of holiday songwriting, the only true sad song included in any of the albums on this list. It’s classic Musgraves and would fit well on any of her other releases. “I wonder if I’m the only one / Who’s broken heart / Still has broken parts / Just wrapped in pretty paper,” she sings.
In the end, Musgraves is kind of like the fearless quadruped in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” She can make people feel okay, if not proud, of what makes them different. She uses her own quirks to make “A Very Kacey Christmas” shine. Also, kudos to Musgraves for helping the words “hippopotamus” and “quadruped” in a Christmas album review.
Chris Young, “It Must Be Christmas”
“It Must be Christmas” is a Christmas album for country fans, the only true country album of the three on this list. Fans of the string-heavy, melodious genre will no doubt be overjoyed when they hear the first few notes of “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The classic gets a boot-tapping rework that is truly pleasant.
The album also gives dedicated country fans the gift of Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley duets. Jackson joins Young on “There’s a New Kid in Town,” co-written by Keith Whitley of “When You Say Nothing at All” fame. Paisley gets paired with Jackson on “The First Noel,” in which the two weave their verses together expertly. Paisley also wields his signature guitar in their version, adding another enticing country element.
Young adds a couple of original songs as well, including “Under the Weather.” It’s a song that would be comfortable being spun by the DJ at a honky tonk dance club. Its subtle, nuanced holiday elements allow the track to potentially meld seamlessly into country airwaves even after Christmas. Ultimately, the album does what Young does best, which is use his pipes to create solid country songs.