The month of December is a special time of the year where the weather is just right, the nights are lit with decorative colors, and the same handful of Christmas songs are brought back for yet another year. While many of these classic holiday songs are cheery celebrations of the season and all that the time brings, I wanted to compile a list of some of my favorite albums for the holiday season. While not necessarily Christmas or holiday-themed albums, I find the following to be worthwhile albums that fit the mood of the season and serve as great non-holiday holiday listens.
No More Shall We Part - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (2001)
While Cave and Company started the Bad Seeds as a gothic post-punk outing known for their loud sounds and darkly poetic lyricism, the group’s eleventh studio album finds the band in a different yet equally ambitious direction. While there are tracks that feature large band instrumentation and bursts of Cave’s signature impassioned vocal deliveries, No More Shall We Part is generally a more tender record with piano balladry and Cave’s more soft-spoken delivery taking the forefront. The album’s lyricism revolves mainly around Cave’s religion, marriage, and where he now finds himself as an artist about twenty years into his career. While this is not a holiday album, it makes numerous references to the winter season with lines mourning the sad “depths of winter” on the title track or his world of “reckless wind” and hot cocoa on “Hallelujah.” There is even the obvious winter track with “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow.” With all this, the instrumental arrangement, and the imagery that Cave evokes makes the album a perfect winter listen for me.
Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio - Lester Young (1954)
Originally released over the course of two short albums, the full compilation of this session’s work is perfect for a relaxing winter afternoon indoors. Led by Lester Young, J.C. Heard, and the working trio of Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Barney Kessel, the jazz group covers many classic popular songs and jazz standards from the 1920s to the early 1950s. The right jazz album can really suit the wintertime in a special way, and this is one that I often find myself revisiting when it starts to get cold. Personal highlights for me include the renditions of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Stardust” which take the source material and create lively saxophone led pieces that are probably best heard by a warm fireplace with some hot cocoa (I don’t actually have a fireplace so I can only assume).
If You’re Feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian (1996)
Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister is a collection of playful yet somewhat melancholic songs that fit the feeling of the winter season. The band’s style of very breezy and lush indie and folk pop is complemented greatly by lead Stuart Murdoch’s introspective songwriting and reserved vocal performances. The album has a childlike wonder in both the stories of the people and feelings of the songs’ narrator and the very airy compositions produced by the band. In an odd way, the instrumental on a song like “Seeing Other People” reminds me of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas with its very playful and full sound. Along with this, the album’s fifth track, “The Fox In the Snow,” does not just tell a “wintery” story but the accompanying plucky guitars and piano notes capture that indescribable winter feeling really well.
Victorialand - Cocteau Twins (1986)
Victorialand finds Cocteau Twins again creating dreamy soundscapes coupled with icy, serene vocals to create the unique atmosphere the group are known for. Many of their albums provide great winter listening experiences but come December, I find myself regularly washing my room over with “Lazy Calm or Fluffy Tufts” through speakers. The atmosphere created through the album is endlessly serene and seamless in its transitions throughout the brief thirty-three-minute runtime. Additionally, the album features the seasonal-sounding track “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow,” where even if its lyricism and relation to snow is a bit lost on me, the sound created seems made for a snowy winter night.
I’m New Here - Gil Scott-Heron (2010)
In 2010, Gil Scott-Heron returned from a sixteen-year hiatus with his final album featuring original material, I’m New Here. The album is darkly poetic, and Heron comes through to his audience as a wiser, older, and more experienced artist reflecting on his upbringing and the people in his life. The album switches between his spoken word poetry to blues-inspired, hard-hitting trip-hip to soulful numbers accompanied by piano and strings. It is the work of a realized artist and one that makes for great listening in the months of winter. The album works between a certain chilliness and tenderness with minimal production and Heron’s rugged vocal performance. While not exactly an obvious or expected pick for holiday listening, it is one that has become a winter album for me in a way I may not be entirely sure of.
The Orbiting Human Circus - The Music Tapes (2017)
While this four song EP does not directly have any ties to the winter season or the holidays, it embodies both the cheer and melancholy of the season in its very brief runtime. The project features fuzzed-out shaky vocals by lead Julian Koster, blaring horns, and piano recorded in the vein of Daniel Johnston. All four songs carry a lot of heart and it is easy to picture the album soundtracking a peaceful drive around a neighborhood surrounded by the decorative lights and colors of the holiday season.
Small Change - Tom Waits (1976)
When I first began compiling this list, Tom Waits was the first artist that came to my mind when talking about these perfect non-holiday holiday listens. Waits has a large discography over many years of work and while most of his albums could fit this list, Small Change is the album I find myself associating most with the holidays and the winter season. Prior to Small Change, Waits had established himself as a blues inspired singer-songwriter who told his stories by piano and had an assertive crooning voice. However, with Small Change, Waits began his foray into his more experimental style of performance and expression that would later define his career. On this album, he keeps the piano and the balladry, however, Waits’ vocal performance is rugged and strained as he wails his way through the album’s eleven tracks. His vocals and delivery on the album cut through the very tender strings and piano evoking a very passionate yet vulnerable performance. It creates a feeling that I believe is especially suited for the cold nights of December.
I was not entirely satisfied with one Tom Waits album, so linked below is a playlist of my favorite Waits non-holiday holiday tracks. I hope you enjoy and have a happy holiday season :)
Editor: Tony Ninov