Holiday season offers variety of music

Jordan Beck

It’s the time of year to start looking for the perfect holiday soundtrack.

Sticking with the classics is easy, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a steady diet of Motown, Sinatra and the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

But, if you’d like to add something fresh to the rotation, 2012’s crop of new holiday music has included some surprisingly worthwhile albums.

If all you want for Christmas is a creative, insanely ambitious take on the sounds of the season, Sufjan Stevens’ “Silver and Gold” more than deserves a spot on your list. For starters, it’s not even a Christmas album in the traditional sense—it’s actually a box set containing five separate discs, ranging in length from nine to 23 songs.

Amazingly, this is the second time Stevens has pulled this stunt. His first mega-collection of festive tunes, “Songs for Christmas,” was released in 2006. While the package is odd enough on its own, the music contained within manages the difficult feat of being even stranger.

“Silver and Gold” contains both original, Christmas-themed songs and re-imagined holiday classics, which are brought to life by traditional folk instrumentation, choral vocals and crazy electronic sounds.

Highlights include the percussive original track “Christmas Woman,” the catchy acoustic tune “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past” and a beyond-trippy cover of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The latter sounds surprisingly like “Kid A” or “Amnesiac” era of Radiohead. “Silver and Gold” earns four and a half out of five stars.

“Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays,” by the Dallas-based symphonic rock band the Polyphonic Spree, is just as unconventional.

A quick glance at the track list might not suggest that, unlike “Silver and Gold,” this album consists almost entirely of covers.

But lead singer Tim DeLaughter and his small army of backing musicians (including a full choir) have taken a considerable amount of creative liberty with their source material.

In fact, several of the carols on offer here have been given entirely different melodies, paired with the same words as always. It’s a risky approach, and it might not do the trick for some listeners, but it pays off; “Holidaydream” is unlike any Christmas album you’ve ever heard.

The highlights include a surreal, seven-minute-long take on “Silver Bells” and an unusually-faithful rendition of “Happy Xmas [War Is Over].” This album earns four out of five stars.

While these oddball takes on some classic holiday tunes are hugely interesting, there’s something to be said for the traditional, straightforward Christmas album. Cee Lo Green’s “Magic Moment” exemplifies the form. Featuring guest appearances both logical (Christina Aguilera) and less so (The Muppets), “Magic Moment’s” goal isn’t to rewrite the classics, but to pay tribute to them.

That’s exactly what it does over the course of the album.Cee Lo and his producers recall the classic Christmas LPs of the past (particularly “A Christmas Gift for You” from Phil Spector) while adding a decidedly modern twist.

“Magic Moment” doesn’t always reach the standards of the classics it references. At 14 tracks, it starts to drag on by the end. But only the Grinch could truly hate an album this easy-going and fun.

Highlights include a downtempo R&B cover of “The Christmas Song,” “Mahna Mahna”-sampling, the Muppet-featuring original track, “All I Need Is Love” and the ridiculously amazing front cover. “Magic Moment” earns three out of five stars.

Whether the classics or contemporary revamps are the preferred type of holiday music, this year provides a nice mixture of both for the spirited listener.