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What’s new in Christmas music? Cher, Samara Joy, Blue Man Group and more Charlie Brown

Here we are just two weeks away from Christmas Day, the home stretch of the holiday season where spirits are high, but shopping-induced stress levels are higher.

Of course, that means holiday music is now officially inescapable. It’s in the shopping malls. It’s in the grocery stores. It’s on TV, the radio and every imaginable circuitry online. As the old Borg saying goes, “Resistance is futile.”

So instead of simply surrendering to the usual sounds of the season, why not unwrap a bounty of distinctive recordings that celebrate the holiday’s broad commercial appeal, as well as some of its darkest and most unlikely recesses.

In years past, our seasonal recommendations revolved around five new holiday albums along with five vintage picks of works you may have missed the first go-round. For 2023, the selection has expanded to new and vintage works by marquee pop names, a selection of EP discs (“extended play” recordings with running times roughly half of what a regular album or CD offers) and indie-pop singles because, well, some artists simply run dry on holiday spirit after a tune or two.

So deck the halls over the next few weeks with some of these sounds:

Big box names (new)

Cher, “Christmas”
Cher, “Christmas”

Who dares to knock Mariah Carey off the throne as Queen of Christmas Pop this year? Why it’s Cher, of course. The ingeniously titled “Christmas” is the 77-year old pop matriarch’s first holiday album, as well as her first collection of new music in a decade. The guest list is substantial (Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Buble) and the production truly diva-worthy. The singer also treads on sacred holiday music ground by taking a crack one the season’s most anthemic and endearing pop hits, “Christmas (Baby Please Come.) Cher is no dupe, though. She had the good sense to enlist the woman who first cut and gloriously popularized the song in 1963 as a duet partner, Darlene Love. Not surprisingly, “Christmas” debuted on Billboard’s Top Holiday Albums chart at No. 1.

Cher and Darlene Love sing with a Santa playing a saxaphone during “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” on NBC.
Cher and Darlene Love sing with a Santa playing a saxaphone during “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” on NBC.

Big box names (vintage)

The first posthumous release for Jimmy Buffett is the vinyl debut of the pop beachcomber’s 1996 holiday album, “Christmas Island.” The record is purposely transparent in its desire to give a tropical turn to seasonal music, hence the inclusions of “Mele Kailikimaka” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Less obvious, though is a warm, steel drum-accented take on John Lennon “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Buffett is also a natural for the album’s title tune, a Lyle Moraine composition with an extensive recording history that dates back to the Andrew Sisters and Guy Lombardo in 1946. The collection is removed sufficiently from Margaritaville, but not the tropical lightness and charm that was always at the heart of Buffett’s music.

Jimmy Buffett, “Christmas Island”
Jimmy Buffett, “Christmas Island”

Albums (new/vintage)

Technically, “Stax Christmas” is a new release for 2023, even though it’s a compilation of vintage soul and R&B holiday gems cut for the groundbreaking Memphis record label Stax in the ’60s and early ’70s. For that matter, these songs by The Staple Singers, Albert King and Isaac Hayes have surfaced together on several past Stax holiday collections (1982’s “It’s Christmas Time Again,” 2007’s “Christmas in Soulsville.”) But the tunes are so irrepressibly soulful that another go-round, especially for anyone unfamiliar with this music, is in order. For those that do know it, “Stax Christmas” offers a few unearthed bonuses, like a previously unreleased version of “Blue Christmas” by Carla Thomas and an alternate Otis Redding reading of “Merry Christmas Baby.”

“Stax Christmas”
“Stax Christmas”

Hardly a holiday season goes by where we don’t get yet another repackaging of Vince Guaraldi’s famed piano jazz compositions for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Last year, a 24-tune compilation was released that augmented the original score with numerous outtakes and alternate versions from Guaraldi’s 1965 recording sessions. This year, all of that has been issued yet again in “spatial audio” for the ultimate audiophile on your holiday list. Overkill? Probably. But that doesn’t darken the very human appeal of this music. Frankly, my single un-remixed CD edition from the ’90s still suits me fine. The spirit of Guaraldi shines just as brightly. But for those that like to go large at Christmas, this one’s for you.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas”

EPs (new)

At only 24 years of age, Samara Joy has become one of the defining jazz vocalists of her generation having grabbed two Grammys earlier this year, including one for the all-genre Best New Artist trophy. As the wait continues for the follow-up to her 2022 breakthrough album “Linger Awhile,” the Bronx-born singer gives us “A Joyful Christmas,” a six-song EP that sports two versions (one studio, one live) of “The Christmas Song” and a spry duet version with Sullivan Foster on Steve Wonder’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” The disc is being promoted with a tour that takes the vocalist from stages in Zurich and Berlin to homecoming shows at the Apollo Theatre, a run that will bring — sorry, but we have to say this — Joy to the world.

Samara Joy, “A Joyful Holiday”
Samara Joy, “A Joyful Holiday”

Admittedly, listening to the Blue Man Group on record without having the visual benefit of watching the face-painted trio playfully summoning music from a maze of PVC piping is something of an incomplete experience. Still, the ensemble’s new EP, “Overjoy to the World,” stands as one of the most distinctive new holiday discs of 2023. Ripping through nine songs in a mere 17 minutes, the men of Blue concoct everything from percussive/electronic variations of beloved carols (“Carol of the Pipes”) to refreshingly diverse holiday jaunts (“PVC Dreidel Mashup”) to a Ramones-savvy riot (“Jingle Bones”) that is guaranteed to keep Santa from falling asleep on the job.

Singles (new)

From Sluka, a long-running San Diego indie-pop troupe with an international following, comes probably the brightest new novelty tune of the season, “Christmas Tamales.” It possesses all the jingly cheer, anthemic oomph and, most of all, sing-a-long accessibility of a traditional carol, except that it’s about the love of tamales. That simple. Frontman Christopher Sluka has also created an ultra-fun animated video for the tune where the championed food is celebrated by, what else, Yetis. Best keep this one away from the kids, not because it’s offensive. It’s completely G-rated, but once the young’uns hear “Christmas Tamales,” they’ll never stop singing it.

Singles (vintage)

Anyone for a holiday song about Krampus, the folkloric European demon Santa employs to deal with the children who have been especially naughty over the past year? Well, the British pop combo The Lathums seemed to think so. In the midst of the pandemic, guitarist/vocalist Alex Moore and the group’s initial lineup, released the single “Krampus” in 2021. One might suppose such subject matter would be ripe for a heavy metal exercise. Instead, all of the creature’s dirty deeds roll out in a cheery, pop shuffle. Pick this one up for parties. Guests will sense the holiday warmth — that is, until they listen to the lyrics.

Discovered this by chance on an internet search. Staying in England, we have a troupe called Holy Moly and the Crackers, a band that devised a Dickensian mash-up of cabaret folk and punkish inspiration titled “Punk Drunk Xmas Eve” in 2017. There’s a stark, dreary dance hall feel at work here amid the Pogues-ish accordion dance romp that begins with a Christmas Eve drinking binge involving 24 double vodka shots. Ho-ho-ho, right? Granted, the mood gets a bit dark, but it’s offset but an immensely creative animated music video that winds up with a dog and cat duking it out and then dancing up a storm. Oh, those Brits.