The holidays are here and there's no stopping them. Time to dust off your ugly sweater for that Christmas, Hanukkah, or Festivus -- for the rest of us -- party; pick up a ridiculous trinket for that white elephant exchange; and get your holiday baking on. Does anyone make fruitcake anymore? Has anyone ever eaten fruitcake?
All of the running around, shopping and various family obligations would be so much easier to handle if it weren't for the soundtrack, which never seems to change. Loaded with holiday "classics," the same tired old chestnuts turn up -- now starting a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving -- and go into heavy rotation in malls, on TV and at various social gatherings. There's got to be a better way! Here are 10 new-ish indie releases to help you refresh your holiday playlist.
1. Sufjan Stevens, "Lumberjack Christmas/ No One Can Save You From Christmas Past," Silver and Gold
It wouldn't be the season without a Sufjan Stevens holiday album. The last one, Songs for Christmas, was a bit melancholic for my taste, but perhaps that's what the holidays are all about? This year's release, Silver and Gold, is much lighter and up to Stevens' more grandiose standards.
2. Polyphonic Spree, "Let it Snow," Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. 1
If you simply can't bring yourself to play another Sufjan Stevens holiday album at your Holiday-themed cookie exchange potluck, the answer this year is Polyphonic Spree's, Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. 1. This version of "Let it Snow" feels a lot like a dream. I recommend putting this album on for your guests once the spiked eggnog has taken effect. It's sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Depressing choral arrangements, or if you're like me, beautiful choral folk arrangements are often part of the holiday music experience, no matter what holiday you are celebrating. A highlight of the three picks below is Laura Gibson's haunting rendition of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," which is sure to send shivers down your spine.
3. Laura Gibson, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," Peace on Earth Vol. II
Gibson's track is one of 22 indie interpretations of x-mas classics on Peace on Earth, Vol. II, a 2008 release benefiting the Children of Uganda Fund. Listen to the song at mp3Olimp.com.
4. The Walkmen, "The Christmas Party," Little House of Savages EP
5. Snowden, "White Christmas," Licorice EP
For the goofballs and the skeptics there's The Levees and Tom Waits.
6. The Levees, "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" Hanukkah Rocks
Who really knows how to spell Hanukkah? The Levees take the challenge and try to figure it out.
7. Tom Waits, "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," Blue Valentine
8. Rufus Wainwright & Sharon Van Etten, "Baby It's Cold Outside," Holidays Rule
This year's best holiday compilation is Holidays Rule, which includes The Shins, Holly Golightly, Andrew Bird, Calexico, Y La Bamba (who frequents SF music venue Amnesia), and more. My choice for best track is one of the finest -- and most minimal -- covers of "Baby It's Cold Outside" I have ever heard.
9. Soft Light Orchestra, "The Light Connected," The Light Connected a Holiday Music Collection
10. She & Him, "Sleigh Ride," A Very She & Him Christmas
While we're on the subject of minimal duets, the last song on my list is a lovely little version of "Sleigh Ride" by She & Him. This bluesy song is full of energetic harmonies and pepped up guitar.