There are moments within Sufjan Stevens’ new five-volume collection of Christmas music that aren’t utterly terrible. There exist particular notes, melodies and lyrics deep within this hours-long project that, as you might gather from even a cursory glance, are pleasant. There are mournful strings, delicate plucks on Stevens’ trusty banjo, jazzy snare hits with wire brushes. There are glimpses of authentic tenderness.
Mostly, though, the indie star’s new “Silver & Gold” is a gimmicky, self-indulgent exercise from a singer whose career is built on diminishing returns. Stevens — much like egg nog, malt balls, distant relatives and tinsel — is experienced best in extremely small doses.
When not leading us down a snow-covered rabbit hole with a few dozen threadless originals, Stevens repeatedly drags canonical holiday songs through the mud. There are the disjointed and borderline atonal “Jingle Bells,” the choral-cultish “Auld Lang Syne” and the pointlessly Auto-Tuned, laser-beamed “Do You Hear What I Hear,” to name just a few.
The collection, currently streaming in its entirety on npr.org/music, supports the contrarian notion that all meaningful holiday music already has been written, recorded and re-recorded. The notion that Christmas — despite its inherent warmth, nostalgia, Charlie Brown purity and George Bailey redemption — has no room left under its figurative tree for Stevens.
Nor is there room at the inn for Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, nor any of the countless other artists releasing holiday albums this season.
Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Whitney Houston — these are the voices we crave when the days get shorter, darker and colder. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” originally released in 1994 before finding a second life in 2003’s “Love Actually,” is, in many ways, the last contemporary holiday song worth a listen.
In lieu of Stevens’ jelly-of-the-month-club letdown, here are five holiday songs to keep you sane during the next few weeks.
5. The Beach Boys, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
Long before Mike Love kicked most of the band to the curb in the throes of an anniversary tour, the Beach Boys struck a chord with the surfy, campy “Little Saint Nick” — the definitive single off 1964’s “The Beach Boys Christmas Album.” But it’s the deep cuts from this glory-days release that make the album a must-listen. This sweeping, orchestral take on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” goes toe-to-toe with Sinatra as a definitive version.
4. John Prine, “Christmas in Prison”
Prine tossed this live cut onto his 1973 triumph “Sweet Revenge,” assuming the perspective of a lovesick jailbird. “The search light in the big yard / Swings ’round with the gun / And spotlights the snowflakes / Like the dust in the sun / It’s Christmas in prison / There’ll be music tonight / I’ll probably get homesick / I love you, goodnight,” Prine wanes. (How the character ended up in prison, we do not know. All the better.)
3. The Drifters, “White Christmas”
It soundtracked Macaulay Culkin’s defining moment: two pale palms smacking after-shave on prepubescent cheeks. Culkin’s ensuing scream in front of the bathroom mirror would go on to become a nugget of early-’90s pop culture. But within the context of “Home Alone,” as the Drifters’ snazzy version of the Bing Crosby sleeper played perfectly in the background, Culkin’s Kevin McCallister had just found his groove in his days of accidental independence. Soon, Kevin would defend his house against the guy from “GoodFellas,” but in this moment, he was merely a kid goofing off over Christmas vacation.
2. Vince Guaraldi Trio, “What Child Is This”
Vince Guaraldi’s masterful jazz compositions “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmas Time Is Here” and “O Tannenbaum” are burned into the American psyche as much as Charlie Brown’s needle-dropping tree. Those three songs are peppered memorably throughout the fleeting 25 minutes that make up 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” though it’s Guaraldi’s spin on “What Child Is This” that sticks out among the accompanying soundtrack, which is as eloquent and introspective as the bald protagonist searching for a noncommercial holiday.
1. Elvis Presley, “Blue Christmas”
Years before filling his swimming pool with thousands of light bulbs and shooting them out one by one — for recreational purposes — Elvis Presley was a tender, loving singer. “Blue Christmas” epitomizes Presley’s heartfelt side, his deep blue-eyed-soul side. He croons a simple universal truth in two minutes and change: Christmas, in its purest form, is about being with the one(s) you love.