For a hip, unpredictable collection of holiday music, Concord Music Group’s Holidays Rule is the go-to release of the season. These 17 tracks largely sidestep familiar clichés with a diverse group of artists tackling some lesser-known tunes. The more familiar songs are approached from a fresh perspective. Take fun. and their off-kilter reading of “Sleigh Ride” that opens the album. Creative drum programming and percussion, not to mention a soaring string arrangement, make it the perfect kick off.
With their recent slew of Grammy nominations, fun. is one of the names sure to attract extra attention for this set. Another is Paul McCartney, who writes himself a holiday bonus by covering a song for which he owns the publishing rights, Mel Torme and Robert Wells’ perennial classic “The Christmas Song.” It’s a holdover from McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom sessions, with Diana Krall on piano. As such it’s a jazzy interpretation, with a delicate vocal. Speaking of McCartney, The Shins work wonders with his “Wonderful Christmastime.” Reworked with a big, Spector-ish beat and some subtle tweaks to the melody and lyrics, they come up with an ace rendition.
Ever since Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel charmed audiences with their a cappella version in Elf, the popularity of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has exploded. It was, of course, around for a long time before that—if you want to hear the definitive version, look no further than Ray Charles and Betty Carter’s 1961 version (the arrangement of which was recently “borrowed” by Cee Lo Green for his recent duet with Christina Aguilera). Here we get a terrific take featuring Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten. What they understand that some folks who attempt the song do not is that it absolutely must be performed slowly—some folks rush it, thereby ruining it. Andy Burton’s piano playing adds to the sexy, seductive atmosphere. Wainwright and Van Etten caress the melody perfectly.
Little surprises crop up throughout the album. Another Loesser tune shows up late, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” performed by the Seattle indie folk pop group, The Head and the Heart. Their pensive jam at the end turns the otherwise jaunty tune on its head. The Portland, Oregon outfit Black Prairie contributes a sassy “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag,” aided immensely by Sallie Ford’s vocals (on loan from another Portland group, The Sound Outside). Black Prairie’s Chris Funk—better known as a member of The Decemberists—also served as the compilation’s co-producer (with Sara Matarazzo).
Oddly, the album is called Christmas Rules in the U.K., lest there be any confusion. Whatever you call it, Holidays Rule is, dare I say, an instant Christmas classic that will likely be in heavy rotation at holiday parties for many years to come.