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story.lead_photo.caption Album cover for "13 Days of Xmas"

Sometimes we need a Christmas music break from the abundance of familiar standards performed in familiar ways.

These albums embrace a broad range of American music styles and the many ways holiday cheer and sadness, joy and pain, can intersect. We're only human, after all.

There are a number of options -- quirky and retro, vintage and newly recorded. Let's start with an impressive series of reissues titled "Cool Blue Christmas."

The European reissue label Contrast has gathered together an eye-popping collection of Christmas music that includes country, jazz, R&B and blues, soul and R&B and pre-World War II recordings. There's music to make you dance, shout, pray and maybe shed a tear or two. Most are vintage, mostly rarely heard or obscure Christmas songs.

For the age of most of these recordings, the sound quality is quite good.

One complaint: no essays about these artists, the songwriters, dates or the details of the recordings. The richness and historical value of this compilation series would have been enhanced greatly. Also, the label needs a proofreader to catch spelling errors, particularly names.

A closer look:

Christmas in Jail (Ain't That a Pain) pulls tunes from 1928 to 1948, including Bessie Smith's "At the Christmas Ball," Louis Armstrong's "Santa Claus Blues," Lead Belly's "The Christmas Song" and many more among its 42 tunes on two CDs.

We Three Kings collects 19 jazz Christmas recordings from 1948 to '63 with "Blue Christmas (To Whom it May Concern)" by Miles Davis, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Bill Evans, a live version of "White Christmas" by Charlie Parker and more. Oddly, no female jazz artists.

Santa Claus Is From the South gathers country music from 1947 to '63, including Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys' swingin' "Santa Is on His Way," Kitty Wells' sad "Christmas Ain't Like Christmas Anymore" and songs by Hank Snow and others among its 29 tunes.

Mr. Santa Claus (Bring My Baby) has 28 tunes of 1961-1963 soul music, including Carla Thomas' "Gee Whiz It's Christmas," The Staple Singers' "Last Month of the Year," Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles' "Silent Night" and selections by The Miracles, the Marcels and a few tunes from the Phil Spector Christmas Album.

Four CDs are focused on classic rhythm-and-blues and blues tunes from 1945 to 1961.

Boogie Woogie Santa Claus has 26 songs from 1945 to 1949, including the still-moving original release of "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown, Mabel Brown's title song and selections by Joe Turner, Johnny Otis, Little Milton and others.

Mr. Santa's Boogie, from 1949 to 1953, brings some doo-wop to the mix with The Moonglows' "Hey Santa Claus." Also among the 26 tunes are Lightnin' Hopkins' "Merry Christmas" and a cool New Year's classic, The Orioles' version of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

Dig That Crazy Santa Claus gathers Jackie Wilson's "Christmas in Heaven," Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters' "White Christmas," The Pilgrim Travelers' "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and more among its 26 tunes from 1953 to 1956.

Blues for Christmas draws from 1956 to 1961, offering Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," Huey Smith's "Rock and Roll Santa Claus," John Lee Hooker's title song and Marion Williams' "When Jesus Was Born" among its 25 selections.

For something more contemporary:

• Various artists, 13 Days of Xmas (Bloodshot)

The Americana label Bloodshot gathers a bunch of its artists for an alt-Christmas delight.

The album opens with a striking, fresh and moving treatment of "O Holy Night" by the group Murder By Death. Kelly Hogan's bittersweet "Blue Snowfall" has retro country and jazz elements and a richly emotional vocal. The retro-cool voice of Ruby Boots makes "I Slept Through Christmas" speak to those whose holiday has been filled by heartache and longing.

In the spirit of John Denver's "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk on Christmas," Zach Schmidt's "I'm Drunk Again This Christmas" finds him taking shots of whiskey to make it through the family gathering.

Album cover for "Cool Blue Christmas, We Free Kings: Classic Jazz Christmas Cuts, 1948-63"
Album cover for "Cool Blue Christmas, Mr. Santa Claus Bring Me My Baby: Classic Soul & R&B Christmas Cuts, 1961-63"

Style on 12/10/2017

Print Headline: Have an offbeat Christmas with lesser-known music

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