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JD McPherson, "Socks" (New West Records, 2018)

Years ago, a good friend started a tradition with my brothers and me that has become one of my favorite parts of every year: about two weeks before Christmas, on the same day and at the same time, we post our top 10 albums of the year. This annual tradition has spread to include more music-passionate people than I can count. Combing these lists, reading about how people with wildly diverse tastes think and feel about the year in music, has become a hallmark of Christmastime for those of us who participate.

As of now, despite hundreds of album mentions and the strong holiday association, JD McPherson's "Socks" is the only Christmas album that's ever been included on the big day. By anyone. That distinction in itself is high praise for the album, and I think it stems from the band's motivation. As McPherson told Rolling Stone, "Instead of, 'Let's just make a Christmas record,' we wanted to first and foremost make a rock 'n' roll record that then fell into the seasonal genre."

That may read like hairsplitting, but inverting their motivation made all the difference. It's a great album that just happens to be made of Christmas songs.

McPherson and the band don't try to paint over '(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays,' 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,' etc. Instead they use familiar colors on fresh canvas to create something new. They don't adopt an affectation through another version of 'I'm Gettin' Nuttin' for Christmas.' They write a rock 'n' roll tune called 'Bad Kid' instead. They don't retread The Beach Boys' 'Little Saint Nick,' either. They knock out 'Santa's Got a Mean Machine,' a song about Santa's chopped hot rod.

That's not to say that the album is a series of one-to-one substitutions for Christmas standards. Far from it. The originality extends not just to the music and lyrics but to the subject matter as well. Take, for example, the title song, the sentiment of which is expressed perfectly by the album cover art: "Hey, why'd you waste the paper on a lousy pair of socks?... Santa, how could you let me down?" Or 'Ugly Sweater Blues.' Or 'Claus vs Claus.'

As a result of all this originality, "Socks" rides high on the annual floodtide of otherwise forgettable holiday releases. And it reminds us from the opening track that at Christmas, "singin' all those happy songs while the little ones dance along," you can look around and realize you have all the gifts you need.

Robert Hann: 

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