This year has been lousy with the deaths of prominent musicians. Between Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and Merle Haggard, one could certainly be forgiven for missing some of the less-famous deaths.
Of all of the musician deaths this year, though, the one that hit me hardest was Sharon Jones.[fn1] I’m not going to get too biographical here—the Rolling Stone obituary is pretty thorough, and has some incredible videos of her performing—but I will say that the world has lost an incredible singer (and, based on the videos, and incredibly charismatic performer).
About a year ago, I highlighted Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O as my favorite new(ly-discovered) Christmas album. Because my liturgical calendar is pretty strict about Christmas music not starting before Thanksgiving—and because I was out of town over Thanksgiving—I haven’t been able to revisit Matt Wilson yet this year, but I suspect it’ll have a significant place in my holiday playlist.
But it turns out that Sharon Jones’s final album—released last year—was It’s a Holiday Soul Party! And this is definitely an album you need on rotation this Christmas season.
Of course, it kicks off with a new Hannukkah album (because of course it does). And “8 Days (of Hannukkah)”[fn2] is perhaps the funkiest treatment Hannukkah has ever had (watch the video here or the Tiny Desk Concert video here).
Sorry, I seem to have forgotten to mention: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings have perfected the classic Motown sound. Ms. Jones not only has charisma, she has vocal power to spare (I mean, check out the beginning of “Silver Bells,” when it’s just her and a piano).
And then you have the Dap-Kings, with guitars and keys and drums and three horns and two backup singers.
After celebrating Hannukkah, Ms. Jones moves into a mix of traditional and original Christmas songs. The originals are universally great (you may not want your Santa-celebrating kids to listen to “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Project,” but the song is not only a funky evocation of the holiday, but it’s a sweet celebration of a mother who makes sure that her kids can experience the magic of Christmas.
Are you sick and tired of “Little Drummer Boy”? Not this version: it would be worth it if all you got were the funky drum breaks, but there’s oh-so-much more. And she sings the bluesiest “Silent Night” you’ve ever heard.
And I can’t take credit for this—I read it somewhere else—but I would have come up with it if I hadn’t read it. Her “White Christmas” is pure Tina Turner-singing-“Proud Mary.” And I mean that in the best possible way.
The Christmas songs are quintessentially Christmas—there are sleigh bells and other markers of Christmas music. But it’s also different from most of what’s in your Christmas collection. It’s not different in a self-conscious way, though: the whole album sounds natural and right. It’s exactly what a new Christmas album should be.
Christmas is a celebratory season: we’re remembering our Savior and Redeemer’s condescension. And that’s something that should make us happy. It certainly made Sharon Jones happy, and she’s generously shared that joy in a way that will make you want to move your body.
I know that everybody eventually releases a Christmas album. And most are totally forgettable. I mean, how much can today’s singer improve on Bing Crosby or the Rat Pack? But Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings circumvent that problem because they don’t try to sound like Bing or Frank. They just want to put the soul and the party into the season.
You can—and should!—listen to the album on Spotify here.
[fn1] Actually, also Mose Allison, who died right around the same time.
[fn2] (not the Orrin Hatch one, though that would give me an explicit Mormon connection if it were)