Thursday, December 01, 2005

Holiday Music

Okay, bear with me here (this will be kinda long and unabashedly geeky.) It’s December. Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is a few weeks down the road. I love Christmas and, more on point here, I love Christmas pop music. I don’t know why…I’ve stopped trying to understand it and I just go with it. A burgeoning subsection of my CD collection (60+ titles as of last count) is filled with Christmas CDs…almost every year (including this one) I find at least one or two to add to the ranks.

There are countless Christmas CDs, of course, and they are definitely not created equal. The six discs I’m highlighting here are purported to be the “best”…what floats individual holiday music boats is too subjective to bother with that kind of hubris…but rather a half-dozen cool ways to embrace the musical season (you know you wanna…)

New this year is Joan Osborne’s very tasty Christmas Means Love, a soulful mix of traditional tunes and less reverent yuletide offerings (including the wonderfully sassy “What Do Bad Girls Get?”.) Apparently this one is only available at Barnes and Noble.

Also new is Diana Krall’s swinging, impeccable Christmas Songs featuring a lot of the usual holiday suspects (“Sleigh Ride”, “The Christmas Song”, “Christmas Time is Here”) presented in a relaxed, engaging set aided and abetted by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. (Not sure why they went for the cheesecake cover but whatever works…)

From last year is the utterly delightful Barenaked for the Holidays by the utterly delightful Barenaked Ladies. It swings from straightforward renditions (including the wonderful “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” medley with Sarah MacLachlan and a neat cover of “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”) and witty, tongue-in-cheek numbers (the opening “Jingle Bells” starts as a languid piano ballad but after a minute and a half it suddenly kicks into sprightly gear…and they include the “Batman smells” verse…how cool is that? And “Deck the Stills”, a short version of “Deck the Halls” using only the words “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young” has to be heard to be believed.) There are also some cool original tunes.

Some of the best Christmas discs are compilations and the others on this list are three of my favorites.

First up is the 2-disc, 36-track set Now That’s What I Call Christmas! seriously, it’s a great collection. The first disc is filled with old school Christmas stuff…Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling”, the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc…along with a couple of wild cards (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth”.) The second disc is more (relatively) contemporary stuff…John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas”, Band Aid’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas”, Bruce Springsteen’s great version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, etc….and features tracks by an eclectic lineup including Paul McCartney, Shaggy, Diana Krall, Britney Spears, Mannheim Steamroller, Boyz II Men, Harry Connick Jr., and ‘NSync.

Time-Life’s Jingle Bell Rock (from 1987…I have no idea if it’s still in print) features 25 tracks of classic pop and R&B. Two tracks each from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, and the pre-wacko years Jackson 5 (a nice cover of “Someday at Christmas” and a cute version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) plus cool stuff from Elton John (“Step into Christmas”), Chuck Berry (“Run, Rudolph, Run”), Bobby Helms (the title track), the Beach Boys (“The Man with All the Toys”), Booker T. & the MG’s (“Jingle Bells”), Otis Redding (a majestic “Merry Christmas Baby”), and Donny Hathaway (the immortal “This Christmas”), among others.

And, last but not least, A Very Special Christmas, the first of what would become a series of discs benefiting the Special Olympics. There are some fine tracks on subsequent volumes but the first one is still the best. From Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s playful live version of “Merry Christmas Baby” to U2’s yearning “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”…from the Pretenders’ lovely reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Madonna’s playful vamp through “Santa Baby…from Whitney Houston going to church with a mighty "Do You Hear What I Hear?" to Run-DMC’s clever, show-stopping “Christmas in Hollis” everybody on the disc brought their A-game to the party (okay, so Bryan Adams is no Chuck Berry on “Run, Rudolph, Run”, it’s the thought that counts…)

As I said before, I love this stuff so if there’s some cool holiday music out there you think I may not have heard of I welcome you to let me know about it.

Happy Holidays, y’all.


Very Anonymous Mike said...

I already know that you're skeptical about this one, but Mariah Carrey's Christmas album is one of the best I've ever heard. (Then again, I'm a sucker for O'Holy Night. She does this one with Silent Night, which works wonderfully.) You do not have to be a fan of hers to like this album. I end up playing it once for every two other albums I play every season.

After Joan Osbourne left the spotlight, she did some fantastic stuff. (Noting her remakes album.) Hopefully, she will make a comeback that is not posthumous.

I'm not a fan of jazz Christmas songs, so if you could audioblog some of those on your site, my lazy ass would appreciate that.

Hanson did a fantastic "O'Holy Night." The rest of the album was nothing, but I think this one rendition made the cost (used) of the disc worth it. This was before downloading.

Once upon a time, I knew someone with a Christmas cassette that was a giveaway from Starbucks. On this cassette was a very groovy rendition of Little Drummer Boy by Ray Charles. I have yet to find it anywhere else. It was one of the best Christmas songs I had ever heard. Paced and deliberate, after listening to it, it is the only way I ever want to play it again.

Canadian Brass always gets an honorable mention. So does The Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (A band so good, that it had to split up into two bands to hit all the spots in the country during the season.) Call be bias, but everybody should go find their local, seasonal TubaChristmas at, because Chuck D said it best, "Bass! How low can you go"?

If you are into "Christmas Time In Hollis" by Run DMC, then how can you leave out Eazy E's "Merry Mutha$%*#ing Christmas"?

Finally, Nat King Cole makes me sing... everytime.

Michael said...

you don't happen to have "Oy to the World", do you? It was a punk/ska compilation from a few years back.

Apart from that, my mother used to always sing "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" by Nat King Cole. That was a defining song for me.

Very Anonymous Mike said...

"Oi To The World" I don't have it, but I can get it. I think that's Gwen Stefani. Let me know.

Also, find the orchestral, "A Christmas Festival" arranged by Leroy Anderson. It has everything. Bombastic opening, quiet parts, slow parts, faster parts, and it drives it home. Today, I found a version online where a choir did it with the Boston Pops, but I think I like it better as an instrumental.

Since I mentioned Canadian Brass, I'm going to mention canadian bacon.

I just like it.

Also, let me say that I'm an all around sucker for "Do You Hear What I Hear," and "O' Holy Night." For me, it's tough to find a bad version of those two.

Because I have a decent baritone singing voice, it feels good to belt out "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Also, I like "Heatmeiser" from "The Year Without A Santa Claus."

Michael K. Willis said...

The version of "Oi to the World" that I No on "A Very Special Christmas 3". It's very cool.