Alright cats and kittens, Black Friday is upon us, which means the official start of the Christmas season.
As has been tradition for the past four years I’ve been running the blog, 2009 brings a new Christmas mix as a present for all you dear readers and background music for whatever shopping excursions you’re mad enough to go on today and all the travels you’ll take throughout the next month. I’ve felt the mixes really started hitting their stride in 2007, and this year’s certainly lives up to the standards set by its predecessors.
Obviously the year’s end is always a good time around this blog — the “15 of the Best” series will debut next week — but the fun always starts with the Christmas mix and here’s hoping this (like the three Christmas mixes before it) adds a fabulous soundtrack to the season. Let’s get on wiffit!
Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag.
The “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen…” 2009 Christmas mix
Download Part 1 (tracks 1-10)
Download Part 2 (tracks 11-20)
01. Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra – Do You Hear What I Hear?
I know I’m going to catch flack from (and consequently maybe never make another radio appearance with) Grandma Cyd for going with the Ping Pong Orchestra’s take on this Christmas classic instead of Bing Crosby, but this version is just too cool to be swept under the rug. Kicking off a mix with an instrumental (nevermind one that passes the 4-minute mark) is a calculated risk to be sure, but I defy you to try not grooving out to this. Impossible. Plus the instrumental saves me from hearing my long-detested lyric in this song – “A child, a child, shivering in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold.” I’ve said it before and I say it again. Bring blankets, for Christ’s sake. Literally.
02. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Christmas All Over Again
Even if you never bought the second volume of that A Very Special Christmas series (which I still believe is a con – all those albums and you MAYBE get two good songs on each), you knew this song was a stone cold classic from the little snippet you heard while Kevin missed the flight announcement that he was on his way to New York City in “Home Alone 2.” Several of Petty’s latter day sins post-She’s the One can be forgiven because this song has reached a level of popularity that’s put it on the cusp of yearly carol-standard popularity not seen in a long, long time. I would say since “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but I’m sure all the Pogues or John Lennon fans would come bellowing at me. This is popular and somewhat obvious, sure, but it’s also incredible fun.
03. Lily Frost – I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm
I’ve fallen desperately in love with Lily’s 2008 album, Lily Swings, from which this is culled. For the album, she basically hired the Dukes and recorded 11 songs that Billie Holliday made famous. She held to faithful dusty arrangements, and the entire album is really a fabulous purchase, but this is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard of this song. The ultimate, probably, is Dean Martin’s, but Dean gets space elsewhere here and I think Lily’s delivery brings a little something new to proceedings, with a nice warm-me-up winter vibe.
04. Oasis – Merry Xmas Everybody
No doubt the Slade original is classic and this song has been butchered by many since its 1973 release (I’m thinking of Steps, mainly). I never gathered how many actual Oasis members are on this track – I always thought it was something Noel did especially for BBC radio during the 2002 Christmas season, but the next year it showed up on an NME compilation entitled 1 Love, where a bunch of contemporary artists covered old classics and this was listed as “Oasis” and not “Noel Gallagher,” so… With Oasis (definitely maybe) reaching the end of their rope this year, it’s a nice little memorial for this year’s mix, and Noel’s delivery does emphasize how sweet this song really can be.
05. Marcy Playground – Keegan’s Christmas
I feel like including Marcy Playground in anything is leaving me wide open to snide remarks or a general dismissal of this mix as a whole. I openly admit that the only other Marcy Playground song I’ve ever heard in my life is the one you have, “Sex and Candy,” and I still have no interest in pursuing their catalogue further. However, this cut landed on the Alternative Rock Xmas compilation and I was sold straightaway. Not because it’s the smartest or best thing I’ve ever heard, but that bouncing two-chord exchange during what I guess would be constituted as the song’s choruses are just irresistibly hooky. I have no idea who Keegan is and I’m not really moved by his conviction to his father that he knows Santa is on the roof, but I’m also nowhere near Scrooge-ish enough to deny a good hook when I hear one. I put Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on last year’s Christmas mix. What do you want from me?
06. The Jackson 5 – Up on the Housetop
I’m guessing this and other selections from the Jackson 5’s lone Christmas album are going to be hitting the various music blogs and Christmas mixes with additional frequency this year because of Mike’s breaking on through to the other side this summer. I actually listened to the whole album and was hard pressed to find a song to include here, and that’s for a number of reasons: 1.) terrible, hokey Christmas messages built in to the recordings, 2.) frightening lack of coolness (this is actually a recurring problem with several Motown Christmas albums – few diamonds in a lot of rough) 3.) perceived insincerity with the whole Jehovah Witness thing. But this recording stands out for a few reasons: 1.) You get to hear Marlon solo (very momentarily) 2.) You get to hear Tito solo (damn) 3.) You get to hear Michael totally sell out Jermaine. After Michael ribs him for asking Santa for girls, Jermaine counters that all his younger brother wants is toys, but since Michael’s got the mic, he curbs that by saying, well, he ALSO wants peace for everyone. If my little sibling pulled that kind of crap on me, I’d deck ‘em. Afterthought: Why doesn’t Jackie get a solo? It must have sucked being the oldest in that family.
07. The Cameos – Merry Christmas
Every year when I’m putting these Christmas mixes together, I dig through albums and albums of material to the point where my eyes and ears kind of go numb and all the packaging and music starts to sound the same. The bad thing about this is that it’s exhausting to the senses. The good thing about it is that it refines your ears to perk up when you hear something that’s really good. This track comes off a box set (box set, damn you!) of 1950s doo-wop Christmas tunes. Most are originals and are every bit as corny as you would expect. But I don’t know. There’s something really charming about this one, which was released as a standalone single in 1957. On Cameo Records. Crackerjack job they did in deciding on a group name, eh?
08. Count Basie and his Orchestra – Good Morning Blues (Real Tuesday Weld Clerkenwell Remix)
If my research is correct, I believe this track was originally recorded all the way back in 1937 with Jimmy Rushing taking vocal duties in front of Count Basie’s orchestra. It was updated for the 2008 Verve Records compilation, Christmas Remixed, to nice effect. Remixes have become a habitual inclusion on my mixes since the 2007 mix, and although there are heaps upon heaps of old Christmas songs remixed out there, it’s truly a long trudge to find the good ones. You see, the best remixes don’t simply put a loud, pulsating backbeat behind one line of a song repeated over and over and over. They should enhance the song. Give it a bit of new sheen. And give it a healthy (but not overbearing) groove. This is done to good effect here.
09. Peggy Lee – Winter Wonderland
The thing about “Winter Wonderland” is that everybody and their grandmother has done a version of the song, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find really good versions. This song seems like it was specially composed to walk the line between nice and hokey like a drunken backwoods barcrawler, and too often artists just stumble helplessly into hokey territory. To her eternal credit, Peggy found a nifty little groove to propel the song on her 1965 Happy Holiday album, but she damn near blows it by using a bit of her trademark “ad libbing” technique (perhaps most famously displayed in “Fever”) by substituting “Parson Brown” for “Santa clown.” It sinks that whole bit of the lyric. The image of being hopeless enough to have a snowman marry you is something everyone can subscribe to at Christmas time. But if the thing’s just a Santa clown, well… it’s only fun until the jerky kids down the street come destroy it. Even so, this is still one of the finest readings of the song out there.
10. Money Mark – Stuck at the Airport
I don’t know that this is strictly a Christmas song, but in that it was on last year’s Christmas compilation, This Warm December, it counts. And I will admit that as quirky as this song is, I really dig it. It likely will date itself in just a few years’ time by decrying a broken iPod and an inability to text (which sounds like a bullsh*t excuse to whoever’s awaiting said text – just my opinion), but given the headaches of being anywhere near an airport between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think there are a lot of people that can understand where this guy’s coming from. Plus the song unwittingly gets extra points this season for the “Someone is sneezin’ on my carry-on bag” lyric. With H1N1 (I still prefer calling it swine flu) not having run its course in society yet, that’s definitely an added demerit to holiday traveling this year. Let’s hope the lyric stays observational and not ultimately tragic.
11. Kay Starr – (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With the Bag
Apparently Kay Starr had a pretty big career in the 1950s, but I’m hard-pressed to remember or think of anything to her name besides this cut. I mean, even in the case of Brenda Lee, I do know ONE of her non-Yuletide tunes. But if you’re stuck with a seasonal hit, I guess the best you can hope for is the good fortune to have said tune played at bombardment level every December, which this song has since its release in 1950. It’s not the best holiday tune out there, but it’s nice enough, and it provides a bit of familiarity – which every Christmas mix truly needs. Don’t let the other bloggers fool you with unending streams of rarities.
12. Rosie Thomas – Why Can’t it Be Christmas All Year?
I’ll admit that I know jack about Rosie’s non-holiday repertoire, but was pushed to include this track after hearing it in passing during some shopping run last winter. I’m usually a sucker for piano-pounding numbers, but you had some horns on top of it, and forget about it – I’m sold. This song was one of the few originals to pepper Thomas’ 2008 stocking stuffer, A Very Rosie Christmas, which might have done better if it hadn’t shared a titular similarity with one of those god-awful compilations Rosie O’Donnell did when she still had her own talk show and inexplicable popularity. Thomas’ album is much better, of course, but buyers can be completely forgiven if they saw the title on a loved one’s Christmas list and said, “No, I’m not encouraging that.”
13. Dean Martin – A Marshmallow World
The most famous version of this song for the last few years has probably been Martin’s comedic duet of the song with Rat Pack pally Frank Sinatra off one of his old variety shows and enlisted for duties as closer of the “Christmas with the Rat Pack” collection released in the former part of this decade. Martin originally recorded the song for The Dean Martin Christmas Album, issued in 1966 on Frank’s Reprise label. Now it’s popping up almost annually on Dean Martin Christmas compilations. Seriously, the estate is getting a little too free and easy about all these compilations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You want to be productive, a lot of us would love some remastered original albums as opposed to the umpteenth reissue of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
14. The Waking Eyes – Everybody Needs Somebody at Christmas
In continuing my personal crusade to get this Canadian band the increased international exposure they deserve, putting this track on the Christmas Mix was a must. Unless I’m mistaken, the song actually made its debut on the band’s MySpace page two years ago, but given that they had a lot of momentum last year with the release of the fantastic Holding On To Whatever It Is, the track was spruced up and released as a download-only single. The song’s muscular pop is everything you’d expect from the boys and while the thought of Matt Peters single-handedly saving Christmas because “Santa musta given up tonight” is a good chuckle – he has at least enough humility to admit he doesn’t look the part. But hey, if someone’s gotta save Christmas, I’m all for it being these guys.
15. Ledisi – Be There For Christmas
I mentioned the hokey messages built into Christmas songs in my little write up for the Jackson 5 track, but I feel inclined to reiterate the point here. I don’t know what it is about Christmas records, but artists for whatever reason feel some godforsaken need to mar their songs with little raps about the reasons for the season, and why all the listeners should have a Merry Christmas, and what they’re looking forward to at Christmas. I’ve never understood it. Good music should make you want to sing along. Those little messages are impossible to sing along to. And one of those little messages kicks off this cut, from Ledisi’s 2008 record It’s Christmas. I’d be a hell of a lot more critical of it if the song didn’t have the groove it does. The good thing is the nonsense is dispensed with quickly and it goes right into solid soul, so Ledisi gets a pass this time. But next time – and please, everyone else keep this in mind – if you’ve got thoughts to put on a Christmas song, just sing them. And try to do it in a catchy melody.
16. Charles Brown – I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Ohmega Watts Remix)
I still haven’t been able to track down where or for what exactly Brown originally recorded this track – which is not the “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” everyone is expecting. The original track with its guitar and prototypical synth effects sounds like a product of the 1970s, but it got a colorful boost from whoever the hell Ohmega Watts is for the Holiday Lounge compilation in 2004. The song doesn’t have too much extracurricular work done to it (which, as always, is the sign of a great remix), mostly just a heavy backbeat designed to make you dance a bit. It loses focus a little toward the end, but for saving what would have otherwise been just a lost or rather unspectacular Charles Brown Christmas song from total obscurity, this remix gets a lot of credit. I mean, Brown did give us “Merry Christmas, Baby” and “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Most people are lucky to COVER one good Christmas song in their careers.
17. Thurl Ravenscroft – You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Sometime in the 1990s, this became a popular choice for punk and indie bands to cover in concert and on lo-fi Christmas compilations, but in all the years of other people doing it now, I’ve realized there’s simply nothing that matches with Thurl’s original vocal and delivery from the 1966 TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” My favorite lyric always changes any time I hear the song, but I think it should be everyone’s New Year’s resolution to call somebody they find particularly displeasing a “nauseous super-naus.” If not that, then certainly “you’re a crooked, jerky jockey and you ride a crooked horse.”
18. Chris Isaak – Hey Santa!
I’ve always kind of wanted to like Chris Isaak, but every time I see him in an interview he always comes off a little too smug for my liking, and the fact that he’s still getting mileage on “Wicked Game” (which I never thought was that sexy of a tune to begin with) also bothers me. However, I still dig “Somebody’s Cryin’” and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best rockabilly Christmas tunes I’ve ever heard. From the tone of that electric guitar to the impassioned “Honey, please come on home,” I’m sold. It’s really the only great thing on his Christmas album, but hey, better than nothing, right? Now stop being so smug.
19. Allen Toussaint – Silent Night, Holy Night
Another instrumental, but anybody who’s ever seen or heard Allen alone at a piano understands what a fabulously regal experience it is. This cut showed up on the 1997 compilation, A New Orleans Christmas, released on Toussaint’s NYNO label. I liked “Silent Night” a lot when I was a little boy, but my attitude toward it has become less favorable as I’ve aged. Mainly because it’s such a religious song and whenever artists try to do it, they seem to feel like Jesus is right there in the studio with them, furrowed brow like an A&R man, going “Now come on guys, this is about my birth. Let’s class it up. OK. Take 2.” So you end up with a lot of very “proper” versions that are all well and good, but have all the fun of a Catholic mass. Give Toussaint endless credit for at least putting a little boogie into the keys.
20. Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – New Year’s Resolution
Not really a Christmas/holiday tune as much as a general male/female duet about the trials and tribulations of that funny old thing called love. Great soul ballad from 1967’s King and Queen album, but it’s hard to think of any instance where Otis misfired. And I feel it’s a more than appropriate end to this year’s mix as 2009 turns into 2010. But that just might be because my love/relationship-related resolutions always end up being about as solid as your resolution to exercise more and that one’s resolution to eat less McDonald’s. If we make it into February, fabulous, but if not, well, who remembered what was pledged Dec. 31 anyway?
Happy Holidays, everybody.