Well, folks, another Thanksgiving has come and gone and while the lights have been sprouting up around downtown Chicago for the past few weeks, I’ve tried to remain stringent to the “We’ll get into the seasonal mood once Thanksgiving passes” rule.
While the seasonal mixes are always popular fare around these parts, none are more popular than the annual Christmas mixes, and this year I give you the fifth installment of the annual ASBTTIS Christmas mix. If you’re devoted enough to have been around all five years for the mixes, you should have 100 Christmas songs now—with no song repeats anywhere to be found.
That leads me to my 2011 dilemma. I’m a man of changing minds, so it’s very possible this statement/theory/bald-faced lie will be shot to hell come post-Thanksgiving next year, but it’s likely this will be the final Christmas mix. For one, giving listeners a 100-Christmas song playlist should be enough to satisfy soundtracking needs for any Christmas party you’ll be throwing in the next month. We’re talking about 6 hours of music. Could I find 20 more songs that haven’t already been done by another artist throughout this five-year series? I bet I could, but … as it goes with Christmas albums, true quality is hard to come by. Next year I’m debating reupping all five for those of you who might have missed a year or four, or I’m also debating a “Best of” compilation that pulls the choicest tunes from each of the five compilations.
Of course, when I started the series in 2006, I said I wouldn’t be putting McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” on a mix, ditto Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly.” This year’s proves me a liar on both fronts. I also said after the 2007 mix that I couldn’t possibly top it and would not do one in 2008 or anytime thereafter. I did one in 2008. And 2009. And 2010.
So the chances I’ll have one out in 2011? If you ask me right now I’ll say slim. But who knows what Christmas tunes this year will catch my ear and inspire me to do a sixth installment? Better hope a couple bands offer up some classics.
In the meantime, enjoy this year’s — I loved putting it together, and as always, it should be an absolute treat to listen to for the next month.
It’s Time For Carols and Kris Kringle
The “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen …” 2010 Christmas mix
01. Patti Page – Christmas Bells (Northern Electrix Remix)
This is the second Patti Page song to feature in one of my Christmas mixes and it’s also the second one that got the remix treatment. Here’s the thing about listening to Patti Page Christmas tunes: they all sound just a little too wholesome. I mean it veers into spookiness. For me at least. And I don’t know much about her schtick, but I have to believe that was kind of the whole point if Bruce Johnston namedrops her in his personal ode to a more innocent and idyllic time, “Disney Girls (1957).” The original version of “Christmas Bells,” which featured on her 1968 LP Christmas with Patti Page sounds dead on arrival. Page croons sweetly over a lollygagging backing track while a chorus of disinterested children repeats every line she sings. There’s no pizzazz whatsoever. Ah, but when Northern Electrix put its hands on it for the 2004 compilation Holiday Lounge, they brought the oomph. Ditching the kids for a staggered but impactful backbeat, some vinyl scratching and pulling some horns up to the front does wonders for this track and also offers a picture-perfect opening for this year’s collection.
02. Darlene Love – All Alone on Christmas
I’m guessing this is probably the most famous song to be culled from the “Home Alone 2” soundtrack, although kudos to Chris Columbus (and Uncle Frank, I suppose) for reviving the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.” I’m actually in the minority that enjoys the second installment of “Home Alone” far more than the first, but I digress … Darlene Love is always going to be known for her work on the legendary Phil Spector Christmas album, but while this song hasn’t gone completely underground since its 1992 release, it’s always good to hear it again. Also notable that it’s the E Street Band backing her up here. I think this was the era when Mr. Springsteen decided it would be really wise to go it alone on the west coast. So be it, Boss.
03. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – Christmas Everyday
You can’t find many problems with Motown Records in the 1960s. Probably the biggest problem the label had was too much talent and too many good songs, which meant that stunning tracks like Tammi Terrell’s “All I Do (Is Think About You)” had to sit in the vaults for years because the label simply had too many good tracks to promote ahead of it. But I’ve always been amazed by the lackluster output the label paraded during the holiday season. I know I’ve touched on it in write-ups for previous Christmas mixes, but every year there seems to be some new fandangled Motown Christmas collection and every year I think, “Yeah, there are some keepers on there, but for the most part, it’s a lot of meh.” I don’t know why it worked that way, but the bite and verve that made all those classic-era Motown cuts so great just found itself on vacation when it came time for acts like the Temptations, Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to cut Christmas records. That’s not to say it’s a sweeping dismissal—Stevie’s shining Christmas moment comes later on this mix, and Marvin Gaye did do “Purple Snowflakes” (which appeared on my 2007 Christmas mix), but even so—“Purple Snowflakes” found itself in the Motown vaults until someone unearthed it for an early 1990s rarities compilation. Meanwhile we got a bunch of tepid holiday filler that only came to pass because of the artists recording it. Still, even though there aren’t nearly enough for a label of Motown’s stature and Christmas output it created, there are some gems hidden in there, and the Miracles’ “Christmas Everyday,” from 1963’s Christmas with the Miracles is one of the good ones. Actually it was the lone Smokey original on the album and maybe that in itself tells you what was missing from the rest of the Motown holiday records—Smokey originals. Call me Captain Hindsight, but shouldn’t he have banged out a few more tunes for the Motown stable between 1963 and 1967? For God’s sake, the guy wrote “Tears of a Clown.”
04. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Peggy Lee & Trudy Stevens – Snow
I probably enjoy this song more for this version’s backstory more than any holiday-related reason, much less any reverence for “White Christmas,” which to this day, I still have not seen from start to finish. That’s a feat in itself, but even more impressive considering it’s my mother’s favorite holiday movie and I managed to find something else to do every year as a child when the film aired on TV or mom popped in the video cassette. Last year, I made a valiant effort to watch a lot of it, albeit fueled by my favorite holiday drink (pomegranate vodka mixed with pomegranate 7-Up). My father and sister became annoyed with my unending line of questioning about the plot (e.g. “Wait, where are they going?” “Who’s this guy?” “The audience realizes they’re not women, right?”) – my father incredulously asked how many times I’d seen this in my life and didn’t believe me when I said “Never.” We got into a quick debate about that, and when I asked him to remember us ever watching this movie as an entire family, he had to concede I had a point. Anyway, I did see the part where they sing this song, and in my pomegranate-tinged inebriation, I continued to sing the song throughout the house for the next two hours, making up my own lyrics as I went. My father and sister found that funny for about 30 seconds. But I guess it’s the hallmark of a catchy tune, right? Anyway … My fascination with this version is actually that Peggy Lee sits in for Rosemary Clooney (I like Lee better), because although Clooney was in the movie, she was not signed to Decca Records, which decided to issue the “official soundtrack,” Selections from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, headlined by its main man in 1954, Bing Crosby. Clooney put out her own versions of the songs on her own Columbia label, but it mired the chance of there ever being a proper soundtrack album, because the importance of two labels each keeping tight reins on their stars was far too important to mess around with in 1954. Once upon a time, record labels mattered, you know. Fifty-six years later? Eh, not so much.
05. The Bird and the Bee – A Christmas Compromise
I featured The Bird and the Bee on my 2nd annual Christmas mix, with their lovely take on “Carol of the Bells,” but this is an original that was included on the 2009 compilation Safety Harbor Kids Holiday Collection, and absolutely slays me. Seems like it’s a gentile girl trying to convince her Jewish beau to ease up on the avoidance of Christmas at all costs and tries to explain the perks of Christmas as it pertains to Santa Claus – nowt to do with Jesus, you see, we can skip all that “reason for the season” business and get right to the good stuff. Any vocal delivered by Inara George is going to be disarmingly sweet, but listen to that “wooo!” after she explains that Santa only cares if you’re naughty or nice. It’s just a quick hit of aural ecstasy, but enough in itself to hook you for the whole song.
06. Paul McCartney – Wonderful Christmastime
I’m not going to apologize for putting this song on here. I’ve loved this song from the first time I heard it. I know other people can’t stand it, and especially if you’ve had the misfortune of working in retail during the holiday season, you’ve probably heard it ad nauseum over an in-store sound system and want to jam a pencil in your ear the second those dulcet tones of a late 1970s synthesizer announce themselves. It’s the kind of song Macca can doodle out in five minutes, but it’s still ridiculously catchy and has its charms. And I’ll take it over the ultra-righteous bombast of John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas” that everyone and their mother seems to want to cover the minute they figure out the chords. Sure, it’s on a zillion other compilations, but as I’ve said at some point during every Christmas mix I’ve made, you need those pangs of familiarity between the dearth of cool, lesser-known stuff.
07. The Beach Boys – Winter Symphony
The Beach Boys were in a pretty ugly state in the late 1970s. Brian Wilson had been around the bend for awhile, but if any label were willing to take on the boys who’d been hitless for an uncomfortably long stretch, they also wanted a promise that Brian could deliver a cut or two of “Pet Sounds”-caliber material to justify a new release. Capitol had long since given up on the band, and even though they had their own label, Brother Records, they needed a major label to distribute their stuff. Reprise Records had also moved on, so in 1977 they signed to Caribou, but then Reprise came back and essentially said, “Oh, hey, if you duped Caribou into this with any promises of new Brian material, keep in mind you that contractually, you owe us one more album.” The quickest way out would’ve been to cobble together a Greatest Hits, but the Beach Boys opted instead to go for another Christmas album, since, you know, it had been 13 years since “Little Saint Nick.” Al Jardine was listed has head producer on the album, so that in itself probably tells you the level of investment the boys had in it – essentially they reworked their own stuff along with others (there’s a shameless, uninspired rip off of “Peggy Sue” called “Christmas Time is Here Again”), and basically “Winter Symphony” was revamped from a song they’d recorded three years earlier called “Child of Winter.” The song isn’t really the Beach Boys’ finest moment – Brian sounds pretty unsure of himself at the mic, but it holds together well enough to be probably the best cut on an otherwise awful LP, which, yes I know, isn’t saying much, but hey … it’s kind of a nice hidden gem.
08. Frank Sinatra – Mistletoe and Holly
I’ve spent the last five years trying to find another good version of this just to avoid the obviousness of putting Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mistletoe and Holly” on a Christmas mix. And you know what? One, there aren’t that many versions out there, which is strange considering it’s a decent song and fairly easy to suss out, and two, of the versions that are out there, none of ‘em are interesting enough to justify their place on a mix in lieu of Frank’s. Also, I’ve made it all the way to the fifth volume of this series, and Frank’s only making his debut. Dean Martin’s had two cuts, Sammy’s had one, Bobby Darin’s had one and even Bing Crosby’s made an appearance. Hell, Louis Armstrong’s shown up three times and even Mel Torme found his way in. Not putting Frank on would just seem a bit like a self-righteous snub, and I can’t do that. And if no one else is going to do a cool enough version of “Mistletoe and Holly” and it’s Frank’s turn to come to bat, what choice do you think I’m going to make?
09. KT Tunstall – Mele Kalikimaka (Christmas In Hawaii)
I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of Ms. Tunstall. I liked that tune about the horse and cherry tree, but only if it ever came up on the radio or at someone’s shindig. I never liked it enough to go out and buy the album or even download the song off a music blog. She’s attractive. She seems like a reasonable enough singer and songwriter. She keeps good company. She just hasn’t found the hook for me to get really interested. On a different token but under a similar thread, I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of “Mele Kalikimaka.” It seems like a tune written specifically for a cash-in attempt on a niche market (Record exec: “How would you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian?” Lackey: “Sir? I don’t know if Christmas, that is, Christmas as we know it, sir, is a custom of the people that live on that set of islands.” Record exec: “Yes, but a bunch of people are going down there to escape the cold here, aren’t they? Shouldn’t we have something for them to listen to instead of ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas?’ It will make no sense there!” Lackey: “Yeah, but sir, it seems like a relatively small market. I mean I don’t think we’re even going to admit Hawaii into the union for another 10 years!” Record exec: “Dammit, Bob, how would you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian? Tell me or you’re fired.” Lackey: “Well, I dunno, geez … ‘Mele… Kalikimaka,’ I suppose.” Record exec: “Right, get some boys around the piano in Studio B. I want the song by lunchtime!”) Nevertheless, I found myself in a hotel room just this past October whistling the song, and wondering why the hell I was whistling “Mele Kalikimaka” in a hotel room in October. So there you go. An artist I’m dubious about singing a song I’m dubious about. But this version, from the 2007 EP “Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas” is quite nice.
10. Nathaniel Mayer – Mr. Santa Claus (Bring Me My Baby)
This is a grand ol’ bit of soul that served as the B-side to Nathaniel Mayer’s 1962 single, “Well I’ve Got Good News (For You).” I haven’t had the fortune to hear this at a Northern Soul night, but I think this would be a great thing for a Mod club to spin around Christmas time. It’s danceable, has a great pained soul vocal and is probably rare enough to get an approving “Well done” from all those high-falutin Mod purists. It falls in the same vein of all those other “All I want for Christmas is my baby” songs—rattling off a shopping list of what he doesn’t want, so you know, Santa doesn’t get confused even though the only thing he SCREAMS about is wanting his baby (and needing his baby … and having to have his baby). Someone needs to write a song like “I want my baby, but if you do have the extra time/wherewithal, I could also use a new television, ‘cos eventually my baby’s going to find some way to irritate me. I mean, I still want my baby, just … you know … a little default option too, if it’s not too much to ask.”
11. Super Furry Animals – The Gift That Keeps Giving
I never really thought of this song as a holiday one. I simply saw it as the best track on the Furries’ 2007 album, Hey Venus! Then I saw the video, which is pretty fantastic on all accounts, and also heard lead Furry Animal Gruff Rhys describe the tune as “A secular Christmas song about commerce, business, money and enjoying the fact that we live in a world where God is dead and Elvis lives.” OK, then, fair enough. For as cynical as it could be after a description like that, the song is charming as hell, and a better classic-era Beach Boys pastiche then even the Beach Boys themselves could muster.
12. Christian McBride – Double Decker (Deck the Halls)
As far as traditional fare goes, I’ve got to list “Deck the Halls” as probably the most annoying of the holiday tunes. Before anyone brings up Elmo and Patsy, let me reiterate that I’m talking about traditional fare. Although “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” has already achieved an annoying protection of immortality, you’re not going to find it in kids Christmas song books anytime soon. I hope. But you will find “Deck the Halls.” And you know why? Because the “fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-las” equal the actual lyric count in that song. Which means the song’s original writers were lazy bastards. According to Wikipedia, the song might be more than 300 years old, so I guess whoever transcribed “fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” onto paper can’t properly defend himself and it’s not fair to take shots at him (at least this time of year), but … kids sing it to no end because it’s easy, the “fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra” chorus in “A Christmas Story” is one of its lesser laughs and, really, aside from Oscar the Grouch’s refusal to sing it in “A Muppet Family Christmas,” I’m hard pressed to think of anything really endearing about the tune. Anyhow, I gave that longwinded diatribe because I don’t know jack about Christian McBride, other than he single (or maybe double) handedly nullified my complaints about the song by removing singers, lyrics and all the ridiculousness tied to the song by doing it with two upright basses. It was featured on the 1996 Verve Records compilation, Jazz For Joy: A Verve Christmas Album, and it sounds dynamite.
13. Holly Golightly – Christmas Tree on Fire
I dig Holly Golightly and I dig her choices when it comes to covering songs, but I think her take on Tom Heinl’s “Christmas Tree on Fire” loses a little something in the male-to-female translation. Maybe it’s incredibly sexist of me to say so or buying into a stereotype, but in Golightly’s version, she’s playing a lazy girlfriend who does not follow her boyfriend’s directions to throw out the Christmas tree … to the point where it dries out to such a degree by Valentine’s Day that it turns into a tinder box and (likely) takes down the house. In Heinl’s version, he’s just ignoring his wife. Now, I could delve into this further and set women equality talks back by 50 years, but let me put it to you this way. What dude is going to nag his woman (particularly one of Golightly’s stature) to remove a Christmas tree for a month and a half? I would posit that if its around that long, dude doesn’t really care about it all that much, because he’d have already gone, “Fine, I’ll do it.” It’s just one of those songs that gets a little stranger with a sex change (the ultimate example still being the Beatles’ version of “Boys”). Nevertheless, this is still a pretty kick ass track and I love that a tube sock and couch cushion are the firefighting weapons of choice. I also love that the Christmas tree was “put up for Jesus.” If you can find it, you should check out the expanded version of Golightly’s 2006 “Christmas Tree on Fire” EP, if not just for this track, then also for the fabulous B-side “Christmas Solo.”
14. Little Esther Phillips & Johnny Otis – Far Away Christmas Blues
This is a cut I stumbled across while combing Christmas album archives. I admit to know nothing about Little Esther Phillips or Johnny Otis, but this cut, done in 1950 and tacked onto the Savoy Christmas Blues compilation is one of those downtrodden holiday tunes that every Christmas mix needs to remain fair for all listeners. God knows there have been Christmases in the past where I’ve thought the all the songs sounded just a little too happy for my liking. As with all good vintage blues, you can hear the pain in both Esther’s and Johnny’s deliveries, and while I’m not going to go all Scrooge on you with the rest of this Christmas mix, this is obviously one for the lonely this hoilday seaon … that can be enjoyed by the more fortunate all the same.
15. Bobby Darin – Child of God
Darin’s 1960 Christmas LP, The 25th Day of December got very religious, which is kind of interesting, because it meant that Darin was left to vamp on gospel hymns or give some very straight deliveries of missalette fare. On one hand, it provided a nice showcase for his voice (which he shows to stunning effect on “Ave Maria”), but it also kind of downplayed his trademark free ‘n’ easy swing that would’ve suited standards like “Winter Wonderland” or “Up on the Housetop.” When he does let loose, like here, it’s still somewhat restrained because of the song’s non-secular nature. Nevertheless, there’s a fair amount of boogie here, and I think it’s actually my favorite moment on the Darin Christmas record.
16. Burt Bacharach – The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle
This is a track that I’d never heard prior to last year, despite the fact that several versions exist, including ones by Bobby Helms, Bobby Vinton and Herp Albert and the Tijuana Brass. This version—credited to Bacharach, but obviously sung by his troupe of lounge ladies—comes off the 1968 A&M Records collection, Something Festive, which actually is a pretty nifty little set containing cuts from Sergio Mendes, Liza Minnelli and the aforementioned Herp Albert and co. This cut has all the hallmarks of a Burt Bacharach tune—soft horns, impossibly catchy (and borderline annoying) melodic hook and a lyric that makes you go, “Wait … what?” I suppose it means well for a Christmas story, but really it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? This bell is crying because it can’t make a sound, so Jack Frost comes along and freezes one of its tears to put inside, thus giving the bell something to jingle and make a sound. Maybe it says something about me that my immediate thought is, “So the happy ending is a permanent reminder of its depression?” Merry Christmas!
17. Harry Connick, Jr. – (It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus
Has anyone created a pool for how many Christmas albums Harry Connick, Jr. will do before his time on this earth is done? ‘Cos if so, I’d like to buy in for six. The guy’s only 43 and he’s already released three. All of ‘em are pretty spotty, which leads me to think all the holiday releases thus far and yet to come are simply a precursor to “The Ultimate Harry Connick, Jr. Christmas Album” or “Harry Connick, Jr.’s Greatest Christmas Hits” or something. And when that album comes—which I can almost guarantee it will—I’ll also almost guarantee that this will be the opening cut on it. It’s a good N’awlins-tinged rave-up and works exceedingly well for an original. The fact that it’s his best Christmas cut and features on his first Christmas LP, 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas, probably says enough about the superfluoucity of 2003’s Harry for the Holidays, 2008’s What a Night! A Christmas Album and whatever the next installment is and the following installments will be. I enjoy a lot of Harry’s music, and I think he made a more genuine modern tap into the crooner/big band genre than Michael Buble ever will. I’ll still lend an ear to whatever he has to offer, but the next Christmas album he puts out, I will roll my eyes before I hear a note. You did “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus,” man. Be satisfied with that.
18. Holly Conlon – I’ll Be Home For Christmas
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” has always been an exquisitely beautiful song and one that everyone and their mother wants to sing when it comes time to record a Christmas album — obviously it’s effectiveness has been evidents since its early 1940s first airing and it continues to resonate through generations of sentimental sons and daughters as the years pass. But it’s a song that never gets too unique a treatment — most artists seem afraid to put some bite on it as if it would be tantamount to photoshopping the Mona Lisa. This is one of the standards that has been kept at bay throughout the years of my Christmas mixes, so when compiling this year’s, I decided to put it in the lineup, but find a rendition that separates itself from the countless others that ultimately result to a “This is MY balladeer voice.” Although Holly Conlon didn’t exactly funk it up, she gives a nice plodding backbeat and a few goosey horns to the tune, which served as one of the nicer moments on the 2008 indie girl power compilation, The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs. Best version out there? Nah, but it’s unique. And enjoyable.
19. Stevie Wonder – What Christmas Means to Me
Another fairly obvious one to put on, but I think I’ve noted in the past that the majority Stevie’s holiday stuff, not unlike Bobby Darin’s, went down a surprisingly non-secular avenue. And as I’ve also noted in the past, when you go down the non-secular route, things get understandably churchy pretty quickly. I don’t mind a slow tune here and there, but for a mix, you gotta have some bouncy stuff at the ready, because nothing creates a more funny-but-ultimately-awkward contradiction than the drunk dude with the reindeer sweater and wearing a lampshade at your Christmas party as the Oslo Gospel Choir’s version of “Stilla Natt” soundtracks his uneasy staggering. I’m not saying that Stevie Wonder’s best-known cut makes lampshade dude’s escapades any less threatening to your glass nativity set near the cheese and cracker plate, but it makes it a little more exciting. Anyway, this probably soundtracked too many Old Navy holiday sale commercials, but listen to it. The best cut from Wonder’s 1967 Someday at Christmas is still arguably the best holiday recording Motown ever offered.
20. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews & the City of New Orleans – O Holy Night
Does anyone remember “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip?” It was only on for a season, and it was only four years ago, but it seems like that little chapter in Aaron Sorkin’s history is something damn near forgotten these days. I’m not sure why – it was a fine show, but I guess people gravitated more toward “30 Rock” (which is probably a reason I still resent that show… well, that, and the fact that I’ve never found Tina Fey particularly funny). Anyway, this was pulled from the show’s Christmas episode, in which the houseband stepped aside to let some New Orleans musicians, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, make some cash for the holiday season. Once the producers caught wind, they decided to do more than let the band segue in and out of commercial breaks and give them a featured spot on the show. Led by New Orleans brass dynamo Trombone Shorty, the crew delivered one of the finest readings of “O Holy Night” you’ll ever hear, and – this being a primetime drama – also gave Danny poignant background music to announce his feelings to station executive Jordan. From a cynical eye, it’s all kind of over-the-top, but watch the musicians in front of the post-Katrina New Orleans slideshow and try not to get misty-eyed. This was a magic moment for television (performance starts at the 2:31 mark).
A very happy holiday season to you and yours.