I’m a big enough person to admit when I’ve been wrong. And it’s that time of year when I’m wrong again.
2007: “… there’s no way I’m doing another one next year. I probably couldn’t be bothered again, BUT the other thing is that the fruits of my labor this year have produced quite simply (and with no false modesty) the greatest Christmas mix ever. There’s no topping this.”
2008: “So I’m a liar.”
2009: N/A (No damning statements to be found. Seems like I resigned myself to becoming an annual Christmas music supplier.)
2010: “…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 … So the chances I’ll have one out in 2011? If you ask me right now I’ll say slim.”
And if you ask me right now, I guess I look like a big, fat liar. Again. Because as much as I hate the annual process of sifting through so many horrible Christmas songs, the deeper I dig each year means the good ones I do find sound that much more magical. Plus every year there are new ditties added to the barrel and I get to skim around the top and pick out good recent tracks too.
In a quick exchange with my comrade Grandma Cyd earlier this week, I told her that Lyle Lovett and Gruff Rhys have likely bullied me into a 2012 mix too, because both artists will be releasing Christmas-themed records this year after this mix is posted. She opined: “Out of a two-song lemon you will squeeze a 20-track lemonade? Good luck.”
“That’s how the last 3 mixes have gone. Two new songs come out after I finish the mix and I have a few months to decide whether it’s worth listening to hours and hours of crap to find 18 more good tracks. I think you’ll agree that the last 3 mixes have been good lemonade. And this year’s is pretty fabulous as well.”
Of course, that’s just me. Why don’t you decide for yourself and download It’s Been Christmas Here For a While, which is this blog’s 6th annual Christmas mix and adds 20 new songs to your ever expanding ASBTTIS Christmas playlist.
(And for tradition’s sake, ahem … this is the last one.)
(… maybe not though.)
It’s Been Christmas Here For a While
The 2011 “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen …” Christmas mix
01. Kermit Ruffins – This Christmas
Obviously you’re all so happy to get a sixth installment of this blog’s Christmas mix that we might as well kick things off with a party piece. Who better to lead it, then, than a co-founder of the famed Rebirth Brass Band? This is from Kermit’s 2009 holiday album, Have a Crazy Cool Christmas, and I think it beats out every version of the song that I’ve heard, including Donny Hathaway’s signature version. While Hathaway’s version is laudable, it always seemed to be lacking something. Maybe it wasn’t Hathaway’s fault … it could very well be a product of the song, which is why I’ve struggled to find an enjoyable version of it. But you give it that street steppers beat and New Orleans brass, and pretty much any song can be made to sound absolutely wonderful. Plus Kermit’s gravelly vocal wipes away the sheen that’s annoyed me so much in every other version I’ve heard.
02. Kula Shaker – Snowflake
Kula Shaker have been pretty good to their fans every year since reforming in 2007. Members of their mailing list are usually alerted to special Christmastime recordings made by the band, and last year we got two tracks—a psychedelic meshup of the Beatles’ “Christmas Time is Here Again” and “Flying,” and this track, which was written by the band Bucky. Sung from the (cold) perspective of a snowflake who always is made to wait just a little too long (e.g. after Christmas) before falling to Earth. I particularly dig the laundry list of Christmas annoyances that anyone pick from to relate to (“Away in a manger and three wise men, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is on TV again, Santa and his elves are looting the shelves, your alcoholic uncle’s having dizzy spells, an hour-long extension of the worst TV shows, get a nosebleed under the mistletoe …”). Not exactly the most cheery thing, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the music. It’s pretty fun.
03. Vince Guaraldi Trio – Christmas Time is Here (Vocal)
There are a handful of friends and family every year who harp on me when I say “This is the last Christmas mix.” I really wanted last year’s to be the end because it would’ve meant 5 mixes of 20 songs each—100 songs total with no repeats or alternative versions—but my father of all people lambasted me for failing to put any cuts from Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the original 100. OK, OK. Here, Dad. But besides just appeasing the guy who always collaborated with my mom to make sure my sister and I had an awesome Christmas every year, one must stay applied to the rule that every good Christmas mix needs a few familiar pieces in them. Not that you all wouldn’t have enjoyed non-traditional fare from Kula Shaker, Flash Atkins or the Cute Lepers, anyway, but everyone needs a couple things to sing along to on the first go-round, don’t they? This is another one that people have tried to cover for years and years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired. Maybe it’s the sparse production (sounds like it was recorded in a drafty barn in the middle of a windy December night), but there’s something just a little haunting about this that makes it all the more endearing.
04. The Moonglows – Hey Santa Claus
Apparently this song’s been popular for a while? Not popular in a “Feliz Navidad” sort of way, but popular for people who get really into Christmas music (despite evidence supporting the contrary, I do not consider myself some who’s “really into” Christmas music. I just like finding good tunes for you lovely people). I had no knowledge of it prior to this year, but I’m sure it’s shown up in a few Christmas-themed big Hollywood movies. The thing that caught me about it was that the Moonglows were one of Harvey Fuqua’s first outfits. Fuqua was an underrated R&B pioneer who had connections with both the Chess and Motown labels and was actually responsible for bringing Tammi Terrell to Motown. Thank you, by the way. The best thing he’s done to my mind is a rare number called “Any Way You Wanta.” Find it after Christmas. It’ll hold you over until the next Christmas season. This track isn’t anything overly spectacular, but it’s 2 and a half minutes of fun, and with a collection of songs like these, it dutifully serves a purpose, even if it’s underground popularity makes it fodder for all those hipsters hanging around Wicker Park. Sorry to non-Chicagoans who can’t appreciate that zinger.
05. The Cute Lepers – All I Ever Wanted Under the Christmas Tree
This is a song that featured on a compilation a couple years back called Blackheart Christmas. This is the only song I know by the Cute Lepers, but if it ends being the only one I know by them forever after, that’s enough for me. With Christmas songs, there’s something you can hear. You can deduce within 10 seconds whether a Christmas song is going to go pear-shaped because it’s oversaturated with cheesiness. In fact, most times I’m compiling Christmas mixes, I’m listening to song after song waiting for the “Yikes, this fails” moment. I’ve heard plenty of nice musical setups only for a particular lyric or vocal delivery to make me roll my eyes and move on to the next one. I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall here, but it never did, and by the end I was even doing a bit of foot-tapping. So well done, lepers of varying degrees of cuteness. It’s got that “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”-era Billy Joel quality to it, which isn’t a horrible thing if it comes in quick doses and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
06. Good Lovelies – Maybe This Time
This Canadian trio came to my attention earlier this year when I did a weeklong series on the blog with WSUM’s Grandma Cyd about new artists doing songs in old-time styles. I got into them enough to include their cut “Crabbuckit” on my summer mix, and when I found out later that summer they had a Christmas album (Under the Mistletoe, 2009), well, I had to see if there was anything interesting on there. The fact that I found this original cut, which is just a simple, enjoyable tune—nothing more, nothing less—actually kicked me into doing a third Christmas mix. I’d already thought, “Boy this Kula Shaker cut is pretty fun,” and had my dad on my case for failing to include anything from A Charlie Brown Christmas in the first five mixes. Once I found this track, I figured, “Hell, why not start digging for 17 more?” Odds that’ll happen again next year? (Sarcastic guffaw)
07. Jimmy Charles – Santa Won’t Be Blue This Christmas
I found this tune while scouring through a bunch of 1950s and 1960s rare doo-wop Christmas singles and of the 50 or so songs included on the collection this is the only one that caught my ear. This was a 1960 single for Charles that was written by Phil Medley (who earned his most famous credit by co-writing “Twist and Shout”). Lyrically, the subject of domestic disputes during the holidays have probably been handled better elsewhere, but you can’t deny the hook here. It’s happy enough to make “Yeah yeah! And a diddlee-dee” sound appropriate.
08. The Mills Brothers – Here Comes Santa Claus
I noticed a little late in the compiling of this mix that I’d shied away from crooners this time around, presumably because I don’t want the mixes to be subject to 2nd-rate Frank, Dean, Bing, Bobby, Peggy, et. al tunes because the “A” material’s already been used. Also because when you set forth a strict policy not to repeat songs (even if done by a different artist) on future Christmas mixes once it’s already been spoken for, the well runs dry pretty fast. Thankfully, some great vintage material could be found to appease my old Madison pal Grandma Cyd with the Mills Brothers. This track, from the bros.’ 1959 LP, Merry Christmas, is done in their signature cool style (something that Dean Martin grew up adoring, mind you) and handles one of the season’s cheesier songs in more-than-tolerable measure. I still kind of laugh at the “Santa knows we’re all God’s children—that makes everything right” line, though. It’s like Gene Autry (who co-wrote the song) tried to fix this “reason for the season” business in one fell swoop. “It’s about God sending his only son, Gene …” “Yeah, well, I know that. Don’t you think Santa KNOWS that?! It’s cool.”
09. Flash Atkins – All I Want For Christmas is You
Looking at the title, you might think it’s that ubiquitous Mariah Carey song, but you’d be wrong. Actually, I don’t know anything about Flash Atkins … from rudimentary research I’ve deduced that he very possibly is UK-based and may or may not dress as a superhero and/or live in a camper van. When he’s not doing that, he’s mixing up old records for all our delight. As I’ve said in many Christmas mix writeups before, I’m not the biggest fan of random mashups or remixes, but for some reason, I do enjoy running through Christmas-based ones to see if any hit that holiday sweet spot. This one does nicely. Based on nothing more than a bassline looped from the Bee Gees’ “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” a spruced up backbeat and a couple lines from Julie London’s “I’d Like You For Christmas” (which I always thought was a yawner on its own), these ingredients together make for a nicely chilled holiday groove. The fact that you get to hear Barry Gibb whisper, “First I rise, then I fall …” a couple times also helps.
10. Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song
I’ve avoided putting this on previous Christmas mixes because it is just so absolutely ubiquitous, but once I got to the third installment, that “you need to include some classics amongst the rarities” mindset kicked in. I searched high and low for a version of this song that carried it’s own kind of cool and unique flavor, but there’s really no hope with “The Christmas Song.” This is the version. That’s it. There’s no need to ever hear another recording of this song. What you might not know is that this particular version is actually the fourth that Nat released in his career. He took his first stab at it in 1946 for a radio session and another later in 1946 that was the first time it was put on record with his name on it. His third go at it took place in 1952 for a single that would be one of his first with Capitol Records before doing this in 1961 (the year AFTER his Christmas album, The Magic of Christmas was released). Capitol realized the power of this recording, tacked it onto the front of the album and every subsequent release of Cole’s Christmas album has since been retitled The Christmas Song. This isn’t the first Christmas song I ever fell in love with, but this is the first version of a particular song that I ever fell in love with. Since I’ve been about 12 years old, I’ve scoffed at a lot of other pretenders’ takes on the song.
11. Lee Rogers – You Won’t Have to Wait Till Xmas
For as many good R’n’B Christmas cuts I’ve found throughout the years, finding some true Northern Soul Christmas gets a little tough. That’s what makes this find so cool for me. Rogers put this song out as a single in 1965 and it did pretty much nothing, but hell, didn’t all the very best Northern Soul songs do the same? Originally released on the D-Town label, a Detroit imprint that was obviously trying to hitch its wagon to Motown’s star, this song bears no resemblance to any typical Christmas song. No bells, no wistful melody—all this is is an R’n’B love song infused with some basic Christmas references (“under the mistletoe,” “sheltered from the snow,” “you’re my Santa Claus and I believe in you”). As part of a Northern Soul night, it’d be pretty stock, but amongst its peers here, it stands out nicely.
12. Brenda Lee – Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day
I never knew who Brenda Lee’s audience was. Most people just know here for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but she recorded scores of Christmas songs, so maybe it’s just Christmasheads who go nuts for her. Then again, she’s got some good non-Yuletide fare like “Dynamite,” so maybe it’s not just Christmasheads. I took a trip down to Nashville last winter and judging by the amount of Brenda Lee material I found in record stores down there, I think it’s safe to say I came close to finding her fanbase’s home base. It’s a country thing, I suppose. This song is another in Lee’s Christmas canon that isn’t named “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” so lots of points for that. Sometimes it’s a little thing that can hook me and in this case it’s the drumbeat. It’s got that strong late 1950s/early 1960s rock-via-surf feel to it but that blends nicely with the whole country “oh-woe-is-me”ness of spending Christmas solo.
13. David Ian featuring Andre Miguel Mayo – Christmas Time With You
I don’t know anything about David Ian. This cut comes from an album released this year (way to get it out early and be considered for the mix, Dave). The album’s called Vintage Christmas and it’s a piano-led jazz trio thing, so that’s will pique my interest enough to make me have a listen. Sounds like it could have been recorded in the late 1950s or early 1960s, which again, is alright by me. Good chill feel to it, and it’s got that good end of Harry Connick, Jr.-ness about it where things stay cool instead of going overblown and gaudy. Harry’s kind lost perspective of that in putting out three Christmas albums, so it’s good that someone else is there to pick up the pieces.
14. Berlin Symphony Orchestra – Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Red Baron Remix)
Another pull from the remix bin. I like this because it’s basically just augmenting a well-known instrumental with a great piece of live drumming. Did you ever think you could air drum to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”? Well, friend, neither did I. But, alas, whoever this Red Baron is (and if you do find out, please tell Snoopy) has come to save us all from the injustice of another Christmas in which we can’t air drum to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The jury’s out on whether this will make future viewings of “Home Alone” any less enjoyable.
15. The Puppini Sisters – All I Want For Christmas
Looking at the title, you might again think it’s that ubiquitous Mariah Carey song, and this time you’d be right. Look, it’s out of my hands now when it comes to judging that song. Popular opinion has already made it a Christmas standard and despite my own annoyance with it, I did kind of enjoy the way it was used in “Love Actually” a few years back. My own annoyance with it also kept me from putting it on earlier Christmas mixes, particularly because everyone seemed to cover it, but nobody (frustratingly) matched or bettered Mariah’s original. And there was no way Mariah was going on one of these mixes. Why? Because f*ck Mariah, that’s why (and bah humbug to you, too). She had a pretty good run for a few years in getting into that rarified air of having a writing credit on a tune so popular that it’s become a holiday standard, but when you use it as an excuse to anchor more annoying holiday albums as she did last year with Merry Christmas II You, well then I’m kind of done with you. Besides, this take on the song, from the UK’s Puppini Sisters (who apparently are neither named Puppini nor are Sisters … discuss) is ridiculously more charming. They go the Andrew Sisters/hint of Dixieland route with it and while it hurtles toward campiness, it avoids going over the guardrail and actually manages to make me smile. It’s a hard thing to do after trolling through loads of garbage to put a SIXTH Christmas mix together, you know …
16. Fitz and the Tantrums – Santa Stole My Lady
After I’d decided I was going to do this Christmas mix, I delved into a bunch of 2010 releases to see what I’d missed last year and this song bubbled up as one of those one-off digital only Christmas releases from Dangerbird Records. I don’t know much about Fitz or his gang of Tantrums, but if the rest of the catalog is anything like this, I’ll have to check them out. This is the kind of holiday song that Hall & Oates should’ve done instead of that godforsaken “Jingle Bell Rock” cover. Having your woman two-time you with Santa can’t be any easy pill to swallow, but at least Fitz and the gang allow you to groove a little through your seething anger. This is actually one of my favorites from this year’s mix and I thank the band profusely for allowing me not to have to tread through an array of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” covers for yet another year. This song handles the sentiment way better anyway.
17. Chris Standring & Kathrin Shorr – Send Me Some Snow
Another piano jazz thing that’ll sound good under the din of a Christmas party. Someone posted this song somewhere last year—it was part of a compilation called Share the Gifts from A-Train records. Apparently this duo got enough good response out of it to put a whole holiday album out this year under the title of Send Me Some Snow. If I’m being entirely honest, after snowpocalypse last year and the annual “this is going to be the worst winter ever” reports, I’m not particularly looking forward to the heavens’ sending of snow. I even feel a little skittish playing it too soon, as if I’m tempting fate. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the sentiment. Especially when it’s on a Christmas mix. And it has a chorus that is that sweet.
18. Harry Crafton with Doc Bagby Orchestra – Bring That Cadillac Back
Why? Because I’m not going to let Brenda Lee and a white boy moaning about his wife’s infidelities with Kris Kringle represent the blues component of the mix. I will get some proper blues in here, dammit. It’s a familiar story here. Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, boy buys Cadillac, boy and girl have a tremendous fight before Christmas morning, girl takes Cadillac, boy demands Cadillac back. We’ve all been there. My girlfriend is steadfastly against me even considering this a Christmas song, but just because she’s never absconded with somebody’s Cadillac on Christmas morning doesn’t make it any less of a Christmas song. Maybe I’ll buy her a Cadillac and then severely tick her off just to prove a point. No. Well … not this year at least.
19. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects
This is a one-off single that Jones and her Dap-Kings released last year that can not only be appreciated by her own sturdy fanbase but all the rest of the “Hey, you know, that Amy Winehouse wasn’t such a bad singer, I should check out some more of that good R ‘n’ B stuff” offshoots. The moral of the song? Even though there aren’t chimneys in the projects, your mother will lie to you about the existence of Santa Claus just like the mothers in chimney-equipped suburban homes will. In the end, there’s really so much that ties us all together. So how about a little peace on Earth?
20. Blondfire – It’s Been Christmas Here
Blondfire actually worked their way into my consciousness four years ago when I was compiling the 2nd annual ASBTTIS Christmas mix, Shake Hands with Santa Claus! I found their tune “Underneath the Mistletoe” quite charming and it actually sent me headlong into Blondfire fandom—their EP “Don’t Whisper Lies” from when they were still called Astaire is particularly fabulous. This cut comes off the same EP that featured “Underneath the Mistletoe.” I don’t know why I look passed it all those years ago, maybe I was just consciously searching for more upbeat stuff, but thankfully I went back and reassessed this tune, and by God, if it isn’t just a beautiful little song and a perfect note to end this mix on. Hell, it’s so good it can even give this mix its title.
A happy holiday season to all my readers. Check back next week for the start of the annual “15 of the Best” countdown.