Archive for November, 2012

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Those happy J-I-N-G-L-E B-E-double-L-S …

November 23, 2012

And so it begins again. Another Black Friday, another holiday season, another slew of sh*tty new Christmas albums staring you down from the iTunes home page and whatever physical music stores remain out there. Seriously, stop staring at me, Rod Stewart. It won’t work. You either, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

As I have been for the past 6 years, so I return to give you the only real holiday mix you’ll need this year (‘cos it’ s all good, and I’m guessing you’ve only heard SOME of the tracks)—the SEVENTH installment of this blog’s annual Christmas mix. How do I do it? How do I keep finding these gems when there’s so much sleigh-bell-laced aural manure to sift through? I don’t know. But I have to gift you a gift, don’t I? So there. That’s reason enough.

My lone rule about not repeating any songs used on previous mixes (even if they’re done by a different artist, done in a different key or done with a bossa nova beat), as always, is making each successive mix a bit more of a pain to compile, but the rewards for the hard work are yours for the taking. If you’ve been keeping track since 2006, you can now compile a playlist of 140 awesome Christmas songs without having to worry about hearing “Jingle Bells” 6 times. By my average, that’s better than listening to your local radio station that’s switched over to Christmas programming and is already on it’s 203rd play of “Feliz Navidad.” Trust me when I say it’s the perfect playlist for your holiday party (because I know it is for mine).

Here’s to building that playlist to 160 songs next year. No promises, though.

Forget About That Sleigh
The 2012 “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen …” Christmas mix

(Check the Comments Below)

01. The Puppini Sisters – Step Into Christmas
The Puppini Sisters made their Christmas mix debut here last year with an old-timey take on Mariah Carey’s ubiquitous “All I Want For Christmas,” and I enjoyed it enough to bring them immediately back with a similarly-styled cover of Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas.” I’ve never enjoyed Elton’s version of the song, although I can’t explain why exactly. It doesn’t seem like a focused Christmas song, it just seems like a tossed-off B-side. OK, OK, a lot of artists’ original Christmas songs fit that description, but “Step Into Christmas” managed to get really popular for some reason. At least with the Puppini Sisters, they add a bit of spark to it and that old-timey shuffle at the “hop aboard the turntable” bit. If you’d have asked me when I started doing these mixes if “Step Into Christmas” would’ve ever been included, I’d have laughed you out of the room. So the fact that it’s now opening one is a testament to my appreciation of these gals.

02. Gruff Rhys – Post Apocalypse Christmas
Mr. Rhys has been getting a lot of play on my seasonal mixes of late, and I suppose that’s down to good timing … No, no. It’s good tunes. Rhys released his “Athiest Xmas EP” last year and while the little holiday offering is packed with good tunes, this is easily the catchiest of the lot. A 1950s groove via 2011-Super-Furried production tricks, Rhys waxes poetical on spending Christmas in a concrete bunker during a nuclear winter. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest he makes it sound not half bad, but at least you can dance a little. As an aside, I was in Rhys’ native Wales the day this was released on vinyl last year. But instead of hunting down a record store in the Welsh countryside, I harassed some sheep. So, no, I might not have a musical momento of my brief journey in the land of too many consonants, but I have the sheep memories. Which, I’m told, is actually a more common Welsh souvenir.

03. Ella Fitzgerald – Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney
All things fair and equal, it surprises me a little that it took seven Christmas mixes to finally find a slot for this. Maybe I thought it was too obvious. The thing is when you’re trying to find material for a seventh Christmas mix without repeating any songs you’ve used before, you stop being so discerning about obviousness. Fitzgerald originally recorded the song back in 1950 and, surprise surprise, never appeared to be too eager to see it rereleased on compilations in any new musical format (cassette, 8-track, CD, etc.) She would’ve been 33 when she recorded the song, so if it was that “embarrassing,” you’d have thought she would’ve passed on it in the first place, but hey, I ain’t her manager. Only after her death in 1996 did this song start making its way back into the mainstream and making everyone raise an eyebrow, put on a smarmy grin and inquire of anyone within earshot, “You know what she’s talking about, right?” Here’s the thing I don’t get though. If all the innuendo is to be believed, then why (how?!) did her father make her a new … uh … netherregion? And why would he do it in time for Santa’s return next year? That’s where it gets derailed for me. You know, on second thought, I don’t think I really want to know your theories.

04. Josh Weller & Paloma Faith – It’s Christmas (And I Hate You)
It’s kind of funny that pretty much any old artist that releases a Christmas album (Hello, Rod Stewart) feels the need to cover “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and further perpetuate the idea of a man who might soon depend on Depends drugging and clumsily trying to seduce some old-enough-to-know-better female counterpart. That’s the standard holiday duet, and horrific-when-you-actually-think-about-it context aside, everyone’s OK with that. Josh Weller (no relation to Paul) and Paloma Faith kind of turn the holiday duet on its head—showcasing a young married couple who’ve both pretty much realized that they (as G.O.B. Bluth would say) “made a huge mistake.” Although the sentiment of a cynical and loveless Christmas has been fodder for holiday tunes for some time now, Weller and Faith handle it nicely by employing a finely produced, catchy-as-hell tune that’s also easy to start singing along with on your first listen. Their gripes might seem a bit trivial (“You said you that you were 19 when you were 23,” “It’s your turn to walk the dog”) and the potshot at Diana Krall might terminate a possible future collaboration with Elvis Costello, but whaddayawant? They’re silly kids.

05. The Staple Singers – Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas
Because what better to follow Josh and Paloma’s juvenile “we moved in together too soon” laments than a bit of gospel-tinged reflection? If you’ve been keeping tabs on each Christmas mix over the past few years, you’ll know I try to veer away from the religiously-heavy tunes, but when you got Mavis Staples on board and it’s a single from the Stax label, well, it’s hard to say no. To the singers’ chagrin, wars, Mars, toys, Santa’s joys, fun and drinking with everyone have unfairly usurped the public at large’s attention of what Christmas is really about. So if Linus can’t remind you, the Staple Singers will. Although I’m not sure if by “fun,” they’re talking about the general activity or that “we are yooooooung” band. If it’s the band, then yeah, seriously. I’ll take religion over that.

06. Rithma – Psycho Jingle Funk 
I’ve been including remixes since the 2nd annual Christmas mix, so now it’s really become a force of habit. As I always say, I’m not really a big fan of remixes, although with tired old Christmas songs, sometimes there are ways for kids with MacBooks and GarageBand to make a dusty old standard sound a bit new and energetic. Then again, sometimes it just serves as a 4-minute, repetitive mood piece. This definitely is the latter, but my reasoning for including “Psycho Jingle Funk” is this: The best thing about Sinatra’s 1957 version of “Jingle Bells” is those backing singers spelling the title out. However, I rendered Sinatra’s rendition of the song unusable by including Booker T. and the MG’s version of “Jingle Bells” on the 3rd annual Christmas mix. So this is kind of hung out there as a compromise. You get the backing singers’ spelling lesson but without all that “Dashing through the snow …” and “Oh what fun …” business. Plus you can boogie—if you want, that is.

07. Lyle Lovett – The Girl With the Holiday Smile
I’ve been a fan of Lyle’s for a long time and if I may humblebrag here, even had the opportunity to chill with him on his tourbus and shoot the breeze a bit. He’s without question one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever come across and much too humble for a man of his talent, but it just goes to show you that not everything that comes out of Texas is bad news. Now, Lovett’s always been a master of angling for the subtle and clever in his lyrics to get a smile or laugh from the listener (not entirely unlike one of his heroes, Randy Newman), so to get introduced to a “hooker … a pretty little whore” in the song’s first couplet was kind of a blunt how-do-you-do, but hey, it works. This was released last year on his “Songs For the Season” EP (along with another cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—which made me all the more thankful to hear a song about a man just being forthright and chasing a hooker to get what he wants) and again this year on his Release Me album. And now again here, where it’ll really get an eclectic audience.

08. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians – We Wish You the Merriest
My girlfriend asked me a few days ago what my least favorite Christmas song was, and it’s a question that absolutely stumped me. You’d think after years of mining through both traditional and new original holiday tunes, there’d be something that perpetually stuck in my craw, but I couldn’t think of anything on the spot. After a few days of rumination, however, I think it lands on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I’ve always thought it seemed like a brainless tune that takes a sudden, unexpected demanding turn with the “Oh, bring us a figgy pudding” bit. So am I just being wished a merry Christmas with the expectation that I’ll compensate those wishes with food? Humbug. I say all this to explain why “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (probably) never will grace one of these mixes. And why should it when we’ve got Frank and Bing vamping on a similar theme AND without the food demands. All that said, however, this song—from an interesting1964 Sinatra/Crosby/Waring “collaborative” LP called 12 Songs of Christmas—is pretty brainless as well. At least it’s a lot catchier than “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

09. The Stridells – I Remember Christmas
There’s not a whole lot of information out there on the Stridells—they were a relatively short-lived R&B group that came out of Washington D.C. and this was the B-side of their first single, “Mix it Up,” which was released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1970. This is the last song I found for this mix and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover it. The sound’s a bit in your face as this was ripped directly from the vinyl (to my knowledge this has only been remixed for CD/MP3 on one European-released odds and ends soul collection), so some of the lyrics get a little muddled, but the brilliance is it puts that great late 60s/early70’s bass and horns combo right down your gullet. Isn’t it great to find a B-side of an obscure single and discover that it’s better than almost all of the drivel that the iTunes Holiday Section is pushing on you today? Isn’t that really what Christmas is all about?

10. Emmy The Great & Tim Wheeler – Christmas Moon
I don’t know much about Emmy The Great besides from the fact that I think she’s Ash frontman Tim Wheeler’s girlfriend and she’s actually got the gall to capitalize “The” in her stage name. As an English major and professional editor, I can’t tell you how much that annoys me, but c’est la vie. They did a Christmas album together last year (as young lovers would do, I presume) and this original caught my ear. My editorial laments about her title withstanding, this is a great bit of early rock/R&B-flavored balladeering that would’ve been great for Elvis, or really, anyone’s Christmas album. Well done.

11. Albert King – Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’
Originally recorded as a single for the Stax label in 1974, this song has become a popular favorite on the blues circuit, sometimes for misinformed white boys like Lynyrd Skynyrd, but my mother always taught me how important sharing was around Christmas time, so I guess I’ll keep my complaints to a minimum. This isn’t as innuendo-laden as “Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney,” because King here is basically straight-up saying he wants to get stuck in a chimney, although to his credit, he’s saying he wants it (in his perceived role of Santa Claus) and not the actual big man up north. Right? At least I’m guessing that “trying to fix that old bicycle” without finding his pliers is not the kind of handiwork the actual Santa Claus takes up in the middle of a round-the-world-in-one-night trek. Sounds more like the gripes of a suburban dad whose wife hasn’t been quite as giving as he might like as of late. So, basically, this is just a traditional blues song … throw in a few references to Santa Claus and Christmas eve and it’s a holiday song. Voila.

12. Tony Bennett feat. the Count Basie Big Band – Silver Bells
“Silver Bells” is a weird song. I’ve been trying to find a version of it for at least the last five years to include on the Christmas mix, but I’ve ended my search in frustration every time. I’ve always liked the tune and the sentiment of the song, but the thing about the melody is that it lurches its way to the end like a drunk guy trying to walk home after 5 or 6 hours on a stool knocking back booze.  This arrangement, from Tony Bennett’s 2008 album A Swingin’ Christmas should’ve existed 50 years ago, really. For God’s sake, the lyrics include “This is Santa’s big scene …” like some swing crooner should’ve been doing this at the Copa all along. Instead, you look at Dean Martin or Bing Crosby’s versions and they’re the sleep-inducing, string-heavy lolls into the next track. Fortunately old pros Bennett and Basie concocted something worth saving, but really it’s sad that this kind of arrangement was so sorely lacking for so many years.

13. Holly Golightly – That’s What I Want For Christmas
This is pulled from the Holidays Rule compilation that Starbucks put out this year. I read a good point somewhere about it being kind of ridiculous that a bunch of supposed indie stars lending their talents to a conglomerate compilation seems a little hypocritical, but tis the season to be snarky. Holly’s shown up on a previous Christmas mix with a song about a Christmas tree burning down her house, and many many years ago, I briefly featured her song “Christmas Solo”—about a domestic dispute relating to the dude forgetting to bring ham home—on the blog. She’s a great little artist, but this is a more gentile turn from her—all wistful guitar and organ and instructions on how to make her happy on Christmas. Given some of the other artists’ more adult-themed suggestions on this mix, this also comes across as very wholesome.

14. Louis Armstrong with the Benny Carter Orchestra – Christmas Night in Harlem
Louis elbowed his way into my first three Christmas mixes but hasn’t been heard from since, so let’s welcome Satchmo back to the fold. To my understanding, “Christmas Night in Harlem” was originally a bit more of a segregated song, with lyrics that included “every black and tan feelin’ mighty good” and “every coal-black Joe,” but Armstrong’s 1953 take on the song that was backed by Benny Carter’s crew knocked out those lines to make the song a bit more applicable for all. Having never been to New York myself and being born 29 years after this song was recording, I can’t verify how many white folk were actually inspired to spend a Christmas night in Harlem upon hearing this, but even if they weren’t, it still sounds awfully nice, doesn’t it?

15. Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa
The only people who I can imagine that really appreciated Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album from 3 years ago are hardcore Dylanphiles or sadists. I can understand why he did it, I can understand that there will be a lot of people out there harping on about the genius of it, but I just can’t imagine anyone imploring anyone else to “Put on that Dylan Christmas album—I NEED to hear his version of ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas.’” That said, however, there is a mad brilliance to “Must Be Santa.” Maybe it’s the inclusion of latter-day Presidents into the song’s finale, maybe it’s the fact that a Jewish dude is embracing a German polka that’s not too far detached from “Schnitzelbank” (and what does that say about unity, my friends?), or maybe it’s the fact that it mercifully departs before it crosses the 3-minute mark, but OK, Mr. Zimmerman. Kudos.

16. Kyle Andrews – Frostbite
I found this song when I was scouring for material for last year’s Christmas mix, but I ended up holding it back. It seemed just a little too … I dunno, emo? Well you can hear it, you know what I’m getting at. But I never deleted it because I thought the chorus was rather well-crafted. So I spent the better part of this year listening to it and telling myself, “If only the verses were a little bit better,” and you know what happened? I heard the damn thing enough to think, “This actually isn’t all that bad.” So combine that with what I said earlier about being less discerning when you continue making these mixes and here you go. I have no idea who Kyle Andrews is, nor do I have a big interest in where his career’s gone since he did this for a Bands Under the Radar Christmas compilation, but lamenting about how girls can be a little frosty during the colder months—I can see that. We’ll just tuck your track nicely away here as we approach the finish line.

17. The Flirtations – Christmas Time is Here Again
By this point, I must say that I’ve exhausted most of the Motown label’s great-to-really-good Christmas output from the 1960s, so then it’s on to the Deram label and New York’s own Flirtations. The girl group had a minor hit in 1968 with “Nothing But a Heartache,” which is one of the more Motown-wannabe (in a good way, of course) sounding singles ever released. On the B-side was this seasonal thang. Veering a little away from the Motown-aspring sounds, producer Wayne Bickerton tried to outfit this one with a Spector-ish wall of sound and, to his credit, did a commendable enough job. A lot of soulsters have been hip to this song for ages, but it’s never really made its way into any of the mainstream Now That’s What I Call Christmas-type compilations, which is all the better for me. ‘Cos now I get to show it to you and make you go “Wow! What’s this?” I need that kind of satisfaction in my life, y’know.

18. Cass Eager and the Mo’ Debleys – Stay a Little Longer, Santa
The last song this mix has to offer in the, “Hey, let’s sexualize an old dude that kids have been taught to love since they were first able to comprehend this story—doesn’t that sound like fun?” line of songwriting. I haven’t reviewed the tracklists for the previous mixes, but between Ella, Albert and Cass appealing to Santa’s baser instincts and Lyle going on about a hooker, this might be the most adult of this blog’s Christmas mixes yet. I don’t know why women are so tempted by the thought of Santa—really, the image of an overweight geriatric with flying reindeer pulling him around the world in one night just sets an unreasonable standard for the rest of us men—but Cass Eager is ready and willing to fight Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald and any other woman that’s made her own desperate plea for attention. Whether or not Santa does stick around is left up to you. By the way, 50 plus years of women singing about how they stay awake for Santa’s arrival … how long until Mrs. Claus has her Elin Nordegren moment and goes after the sleigh with some golf clubs? How long until Santa has to do a press conference apologizing for all the affairs? How come all the songs that these wannabe-homewreckers are so jazzy and easy on the ear and ripe for inclusion on my mixes?

19. Irma Thomas with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas
Also culled from this year’s Holidays Rule compilation. Louis Jordan was the first to make this song popular more than a half century ago, but Irma’s voice combined with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band gives this mix the real hit of N’awlins my mixes need (apologies, Satchmo). Although to his credit, Jordan’s version had a wailing organ, which is pretty awesome. But this arrangement fits nicely and after all the talk of Santa lovin’ and spousal hatin’ and whatever else, we kind of need a Christmas blessing at this point.

20. Johnny Marr + the Healers – Free Christmas
Johnny boy’s new “solo” album (I don’t know yet if that means the Healers will be credited or not) drops in February, but last year he up and offered this pastoral little instrumental to tide us over. He made it available through his website only and since it takes a special kind of obsessive to check Johnny Marr’s site regularly ( … Hi, my name is Paul … ), my thought is that some of you might have missed it. It’s pretty much exactly how you’d expect a Johnny Marr Christmas-themed instrumental to sound, which is truly complimentary to the man’s distinctive and lovely style.

All the best to you and yours this season!