It's gonna be a little something different, but we gonna give it to 'em anyway. Are you ready? Come on! Ha!
Well it's the last day of November, and it's time to start getting serious about the holiday season.
Last year, avid readers will recall I did a Christmas Mix - "He Don't Come But Once a Year," and a friend asked me casually in October if I planned on doing another one this year. I'll be honest. I wasn't.
Christmas Mixes -- good ones, that is -- are a complete pain in the ass. One, we all have our favorites, and they're hardly worth sharing because by this point, everyone's got them if they haven't heard them a million times over (Sinatra's "Mistletoe and Holly," Band Aid's "Do They Know it's Christmas?," Lennon and McCartney's respective holiday tunes, etc.). So the goal, then, is to find songs that are great but are a bit more obscure.
It proved difficult enough last year -- notice how I copped out on more than one song and went for "winter" themes instead of all Christmas themes. Now I thought about doing it again. TWENTY MORE relatively obscure recordings (there will always be the one or two popular ones just to tie things together). Being that I'm exceedingly difficult on myself, I decided not to repeat any artists I used last year. Now there were some technicalities -- I used Brian Wilson last year and the Beach Boys this year. I used Louis Armstrong last year and an Armstrong/Velma Middleton duet that's been remixed this year.
I then made it more difficult by deciding not to repeat any songs that were used last year, even if it was by a different artist. What did this mean? Two weeks of scouring Christmas albums for gems and thinking way too much about things.
For one: Christmas song lyrics are generally pretty terrible. You never think about 'em cos you only listen to them for one month a year. But think about "Do You Hear What I Hear?" "A child, a child shivers in the cold, we must bring him silver and gold." Now, honestly. How the f*ck is that gonna help? Bring blankets.
For two: Everybody has a Christmas album. Even people who didn't deserve one when they were popular. Since the turn of the century, both Joan Osbourne and Crash Test Dummies have released Christmas albums. I'm not joking. Look it up.
Anyway, 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.
I hope you find it supremely enjoyable and a great soundtrack to your holiday season.
DOWNLOAD PART 2 (tracks 11-20 at SaveFile)
(left click on links to take you to respective dowloading pages)
01. Natalie Merchant - Children Go Where I Send Thee
I believe this is an old African spiritual, although three close acquaintances of mine claim never to have heard this song before, so it did make me briefly pause and wonder if Natalie was the first to do this song or something. She wasn’t. And Hall and Oates do a way worse version of it on their latest Christmas album (which includes a retread of “Jingle Bell Rock”… they had the audacity to think we needed another one). Anyway, Natalie’s version here is fantastic, the organ wails and it’s one of the VERY few things from that whole Very Special Christmas series I can actually enjoy. Seriously. Apart from this and Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” it’s pretty much all crap. Humbug!
02. Louis Prima - Shake Hands With Santa Claus
This is from 1951’s Breaking it Up, which he did with Keely Smith. It’s really not a Christmas song aside from the repetition of the title, but it’s still ridiculously fun and you just can’t just beat it when Prima sounds like he’s having fun too (pretty much all the time). Listen to him almost break character singing the last verse. It’s great. Also imagine King Louie singing this. I find it even that much more fun.
03. Allen Toussaint - The Day it Snows on Christmas
This is from a 2004 collection of New Orleans artists doing Christmas-themed songs called Christmas Gumbo. Fats Domino had a Christmas album of the same name, but he seems too good natured to start any fights about that. Anyway, the High Priest of New Orleans Music waxes theoretical here on what would happen if snow actually did ever fall on the Crescent City, stopping just short of suggesting hell, too, would freeze over. When I saw Allen in Milwaukee this past February, he marveled at the snow on the ground (while we all bitched about it), but hey, if a lack of snow down south keeps him writing these types (or any types) of songs, then… don’t let it snow, don’t let it snow, don’t let it snow.
04. Peggy Lee - Happy Holiday
Peggy recorded a few Christmas collections throughout her career, and this cut was culled from her 1965 album of the same name. I think I’ve only ever heard Andy Williams’ version otherwise, or maybe that choral version that seems to be on every fourth Christmas commercial you see, and I always thought it was kind of a clumsy song. Lee’s band at least finds the groove, and when it comes to Lee’s voice well… it could warm up the coldest heart, couldn’t it? Gives me fever, even…
05. Louis Armstrong & Velma Middleton - Baby It's Cold Outside [Mulato Beat Remix]
I pretty much hate remixes. As Melvin Udall would say, “I’m using the word *hate* here.” They’ve taken up perfectly good B-side space for far too long and I don’t consider the fact that you can play with and rearrange little colored blocks on ProTools any sort of musical proclivity. I also don’t think that looping a bassline for 8 minutes with one line of lyrics repeated in different effects is worth listening to, inside or outside of a club. That said, I LOVE this. Taking a 1950s live performance from Louis and Velma, the remixer here (from 2003’s Six Degrees collection Christmas Remixed) added a beat, some bass and a little bell effect to help the melody. Louis and Velma’s vocals get a little bit of treatment, but they remain the stars of the affair. As it should be, ‘cos this is a great performance. For the first and only time in history, though, I found a remix that betters the original. What’s more, this is not only the best remix I’ve ever heard, it’s the best version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” I’ve ever heard.
06. The Beach Boys - Christmas Day
Too many people focus on “Little Saint Nick.” Fair enough, it’s a nice song, but this one is nice too. The lyrics are daft (“It’s worth the wait the whole year through, just to make happy someone like you”), but that problem wasn’t limited to Beach Boys Christmas songs. Whatever its faults though, it’s under two minutes and features a great little organ solo. And when Brian’s vocals go echo-y on the fadeout, that’s cool too.
07. Carla Thomas - Gee Whiz, It's Christmas
Kind of a tossed off song, obviously built in 1963 to cash in on the novelty of Thomas’ first hit, “Gee Whiz, Look at His Eyes.” That said, this has some indescribable bit of charm to it that kept me from 86ing it from the collection even in my most Grinchy of tracklist-refining moments. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s Carla friggin’ Thomas. Stax’s queen of soul. I mean, if you can hold your own with Otis Redding, who the hell am I to say you’re not good enough for my mix?
08. Dianne Reeves - The Christmas Waltz
Sinatra’s timeless take on this song has always been one of my favorite Christmas numbers, because it reminds me of childhood Christmases with my older relatives who would play his Christmas albums non-stop at their parties. I only discovered this version this year, which isn’t too terribly late, considering Reeves put it out in 2004 on her Christmas Time is Here album. Reeves is probably one of the best female jazz vocalists out there right now, and while I don’t have a huge affinity for jazz (I always think of Morrissey’s quote on Kilborn a few years ago – “It’s going nowhere”), that doesn’t mean it’s worth dismissing as a whole. Sometimes you can get good stuff. Sometimes you can get great new versions of songs you thought the last word had already been spoken for.
09. The Bird And The Bee - Carol of the Bells
I don’t know much about these two. Someone needs to explain The Bird And The Bee to me (hahaha!). They just put this Christmas single out this year. And f*cking iTunes made it a free download the week after I bought it. But whatever. It’s worth 99 cents. This is probably my all time favorite traditional Christmas song, and it’s nice to hear it done in a modern way that doesn’t inadvertently (or advertently) defile the charm of the song itself. It’s a harder feat than you would think. I listened to a lot of Christmas music making this thing. I can tell you… there’s some rotten stuff out there. But this? This is good.
10. Chuck Berry - Run Rudolph Run
The one popular I decided to include because after listening to versions by a lot of others (including, of course, Keef), I decided that no one’s been able to improve this song. And that kind of astounds me. Berry’s great, but if you think that more than a few quick takes were spent on this song, you’re a damn fool. Listen to the drums. First half of the song, it’s a driving beat on the hi-hat. Second half, it’s a swing beat on the hi-hat. I don’t know if the drummer was trying to be clever or just got tired, but maybe one more pass would’ve been alright. Either way, in spite of this deficiency, I repeat – no one’s been able to better this.
11. Ray Charles - Santa Claus is Comin' To Town
Does anyone else find it amazing that Ray Charles didn’t do a Christmas album until friggin’ 1985? How the hell did ABC not milk that cash cow in the “Unchain My Heart” “Georgia On My Mind” “Hit the Road Jack” heyday? As it stands, whenever Ray attacked something, it was good, and while he finesses the electric piano here, I can’t help but wonder what his early 1960s band and backing singers could’ve done with this song…
12. Blondfire - Underneath the Mistletoe
My new obsession, Erica Driscoll, suggests we go back to her house and underneath the mistletoe. Unsurprisingly, I’m all ears. From an iTunes exclusive Christmas EP the band did last year, this thing is a very nice little holiday tune and is it just me or does this thing really show a Smiths influence? Obviously it’s a bit more of a happy lyric than Moz would ever write, but musically it’s just a simplified “This Charming Man” with the same walking bass line, isn’t it? Whatever. You know I’m listening more to Erica sing “And then we’ll go back to my hou-ouse…” Sounds fantastic to me.
13. Marvin Gaye - Purple Snowflakes
Marvin recorded this back in the 1960s, but to my knowledge it remained (as a lot of good stuff did) in Motown’s vaults until a 1993 collection was put out called Christmas in the City. Despite its long time undercover, it sounds glorious – thick Motown bass and drums, and Marvin’s in, of course, fine voice. I do find myself wondering how an accumulation of purple snowflakes accounts for a “blanket of white,” but… I would. Great tune, nonetheless.
14. Ben Folds - Lonely Christmas Eve
This track brought out the Grinch in me. Coincidentally, it’s from the 2000 soundtrack of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Jim Carrey one). Mr. Folds and I just don’t gel. I think he’s a smarmy bastard and too many college folk give him a lot more credit than he deserves, but now and again he comes up with a song that really makes me go “Damn, this is good.” This is one of them. The dilemma, then, became whether or not to put Ben f*cking Folds on my Christmas mix to end all Christmas mixes. My friend Umaar scoffed and suggested it was very “Madison” of me to put him on, but then he heard the song too. “Damn, this is good,” said he. So there you go. The only song that ever really has gotten in the Grinch’s head. Figuratively and literally.
15. Dean Martin - The Christmas Blues
This was recorded in 1953, but I don’t believe it surfaced until 1959’s A Winter Romance. Hmmm. Anyway, Dean, like Frank, always seemed to have a Christmas album ready to go for the season and while his takes on “Let it Snow,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” have become the arguably definitive versions, they’re also to a point of oversaturation. So it’s nice to find this little oddity that speaks to the growing pains (emotionally) we all experience at one point or another with regard to the Christmas season.
16. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles - It's Christmas Time
Here’s the thing. Have you ever heard Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album on Motown from the 1960s? He got into a big kick about writing about Jesus and Mary instead of presents and Santa and reindeer, which, that’s fine – you make people like my mother and all those other “reason for the season” people happy. But “What Christmas Means To Me” was the only secular song on there. Okay. Fast forward 40 years. What’s the only Stevie Wonder Christmas song everybody knows? “What Christmas Means To Me.” Right. Singing about Jesus… it’s all good if that’s what you’re into, you know, but… that’s why they have their own infomercials with crowds singing along with their eyes closed and hands up. Anyway, this is one of those non-secular holiday tunes he wrote. Smokey at least found a delivery for it that made it easy to digest.
17. Solomon Burke - Presents for Christmas
Whether it’s called “Presents For Christmas” or “Christmas Presents” and whether or not it was released in 1961 or 1966… that’s all up for debate elsewhere. It showed up on the Soul Christmas collection in 1968 and is probably the best thing on there, and one of the best Christmas originals ever. “Brother Solomon Burke” (“Y’all know who I’m talkin’ about, don’tcha?” as Wilson Pickett would say) waxes on getting all the poorly their fair share at Christmas. James Brown would do the same thing with “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” but it wasn’t half as catchy as this, and even the Godfather would’ve never been able to deliver a line like “You know I’m even fat enough to be the world’s biggest Santa Claus” and make the listener go, “That’s awesome.”
18. The Minus 5 - Your Christmas Whiskey
This is from a 2007 Yep Roc compilation called Oh Santa! The Minus 5 is a band I’ve never really bothered with. I know Wilco like ‘em. I know R.E.M. digs ‘em. I love “Retrieval of You,” but beyond that… I just haven’t cared enough. This song kind of shows why. It’s really good – it’s easy to listen to, but it’s not wholly convincing is it? Makes you think they could blow you away if they really tried, but considering this sounds tossed off, that’s still saying a lot for them. Plus, everyone’s got a drunk relative they can find this song relatable to.
19. Ella Fitzgerald - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
You can’t have a good Christmas mix without Ella can you? It’d be easy to go for “Santa Claus Got Stuck in my Chimney” or “Sleigh Ride,” but I think this song really captures how great her voice was. It’s not the most difficult thing she ever sang, but she really makes you want to say, “Damn, Ella. I’ll hang out with you on New Year’s Eve.” It’s like my favorite quote from the 1996 movie “My Fellow Americans” goes – when the two former presidents are reminiscing…
Russell Kramer: When you were in the White House, who was the person you were most excited to meet?
Matt Douglas: Nelson Mandela.
Russell Kramer: I'm not a reporter.
Matt Douglas: Ella Fitzgerald.
Russell Kramer: Ah.
Matt Douglas: Mandela was a great man, but he couldn't sing worth a sh*t.
20. Bobby Darin - Christmas Auld Lang Syne
Bobby, like Stevie Wonder, went the super religious route with his 1960 album The 25th Day of December. It’s always kind of astounded me, really, considering Bobby’s persona. Sure, songs like “Child of God” got a good Darin-fuelled “oomph” treatment, but you wonder what he could’ve done with something like “Sleigh Ride” or “Winter Wonderland.” This song was originally released as a standalone single, but subsequently tacked onto the album, and features new lyrics to the old New Year’s hymn, and yes… features a bit of Jesus talk, but it’s alright. It’s actually the most secular holiday thing he offered up. It’s also the third song on this mix where the performer wishes listeners a Merry Christmas as an aside. It’s a proper song to end with, wouldn’t you say?
Labels: Shake Hands With Santa Claus