The stories behind great songs can be just as interesting as the songs themselves. Here are some notes on each of the songs included in the COMT I playlist.
First, a short discourse on why Christmas and Holiday music seems magical. The easy answer is….it’s traditional. Christmas music comes out of the box once a year and when it does, one resonates with the sounds of holiday seasons past, stirring warm memories, and it’s all good. Music is very good at that—bringing back memories. Five bars into “My Girl” by the Temptations and suddenly you’re back in the fraternity house at a post-game party, squeezing someone tight with one hand and holding a drink in the other. But the resonance of music with memories may not really be the impetus behind our affection for holiday music. Perhaps the real reason is that Christmas/holiday music is a known commodity—my goodness, we’ve been listening to the stuff since we were old enough to recognize sounds—and each year we hear a huge group of new interpretations of Christmas music (every hot recording artist puts out a Christmas album, shamelessly promoted by artist and record company alike) which serves to both enlighten us about the potential of individual expression and to make old songs new. “New water over old stones” a mountaineering friend of mine calls it and I think that sums up the situation pretty well. Herewith, the first playlist.. Of course, the goal is to deliver some old songs done new ways, new songs you might not have heard before, and a few songs that echo the spirit of the season even if they are not truly classified as “Christmas music
And yes, parental discretion is advised.
1. Keb ‘Mo Jingle Bell Jamboree
Keb ‘Mo is a joy—the perfectly soulful voice to start this playlist. He is a multiple Grammy award winning singer/songwriter/performer; his song, “I was Wrong” is a wonderful modern blues classic and this tune is going to be a holiday favorite for years to come. “Jingle Bell Jamboree” is a Keb ‘Mo original and just the song to get you moving early in the morning or keep you at it when the day starts to wind down. Good stuff, from the premier new blues artist of our time.
2. Bing Crosby Let it Snow, Let It Snow
Bing Crosby is engrained in the Christmas Culture, through the song “White Christmas” (and the movie of the same name) and his amazing string of holiday film classics, “Holiday Inn” (the movie that premiered “White Christmas”), “Bells of St. Mary”, and “Going My Way”. Let’s go against form right from the start and forgo the song Bing is most associated with for this classic Bing tune, done in perfect 1940s big-band style.
3. Dianna Krall Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
No one takes a better album cover photo than Dianna Krall, the ultimate turn-of-the-century club-and-torch singer. As Joe Namath once said, “it ain’t bragging if you can back it up” and back it up she can, with beautiful renderings of the songs from music’s modern era. This version of a Christmas classic finds Krall putting the jazz licks to a holiday standard. In the right hands, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is just devastating. And, Dianna Krall has the right hands.
4. Wham! Last Christmas
Before George Michael was “George Michael”, before he knocked out one great pop tune after another and yes, before he went off the rails with legal issues, he was the founder and driving force of the pop group Wham!, best known for the tune and the party-girl favorite, “Wake Me Up Before You Go- Go”. George’s way with pop songs is undisputed. This song seems to be similar to the piece of piffle that provided Hugh Grant’s income in the hit holiday movie, “About a Boy” ; it’s one that will bring in royalties from now until the end of the next millennium. On other playlists scattered about the site, there are other versions of “Last Christmas”, but start with the original to appreciate the covers.
5. Vince Guaraldi Trio Christmas Time Is Here
The first time I heard this tune, it was played as soundtrack music for the holiday animated special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. I was in college, staying in a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, on a road trip of unspecific mission. When I saw that a “Charlie Brown Christmas” was going to be broadcast that night, I cancelled all plans (before midnight) and stayed in to watch the premiere of a holiday season classic. The show idea was so pure it almost hurt—a simple but complex little Christmas-themed Peanuts animated special, complete with perfect voice casting, dead-on animation, just the right amount of Schultz’s very deep and correct humor mixed with reverence for the season, all done to an incredibly smooth jazz soundtrack by Bay area musician Vince Guaraldi. The result: a show that really was fun for all ages and one of the best selling Christmas albums of all time. Bet you probably have a copy (somewhere).
6. Jimmy Buffett I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Think Key West. Think Corona Beer. Think Steel Drums. Now take Jimmy Buffet’s signature “island sound”, add a classic everyone sings when traveling around the holidays, mix in a bit of seriously plaintive vocal and you have Buffett’s take on a song older than he is. One of the great things about holiday music is how everything old is new again….and this version is ample proof of that.
7.Dwight Yoakam Run Run Rudolph
This is the finest version of the classic “Run Run Rudolph“. The song has been covered by tons of artists (Sheryl Crow, Bryan Adams, The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, The Tractors) but most people are familiar with the version by Chuck Berry, who brought it into the mainstream. Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, also did a reggae influenced version. Yoakam is known as a multi-talented country artist (he’s had the most appearances on the “Tonight Show” of any country artist) but his music is never predictably “country” and has a lot of rock influence in his work (which is not easily categorized)..Yoakam is an artist who is unafraid of pushing the edge (his version of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” is another classic) and he delivers, again, on his version of “Run, Run“. Johnny Cash–who knows a thing or two about music–called Yoakam his favorite country singer. You will want to turn this one up loud. I have zero doubts that this song will become one of your Christmas favorites.
8. Mariah Carey All I Want for Christmas is You.
She is the original Diva. She married her producer and, once she was a certified platinum recording artist, she dumped him. She wears skirts shorter than a yellow light and heels higher than a Sherpa’s consciousness. Bless her little soul, she also has an incredible voice and, when she decides to get after it, the girl can make a tune her own. Herewith, Mariah Carey, in Holiday form, with a seriously rocking version of “All I want for Christmas is You”. The last twelve bars of the song are absolute melodic chaos. Play this one loud. (and feel free to disregard the Justin Beiber/Mariah Carey duet version-it’s not just as great).
9. Ray Charles The Christmas Song
Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis (everyone who did not get kissed at a Christmas high school party when this song–as recorded by Johnny Mathis– was played, please raise your hand…), and Mel “the Velvet Fog” Torme made a living off this roasted chestnut but no one does it better than “the Genius”—Ray Charles. We have a lot of good music and great music trends to thank Ray Charles for—from popularizing a particularly soulful, big-band style of R&B to developing the musical framework for modern country and western music (Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music” revolutionized that genre) but one can get a short course in his special gifts by listening to the way he does a song that has been done a thousand times before.
10. Cher Angels Running
She’s survived TV stardom, multiple plastic surgeries, winning an Academy award, Greg Allman, and the burden of being relentlessly hip. And then one day, she steps outside of being “Cher” the pop icon (one store in New York City devoted one year ALL their Christmas windows to a Cher-theme) and turns in this one for the holidays. The deep voice, perfect phrasing and immaculate production make this one a real and true unexpected gem. Bet you find yourself playing it often and loud.
11. The Drifters White Christmas
The song that Bing Crosby is most associated with is actually done better by the Drifters, a late 50s/early 60s R&B group best known for songs like “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk”. This is R&B at its purest, with deep bass counterpoints, soaring acapella style harmonies, and a beach music backbeat. And because everyone knows the song, it only gets better—especially the falsetto solo about two-thirds of the way through the song. Michael Buble’ does an updated version of this arrangement on his 2011 Christmas Album, but you might want to listen to the original first. Get the lastest version you can find; as with most old music, the dynamic range is below par for modern ears if you can find only the original versions.
12. Sheryl Crow & Eric Clapton Merry Christmas Baby
I found this tune lurking within one of the “A Very Special Christmas” charitable CDs. It’s an absolute rocking classic. Take one Sheryl Crow, in fine form and ready to rock, and put her on the stage with the greatest guitarist of the rock era, Eric Clapton, and you have a Christmas song that will make you get up and get down. The last 24 bars of Clapton’s solo are absolute vintage “Slowhand” and Crow is a good enough musician to know when to step into the frame and when to step out. Sheryl put out her own (first) Christmas album ta few years back and a song from that collection is included on a later playlist, but for now: this will more than do.
13. Gloria Estefan Layaway Love
Gloria Estefan shot out of the Cuban community in Miami like a bottle rocket. Backed by the jumping rhythms and deep production values of “The Miami Sound Machine”, she was the first major crossover Spanish-language female artist. Estefan’s holiday contribution, “Layaway Love”, has all the classic elements of her music: pop-tune hummability, more rhythmic layers than a Congo line, and her pure, clear, vocals. You won’t ever hear this one on the radio unless you listen to the Hispanic stations.
14. Keb Mo What A Wonderful World
This song is a Louis Armstrong classic and justifiably so, but you’ve heard that version before and maybe haven’t heard this one, which is every bit as good. Keb ‘Mo does it and closes out this playlist, with a version good enough that even Satchmo would approve. Powerful yet tender, beautiful rendered and deftly paced, it’s one of Mo’s best songs.
The lyrics state the case for the season and set the tone for the message: It is a wonderful world. Go and share and enjoy it with your family, your friends, and those in need of a boost, spiritual and otherwise. I believe every one of these songs is available on iTunes, which is where I got them. It used to be possible to put all of these tunes into an “iMix” and you could listen to each and everyone of them (and buy them all with a click) but I believe that capability is gone away.
Please Turn It Up.