Christmas Music: The Deep Cuts

I posted the other day about the greatest Christmas songs of all time. For the most part, it was a no-brainer (like me). I touched on the idea that there is no bad Christmas music. I find myself loving some Christmas music from the ’50’s that is maybe overly sentimental or just really cornball. I’m thinking “Twinkle Toes” by the Crew Cuts or “Merry Twist-mas” by the Marcels. I’m rolling my eyes and thinking ‘this is lame’ – but I’m loving it. Christmas is the time of year when this is OK. But then there’s the teeny-bopper types: Hanson, Jessica Simpson and Justin Bieber have all released Christmas albums. Here’s where I have a bit of a problem. From some artists it really seems disingenuous – phony. It sounds like cashing in – “this will play and sell every year so…”

Some artists, though, sound like they are really trying to make an effort. For some of them, it sounds like they really care about the season and the music that goes with it. As far back as Robert Goulet’s 1963 album “This Christmas I Spend With You”, songwriters have tried to add new songs to the canon. Goulet recorded “December Time” on that album, the liner notes hopefully predicting that it would appear annually. In the early ’90’s, when Christmas music stalwart Andy Williams was doing his annual Christmas shows in Branson, he introduced “Christmas Needs Love to Be Christmas”. While neither song is remembered today, you have to respect the effort – or you figure it’s pointless to try to add new songs, the songs we already have are perfect and we don’t need any new ones, up to you. Maybe the best example of an artist successfully adding something new is 1984’s “Once Upon a Christmas” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I never knew this album myself growing up but my wife and her family have always loved it and in the last twenty years I’ve encountered many who count this as one of the better ‘non-classic’ Christmas records. The reason for this is surprisingly simple: Dolly Parton. This album is an odd case of the traditional songs on the album being unremarkable and the originals standing out. Parton wrote or co-wrote 5 of the six originals on the album and they are quite good. In a sexist world, you would think it was Rogers that was driving the bus here but this is Parton’s show – ‘guest vocals by Kenny Rogers’ type thing. Parton sounds like she cares about Christmas. The record is genuine. Here’s my take on why: Dolly hails from Tennessee and in the Southern states the birth of Christ is taken seriously and handled reverently. I’ll presume that Christmas is significant to Dolly Parton and it shows in this album.

I want to own all the Christmas music I can which has led me on a merry chase lo these last 20 years. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover and add many new albums to our collection, mostly in the non-traditional format of mP3. Like my ‘regular’ music, some I need on CD, some I need on vinyl and some are OK just on digital. I’d like to share with you some of my finds, some you may not be familiar with. Not to replace your Crosby’s or Cole’s but for something different to shake up your Christmas party. Not in order. A post like this should really contain links to all these songs but that would’ve clogged things up. Head to YouTube – they all should be there.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”Family Force 5 (2009)/Art Carney (1954) — The same venerable Christmas poem set to music in two VASTLY different ways. Family Force 5 are purveyors of crunk rock or crunkcore. (Yeah. I know) But their version of “‘Twas…”, from their “Family Force 5’s Christmas Pageant” album, is outstandingly audacious. It is what they call a stone groove and the boys from Atlanta have created an incredibly catchy chorus. Art Carney’s version comes from a totally different realm. Television’s Ed Norton released this as a single and it is a full-on hepcat work out. It is available on the great jazz compilation “Jingle Bell Swing”. And, one word: “Crazy!”

“Home for the Holidays” – Anthony Hamilton (2014) — I stumbled on Anthony Hamilton when I was looking for a modern equivalent to Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. I was happy to find Hamilton and after I bought his latest album, “What I’m Feelin'”, I browsed through his discography and discovered his Christmas album, “Home for the Holidays”. Now, my problem with some of these new R&B singers is that they seem to play it so mellow. Everything is a slow jam. Anthony’s Christmas album starts off with some great, uptempo original songs. And then, halfway through the album, comes the title track. It’s simply the greatest new Christmas song I’ve heard in many a year. Incredibly gentle and heartfelt, it is performed by Hamilton with singer Gavin DeGraw. Wonderful singing and the chord changes caress your ears.

“Little Drummer Boy” – Audio Adrenaline (2002) — This one might be hard to find but you should search it out. Audio Adrenaline was a great band that unfortunately lost their excellent lead singer, Mark Stuart, when his voice gave out. This is an excellent, energetic version of this Christmas classic. It bowls you over with it’s might. It was available on a compilation called “WOW Christmas: Red”.

“We Three Kings” – Harry Connick, Jr. (2008) — I’ve loved Harry Connick since 1990 and one of the coolest things about him is that he knows Christmas. He’s released four Christmas albums and his first, “When My Heart Finds Christmas”, is his biggest selling album. His third, 2008’s “What a Night! A Christmas Album”, is his least satisfying Christmas vocal CD but it contains this instrumental gem. One of the challenging things about loving Harry Connick is that he is so intelligent and creative that he loves to flex his arrangement muscles. Sometimes his arrangement of a song you know well will render it indistinguishable. His chart for “We Three Kings”, though, is a straight-up powerhouse. His piano playing is stellar and the horns are off the chain. Careful listening to this driving, though. Cops don’t accept it as an excuse when they pull you over for speeding.

“My Little Drum” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — I recently put together a great Christmas playlist I call “The 12 Nights of Christmas”; songs perfect for quiet nights sitting by the tree, fireplace glowing, snow gently falling outside. Here’s a sneaky little tune from the man who gave us the music for all the classic Charlie Brown specials. This one is found on the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack and you don’t realize it at first but then you notice your eyelids getting heavy as you drift off to the gentle sound of Vince’s piano. This trance-like beauty is a real hidden gem.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Abandon Kansas (2010) — An obscure band that put out a great album in 2011, Abandon Kansas are now on hiatus. They recorded an interesting arrangement of this carol for a compilation called “‘Tis the Season to Be Gotee” – an album of Christmas songs by bands that were a part of the Gotee Records stable. Such an intriguing version. Perfect if you are young-ish as, to me, it is a contemporary-sounding, pop arrangement. Infinitely listenable.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Engelbert Humperdinck (1980) — The glory of this recording is in it’s worshipful tone. It is an exceedingly reverent version of this timeless carol performed by a singer who’s pipes may have been at their peak at this point. I have to include this celebration of the birth of Christ here due to it’s ending. Some appropriate added lyrics and the soaring majesty of Humperdinck’s performance render the listener awed by not only the finale but by contemplation of the first Christmas and it’s ramifications. Appears on Hump’s second Christmas album, “A Merry Christmas With Engelbert Humperdinck”. It’s a personal favourite of mine.

“Happy Holiday” – Ray Noble and His Orchestra (1949) — Here is the hidden-est of all the gems on this list. I first heard it on an old cheap-o Christmas cassette I had. When I bailed on cassettes I knew I had to find it elsewhere and did so on iTunes. It is available there on only two compilations. I see it was first released on a 10″ album. It’s a gloriously vintage recording that features a husband and wife sharing Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. They reminisce about Christmases past and enjoy a quiet New Year’s Eve together. I always speculate as I listen that these are the last holidays they spend alone together before the kids arrive. For fans of mid-century culture, it is an absolute delight. It’s really hard to find and not on YouTube. You can listen here: https://soundcloud.com/raynoblehisorchestra

“Go Where I Send Thee” – Colin James and the Little Big Band (2007) — Canada’s own Colin James built himself an orchestra in the vein of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and put out a great Christmas album simply called “Christmas”, his forth with the orchestra. Filled with songs we all know, it wraps with this traditional tune. I come back to it every year. It’s fun to sing along to (if you can) and it’s just a great time. Colin’s echo-y vocal, the drummer’s snare work and the backing vocals make this sound like a fun Christmas Eve party out at some roadhouse off Route 90.

“Jingle Bells” – Jose Feliciano (1970)/Vinnie Zummo (2001)  — “Jingle Bells” has been recorded a million times, generally as a swinger. It lends itself so well to an energetic performance. When you hear it done differently, it can be really interesting. The Jackie Gleason Orchestra recorded a version that barely moves, it is so slow. These two instrumental versions are a delight. Jose’s shimmies with a Latin beat and the unknown Zummo’s is a smooth bossa nova groove.

“Silent Night” – Zach Gill (2008) — Another ‘stable’ album. “This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1” features artists signed to Jack Johnson’s record label. As you would expect from a surfer and surfer-type artists, the album is light and fun and focuses on secular delights of the season. That’s partly why it’s such a breath of fresh air to hear unknown Zach Gill close the album signing a restrained version of the world’s most beloved carol.

“Christmas Time With You” – David Ian (feat. Acacia and Andre Miguel Mayo) (2011) — David Ian is actually rock guitarist Dave Ghazarian. He’s obviously half-a-jazzbo, though, because he’s released three instrumental jazz albums featuring himself on piano. The first of these is called “Vintage Christmas” and contains great piano bar-type versions of Christmas classics and this original song which appears twice on the album, once in this charming vocal version. Ian’s got style and a light touch on the keys. The jazz trio sound hearkens back to Vince Guaraldi’s trio that produced some legendary Christmas tunes. Ian’s outfit offers a nice, fresh take.

If you’re looking for a few albums that are outside the norm, I can certainly suggest some. I think I’ve discovered this year that “Christmas Album” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass from 1968 is my favourite Christmas album. Easy listening, excellent arrangements, great for late night listening. I mentioned earlier “A Merry Christmas from Engelbert Humperdinck”. It sounds like 1980 but in a good way. Great vocals, pleasant versions of songs you know. Lounge music goes great at Christmas and Capitol’s fantastic “Ultra-Lounge” series offers up four volumes of “Christmas Cocktails”. The first two present a swingin’ Christmas party at a Vegas lounge in 1963. Andy Williams put out two well-known Christmas albums in the mid-’60’s but he released “Christmas Present” in 1974. Perfect singing and the arrangements are other-wordly. Brian Setzer knows Christmas. The former Stray Cats front man has put out three Christmas albums with his Brian Setzer Orchestra. The first two particularly are excellent and he presents all of our favourites. If you love your Christmas music in a good, old fashioned orchestral setting Henry Mancini, Percy Faith and David Rose have put out excellent Christmas albums. Other artists who have released great Christmas music you may never have heard include Marty Robbins, the Ames Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Aaron Neville, Oscar Peterson, Lori Mechem, Chris Isaak, the Hollyridge Strings and Frankie Avalon, just to name a few. Google them.

You can never have enough Christmas music. Hope this helped you out and made you want to seek out some new albums for your collection. Merry Christmas!

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Change of Season Part 2

“Feels like time for a change of season.” – Daryl Hall and John Oates

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” – Andy Williams

There’s a fifth season in our house and, although I live in Canada, I don’t mean the hockey season. There comes a day near the end of November when my family and I go all out for Christmas. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. When I lived on my own in Apartment Zero (long story), I would put up my few meager decorations on December 1st because of “Diner”. In the late 1980’s, I loved Mickey Rourke and devoured all his movies. When I stumbled on “Diner” (1982), I fell head over heels. To this day, it’s my second favourite movie of all-time. “Diner” is set at the end of December and, as the years went by, it became something I decided to watch only in December – and every December. All December. Because “Diner” became something of a Christmas movie for me, I decided I would decorate for Christmas every December 1st. So, that’s what I did in the sad, old days; November 30th – nothing. December 1st – Christmas starts.

When I got married and had kids, I implemented the same Christmas policy. However, getting all the decorations out and up on December 1st got more and more difficult as we added more and more to our stock. The kids were thrilled with every additional knick knack or decoration we accumulated and things soon got out of hand. Then we decided that we would decorate our house on the Saturday before the last full week of November. We’d spend the Saturday getting it all out, decorating, watching movies, etc. and it would give us that full week to have everything out and up before or on the first of December. I would often take the Friday off from work to help get ready for the ‘Christmas bomb’ going off in the morning.

When the kids became teenagers, they became involved with the other young people at church and they started to go on the annual retreat which occurred every third weekend in November. This presented a problem because, for years now, the third Saturday of every November was Decorating Day. The retreat, though, was equally important so we decided they would go on the retreat and we would decorate the Saturday before – mid November – or the Saturday after – late November. Here’s where the debate really started; when is the right time to get in to the ‘Christmas spirit’?

We tried it the Saturday after. This usually would give us less than a full week in November and the 25 days of December to be decorated for the season. By the end of that Christmas we all agreed that it just wasn’t enough time. For one thing, we own a lot of Christmas movies and music. We found it hard to get all of our favourites – the list was long at this point – watched in the 4+ weeks we had. And I struggled getting all of my Christmas music – particularly the records, which had to be scheduled at appropriate times – listened to. We decided that we hadn’t had enough Christmas.

We tried it the Saturday before, figuring that more Christmas was better than less Christmas. This presented challenges as well. First and foremost was the fact that the second Saturday in November can fall on or before Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day). This day is very serious in our house and every year it’s important to us to honour our armed forces and those who have fallen in battle. We feel that it would be inappropriate to give ourselves over to the joys of the Christmas season when we should be considering those who have given their lives in the defense of peace and liberty. One year I remember Decorating Day fell on November 12th. That year we had a lot of Christmas. But this brought up a lot of things to consider, also. First, and perhaps least important, was the idea that when we go all out for Christmas, it is going to show up in our every day lives. In our attire, in our house decorations and in our social media presence. This can throw some people if they think it is too early. While I generally don’t factor in what others think of me and my family and the way we do things, I also like to consider that if some of our neighbours have a specific time they like to get in the Christmas spirit and they see our house and see that we’ve jumped the gun this can be a negative thing for some people, like seeing Christmas decorations in the store the day after Halloween. I know that in our home WE have a specific time and if I see Christmas stuff and I deem that it is too early (for me) that can throw me. But mostly the challenge for us was getting ourselves into the Christmas spirit as early as the first half of November – it just seemed early.

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It can be a bit of a challenge, Decorating Day. We often wonder if we’re ready. As I said earlier, you feel that you have to suddenly ‘turn on’ your Christmas spirit once the decorations come out. But here’s the way it usually works: once the Christmas decorations come out, your Christmas spirit turns on. Once you start seeing the cherished ornaments and once you start doing the traditional things, it just happens. But that’s not to say that it would ‘just happen’ if you put up your Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. Hey, we all love Christmas but watching “White Christmas” in August is simply not the same thing. You could argue that it’s actually wrong.

Here’s the thing: besides honouring the birth of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most glorious thing about Christmas is it’s fleeting nature. The years we started Christmas early, the thing we worried about was would the freshness sustain throughout the next 6+ weeks? Would we start taking the glow of the tree for granted? It’s like watching your favourite movie every weekend; is something lost or diminished? Does it become too commonplace? By the same token, watching “A Christmas Carol” in the spring or listening to your Christmas records all throughout the year just tends to remove the magic from those things. In the old days, they often purchased, put up and decorated their trees on Christmas Eve – ZERO chance to get tired of it. Just the opposite: it was a wonder to behold, like a shooting star or a sunset. “Oh, I love Christmas so much, I could sit by a lighted Christmas tree from September on!” Yes, but come December, something has been lost. Even if it’s still a magical feeling, it’s a three-month old magical feeling. There’s a difference. You CAN’T stretch it out. That goes against the very nature of the Christmas season.

When you think about it, the most magical day of the year is December 24th, Christmas Eve. Not just because of the day that’s on the horizon but also because ‘the season’ hasn’t begun to end yet. Let’s face it; Christmas Day – depending on how you do it in your family – come mid-afternoon, there is a sadness that can settle in. There’s a line from an old story by Christopher Morley that says it well: “Christmas is always a little sad, after such busy preparations”. My kids would get excited early in December. School holidays hadn’t started yet and they were anxious and impatient and I would tell them “don’t rush it! This is the good time because NOT ONE MINUTE of it is over yet. It’s still all in front of you”. Once anything starts, it starts to finish.

Suffice it to say that whenever we decorate for Christmas it is on. That Saturday morning, we’re up early-ish and I bring home breakfast from McDonald’s. Then I will go down and bring up our Christmas CDs. The first sounds of the season are either Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley. The first song is either Bing’s “Silent Night” or King’s “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” Because tradition. Then, my youngest son and I will start bringing the boxes up from under the stairs. You all know the feeling. It’s like a cherished friend coming back to town for a visit. You see decorations you love and maybe there is a story about them. Always it’s memories. Simply getting the stuff out is magical. Then, when it goes up, it is wonderful to see again. We always say that our house shrinks at Christmas. Not just the two Christmas trees but different Christmas ornaments and figures, etc. come out and fill up any empty space in our home. In our house, we change everything: dishes, dish cloths, face cloths, towels, clothing, music, movies, key chains, whole bit. And, as a friend of mine once remarked – I go ‘all Christmas media’: everything I watch, listen to or read is related to the season.

In the end, the last week or so of November you feel yourself starting slow, letting yourself get acclimated, letting it all sink in. Come the first of December, after the American Thanksgiving when you can be pretty sure that it is generally acceptable to be all in for Christmas, you are really ready to dive in to the joys of the season. Christmas is a lot like summer: it’s this magical place you get to visit for a short time. You give yourself over to it in many ways. Every year, I pray that I will be cognizant of where I’m at. That I will wring every moment of joy out of the brief time that Christmas is here. That I won’t take one minute of it for granted. After all, it is the hap-happiest season of all.

ROCKY