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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