Christmas, music, Top Ten List, Tradition

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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20th Anniversary of a Life-Changer

I like movies. Some movies I really like. Some I watch over and over because I continually ‘get something’ from them. Some movies have even greatly affected my way of thinking and feeling. Some have actually helped shape my character – who I am as a person. But only one has changed the course of my life.

Now, let’s get this over with: as a Christian person, I believe God has directed my path through life. But I also believe He can use anything to achieve His purposes – including a film about a bunch of drinking, smoking, gambling, skirt-chasing, F-bombing young guys touring the cocktail lounges of Hollywood. I’m talking about the movie “Swingers”, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. It started a chain of events that changed my life.

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It’s October, 1996. I’m weeks away from my 24th birthday. Keep in mind, I’ve grown up loving oldies: popular music from the 1950’s and ’60’s. I love where they ‘take me’ and have a general fascination for the culture and entertainment of mid-century America. So, I’ve traveled through life studying and collecting this music which later began to include the classic rock of the 1970’s. I love Elvis Presley and the rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50’s so much so that I once made the ridiculous statement that ”The Fifties’ actually started in 1954′. I couldn’t conceive of anything substantial having happened in music before Presley and his contemporaries. But I’ve always been aware of ‘other stuff’ going on in the music of the past. The music I hear in the background of my ’50’s movies, for example. And what about Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole? When were they active? Surely not the ’50’s. That decade was just about rock ‘n’ roll. Wasn’t it? And then came the early Sixties with Motown and vocal groups and then the Beatles came and then the hippies, etc. But what about the other side of the coin? What about the singers and the lounge acts? What about the shows in Las Vegas showrooms? This is what I’m beginning to contemplate at this stage of my life: what were the adults listening to at this time? Anyways, by this point in ’96, my main man, Harry Connick, Jr. has released his album, “She” which is a fascinating blend of rock and New Orleans funk. As a follow-up, he has recently – this is summer, ’96 – put out “Star Turtle”, which is even more steeped in New Orleans funk. He is touring and bringing his Funk Band to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on November 4th. Here’s where a very dear friend of mine and her husband at the time come in. Fans of Harry as well, the three of us decide to go see him. They treat me as a gift for my birthday which is on November 3rd. So I’m anticipating this show, sensing that Harry is putting down something just a little bit different.

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November 3rd, 1996. Sunday. I turn 24 years old. I’m working the night shift, maintenance at McDonald’s. I get there a bit early and I’m going through the entertainment section of the Toronto Sun. On the very back page I see a picture of three sharp looking guys strolling in front of a Las Vegas casino. I’m intrigued. My first thought is that it’s an article about some new fashion or culture trend coming out of Las Vegas or Los Angeles. I read it and it’s about the movie “Swingers” which does, indeed, depict a new culture trend: the cocktail/lounge revival then taking place in Hollywood. This interests me and the wheels start turning. Days later, again at work, a buddy of mine, Bouncer, comes in saying he was just at a sneak preview of a movie. “Swingers”, he answers sheepishly, figuring I won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. When I express interest, he says I would love it. These guys are like me, he says.

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The next day, November 4th, 1996. As this interest is brewing, my friends and I head down to the Danforth to see Harry. The show Harry lays down is one for the ages. He takes a turn on every instrument on the stage – at one point playing bass while walking up and down the aisles. It’s a full-on, no-glamour, sweaty funk work-out. I get home late that night, head spinning. You see, I know the oldies inside out. Nothing has happened in classic rock that I have missed. Is all that maybe getting old, though? I’m ripe for something new. I’m at home that night, listening to “Star Turtle” and scanning my cassettes. I have no funk. Maybe jazz? What I have at this point is the soundtrack from the Thelonius Monk biopic “Straight No Chaser” and a Frank Sinatra collection of some of his recordings from the late ’40’s. That’s it. So, the next day I head downtown to a couple of my favourite used record stores looking for albums by the Ohio Players, et al. At this point, I’m still learning that the Ohio Players and the Ohio Express are different bands. If you know these two, you know they are VERY different. But this is the thing that is starting to grab me: I know all there is to know about the music I listen to. I don’t just enjoy listening to it, I love to learn about it, to know about it. But now I’m learning that there is music out there that I know nothing about. Not only is the music fascinating me  but I’m getting hungry to learn about it. Despite my stupid comment about the ’50’s, I’m starting to realize that something else was going on in music during that decade. Something cool.

November 8th, 1996 and “Swingers” opens in Toronto and by now I know I have to go and see it. I’m starting to worry that this smaller film may not even make it out to the hinterland of Kitchener, Ontario, where I was living at the time. But it does make it there and I do make it out to see it. It was a matinee Saturday and, not having a car, I have to walk there. An hour and a half, 7 kms (4+ miles). It’s freezing. There is about six people in the theater and two of them get up to leave early on. One particularly head-shaking memory I have of the film is that Dean Martin sings over the opening credits and, at the time, I have no idea who I’m listening to. Now, of course, I know Dino from a mile away. Also distinctive at the time were the video game scenes. These just serve to help me relate to these guys as opposed to just wishing I could be like them. Suffice it to say, I enjoy the film. But more than just enjoying it, it serves as further evidence that there is a whole culture and lifestyle out there that I know nothing about. And what is even better is that this culture had it’s own soundtrack – music I know nothing about. Over the next few weeks, I begin to explore this world I had been introduced to. Most importantly, I make it out to see the film again on a cheap Tuesday night. This time I go with my buddy, Hash. The key thing here was that after two weeks playing in Kitchener, “Swingers” was gone from the theaters there. It had only played in my town for two weeks but I had been twice to see it. Then, of course, I had to find the soundtrack on CD. Another difficult task but I find it and buy it even though it costs north of $25. The search also begins for albums by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the neo-swing act that is featured in the movie. I begin to seek out lounge music CDs, as well. To my surprise and delight, my go-to record store, Encore Records, actually has a lounge section. I buy a volume of Capitol records’ “Ultra-Lounge” series called “Bachelor Pad Royale”. It wasn’t what I expected and I was quite thrown off but I grew to love it. I buy a couple cigars. I try making Manhattans in my apartment. I’m at the movies early that December to see “Jingle All the Way”, of all movies. While I’m waiting to go in, I ask one of the girls that works there if she could check in the back for a “Swingers” poster. Keep in mind at this point no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned “Swingers”. I remember one guy thought I meant “Sleepers”, a movie out at the time with Bacon, DeNiro, Hoffman and Pitt. She’s easily able to find me a poster which she gives to me for free. It’s still on my wall. The soundtrack for “Jingle All the Way” featured Christmas music by the Brian Setzer Orchestra which became another act I begin to seek out.

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By now it’s the middle of December. Now, for the past two or three years, my friends and I have been regulars at the local Kelsey’s roadhouse. So, I figure maybe Kelsey’s isn’t a cocktail lounge in Hollywood but it’s a good place to start and I begin to envision hanging out there with my friends and also maybe exploring some new venues downtown, maybe with some live music. I’m adding to my music collection, my wardrobe and planning for my upcoming Christmas holidays when I’ll really have the time to ‘get a nightlife’: really start exploring this cocktail culture with my friends. Only one problem: nobody’s up for it. Christmas break comes and I get dressed up sharp as I can, put some tunes on in my apartment and wait for the gang to show up. One by one they can’t for some reason or other: other friends, family, girlfriends, wives, other commitments. See, I was single and living by myself in a town where no one else in my family lived. I worked a crap job. I had all the time in the world. Only no one else seemed to. This is the way it stays into the new year, 1997. Which gets me thinking. Firstly, every one of my friends is pivoting into adult life with all it’s time constraints and responsibilities. Secondly, I have an infinite capacity for mid-century American culture. I’m totally ready to live in the past. I’m all in: jazz and lounge music, cocktails and slacks. But I’m learning that although my friends can dig it, they’re not as captivated as I am. And thirdly: maybe it’s time for me to do some pivoting, too.

So, I decide to get a student loan and go to college. I’ll work my night job, go to class in the day and work on a novel I’m writing every other minute of the day. Which is, like, four. In the spring, my mom invites me down to visit her and my stepfather in Florida. I decide to leave my student loan application with my friend who was going to check on my cat, Reef, asking him to mail it away midweek. While in Florida though, I share my plans with my folks who make me see that if I go ahead as I was planning, I would never have time to work on my novel. They suggest I cut ties in Kitchener and move north to work at their trailer park. I’d live in a 60′ house trailer, work digging ditches and selling sausages and I’d be able to write without worrying about sustaining myself. At first I think there is no way I can leave all my friends and my home and go where I don’t know anybody. The point they made me see was that everybody does what is best for them so I needed to do the same. I could testify to this truth as my friends were moving on and doing what best suited their lives. So I make the monumental decision to quit my job and move. I give McDonalds nine weeks notice and hand in my resignation which reads “That’s it, I quit, I’m leaving the band (John Lennon)”. I’m prepared for an emotional final shift that March – when I get the call to not come in. With pay. They didn’t want me to be there with nothing to lose. Who knows what I’d get up to my final shift. So, real touching from them. I tell all my friends I’m moving and say my goodbyes. Before leaving town I’m sure to make two purchases: black, hi-cut canvas Converse and a package of white undershirts.

So, April 1st, 1997, is when I reached my own pivot point. I moved to rural southern Ontario to run the Dog Patch Diner, selling hot dogs, sausages and coffee. I did dig many ditches, preparing to lay wires for hydro-equipped campsites. One night eight weeks later, I had closed up the diner for the night and was walking back to my trailer with a box full of dirty dishes. I walked by two girls and heard one ask the other “who is that?” It’s me, honey, your future husband. I met Andrea that May long weekend and eight weeks later I asked her to marry me. We’ve been together ever since. I left the Dog Patch Diner for a factory job and I’ve been there ever since. To this day, I haven’t worked on that novel for one minute.

As time went by, drinking gin martinis or Jack Daniels and water alone in my basement – and sometimes being called upon late at night to check on our babies in their cribs – soon made me reassess and to question just how much I was getting out of drinking. It eventually went by the boards. But with the tolerant approval of my wife, I delved deeper and deeper into “mid-century modern” culture. My music and movie collections – and my wardrobe – continue to grow. I always say I’ve got 24 favourite movies: 11 from my young adult days and 10 from my adult life. And three absolute favourites up on top of the pile. “Swingers” is number three because I rank those three in the order in which I was introduced to them. Out of all of those 24 movies I love so much, only one has caused me to get up and seek a new life.

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